Philosophy in FictionFeb 07, 2010
Philosophers think a lot about fiction. But do novelists think about philosophy? Do philosophers make good fictional characters?
Flying from Atlanta to Philadelphia for a wedding, I found myself reading an interview in Sky (Delta’s in-flight magazine) with Nikolaj Koster-Waldau, the actor who played Jaime Lannister (aka Kingslayer) on Game of Thrones.
NKW (as I’ll call him) is a far better person than the character he famously played. In addition to having impressive acting credentials (for example, an upcoming live run as Macbeth), he’s a humanitarian. He supports the Danish Red Cross and the RED foundation. He’s a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Goodwill Ambassador who raises awareness of climate change. And in 2018, he started The Lion’s Share fund, which pushes advertisers who use animal images to donate a portion of their media spending to support animal wellbeing.
But people do criticize him.
At one point, the interviewer asks NKW whether he thinks it’s a problem that his on-screen character is guilty of “normalizing depraved behavior.”
[Moderate GoT spoiler alert, but not past Season 4.]
That could refer to many things. For much of the show, NKW’s character Jaime had a sexual affair with his twin sister, Cersei. He also shoved a young boy, Bran, out of a high window, intending to kill him, when Bran witnessed them in the act. Jaime was arrogant. He killed without remorse. And he even forced himself on Cersei in Season 4, right in front of the dead body of the son who was born of their incest. (Was it a rape scene? The points that follow don’t depend on that either way. But see analyses here and here for one point of view and here for the other.)
The interviewer’s question about whether GoT is “normalizing” bad behavior is a special case of a question that goes back to Plato. Is it immoral to produce fictional drama that represents bad or immoral behavior that people might emulate?
NKW had a witty retort: “it’s set in a world with dragons, so if we’re normalizing [depravity], we’re also normalizing a woman giving birth to three dragons!”
According to that, it’s foolish to take fiction as a guide to morality, since (1) all sorts of bad crazy things happen in fiction and (2) no one would want fiction to be without crazy and/or bad events. Who would want to sit through a two-hour movie in which characters only behaved well?
NKW has a point. To put something in a book or on screen is not to say it’s good. No one criticizes, say, Robert DeNiro for normalizing bank robbery in Heat.
But I still don’t think creators get a moral carte blanche. The fact that it’s sometimes or even usually acceptable to represent immoral or deviant behaviors in fiction doesn’t mean it always is. After all, as philosopher Cristina Bicchieri has shown, many people do change their social norms in response to behaviors they see portrayed on screen (Bicchieri has studied social norm change in response to soap operas in India).
A hypothetical example makes the point. It would be wrong—obviously so—to make a film (fictional or otherwise) that revealed how to make a dirty bomb in one’s garage, since violent extremists would use that information in horrific ways.
Fictions, as works, have downstream effects in the world. Insofar as those effects are foreseeable, the creation of fiction can be morally appraised in light of them. One might object that, since the downstream effects involve other people (the consumers of the fiction) choosing to react in certain ways, the moral judgment should be on those people and not on the creators, whose hands are clean. But I don’t think that response works all the time, as my hypothetical example shows: people often have responsibility for facilitating bad acts that others carry out, especially when those acts could be predicted.
The tempting thing to think about all this is that there must be a fuzzy line somewhere in the space of possible creations-of-fiction such that aesthetic value lies on one side of the line and moral transgression on the other, with borderline cases on the line itself. From this perspective, the interviewer’s question to NKW was not absurd; rather, it was a sensible question about whether NKW honestly thought the fuzzy line had been crossed.
But I think that way of thinking, though tempting, is not right. It treats aesthetic and moral value as lying on a single continuum. On the contrary, I think moral dimensions of appraisal and aesthetic ones are orthogonal. It’s perfectly possible that the act of creating a particular fictional work could be immoral, given the foreseeable consequences of releasing it, even though the aesthetic qualities of the work are high.
An interesting example in this direction is Quentin Tarantino’s portrayal of heroin use in Pulp Fiction, which both (1) made heroin seem cool and (2) served as a veritable instruction manual for shooting up. I have no wish to argue Tarantino was in the moral wrong for making that scene. But I would argue that, if he were to release a similar scene in the present day with the opioid crisis already raging, doing that would be immoral, because it would foreseeably fan the flames and lead to more deaths. Still, however, the aesthetic qualities of the scene would be remarkable—the pacing of the scene, the camerawork, the way the images mesh with the mood of the music, etc.—as they were before. The immorality of the choice to create doesn’t imply a loss of aesthetic quality. In fact, on the contrary, it’s because the aesthetic quality of Tarantino’s work is so high that he was able to make heroin use so attractive. So arguably, in such a case, the aesthetic quality of the scene and moral goodness of the choice to create are inversely related, contrary to what the single continuum picture suggests: the better the aesthetics, the worse the morality of the choice to create, since better aesthetics would foreseeably encourage worse consequences (more heroin use).
I think people want it to be the case that, when they find a work of fiction morally objectionable, they’re entitled to conclude it’s aesthetically valueless as well (after all, this would deprive the people who disagree with them of a way of defending the work in question). But I think the view that the aesthetic qualities and the moral dimensions are orthogonal better explains why controversies are so common. It is because so many works that are—to whatever degree—morally objectionable also have strong aesthetic qualities that people bother to defend them.
Where does that leave NKW and his character Jaime Lannister on GoT? In that case, I don’t think the dilemma arises: the GoT world was fantastical enough—and Jaime’s licentious actions (incest) were flagrantly wrong enough—that it’s hard to foresee that any significant number of people would adopt him as a role model. But we’ve come to an unsettling conclusion: though fiction is one of the most important sources of aesthetic value and value in general that humans have, creating it involves some moral risk—risk that’s not mitigated by the aesthetic quality of the work itself. And thus the conceptual security blanket we might have hoped for—the idea that morally bad art can’t be aesthetically good—doesn’t exist.
Image by Silentpilot from Pixabay
Harold G. Neuman
Wednesday, June 5, 2019 -- 2:17 PMI have watched many films
I have watched many films which may qualify as entertainment (or morality plays): Pulp Fiction; Rocky, (ad nauseum); Kill Bill (as many times as possible); Rambo( more often than any human could have withstood such physical punishment)---how could we forget Rambo, anyway? These films are offered, frequently, at an additional cost, for anyone who has not see them, or for anyone who ants to see them again. I don't bite on the "you can see this again for x dollars" ploy. Just does not matter to me now. Bad art, is only, after all, bad art---if it was ever art at all...Art sells, though. Sometimes for 44x the previous selling price.
Wednesday, September 2, 2020 -- 1:12 PMFantastic post, Neil! The
Fantastic post, Neil! The only thing I'd add (though I'm sure you've already thought of it too) is the question of how people are being trained to respond to works of fiction. Unfortunately, in the current US context, we train people from a very early age to understand works of fiction as repositories of (a) lessons and (b) exempla. In that context, Game of Thrones is perhaps more "dangerous," because people will be more primed to think of Jaime and others as role models. But different cultural systems are possible. In a world where everyone understood that interesting fiction doesn't work that way, the risks would be lower. The risks might not go away altogether—maybe a drug scene might still have the capacity to glamorize—but I think they'd be seriously reduced. And we could all go about our business of enjoying, being troubled by, and thinking hard about artworks that feature morally complicated characters and situations.
Saturday, October 9, 2021 -- 9:24 PM"Tell Cersei, I want her to
"Tell Cersei, I want her to know it was me."
"I am your son. I have always been your son."
This post really helped me think about art, morality, and the limits of both. Unfortunately, there are no limits to art in the present world, and that is a problem for us all. Children have access to things no sane adult should see.
Thanks for this essay. Very helpful.