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The Moral of the Story

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For Craig and my parents

Immorality may be fun, but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of 100 percent virtue and three square meals a day.

— Noel Coward , Design for Living

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Seventh Edition


San Diego Mesa College


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Published by McGraw-Hill, a business unit of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 1221 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020. Copyright © 2013 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. Previous editions © 2009, 2006, 2003, 2000, 1997 and 1994. No part of this publication may be reproduced or distributed in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written consent of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., including, but not limited to, in any network or other electronic storage or transmission, or broadcast for distance learning.

Some ancillaries, including electronic and print components, may not be available to customers outside the United States.

This book is printed on acid-free paper.

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ISBN 978-0-07-803842-6 MHID 0-07-803842-1

Vice President & Editor-in-Chief: Michael Ryan Vice President & Director of Specialized Publishing: Janice M. Roerig-Blong Sponsoring Editor: Jessica Cannavo Marketing Manager: Angela R. FitzPatrick Senior Project Manager: Lisa A. Brufl odt Design Coordinator: Margarite Reynolds Cover Designer: Mary-Presley Adams Cover Image: Karen Barbour. Gouache on paper 22!30 inches. Photo Researcher: David A. Tietz/Editorial Image, LLC Buyer: Sue Culbertson Media Project Manager: Sridevi Palani Compositor: MPS Limited Typeface: 10/12 Times Roman Printer: R. R. Donnelley

All credits appearing on page or at the end of the book are considered to be an extension of the copyright page.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Rosenstand, Nina. The moral of the story : an introduction to ethics / Nina Rosenstand.—7th ed. p. cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-07-803842-6 (alk. paper) 1. Ethics—Textbooks. I. Title. BJ1012.R59 2013 170—dc23 2012005695



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Chapter 1 Thinking About Values 1 Do We Need a Code of Ethics? 1 Values, Morals, and Ethics 3 Good and Evil 7 Debating Moral Issues from Religion to

Neurobiology and Storytelling 14 Martha Nussbaum: Stories, Ethics, and

Emotions 24 A Philosophical Example, a Real-Life

Event, and Two Fictional Stories about Lying 27

PRIMARY READING: Martha Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge 31

PRIMARY READING: Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect 33

NARRATIVE: Smoke Signals 36 NARRATIVE: Big Fish 39 NARRATIVE: East of Eden 43

Chapter 2 Learning Moral Lessons from

Stories 50 Didactic Stories 50 The New Interest in Stories Across the

Professions 51 The Value of Stories Across Time and

Space 54 Are Stories Harmful? A New and Ancient

Debate 88 PRIMARY READING: Plato, Republic, Book X 97 PRIMARY READING: Aristotle, Poetics 101 PRIMARY READING: Umberto Eco, The Name of

the Rose 103 PRIMARY READING: Raymond Chandler,

“The Simple Art of Murder” 105 NARRATIVE: Medea 107 NARRATIVE: The Sorrows of Young Werther 111 NARRATIVE: The Education of Mingo 112 NARRATIVE: Pulp Fiction 116


Preface x Acknowledgments xv

P A R T 1

The Story as a Tool of Ethics

P A R T 2

What Should I Do? Ethics of Conduct

Chapter 3 Ethical Relativism 119 How to Deal with Moral

Differences 119 The Lessons of Anthropology 124 Problems with Ethical Relativism 129 Refuting Ethical Relativism 139

James Rachels and Soft Universalism 141

Ethical Relativism and Multiculturalism 146

PRIMARY READING: Ruth Benedict, “Anthropology and the Abnormal” 151

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PRIMARY READING: James Rachels, “Is Ethics Just a Matter of Social Conventions?” 154

PRIMARY READING: John Steinbeck, “Paradox and Dream” 158

NARRATIVE: The Poisonwood Bible 159 NARRATIVE: Possessing the Secret of Joy 165 NARRATIVE: Avatar 168

Chapter 4 Myself or Others? 171 Psychological Egoism: What About the

Heroes? 171 Psychological Egoism: From Glaucon to

Hobbes 174 Three Major Problems With Psychological

Egoism 183 The Selfish-Gene Theory and Its Critics 188 Ethical Egoism and Ayn Rand’s

Objectivism 192 Being Selfless: Levinas’s Ideal Altruism

Versus Singer’s Reciprocal Altruism 200 A Natural Fellow-Feeling? Hume and de

Waal 204 PRIMARY READING: Plato, The Republic 210 PRIMARY READING: Thomas Hobbes,

Leviathan 214 PRIMARY READING: Ayn Rand, “The Ethics of

Emergencies” 215 PRIMARY READING: Frans De Waal, Primates

and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved 218

NARRATIVE: Friends episode: “The One Where Phoebe Hates PBS” 220

NARRATIVE: Return to Paradise 223 NARRATIVE: Atlas Shrugged 226

Chapter 5 Using Your Reason, Part 1:

Utilitarianism 231 Jeremy Bentham and the Hedonistic

Calculus 232 Advantages and Problems of Sheer

Numbers: From Animal Welfare to the Question of Torture 241

John Stuart Mill: Higher and Lower Pleasures 247

Mill’s Harm Principle 254 Act and Rule Utilitarianism 260 PRIMARY READING: Jeremy Bentham, “Of the

Principle of Utility” 263 PRIMARY READING: John Stuart Mill,

Utilitarianism 265 PRIMARY READING: Peter Singer, “A Convenient

Truth” 268 NARRATIVE: “The Blacksmith and the

Baker” 271 NARRATIVE: The Brothers Karamazov 272 NARRATIVE: “The Ones Who Walk Away from

Omelas” 274 NARRATIVE: Extreme Measures 275 NARRATIVE: The Invention of Lying 278

Chapter 6 Using Your Reason, Part 2: Kant’s

Deontology 282 Consequences Don’t Count—Having a

Good Will Does 282 The Categorical Imperative 285 Rational Beings Are Ends in

Themselves 295 Beings Who Are Things 298 The Kingdom of Ends 302 PRIMARY READING: Immanuel Kant,

Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 304

PRIMARY READING: Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals 305

NARRATIVE: High Noon 308 NARRATIVE: 3:10 to Yuma 310 NARRATIVE: Abandon Ship! 314 NARRATIVE: Match Point 316

Chapter 7 Personhood, Rights, and Justice 320 What Is a Human Being? 320 The Expansion of the Concept “ Human” 321 Personhood: The Key to Rights 321 Science and Moral Responsibility: Genetic

Engineering, Stem Cell Research, and Cloning 327

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Questions of Rights and Equality 337 Distributive Justice: From Rawls to

Affirmative Action 348 Forward- and Backward-Looking Justice

and Affirmative Action 352 Criminal Justice: Restorative Versus

Retributive Justice 355 PRIMARY READING: The United Nations Universal

Declaration of Human Rights 363 PRIMARY READING: Jürgen Habermas, The

Future of Human Nature 366 PRIMARY READING: John Rawls, “Justice as

Fairness” 368

PRIMARY READING: Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Letter from Birmingham Jail” 371

PRIMARY READING: John Berteaux, “Defining Racism in the 21st Century” 373

PRIMARY READING: John Berteaux, “Unseen, Unheard, Unchosen” 375

NARRATIVE: The Island 376 NARRATIVE: Gattaca 380 NARRATIVE: Mississippi Burning 383 NARRATIVE: Hotel Rwanda 386

P A R T 3

How Should I Be? Virtue Ethics

Chapter 8 Virtue Ethics from Tribal Philosophy

to Socrates and Plato 391 What Is Virtue? What Is Character? 391 Non-Western Virtue Ethics: Africa and

Indigenous America 392 Virtue Ethics in the West 396 The Good Teacher: Socrates’ Legacy,

Plato’s Works 398 The Good Life 406 The Virtuous Person: The Tripartite

Soul 408 Plato’s Theory of Forms 412 Plato’s Influence on Christianity 417 PRIMARY READING: Plato, The Republic 418 PRIMARY READING: Plato, Apology 421 PRIMARY READING: Ronald Dworkin, What Is a

Good Life? 425 NARRATIVE: A Man for All Seasons 428 NARRATIVE: “The Myth of the Cave” 431 NARRATIVE: The Truman Show 434 NARRATIVE: The Store of the Worlds 437

Chapter 9 Aristotle’s Virtue Theory:

Everything in Moderation 440 Empirical Knowledge and the Realm of the

Senses 440

Aristotle the Scientist 441 Aristotle’s Virtue Theory: Teleology and the

Golden Mean 444 Aristotle’s Influence on Aquinas 459 Some Objections to Greek Virtue Theory 460 PRIMARY READING: Aristotle, Nicomachean

Ethics, Book II 463 PRIMARY READING: Aristotle, Nicomachean

Ethics, Book III 466 NARRATIVE: “The Flight of Icarus” 468 NARRATIVE: Njal’s Saga 470 NARRATIVE: Lord Jim 472 NARRATIVE: “A Piece of Advice” 474

Chapter 10 Contemporary Perspectives 477 Ethics and the Morality of Virtue as Political

Concepts 477 Have Virtue, and Then Go Ahead: Mayo,

Foot, and Sommers 481 The Quest for Authenticity: Kierkegaard,

Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, and Levinas 490

PRIMARY READING: Søren Kierkegaard, J ohannes Climacus 519

PRIMARY READING: Søren Kierkegaard, Either∕Or 520

PRIMARY READING: Jean-Paul Sartre, “ Existentialism Is a Humanism” 521

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Women’s Historical Role in the Public Sphere 613

The Rise of Modern Feminism 619 Classical, Difference, and Radical

Feminism 625 PRIMARY READING: Harriet Taylor Mill,

“Enfranchisement of Women” 642 PRIMARY READING: Simone De Beauvoir, The

Second Sex 645 PRIMARY READING: Carol Gilligan, In a Different

Voice 648 NARRATIVE: A Doll’s House 650 NARRATIVE: Maids of Misfortune 655 NARRATIVE: “The Woman Destroyed” 658 NARRATIVE: A Thousand Splendid Suns 661

Chapter 13 Applied Ethics: A Sampler 665 The Question of Abortion and

Personhood 665 Euthanasia as a Right to Choose? 668 Media Ethics and Media Bias 671 Business Ethics: The Rules of the Game 681 Just War Theory 688 Animal Welfare and Animal Rights 694 Ethics of the Environment: Think Globally,

Act Locally 701 The Death Penalty 707 The Ethics of Self-Improvement: Narrative

Identity 716 A Final Word 724 PRIMARY READING: Andrew Belsey and Ruth

Chadwick, “Ethics as a Vehicle for Media Quality” 726

PRIMARY READING: Amber Levanon Seligson and Laurie Choi, “Critical Elements of an Organizational Ethical Culture” 728

PRIMARY READING: Scott Gottlieb, “How Safe Is Our Food? FDA Could Do Better” 729

PRIMARY READING: John Rawls, The Law of Peoples 731

PRIMARY READING: Great Ape Project, “The Declaration on Great Apes” 734

PRIMARY READING: Lee Hall and Anthony Jon Waters, “From Property to Person: The Case of Evelyn Hart” 735

PRIMARY READING: “The Paradox of Morality: An Interview with Emmanuel Levinas” 523

PRIMARY READING: Dwight Furrow, A Culture of Care 526

NARRATIVE: Groundhog Day 529 NARRATIVE: No Exit 531 NARRATIVE: Good Will Hunting 533 NARRATIVE: The Searchers 537

Chapter 11 Case Studies in Virtue 541 Courage of the Physical and Moral

Kind 541 Compassion: From Hume to Huck

Finn 549 Gratitude: Asian Tradition and Western

Modernity 559 Virtue and Conduct: The Option of Soft

Universalism 575 Diversity, Politics, and Common

Ground? 578 PRIMARY READING: John McCain, Why Courage

Matters: The Way to a Braver Life 581 PRIMARY READING: Philip Hallie, Tales of Good

and Evil, Help and Harm 584 PRIMARY READING: Jesse Prinz, Is Empathy

Necessary for Morality? 585 PRIMARY READING: Lin Yutang, “On Growing

Old Gracefully” 589 NARRATIVE: Courage: Band of Brothers, Third

Episode, “Carentan” 590 NARRATIVE: Courage: True Grit 592 NARRATIVE: Compassion: “The Parable of the

Good Samaritan” 596 NARRATIVE: Compassion: Schindler’s List 598 NARRATIVE: Gratitude: Eat Drink Man

Woman 601 NARRATIVE: Gratitude: Pay It Forward 604

Chapter 12 Different Gender, Different

Ethics? 608 Feminism and Virtue Theory 608 What Is Gender Equality? 610

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NARRATIVE: Business Ethics: The Insider 750 NARRATIVE: Business Ethics ∕ Environmental

Ethics: Cold Wind 753 NARRATIVE: The Death Penalty: “The Jigsaw

Man” 756 NARRATIVE: The Death Penalty: The Life of

David Gale 758

Credits C-1 Bibliography B-1 Glossary G-1 Index I-1

PRIMARY READING: Severin Carrell, “Al Gore: Clear Proof That Climate Change Causes Extreme Weather” 737

PRIMARY READING: Myles Allen, “Al Gore is Doing a Disservice to Science by Overplaying the Link Between Climate Change and Weather” 739

PRIMARY READING: Tom Sorell, “Two Ideals and the Death Penalty” 741

PRIMARY READING: Mark Fuhrman, Death and Justice: An Exposé of Oklahoma’s Death Row Machine 744

NARRATIVE: Media Ethics ∕ Business Ethics: State of Play 748

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L ike the previous editions of The Moral of the Story, the seventh edition is a combi- nation of classical questions in ethical theory and contemporary issues. The general concept remains the same: that discussions about moral issues can be facilitated using stories as examples, as a form of ethics lab where solutions can be tried out under controlled conditions. The book is written primarily for such college courses as Introduction to Ethics; Moral Philosophy; and Introduction to Philosophy: Val- ues. Many textbooks in value theory or ethics choose to focus on problems of social importance, such as abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. This book reflects my own teaching experience that it is better for students to be introduced to basic ethical theory before they are plunged into discussions involving moral judgments. Consequently, The Moral of the Story provides an overview of influential classical and contemporary approaches to ethical theory. However, without practical application of the theories, there can be no complete understanding of the problems raised, so each chapter includes examples that illustrate and explore the issues. As in previ- ous editions, each chapter concludes with a section of examples—summaries and excerpts—taken from the world of fiction, novels and films in particular. Within the last few decades, narrative theory has carved out a niche in American and European philosophy as well as in other academic disciplines. It is no longer un- usual for ethicists and other thinkers to include works of fiction in their courses as well as in their professional papers, not only as examples of problem solving, but also as illustrations of an epistemological phenomenon: Humans are, in Alasdair MacIntyre’s words, storytelling animals, and we humans seem to choose the narrative form as our favorite way to structure meaning as we attempt to make sense of our reality. The narrative trend is making itself felt in other fields as well: The medical profession is looking to stories that teach about doctor-patient relationships; psychotherapists rec- ommend that patients watch films to achieve an understanding of their own situation, and have patients write stories with themselves as the lead character. The court system is making use of films and novels to reach young people in trouble with the law. The U.S. military is partnering up with authors to anticipate possible scenarios for future assaults on American interests. NASA is teaming up with science fiction writers in an attempt to once again make space exploration exciting for new generations of readers. And neuroscientists tell us that we understand the world by superimposing narra- tive order on the chaos we experience. It seems that new fields are constantly being added to the list of professions that are discovering, or rediscovering, the potential of stories.


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Like the previous editions, the seventh edition of The Moral of the Story is divided into three major sections. Part 1 introduces the topic of ethics and places the phenomenon of storytelling within the context of moral education and discussion. Part 2 examines the conduct theories of ethical relativism, psychological and ethical egoism, altruism, utilitarianism, and Kantian deontology, and explores the concepts of personhood, rights, and justice. Part 3 focuses on the subject of virtue theory and contains chapters on Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, contemporary virtue theories in America, theories of authenticity in the Continental tradition, and gender theory. The virtues of courage, compassion, and gratitude are examined in detail, and the book concludes with a more detailed discussion of a broad selection of moral issues, applying theories introduced in previous chapters. Each chapter concludes with a set of study questions, a section of Primary Readings with excerpts from classical and contemporary texts, and a section of Narratives, a collection of stories that illustrate the moral issues raised in the chapter. The Primary Readings are selected for their value as discussion topics; they don’t necessarily reflect my own views, and I have made no attempt to select readings that cover all possible angles, because of space limitations. The Narratives will be described in more detail below.

Major Changes to the Seventh Edition

Major changes to the seventh edition include the following: Chapter One has been thoroughly revised, with a new introduction, “Do We Need a Code of Ethics?” invit- ing students to evaluate Montana’s 2011 decision to adopt a “Code of the West.” In addition, it expands on the theory that morality can be “hard-wired,” and discusses the momentum naturalism is gaining in today’s moral philosophy. A new box in- troduces Philippa Foot’s famous thought experiment, the “Trolley Problem”. The section “Good and Evil” has been updated and expanded to examine acts of good- will in the most current of events including the Japanese earthquake, the Ft. Hood shootings, and the Chilean mine collapse. Finally, Chapter One takes a deeper look at Martha Nussbaum’s impact on contemporary moral philosophy, especially her theory that well-written fictional stories can provide a better medium for examining moral issues than philosophical examples or actual events. Chapter Two has been updated with current examples of films and television shows illustrating moral problems, including Dexter and NCIS . Chapter Three has two new boxes, “The Adversarial Method,” which examines the traditional philosophical argumentative approach, and introduces Paul Ricoeur’s alternative approach, and “The Intersection of Moral and Legal Issues” which exam- ines whether a nation’s laws are reflective of universal values of its people or more indicative of a time and place in history—a section revised and moved from the sixth edition’s Chapter One. The chapter has a new Primary Reading, James Rachels’ “Is Ethics Just a Matter of Social Conventions?” A new Narrative, a summary of the film Avatar, encourages a discussion of fundamental cultural differences, seen through the theories of ethical relativism, hard universalism, soft universalism, and moral nihilism.


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Chapter Four expands upon the concept of “heroes” to explore the actions of the Ft. Hood army civilian police officers who reacted in the 2010 on-base shooting, as well as the workers who elected to stay and cool the Fukushima reactors. In addition, it has a new section on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, in response to reviewer suggestions. In the Narratives section Rand’s Atlas Shrugged excerpt has been expanded with the introduction to “John Galt’s Speech.” Chapter Five has an expanded discussion of the happiness phenomenon and recent happiness studies, as well as an updated discussion about torture seen from a utilitarian perspective. In the Narratives section, the issues of lying and deceit are explored through Ricky Gervais’ film The Invention of Lying . Chapter Six has a story reinstated to the Narratives section from previous edi- tions, a favorite among reviewers, the film Abandon Ship . In Chapter Seven an updated box examines serial killers who hunt for victims living on the fringes of society as prostitutes and drug users, and the notion that such victims who break the law still have a right to live. In the chapter text, Jürgen Habermas’s critique of genetic enhancement has been added, and an excerpt from his book The Future of Human Nature appears in the Primary Readings. The topics of cognitive and moral enhancement have been added to the discussion. Two new boxes have been added, “A Right to Privacy?” about the new social media, and “An Alternative to Jus- tice Ethics” about the ethic of care. Chapter Eight now includes a discussion of “The Good Life” as presented by Ronald Dworkin, as well as an excerpt from his article, “What Is a Good Life” in the Primary Readings. The Narratives section now has a story from previous editions reinstated, “The Store of the Worlds,” by reviewer request. There are no major changes to Chapter 9, but Chapter Ten has a new section on Friedrich Nietzsche, as a result of repeated reviewer and reader requests. The section includes two new boxes, “Elisabeth Nietzsche and the Nazi Connection,” and “Without God, Is Everything Permitted?” In addition, the chapter has a new box featuring “The New Ethic of Care, a Political Vision,” about the theory developed by Dwight Furrow and Mark Wheeler, with an excerpt in the Primary Readings from Furrow’s Reviving the Left . And finally, the Narratives section now includes the film classic Groundhog Day , as an exploration of Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return of the same. Chapter Eleven includes a new box, “When Empathy is Absent: Welcome to Cyberspace?” which examines how the absence of eye contact in the world of Inter- net social networks and other communication may have hampered our ability to feel compassion for others. In addition, it includes a new reading, “Is Empathy Neces- sary for Morality?” by Jesse Prinz, which investigates whether we require empathy in order to make sound ethical decisions. The Narratives now include a summary of the Cohen Brothers’ production True Grit, which discusses the plot’s focus on moral as well as physical courage. In Chapter Twelve , a new box, “Can a Conservative be a Feminist” examines whether contemporary female political figures and commentators such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman, and Ann Coulter represent a form of feminism or, conversely, a throw-back to male-dominated politics. Also, the chapter has two new Narratives, an excerpt from the Victorian mystery Maids of Misfortune by historian M. Louisa Locke,

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and a summary of Khaled Hosseini’s novel from present-day Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Chapter Thirteen has several thoroughly revised sections, including boxes on “Some Religious Views on Fetal Personhood,” and “Social Media and Ethics.” In the Media Ethics section the British News of the World scandal has been added, as well as a mention of the WikiLeaks phenomenon. The Death Penalty section has been updated with recent facts, including the execution of Troy Davis. And the Narratives section has a new excerpt from C.J. Box’s mystery novel Cold Wind , as an illustration of issues in both Business Ethics and Environmental Ethics, as well as a summary of the film State of Play, illustrating Media Ethics as well as Business Ethics.

Using the Narratives

The Narratives have been chosen from a wide variety of sources ranging from epic prose, poems, and novels to films. I wish to emphasize that from a literary and ar- tistic point of view, summaries and excerpts do not do the originals justice; a story worth experiencing, be it a novel, short story, or film, can’t be reduced to a mere plot outline or fragment and still retain all of its essence. As Martha Nussbaum says, the form is an inherent part of the story content. Usually, there is more to the story than the bare bones of a moral problem, and in writing these summaries I have had to dis- regard much of the richness of story and character development. Nevertheless, I have chosen the summary or excerpt format in order to discuss a number of different sto- ries and genres as they relate to specific issues in ethics. Because I believe it is impor- tant to show that there is a cross-cultural, historic tradition of exploring moral prob- lems through telling a story, I have opted for a broad selection of Narratives. Each chapter has several Narratives, but it is not my intention that the instructor should feel obligated to cover all of them in one course; rather, they should be regarded as options that can be alternated from semester to semester—a method I like to use my- self for the sake of variety. There are, of course, other ways than summaries in which stories and ethical theory can be brought together; one might, for instance, select one or two short stories or films in their original format for class discussion. I hope that instructors will indeed select a few stories—novels, short stories, or films—for their classes to experience firsthand. However, the Narratives are written so that firsthand experience should not be necessary to a discussion of the problem presented by the story. The summaries and excerpts give readers just enough information to en- able them to discuss the moral problem presented. I hope that some readers will become inspired to seek out the originals on their own. In most cases the ending is important to the moral significance of a story, and whenever that is the case, I in- clude that ending. In cases where the ending is not significant to the moral drama, I have done my best to avoid giving it away because I don’t want to be a spoiler. Because space is limited, I have not been able to include more than a sampling of stories, and I readily admit that my choices are subjective ones; I personally find them interesting as illustrations and effective in a classroom context where students come from many different cultural backgrounds. Because I am a naturalized U.S. citi- zen, originally a native of Denmark, I have chosen to include a few references to the

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Scandinavian literary tradition. I am fully aware that others might choose other stories or even choose different ethical problems to illustrate, and I am grateful to the many users of the previous six editions, instructors as well as students, who have let me know about their favorite stories and how they thought this selection of stories might be expanded and improved. The new Narratives reflect some of those suggestions. Some students (and instructors) may be disappointed that this edition has no narratives from graphic novels. That is not because I find graphic novels to be any less suitable for exploring moral issues than films and novels—I just don’t have much experience with them, and I am considering including a few graphic novels in my ethics classes; if the experiment is successful, a future edition may contain such stories. However, one area which I have decided against including at this point is video games. I hear from my students that video games are increasingly focused on elaborate narratives rather than merely accumulating points and killing enemy enti- ties, and I can imagine that at some point, video game narratives may offer interesting ways of experiencing moral problems and decision-making, even involving scenarios of emotional and ethical complexity. However, judging from my research into current games, that level of complexity is not yet present in most games. I would be interested to hear from readers with another perspective on video games, and would welcome examples of games with plots involving moral complexity. As was the case with previous revisions, I have had to make some difficult choices, similar to choices made in the sixth edition: To keep the cost of the book down, I have had to cut materials from previous editions to make room for new readings, updates, and narratives. This is never easy, because many of the older readings and stories are favorites of mine, and I am well aware that they may also be the favorites of instructors using this book, and important elements in well-functioning syllabi. Fortunately, in this electronic age we can include new materials without losing all of the older elements. A website has been established by McGraw-Hill (www.mhhe .com/rosenstand7e) that includes a number of narratives from previous editions, such as Dead Man Walking, Do the Right Thing, Thelma and Louise, and The Count of Monte Cristo, for easy access and downloading by instructors. As in previous edi- tions, I emphasize that I wholeheartedly welcome e-mails from students as well as instructors who use this book, with relevant comments and suggestions for new stories as well as additional philosophical perspectives: [email protected]

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A s always, I first want to thank my students in the classes Introduction to Philosophy: Values, Philosophy of Women, Issues in Social Philosophy, Reflections on Human Nature, Human Nature and Society, and Philosophy and Literature for their enthusiastic cooperation in suggesting good stories and discussing drafts of the stories and study questions with me—an invaluable help in fine-tuning the summaries and questions. Next, I would like to thank the Project Team at McGraw-Hill Higher Educa- tion for good communication and support: Sponsoring Editor Jessica Cannavo; Developmental Editor Nicole Bridges; Senior Project Manager Lisa A. Bruflodt; Marketing Manager Angela R. FitzPatrick, Permissions Editor Wesley Hall, Photo Researcher David A. Tietz, and Project Manager for MPS Ldt. Vivek Khandelwal. The cover painting is by artist Karen Barbour, and I am delighted that her evoca- tive visions have represented The Moral of the Story through seven editions. I also wish to thank the following reviewers, and one anonymous reviewer, for their suggestions:

Tamela Ice, Kansas City Community College

Jon Inglett, Oklahoma City Community College

Alice Independence Kyburg, University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh

Joy Branch, Southern Union State Community College

Russell H. Swanson, Edison State College

My colleagues at the Social Sciences and Behavioral and Multicultural Studies Department at San Diego Mesa College, which includes professors, adjuncts, and professors emeritus of philosophy, history, political science, and geography, are a wonderful support group—many of us come from different professional fields and have different outlooks on many things, but we all cherish the ambience of profes- sional integrity in our workplace and find time to discuss ethics-related issues on a regular basis: Thank you to my colleagues from the Social Sciences Department as well as other departments: In particular I wish to thank Department Chair Jonathan McLeod, Donald Abbott, Ken Berger, Michael Kuttnauer, Richard Hammes, Dean Charles Zappia, Terry Valverde, and Melinda Campbell. In addition, I would like to express my appreciation to Michael Mussachia, Josef Binter, and Arelene Wolinski for sharing their research—including informative articles—with me, and to Tony


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Pettina for being an advance reader on the section on Asian moral philosophy. A special thanks goes to Dwight Furrow for continual congenial collaboration on maintaining the high standard of teaching philosophy at Mesa College, and for jog- ging my memory about one of my favorite films, The Searchers, and pointing out its usefulness in illustrating Emmanuel Levinas’s theory of the face of the other. Because of Dwight’s inspired insight, The Searchers, one of the narratives in the first editions, found its way back to the sixth edition, in a different context. At Mesa College we have a biannual Meeting of the Minds tradition where philoso- phy faculty, contract as well as adjuncts, meet and share our thoughts about teach- ing and engage in debates about classical and current philosophical topics. I want to express my appreciation for the professional enthusiasm of all the philosophy faculty who participate regularly in these meetings in particular a very enlightening discus- sion of recent happiness studies. I treasure these discussions, which have inspired the establishing of a blog, Philosophy on the Mesa, administered by Dwight Furrow and myself, which I hope users of this book will visit from time to time: http://philosophy- onthemesa.com. My colleague John Berteaux, philosophy professor at Monterey State University, deserves my heartfelt thanks for being an old friend and colleague from the adjunct days who shares my concerns for issues in social ethics and who has gener- ously shared his work, including his archive of newspaper columns with me. A special, word of appreciation goes to my friend and colleague Harold Weiss, associate profes- sor of philosophy at Northhampton Community College. I would like to also thank Dominic Cerrato, TNCC, for sharing his insight on the Catholic Church and person- hood, and my good friend Linda MacDonald Glenn, University of Vermont School of Nursing and Allied Health Care, for her inspiring suggestions and continued passion for bioethics. Also, I want to thank Jeremy Hall, Newington College, Stanmore, NSW, Australia, editor of Dialogue , for his continued interest in my work, and encouraging e-mails. And I would like to say a very special thank you to my former colleague, Pro- fessor Emeritus of history Mary Lou Locke, who has taught me that (1) there is a life after teaching, and (2) that a post-teaching career can make history come alive through storytelling. I am grateful for her permission, as author M. Louisa Locke, to include an excerpt from her first novel in Chapter 12. The first and second editions wouldn’t have been possible without my first edi- tor at Mayfield Publishing Company, my good friend Jim Bull. And the previous editions have benefited from the help and suggestions from the following friends and colleagues: Michael Schwartz, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing Pro- fessor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia; the late Stephen George, Brigham Young University; independent scholar and author Maxine Sheets- Johnstone; Helmut Wautischer, Sonoma State University; Eugene Troxell and Peter Atterton, San Diego State University; Betsy Decyk, Daniel Guerriere, and G. A. Spangler, California State University, Long Beach. In addition, I am grateful to the late Richard Taylor for his correspondence, to the late Philip Hallie for his inspiration, and to his late wife Dorrit Hallie; to Russell Means for sharing his views on American Indian traditions; to Leonard Maltin for his time and advice while I was working on the first edition; to Sue Savage-Rumbaugh for her time and comments on a draft of the second edition; to Carol Enns, College of the Sequoias; John Osborne, Butte

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College; Thomas Wren, Loyola University, Chicago; Lawrence Hinman, U niversity of San Diego; Peter Kemp, Danish University of Education; Hans Hertel, University of Copenhagen; Steen Wackerhausen, University of Aarhus. As in previous editions, I want to thank a few good friends outside the philo- sophical profession for their support, friendship, and intellectual contributions to this edition: author and historian J. R. Edmondson; author and film historian Frank Thompson; author Mark Fuhrman; vocational historian Phil Martin; Assistant Dean for Student Affairs at SDSU Randi McKenzie; my close friends since the early days of childhood, Christa W. Blichmann, M.D., and Susanne Schwer, M.D.; my cousin, author Søren Peter Hansen and his wife Jytte; my sister-in-law, Lois Covner; my brother-in-law Russell Covner; my cousin Karin Winther Rasmussen; close fam- ily friends Marianne Ammitzbøl, Karen Herand, and Elisabeth and Mie Millev Rix; my mother-in-law, Nancy R. Covner; and lastly my niece Jessica Humphrey and my cousins Astrid Marie Hansen, Ellen Marie Hansen, and Katrine Winther Rasmussen, four wise young women who are discovering the art of asking philosophical ques- tions, and making positive contributions to the world of tomorrow. My mother, Gladys Rosenstand, passed away in 2007, but I find myself daily reminded of her courage, her deeply ethical outlook on work and life—and, not least, her keen appreciation for life’s droller moments. I have the immense privilege of being able to again thank my father, Finn Rosenstand, for continued inspiring discussions about everything in life that matters, for always looking out for interest- ing books and articles for me, and for introducing me, at an early age, to his motto, adopted from Greek antiquity: Maeden agan. A man of great wisdom and a gifted storyteller, he has been instrumental in opening my mind to intellectual curiosity, human compassion, and a passion for history, literature, and film. Most of all, I want to thank my husband, Craig R. Covner, for his strength and loving support, for always being ready to share his insight into American history as well as Hollywood film history, for his understanding and patience with me in my writer’s work-mode, and for his wonderful sense of humor.

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Chapter One

Thinking About Values

Do We Need a Code of Ethics?

In 2011 the state of Montana’s Senate made an announcement about moral values that elicited fairly strong responses from a variety of groups, both positive and nega- tive. The Senate President Jim Peterson announced that the Montana legislature had decided to adopt as the offi cial state code what they called the Code of the West, based on James P. Owens’s book Cowboy Ethics. The concept itself is not new—Wyoming adopted the same code in 2010, and people of the Western United States have known the “Code of the West” or Cowboy Code of Ethics for a long time. And while the idea of doing things in a “cowboy way” or “go cowboy” may associate, to a modern urban mind-set, to handling things in an unorthodox way, perhaps through the use of force rather than negotiations, nothing could be further from what the Montanans had in mind. The code has a ten-point set of rules to live by, including “Live each day with courage,” Be tough, but fair,” and “Know where to draw the line.” The responses ranged from applauses and praise to anger, skepticism, and ridi- cule. Some felt that this was a very positive thing: Offi cials were fi nally reaching back to a set of values of common sense and decency that would help guide a young generation while at the same time keep the offi cials of the state of Montana on the straight and narrow if they felt the need to stray. Some laughed, and some pointed out that the Code of the West, or Cowboy Ethics, really was never part of the ruth- less life on the frontier in the nineteenth century, but a concoction created by mak- ers of Western movies and so-called cowboy poets in the early twentieth century. Some observers remarked that it really wasn’t the business of a state legislature to dictate people’s personal behavior, and others found that perhaps the whole thing was a business ploy to make the state of Montana look like a place where honor- able people could move their businesses to in morally shaky times—bottom line: money. But what perhaps was the most interesting response was that some observ- ers commented in their blogs, Why not? Why not fl oat a benign set of values that really doesn’t amount to much more than what ordinary good people expect of each other, if it can make a statement about the values of one of our fi fty states? Why should we be afraid to stand up and say, I really prefer if we all refrained from being devious and selfi sh and thought a little more about the needs of other people?

Some Current Values Discussions

You may fi nd that you’ve already made up your mind about the Montana and Wyoming decisions: commendable/silly/offensive/outdated—or perhaps totally un- important. But the entire issue serves as a kind of cultural mirror to hold up and take

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a look at ourselves, so this will be a question we return to several times in this book: Can we rely on people having their own set of values that not only will guide them through hard times, but will also make life with others run more smoothly? In other words, do we need a code of ethics as part of the social rules we learn as we grow up and move into society as active members? Is it the government’s business, or perhaps our schools’? Or is it strictly something we should control, as parents? The fact is that we all encounter issues involving moral values on an everyday basis; sometimes they involve small decisions, sometimes large ones. Some everyday issues that are in the news are questions about Internet fi le sharing /copying/down- loading of copyrighted material. Some fi nd it is rightfully illegal, while others fi nd it to be completely acceptable and even a morally decent thing—sharing new ideas with others. Another issue that you may have been engaged in discussing is the ethics of texting and Facebook communication, and what exactly is an appropriate level of intimacy and sharing of information if it risks getting into the wrong hands? And what is the kind of information we can, in all decency, text to each other—Is it acceptable to break up though a text message? Sexting—send sexy pictures taken without the portrayed person’s permission? Share gossip? All these questions involve an underly- ing code of ethics. So, too, do the major moral issues we as a society are struggling with: Some of the big questions and even confl icts we have dealt with during the fi rst decade of this century have involved the right to marry whomever you choose, including a person of your own gender, the question of the appropriate response to terrorism (through the civil courts, or military actions and tribunals), the use of tor- ture in interrogations of presumed terrorists, the right to have access to euthanasia, the continued question about the moral status of abortion, the periodically resurfac- ing discussion about the right to gun ownership, the moral status of pets as property or family members, and other such issues that involve both moral and legal perspec- tives. This book will deal with some of those issues, but perhaps more important, it will deal with the values underlying those issues—the moral theories explaining those values. Later in this chapter we look at the terms of values , morals, and ethics . For each of the issues mentioned above there is generally a side promoting it, and a side arguing against it. We’re used to that kind of debate in a free society, and you’ll see some of those questions discussed in this book, in particular in Chapters 7 and 13. What we have also become used to during the past decades is that our nation seems more divided than in previous decades—what some political commentators have la- beled a “50-50 nation.” In election years, particularly in 2000 and 2004 (where presi- dent George W. Bush was elected and re-elected), it was clear that political opinions divided the country almost in half—at least if there were only two options to choose from, Democratic or Republican. In 2008 the election of President Obama was a clearer majority than the previous two presidential elections, but many other issues on the ballot showed the same half-and-half support. Even if we have “blue states” and “red states” showing up in the electoral map, there are blue and red areas within each state. This is of course politics, and our main topic is going to be ethics and val- ues, but there is a relevant connection: There is a set of moral values commonly asso- ciated with Democratic policies, such as being pro-choice/ proabortion, increased gun control, pro-gay rights, and scaling back military operations, and another associated

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with Republican politics generally advocating pro-life/anti-abortion, pro-gun owner- ship, anti-gay rights, and strong support for the military. These are stereotypes that don’t always hold up, and in addition there is a growing movement of Independents, voters who “decline to state” a party affi liation on their voter registration form. So it may be misleading to say that the nation is divided down the middle—but it is a clear indication that across this nation we just don’t all agree on the details of how one should be a good citizen, other than it is a good thing to have a form of government where the people have the opportunity to vote. So if we’re looking for a code of ethics to live by, and even to promote, we should expect that not everyone is going to agree. But what is also commonplace is that we tend to think that those who disagree with us are either stupid, ignorant—or perhaps even evil. The blogosphere is full of such assumptions. And that lends itself to thinking that we, perhaps in fact, are citizens of two cultures within the United States, the culture of liberal values and the culture of conservative values (a pattern known in many other countries with a Western tradi- tion of democracy and right to free speech). Some call it a culture war . So here I have a little recommendation—an introduction of a moral value, if you will: For the sake of a good discussion—either in the classroom, online, or perhaps just as an internal dialogue with yourself, it may be useful not to jump to the immediate conclusion that people who disagree with you are stupid, ignorant, or evil. As we strive to become a nation of successful diversity, we sometimes forget that moral and political diversity also deserves a place alongside of diversity of gender, race, religion, economic back- ground, sexual orientation, and so forth. In other words, people have a right to have a wide variety of opinions, and some of them are arrived at through honest and consci- entious deliberation. We have little chance of being able to talk with one another and even learn from one another if we keep thinking that everybody who doesn’t agree with us is automatically wrong or wrongheaded. On the other hand, an acceptance of the fact that people disagree on moral issues doesn’t have to lead to a moral relativism, or an assumption that there is al- ways “another side” to everything. Despite our moral differences in this culture, most “reasonable” people are going to agree on some basic values: In my experience, the majority of Americans are in favor of justice and equality, and against murder, child abuse, racism, sexism, slavery, animal torture, and so forth. In Chapter 3 you’ll fi nd a discussion of ethical relativism, and in Chapter 11 you’ll fi nd a further discussion of the search for common values in a politically divided culture.

Values, Morals, and Ethics

In its most basic sense, something we value is something we believe is set apart from things that we don’t value or that we value less. When do we fi rst begin to value something? As babies, we live in a world that is divided into what we like and what we don’t like—a binary world of plus and minus, of yes and no. Some psychoanalysts believe we never really get over this early stage, so that some people simply divide the world into what they like or approve of, and what they dislike or disapprove of. However, most of us add to that a justifi cation for our preferences or aversions. And this is where the concept of moral values comes in. Having “values” implies that we

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have a moral code that we live by, or at least that we tell ourselves we try to live by, a set of beliefs about what constitutes good conduct and a good character. Perhaps equally important, having values implies that we have a conception of what society should be, such as a promoter of values we consider good, a safety net for when things go wrong, an overseer that punishes bad behavior and rewards good behavior, a caregiver for all our basic needs, or a minimalist organization that protects the people against internal and external enemies but otherwise leaves them alone to pursue their own happiness. In Chapter 7 we examine several of these conceptions of social values. In the late twentieth century the number of college classes in introductory ethics and value theory swelled. When they hear I teach ethics, people who are unfamiliar with how college classes in the subject are taught say, “Good! Our college students really need that!” That response always makes me pause: What do they think I teach? Right from wrong? Of course, we do have discussions about right and wrong, and we can, from time to time, even reach agreement about some moral responses being pref- erable to other moral responses. If students haven’t acquired a sense of values by the time they’re in college, I fear it’s too late: Psychologists say a child must develop a sense of values by the age of seven to become an adult with a conscience. If the child hasn’t learned by the second grade that other people can feel pain and pleasure, and that one should try not to harm others, that lesson will probably never be truly learned. Fortu- nately, that doesn’t mean everyone must be taught the same moral lessons by the age of seven—as long as we have some moral background to draw on later, as a sounding board for further ethical refl ections, we can come from morally widely diverse homes and still become morally dependable people. A child growing up in a mobster type of family will certainly have acquired a set of morals by the age of seven—but it isn’t necessarily the same set of morals as those acquired by a child in a liberal, secular, humanist family or in a Seventh-Day Adventist family. The point is that all these chil- dren will have their “moral center” activated and can expand their moral universe. A child who has never been taught any moral lessons may be a sociopath of the future, a person who has no comprehension of how other people feel, no empathy. If having moral values has to do with brain chemistry, and with simple likes and dislikes, why don’t we turn to the disciplines of neuroscience and psychology for an understanding of values? Why is philosophy the discipline that examines the values issue? That question goes to the core of what philosophy is: Neuroscience can tell us about the physical underpinnings of our mental life and possibly whether our mental reactions have a correlation to the world we live in, but as you saw earlier will see below, it can’t tell us whether our mental processes are socially appropriate or inap- propriate, morally justifi ed or unjustifi ed, and so forth. Neuroscience has recently identifi ed areas in the brain where moral decisions involving empathy take place, but that doesn’t mean that neuroscientists can tell us which moral decisions are more correct than others. Psychology can tell us only what people believe and possibly why they believe it; it can’t make a statement about whether people are justifi ed in believing it. Philosophy’s job, at least in this context, is to question our values; it forces us to provide reasons, and preferably good reasons, for giving our moral approval to one type of behavior and disapproving of another. Philosophy asks the fundamental question Why, in all its fi elds, including the fi eld of value theory/ethics. (Box 1.1 gives

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In the chapter text, you read that philosophy traditionally asks the question Why . This is one of the features that has characterized Western philosophy from its earliest years in Greek antiquity. We generally date Western philoso- phy from approximately seven hundred years B.C.E./B.C. (“before the common era”/“before Christ”), when some Greek thinkers, such as Thales, Heraclitus, and Parmenides, began to ask questions about what reality truly con- sists of: Is it the way we perceive it through the senses, or is there an underlying true real- ity that our intellect can understand? Thales believed the underlying reality was water; Heraclitus believed that it was a form of ever- changing energy; and Parmenides saw true reality as being an underlying realm of per- manence, elements that don’t change. We call this form of philosophy metaphysics; in Chapter 8 you will read a brief introduction to Plato’s famous theory of metaphysics, but otherwise the topic of metaphysics has only indirect bearing on the topic of this book. A few centuries after Thales, the next area of phi- losophy that manifested itself was ethics, with Socrates’ questioning of what is the right way to live (see chapter text). Two generations later the third area of philosophy was introduced, primarily through the writings of Aristotle: logic, the establishing of rules for proper think- ing as opposed to fallacious thinking. But the fourth area of Western philosophy didn’t re- ally take hold in the minds of thinkers until some two thousand years later, in the seven- teenth century, when René Descartes began to explore what the mind can know: epistemol- ogy, or theory of knowledge. All four branches of philosophy are represented today in school curricula and enjoy vibrant debates within the philosophical community. The only branch to have languished somewhat is metaphysics, since modern science has answered some of

its ancient questions: We now know about the subnuclear reality of quantum mechanics. But a classical question of metaphysics remains unanswered by science to this day: What is the nature of the human mind? Do we have a soul that outlives our bodies, or will our self be ex- tinguished with the demise of our brain? Until the mid–twentieth century, philosophy was usually taught in the West with the underly- ing assumption that philosophy as such was, by and large, a Western phenomenon. That rather ethnocentric attitude has changed considerably over the last decades. It is now recognized un- equivocally among Western scholars that Asian philosophy has its own rich traditions of explo- ration of metaphysics and ethics in particular; and some philosophers point out that in a sense, all cultures have metaphysics and ethics, even if they have no body of philosophical literature, because their legends, songs, and religious sto- ries will constitute the culture’s view of reality as well as the moral rules and their justifi cations. As for logic and epistemology, they are not as frequently encountered in non-Western cul- tures: Indian philosophy has established its own tradition of logic, but epistemology remains a Western philosophical specialty, according to most Western scholars. To the four classic branches, philosophy has added a number of specialized fi elds over the centuries, such as philosophy of art (aesthetics), social philosophy, philosophy of religion, politi- cal philosophy, philosophy of sports, philoso- phy of human nature, philosophy of gender, and philosophy of science. What makes these fi elds philosophical inquiries is their special approach to their subjects; they investigate not only the nature of art, social issues, religion, politics, and so on, but also the theoretical underpinnings of each fi eld, its hidden assumptions and agen- das, and its future moral and social pitfalls and promises.

Box 1.1 T H E F O U R C L A S S I C B R A N C H E S O F P H I L O S O P H Y

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an overview of the classic branches within philosophy.) Why do we have the values we have? Why do values make some people give up their comfort, even their lives, for a cause, or for other people’s welfare? Why do some people disregard the values of their society for a chosen cause or for personal gain? Is it ever morally appropriate to think of yourself and not of others? Are there ultimate absolute moral values, or are they a matter of personal or cultural choices? Such fundamental questions can be probed by philosophy in a deeper and more fundamental way than by neuroscience or psychology, and we will explore such questions in the upcoming chapters. If having values is such an important feature of our life, should elementary schools teach values, then? It may be just a little too late, if indeed a child’s moral sense is de- veloped by the age of seven, but at least there is a chance it might help; and for children whose parents have done a minimal job of teaching them respect for others, school will probably be the only place they’ll learn it. Some elementary schools are developing such programs. Problems occur, however, when schools begin to teach values with which not all parents agree. We live in a multicultural society, and although some parents might like certain topics to be on the school agenda, others certainly would not. Some parents want their children to have early access to sex education, whereas others consider it unthinkable as a school subject. There is nothing in the concept of values that implies we all have to subscribe to exactly the same ones, no matter how strongly we may feel about our own. So, beyond teaching basic values such as common courtesy, perhaps the best schools can do is make students aware of values and value differences and let students learn to argue effectively for their own values, as well as to question them. Schools, in other words, should focus on ethics in addition to morality . So what is the difference between ethics and morality? Ethics comes from Greek ( ethos, character) and morality from Latin ( mores, character, custom, or habit). Today, in English as well as in many other Western languages, both words refer to some form of proper conduct. Although we, in our everyday lives, don’t distinguish clearly between morals and ethics, there is a subtle difference: Some people think the word morality has negative connotations, and in fact it does carry two different sets of asso- ciations for most of us. The positive ones are guidance, goodness, humanitarianism, and so forth. Among the negative associations are repression, bigotry, persecution— in a word, moralizing . Suppose the introductory ethics course on your campus was labeled “Introduction to Morals.” You would, in all likelihood, expect something different from what you would expect from a course called “Introduction to Ethics” or “Introduction to Values.” The word morality has a slightly different connotation from that of the terms ethics and values . That is because morality usually refers to the moral rules we follow, the values that we have. Ethics is generally defi ned as theories about those rules; ethics questions and justifi es the rules we live by, and, if ethics can fi nd no rational justifi cation for those rules, it may ask us to abandon them. Moral- ity is the stuff our social life is made of—even our personal life—and ethics is the ordering, the questioning, the awareness, the investigation of what we believe: Are we justifi ed in believing it? Is it consistent? Should we remain open to other beliefs or not? If we live by a system of moral rules, we may or may not have understood them or even approved of them, but if we have a code of ethics we signal to the world that we stand by our values, understand them, and are ready to not only act on them

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but also defend them with words and deeds. (And that is, of course, why it was an interesting choice for the Montana legislature to get involved in advocating a code of ethics for their state.) In other words, it is not enough just to have moral rules; we should, as moral, mature persons, be able to justify our viewpoints with ethical arguments or, at the very least, ask ourselves why we feel this way or that about a certain issue. Ethics, therefore, is much more than a topic in a curriculum. As moral adults, we are re- quired to think about ethics all the time. Most people, in fact, do just that, even in their teens, because it is also considered a sign of maturity to question authority, at least to a certain extent. If a very young adult is told to be home at 11 P.M., she or he will usually ask, “Why can’t I stay out till mid- night?” When we have to make up our minds about whether to study over the weekend or go hiking, we usually try to come up with as many pros and cons as we can. When someone we have put our trust in betrays that trust, we want to know why. All those questions are practical applications of ethics: They question the rules of morality and the breaking of those rules. Although formal training in ethical questions can make us better at judging moral issues, we are, as adult human beings, already quite experi- enced just because we already have asked, “Why?” a number of times in our lives.

Good and Evil

You have probably heard the “E-word” (evil) recently, in conversation or in the media. And “good” is surely one of the most frequently used words in the English language. But interestingly, for most of the previous century ethicists preferred to use terms such as “morally acceptable and unacceptable,” or “right vs. wrong,” rather than good vs. evil. That pattern seems to be changing, and we’ll talk about why in this section. When terrible things happen to ordinary people, including natural disasters as well as calamities of human origin, from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan to

DILBERT © 1997 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Ethicists point out that having a system of values isn’t enough for a person to be morally mature— one must also engage in thinking about those values and critically examine them from time to time. Cartoonist Scott Adams obviously agrees.

Dilbert by Scott Adams

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In The Lord of the Rings (2001–3) the concept of evil is symbolized by the Ring. Here the hobbit Smeagol (Andy Serkis) fi nds the Ring on his birthday (top). Many years later the effects of evil are clearly visible: Smeagol has become Gollum (bottom), a solitary creature whose mind is focused exclusively on the Ring.

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the inundation of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and terrorist attacks around the world including September 11, 2001, we usually hear stories of people who are not only victims of the disaster, but also subsequent victims of human schemes of violence or fraud. But we also hear about people who go out of their way to help oth- ers. During the nuclear crisis in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, what became known as the Fukushima 50 (actually around 300 volunteers) chose to go in and work in the damaged nuclear reactors, in peril of their lives and certainly exposed to high levels of radiation, for the sake of the community. It was clear that they knew the risk, but also that they volunteered because they felt it was the right thing to do for their community. During the collapse of a mine in Chile in 2010, 33 miners who were trapped deep underground were rescued through a concerted effort by several teams from different parts of the world, literally inventing drilling methods that even- tually, after more than two months, brought up every single miner from the dark on live television as well as online coverage, to the cheers of a worldwide audience. In November 2009 at Ft. Hood, Army psychiatrist-turned- gunman Major Nidal Hasan shot into an unarmed crowd of military personnel (because on-base soldiers ordinar- ily don’t carry weapons) and managed to kill thirteen and wound thirty before he was shot and incapacitated by two police offi cers, Kimberly Munley and her partner Mark Todd, who exposed themselves to his gunfi re and were themselves wounded. In the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia, thirty-two students and professors were murdered by a student, Seung-Hui Cho, but many more might have died had it not been for Dr. Liviu Livrescu, a 76-year-old semi-retired professor who blocked the door for Cho until all his students could make their escape through the window. In the end Dr. Livrescu couldn’t hold the door any longer, and Cho burst in and killed him, and subsequently killed himself. Such stories (of which you will hear more in Chapter 4 where we will discuss the phenomena of selfi shness and altruism) remind us that dreadful things can happen in the blink of an eye, but also that there are extraordinary people who will rise to the occasion and make decisions that may cost them their lives, for the sake of others. That, to most of us, may be the ultimate form of goodness, but the everyday kindness of a helping hand or a considerate re- mark shouldn’t be discounted, even if the kind person isn’t endangering his or her life. There is hardly a word with a broader meaning in the English language than “good”—we can talk about food tasting good, test results being good, a feeling being good, but also, of course, of actions being good and persons being good, and we mean something different in all these examples. In Box 1.2 you’ll fi nd a discussion of moral and nonmoral values, and “good” fi ts right into that discussion: It is a value term because it expresses approval, but it can be an approval that has to do with moral issues (such as actions and a person’s character) or it can be unrelated to moral issues, such as judging the result of a quiz, or a medical test, or something we ap- prove of because of its aesthetic qualities (it looks good, tastes good, sounds good). If we assume that we’re interested mostly in the moral value of “good,” we have only narrowed it down somewhat, because now we have to defi ne what, in our context and in our culture, is considered a morally good act. It could be acting according to the rules of one’s culture’s religion; it could be acting with compassion or with fore- sight as to the overall consequences of one’s actions; or it could be simply doing one’s

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duty. A “good person” could be someone who is simply nice by nature, but it could also be someone who struggles to do the right thing, perhaps even against his or her nature. Or it could be simply someone we approve of, based on our cultural rules. That particular moral attitude will be discussed in Chapter 3, Ethical Relativism . But there is also something called being “too good,” like a Goody Two-Shoes, so perhaps being morally above reproach isn’t always good? In the Narrative section at the end of this chapter, you’ll fi nd a selection from John Steinbeck’s famous novel East of Eden, with a discussion of not only the ultimate story of good and evil but also how the ideas of good and evil can be perceived by an adolescent who wants to be good like his twin brother but fi nds himself to be of quite a different nature. In our everyday life we encounter the term “evil” frequently in the media and entertainment, and most of us use it regularly. We even have a character in a popular series of comic movies about retro hero Austin Powers, Dr. Evil, who really is quite evil, and enjoying it. Entire fi lm franchises and book series are centered around the

What is a value? Most often the word refers to a moral value, a judgment of somebody’s behav- ior according to whether or not it corresponds to certain moral rules (for example, “Tiffany is a wonderful person; she always stays after the party to help with the dishes”). However, some value judgments have nothing to do with moral issues, and so they are called nonmoral , which is not the same as immoral (breaking moral rules) or amoral (not having any moral standards). Such nonmoral value judgments can include statements about taste (such as “The new gallery downtown has a collection of exquisite water- colors”; “I really dislike Bob’s new haircut”; and “Finn makes a great jambalaya”), as well as state- ments about being correct or incorrect about facts (such as “Lois did really well on her last math test” and “You’re wrong; last Saturday we didn’t go to the movies; that was last Sunday”). Like moral value judgments, nonmoral value judgments generally refer to something being right or wrong, good or bad; but, unlike moral value judgments, they don’t refer to morally right or wrong behavior. Nonmoral value concepts abound in our present-day society: What we call aesthetics, art theory, is a form of nonmoral

value theory, asking questions such as, Are there objective rules for when art is good? and Is it bad, or is it a matter of personal taste or of ac- culturation? If you dislike hip-hop music, or like Craftsman-style architecture, are there valid ob- jective justifi cations for your likes and dislikes, or are they relative to your time and place? Art theory even has an additional values concept: the relationship between light and dark colors in a painting. But the most prevalent nonmoral value concept in our everyday world surely has to do with getting good value —with buying something for less than it is worth. That prompted a po- litical commentator, Michael Kinsley, who was fed up with the political talk about moral values a few years ago, to quip, “When I want values, I go to Wal-Mart.” And McDonald’s has been running a commercial suggesting that parents who want family values should take their kids to McDonald’s for the Value Meal, appealing to the perennial parental guilt. In other words, sati- rists and copywriters can have a fi eld day doing a switcheroo on our conception of values, from nonmoral to moral and back again, and what we readers and consumers can do is stay on our toes so we aren’t manipulated.

Box 1.2 M O R A L A N D N O N M O R A L V A L U E S

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fi ght against evil, such as the Harry Potter series, The X-Men , and Lord of the Rings . But entertainment is one thing that we can leave behind—another thing is real life: The surviving students at Virginia Tech will have those memories for the rest of their lives, and many a young life was cut short that day, bringing grief to their families. And why? Cho apparently had psychological problems which perhaps could have been helped and Cho could have been stopped in time—he felt aggression toward other students whom he perceived as being “rich.” The Ft. Hood massacre is still a traumatic moment in our military history, and the events of 9/11 are seared into the memories of an en- tire nation. And then we have the media favorites: the serial killer stories where killers manage to evade the law for months, sometimes even decades, preying on young or otherwise vulnerable members of society—children, or prostitutes and drug addicts. From the Green River Killer James Ridgway to the BTK (Bind, Torture, Kill) killer Dennis Rader, to Joseph Duncan who killed an entire family in Idaho so he could abduct and abuse the two youngest children (of whom only the little girl survived, to become an excellent and clear-minded witness against him). In Austria Josef Fritzl was arrested for having kept his own daughter captive in a hidden room in the basement for twenty-four years, raping her and fathering seven children with her. And in Cali- fornia a young woman, Jaycee Dugard, resurfaced after eighteen years of captivity, kid- napped at the age of eleven by a man and his wife who then kept her prisoner in their backyard. She, too, was a victim of multiple rapes, resulting in two pregnancies. And football star Michael Vick confessed to being involved with an international dog fi ght- ing ring. He served twenty-one months in prison and two months’ home confi nement. Are such people who victimize others—humans or animals—evil? Or should we just say that their actions are evil? Or should we use another term entirely, such as being morally wrong ? What do the professionals say—the ethicists who make a living teaching theo- ries of moral values and writing papers, monographs, and textbooks? Interestingly, most contemporary ethicists tend to talk about issues such as selfi shness and unself- ishness, informed consent, weighing moral principles against overall consequences of one’s actions, group rights versus individual rights, and so forth. We hear dis- cussions about the concepts of moral right and wrong and the principles by which we determine such concepts. What we rarely hear mentioned by any contemporary ethicists are the concepts that most people associate with moral issues: good and evil . Exceptions would be American philosophers such as Philip Hallie and Richard Tay- lor and the British philosopher Mary Midgley. Why are so few philosophers these days interested in talking about good and evil, when it was one of the key topics in centuries past? For one thing, there is an underlying assumption that good and evil are religious concepts, and as we shall see, the philosophical discussions about ethics and values these days tend to steer clear of the religious connection to ethics. For another, talking about good and evil generally implies that we pass judgment on what is good and what is evil—which means that we take sides, we no longer analyze concepts in some lofty realm of objectivity, we engage ourselves in seeking good and shunning evil. It also means that we condemn those who are labeled evil and praise those we call good. In other words, we engage in what some would call moralizing, and most ethicists have for decades tried to avoid just that, with some

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exceptions. However, since September 11, 2001, the concept of evil has been part of our political vocabulary, spearheaded by President Bush, who labeled nations sup- porting terrorism as an axis of evil and referred to the terrorists of 9/11 and others as evildoers . A precedent was created when President Reagan labeled the Soviet Union “The Evil Empire” in the 1980s. Although that terminology, to some critics, is far too close to a religious vocabulary for comfort, for other Americans there is great relief and, indeed, comfort in being able to use a word with the weight of tradition behind it to describe something most of us consider dreadful acts committed by people with no consideration for human decency. But what exactly do we call evil? Is evil a force that exists outside human beings—is there a source of evil such as the devil, some satanic eternal power that tempts and preys on human souls? Or is it, rather, a force within the human mind, disregarding the needs and interests of other human beings just to accomplish a goal? Or might it perhaps be a lack of something in the human mind—a blind spot where the rest of us have a sense of community, belonging, empathy for others? In that case, might we explain the acts of “evildoers” as those of sick individuals? But wouldn’t that entail that they can’t be blamed for what they do, because we don’t usually blame people for their illnesses? Those are questions that involve religion, psychology, and ethics, and there is to this day no consensus among scholars as to how “evil” should be interpreted. Some see terrorists, serial killers, and child molesters as evil, but we may not agree on what makes them evil—a childhood deprived of love, a genetic predisposition, a selfi sh choice that involves disregard for other people’s humanity, a brainwashing by an ideology that distinguishes between “real” people and throwaway people, an outside superhuman evil force that chooses a human vehicle? For the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, whom you’ll meet in Chapter 6, there was no doubt what evil is: the self-serving choice that individuals make freely, even when they know full well the moral law they ought to be follow- ing. But that may not be all there is to it. When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal hit in 2005, many people were reminded of two groundbreaking American psychology experiments: the Stanley Milgram obedience experiments at Yale University in the nineteen sixties, wherein Professor Milgram showed that if you are under the infl u- ence of an authority who takes responsibility for your actions, you are likely to be willing to commit acts of atrocity toward other human beings; he demonstrated that test subjects, believing themselves to be assisting with an experiment, would over- come their unwillingness to give electric shocks to test subjects in another room (in reality actors who weren’t being harmed at all) to the point of killing them, as long as they were told they had to do it, and it was not their responsibility. The other infamous experiment was the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, conducted by psychologist professor Philip Zimbardo, wherein a group of experimental subjects— ordinary male college students—were divided into “prisoners” and “prison guards,” in order to examine why conditions would deteriorate so quickly in a real prison setting. Before long the “prison guards” began treating the “prisoners” with abusive cruelty, believing that such behavior was somehow warranted to maintain author- ity, and Zimbardo had to terminate the experiment within less than a week. Both an American fi lm and a German version, both titled The Experiment , are chilling reen- actments of the experiment. Some see such an event as proof that human nature is

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fundamentally bad—it doesn’t take much for the veneer of civilization to wear thin, and our true, evil nature surfaces. For others, all this means is that there are all kinds of reasons why people do what they do; some of what we call evil is based on a moral choice, and some of it is an outcome of environmental pressures or brain anomalies. In 2007 Zimbardo published a book, The Lucifer Effect, in which he drew par- allels between the experiment and the Abu Ghraib incident. You’ll fi nd an excerpt from this book in the Primary Readings section of this chapter. But already in 1963, the German philosopher Hannah Arendt had coined an expression for this particu- lar shade of wrongdoing: the banality of evil . Arendt was living in Germany when Hitler came to power, but she managed to fl ee to Paris before the Holocaust: She was a German Jew, and would undoubtedly have been swept up in the extermina- tion process. Years after the war she was tormented not only by the thought of the atrocities perpetrated in the death camps but also by the knowledge that so many human beings either stood by and let the Holocaust happen or actively participated in the torture and death of other human beings. (And, for the record, the Holocaust did happen—13 million people perished in the Nazi death camps on the orders of Hitler and his henchmen Himmler and Eichmann, and those who deny that fact are playing political games. Enough said.) The conclusion reached by Arendt and pub- lished in her book Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil is that the German public who had an inkling of what was going on and the Nazis who were actively engaged in the Endlösung, or the “Final Solution,” were not evil in the sense that they (or most of them) deliberately sought to gain personal advantage by causing pain and suffering to others. Rather, it was more insidious: Little by little, they came to view the atrocities they were asked to perform, or disregard, as a duty to their country and their leader, as something their victims deserved, or simply as a normal state of affairs and not something hideous or depraved. They became banal, everyday acts, corrupting the minds of the victimizers. In Arendt’s words about Eichmann’s execution for his participation in the Holocaust:

It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lesson that this long course in human wickedness had taught us—the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought- defying banality of evil. . . . The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together, for it implied—as had been said at Nuremberg over and over again by the defendants and their counsels—that this new type of criminal . . . commits his crimes under circumstances that make it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he is doing wrong. . . .

But before we begin to assume that all evil acts are of the kind that may lurk in ordinary people’s hearts, let us just remind ourselves that not all evil acts are “banal.” Surely, the deliberate torturing and killing of children by a Joseph Duncan is not the kind of evil that ordinary people are periodically persuaded to perform under extraordinary circumstances, and neither are the deliberate mass murders at Virginia Tech and Ft. Hood. For such acts involving deliberate choices directly intending and resulting in harm to innocent people we may want to reserve the terms egregious

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or extreme evil . If we want to adopt the vocabulary of “evil,” in addition to “morally wrong” and “misguided,” we must also recognize that there are degrees of evil, rang- ing from reluctantly causing pain (such as in the Milgram experiments) to humiliat- ing other human beings, to abusing, torturing, and killing them with deliberation and gusto. And perhaps it is a disservice to our sense of evil to assume that “we’re all capable of doing evil.” Some forms of evil are the result not of ordinary people being seduced into insensitivity but of some people’s deliberate choices to cause harm. And even in the Stanley Milgram experiment some test subjects refused to turn the shock dial. In Chapter 11, in the section about the philosopher Philip Hallie, you’ll read a story that goes into detail about rising up against evil: the story of a French village that rebelled against the Nazis. Hallie presents this story as an “antidote to cruelty,” and you will fi nd an additional reference to Philip Zimbardo and his coining of a new term, “the banality of heroism,” a theory that claims that if evil is a possibility in our hearts, so, too, are heroism and altruism—in other words, inherent goodness . Even if we have now taken a look at some different meanings of the term “evil,” we have of course by no means exhausted the topic, but a further discussion would be outside the scope of an introductory chapter. We might continue talking about where we think evil originates—as a failing to see others as equal human beings, maybe even a brain defi ciency that excludes empathy? Or is it willful selfi shness? In Chapter 4 we look at the concepts of selfi shness and unselfi shness. Or is it just a matter of perspective—one culture’s evil is another culture’s goodness? We look at the question of different cultural values in Chapter 3. Or we might also ask the question that has troubled many cultures for thousands of years, generally known as the Problem of Evil: If there is a god, and he, she, or it is a well-intended, all-powerful being, then why do terrible things happen to good people? That question, profound as it may be, belongs within Philosophy of Religion, and lies beyond the scope of this textbook. That doesn’t mean you’re not welcome to think about its implications.

Debating Moral Issues from Religion to Neurobiology and Storytelling

Every functional society on earth has had a “philosophy” of what one should do or be in order to be considered a good person. Sometimes that moral code is expressed orally in stories and songs, and sometimes it is expressed in writing. When it is ex- pressed as a set of rules with explanations justifying the rules, we may call it a code of ethics . For it to become a philosophical discipline, we must add the practice of examining and questioning the rules.

The Socratic Beginnings of Ethics

The Greek philosopher Socrates (fi fth century B.C.E.) is often credited with being the fi rst philosopher in the Western tradition to focus on ethics. That can be a reasonable observation, provided we don’t confuse ethics with morals. It would, of course, be preposterous to claim that any one person, including a famous philosopher, should get credit for inventing morals. Every society since the dawn of time has had a moral code, even if all it consisted of was “respect the chief and your elders.” Without a

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communal moral code you simply can’t maintain a society, and in every generation parents have been the primary teachers of the continuity of morality. In addition, as we’ll see in the next section, every society on the planet has had a religion of some sort, and into every religion is built a moral code. So what did Socrates contribute, if he didn’t invent morals? He elevated the discussion of morals to the level of an academic, critical examination, exploration, and justifi cation of values. It became an abstract discussion that was, for the fi rst time in the West, removed from both reli- gious dogma and social rules, at the same time becoming a personal matter of growth and wisdom. Most of our knowledge of Socrates comes from the works of the phi- losopher Plato, one of his students. In his series of Dialogues, conversations between Socrates and various friends, students, and enemies, Plato has Socrates observe, on his fi nal day before being executed for crimes against the Athenian state (see Chap- ter 8), that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and that the ultimate question for every human being is “How should one live?” Acquiring moral wisdom is thus a requirement for a person who doesn’t want to go through life with blinders on. Although we can imagine that wise old men and women may have taught the same lesson throughout human time, Socrates was the fi rst that we know of to incorporate critical questions about moral values into a study of philosophical issues for adults. In other words, Socrates became the inventor of ethics as an academic discipline, not just a critical lifestyle. And for over two thousand years, philosophers in the West have included the study of ethics in their curricula, including the notion that to be a morally mature person you must engage in a personal critical examination of your own values and the values of your society. The famed Socratic or dialectic method has two major points: that if you approach an issue rationally, other rational minds will be able to accept your conclusion, and that a useful approach is a conversation, a dialogue, between teacher and student. The teacher will guide the student through a series of questions and answers to a rational conclusion, rather than give the student the answer up front. The method is to this day a favorite among philosophy instruc- tors, psychotherapists, and law school professors.

Moral Issues and Religion

Cultures developing independently of the Western tradition have experienced a sim- ilar fascination for the subject of acting and living right. Socrates’ version remains unique among ancient thinkers because he encouraged critical thinking instead of emphasizing being an obedient citizen. In China, Confucius expressed his philoso- phy of proper moral conduct as a matter of obedience to authorities and, above all, respect for one’s elders at approximately the same time that Socrates was teaching students critical thinking in the public square in Athens. In Africa, tribal thinkers de- veloped a strong sense of morality that stressed individuals’ sense of responsibility to the community and the community’s understanding of its responsibility to each in- dividual—a philosophy that has become known to the West in recent years through the proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” Among American Indian tribes, the philosophy of harmony between humans and their environment— animate as well as inanimate nature—has been part of the moral code.

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For all cultures, however, there is a common denominator: Go back far enough in time and you’ll fi nd a connection between the social life of the culture, its mores, and its religion. In some cultures the connection is clear and obvious to this day: Religion is the key to the moral values of the members of the community, and any debate about values usually takes place within the context of that religion. In other cultures, such as large parts of Europe, Canada, Australia, and to some extent the United States, the connection to religion has become more tenuous and has in some cases all but vanished; public social life has become secularized, and moral values are generally tied to the question of social coexistence rather than to a religious basis. That doesn’t mean that individual people can’t feel a strong connection to the reli- gious values of their family and their community. This raises several questions, all depending on one’s viewpoint and personal experience. If you have grown up in a culture where religion is a predominant cultural phe- nomenon, or if you have grown up in a religious family, or if you fi nd yourself deeply connected to a religious community today, do you regard your moral values as being inextricably tied to your religion? Do you regard moral values as being closely con- nected to religion as such? If that is your background, then chances are that you’ll answer yes. And if you have grown up in a Western, largely secularized culture such as big-city USA, and have not grown up in a religious family, or have distanced your- self from religion for some reason or other, do you view the question of religion as irrelevant for moral values in a modern society and for your own moral decisions? Chances are that you’ll answer yes, if this description applies to you. Here, in a nutshell, is the problem when talking about religion and values. In this diverse world—diverse not just because of nationalities, ethnicity, gender, and religion but also because of the vast variety of moral and political views even within one community—it is very hard for us to reach any kind of consensus or fi nd common ground about values if we seek answers exclusively in our religion. Chances are that if you have a religion, it is not shared by a large number of people you associate with. If you stick exclusively to the group you share your faith (or nonfaith) with, of course you will feel fortifi ed by the confi rmation of your views through your religion, and your ideas aren’t going to be challenged; but if you plan to be out and about in the greater society of this Western culture, you can’t expect everyone to agree with you. (In Chapter 3 we discuss the issue of how to approach the subject of moral differences.) So how does moral philosophy approach this issue? Interestingly, you’ll fi nd religious as well as nonreligious moral philosophers in modern times. Go back to the nineteenth century and beyond, and you will fi nd that almost all the Western moral philosophers were religious—Christian or Jewish. In the twentieth century there was a sharp increase in moral philosophers who chose a secular basis of reasoning for their ethics, and that remains a feature of today’s ethical debates. But even in centuries past, most philosophers who argued about ethics and who professed to be religious tended to avoid using their religion as the ultimate justifi cation for their moral values. Because, how can you argue with faith? Either you share the faith or you don’t. But argue on a basis of rationality, and you have a chance of reaching an understanding of values, even if you disagree

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about religion—or at least you may gain an understanding of where the other per- son is coming from. Reason as a tool of ethics can be a bridge builder between be- lievers, atheists, and agnostics. For agnostics and atheists, there can be no turning to religion for unquestioned moral guidance, because they view religion itself as an unknown or nonexistent factor. Agnostics claim that they do not know whether there is a God or that it is impossible to know. Atheists claim that there is no God. Both the agnostic and the atheist may fi nd that religion suggests solutions to their problems, but such solutions are accepted not because they come from religion but because they somehow make sense. For a philosophical inquiry, the requirement that a solution make sense is par- ticularly important; although religion may play a signifi cant role in the development of moral values for many people, a philosophical investigation of moral issues must involve more than faith in a religious authority. Regardless of one’s religious belief or lack thereof, such an investigation must involve reasoning because, for one thing, philosophy teaches that one must examine issues without solely relying on the word of authority. For another thing, a rational argument can be a way for people to reach an understanding in spite of having different viewpoints on religion. Accordingly, a good way to communicate about ethics for both believers and nonbelievers is to approach the issue through the language of reason .

Moral Issues and Logic

As we saw at the end of the section on moral issues and religion, it has been a choice of philosophers from the earliest times to argue about moral issues on the basis of reasoning rather than religious faith, regardless of their own religious affi liations. That means that the classical philosophical fi eld of logic is considered a valuable tool for discussing moral issues, because if philosophers can agree on anything, it is usu- ally whether or not an argument violates the rules of logic. An “argument” in philosophy is not a heated discussion or a screaming contest but a certain type of communication that strives to convince a listener that something is true or reasonable. Here is an ultrashort account of the basic principles of logic: An argument has at least one premise, and usually several premises, followed by a conclusion. Such an argument can be either inductive or deductive . The conclusion of an inductive argument is based on a gathering of evidence (such as “Tom prob- ably won’t say thank you for the birthday present—he never does”), but there is no certainty that the conclusion is true, only that it is probable. On the other hand, in a deductive argument the premises are supposed to lead to a certain conclusion. A valid deductive argument is a deductive argument whose conclusion follows nec- essarily from its premise or premises. (For example, “All dogs are descendents of wolves; Fluffy is a dog; therefore, Fluffy is a descendent of wolves.” This is valid whether or not dogs actually are descendents of wolves, which inductive evidence shows they probably are.) A sound deductive argument is an argument that is valid and whose premises are also factually true (such as “On the vernal [spring] equinox, night and day are of equal length all over the planet. So, on the vernal equinox, the day is twelve hours long in Baghdad as well as in Seattle”).


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Logical fallacies invalidate a moral viewpoint just as they do any other kind of viewpoint. Have you heard someone claim that because she has been cheated by two auto mechanics, no auto mechanics can be trusted? That’s the fallacy of hasty generalization . Have you heard someone who is an expert in one fi eld claim to be an authority in another—or people referring to some vague “expert opinion” in defense of their own views? That is the fallacy of appeal to authority . When someone tries to prove a point just by rephrasing it, such as “I’m right, because I’m never wrong,” that is the fallacy of begging the question, a circular defi nition assuming that what you are trying to prove is a fact. How about a bully arguing that if you don’t give him your seat/purse/car, he will harm you? That’s the ad baculum (Latin for “by the stick”) fallacy, the fallacy of using physical threats. And if someone says, “Well, you know you can’t believe what Fred says—after all, he’s a guy,” that’s an ad hominem ( “to the man”) fallacy, which assumes that who a person is determines the correctness or incorrectness of what he or she says. And a politician declaring “If we continue to allow women to have abortions, then pretty soon nobody will give birth, and the human race will die out” offers a slippery slope argument, which assumes that drastic consequences will follow a certain policy. Closely related is the straw man fallacy, in- venting a viewpoint so radical that hardly anyone holds it, so you can knock it down: “Gun advocates want to allow criminals and children to own weapons, so we should work toward a gun ban.” And if you claim that “it is my way or the highway,” then you are bifurcating —you are creating a false dichotomy (unless, of course, we’re really talking about a situation with no third possibility, such as being pregnant—you can’t be a little bit pregnant; it’s either/or). Another fallacy is the famed red herring, familiar to every fan of mystery and de- tective stories. A “red herring” is placed on the path to confuse the bloodhound. In other words, it is a defl ection away from the truth. In an everyday setting, this can be accomplished by changing the subject when it gets too uncomfortable (“Why did you get an F on your test, Bob?” “Mom, have I ever told you you’re prettier than all my friends’ moms?”). The notoriety of the red herring fallacy in court cases is well known, from introducing the race issue in the O. J. Simpson criminal trial to attacking a rape victim’s sexual history to defl ect attention away from the defendant. A fallacy most of us who make our living teaching are very familiar with is the fallacy of ad misericor- diam, appeal to pity: “Please, can I get an extension on my paper? My backpack was stolen, my cat ran away, my grandma is in the hospital, and I’ve got these really killer hangnails.” Or is it hangovers, perhaps? We’ve heard them all, all the bad excuses. But an excuse becomes an ad misericordiam fallacy only if it is nothing but an excuse. Sometimes a person truly deserves special consideration because of individual hard- ship, of course. Those and other logical fallacies are rampant in media discussions, and part of proper moral reasoning consists in watching out for the use of such fl awed arguments, in one’s own statements as well as in those of others.

Moral Issues and the Neurobiological Focus on Emotions

But is logic all there is to a good moral argument? Some philosophers would say yes, even today: The force of a moral viewpoint derives from its compelling logic. But

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increasingly, other voices are adding that a good moral argument is compelling not just because of its logic but also because it makes sense emotionally . If we have no feeling of moral approval or outrage, then do we really care about whether something is morally right or wrong? If we don’t feel that it’s wrong to harm a child, then how is logic going to persuade us? A classic answer has been an appeal to the logic of the Golden Rule: You wouldn’t want someone to harm you, would you? But, say some, that’s an appeal to how you’d feel in the same situation. An appeal to pure feeling isn’t going to be enough, because feelings can be manipulated, and appeals to emotions don’t solve confl icts if we don’t share those emotions; but combined with the logic of reasoning emotions can form the foundation of a forceful moral argument, according to some modern thinkers. And they fi nd support from a group of researchers who normally haven’t had much occasion, or inclination, to converse with philosophers: neuroscientists. In 1999 researchers at the University of Iowa led by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found that a general area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, plays a pivotal role in our development of a moral sense. And in 2007 came a new conclusion, also published by Damasio with other scientists in the journal Nature, that the human brain contains an area that enables us to think about other people’s lives with empa- thy. And while Damasio is not a philosopher, he has a keen understanding of, and an interest in the history of philosophy and the philosophical and moral implica- tions of his fi ndings. Damasio sees human beings as primarily emotional beings, not predominantly rational beings. For generations philosophers have relied on the power of reason and logic to come up with solutions to moral problems; now that is being challenged by neuroscientists such as Damasio, and philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum (below), claiming that there is more to a good moral decision than relying exclusively on logic. But laypeople, without having much knowledge of the more elaborate moral theories expressed by philosophers, have generally relied on their moral and religious upbringing as well as their moral intuition : Some


DILBERT © 2001 Scott Adams. Used by permission of UNIVERSAL UCLICK. All rights reserved.

Lately, research has pointed to the existence of certain areas in the brain where moral deliberations happen. If those areas are damaged, the individual seems to have a hard time acting on moral de- liberations or even understanding moral issues. Obviously, this Dilbert cartoon takes a dim view of whether people in management have a functioning moral center.

Dilbert by Scott Adams

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actions have just seemed obviously right, and some obviously wrong, based on each person’s cultural and religious background (in Chapter 3 we discuss whether there might be universal moral values). Now neuroscientists are telling us that the old controversial assumption that we have a moral intuition is not far wrong—most of us seem to be born with a capacity for understanding other people’s plights, which means that naturalism as a moral philosophy is staging a strong comeback (Box 1.3 explores the new interest in moral naturalism as a result of the latest fi ndings in neu- roscience). But that doesn’t mean we always automatically know the right thing to do, or the proper way to be, especially when the world changes dramatically within a generation. Scientists tell us that much of what goes on within our moral intuition is based on the way humans used to live together thousands of years ago when we were living in small tribal groups consisting of perhaps 100 members, all of whom we knew personally. Our sense of duty, our concern for others, our joys of friend- ship, and our sense of fairness have for tens of thousands of years evolved within such small groups, and we have not yet adjusted to the world of relationships being so much bigger and more complex. But we all (at least those of us who are born

Over the course of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-fi rst, ethicists (moral philosophers) have been divided as to the na- ture and origin of moral values. Some have claimed that, somehow, values are embedded in the human psyche and that every human being within the normal range, psychologically, has a set of values. Although such values will evidently differ somewhat from culture to culture, ac- cording to this theory values will not differ radi- cally from culture to culture, since we all come equipped with a moral intuition, hardwired from birth. Such viewpoints are referred to by the general term of moral naturalism. Others have claimed that our value systems are exclusively a matter of social convention, convenient systems for living in groups, so they can be completely different from culture to culture. Yet others have held that our morals, although not hardwired, are not relative but a result of rational delibera- tion. In upcoming chapters we look at the theo- ries of cultural and ethical relativism as well as the entire question of which values we ought to have—values that simply refl ect the culture we

live in, values that we feel naturally drawn to, or values that refl ect a timeless rational system of ethics regardless of our cultural affi liation. In a manner of speaking, both the view that morals are relative and the view that we have a moral intuition have found support in twenty- fi rst-century science: The relativist points to the vast knowledge amassed by anthropology over a hundred years showing that, indeed, moral val- ues differ dramatically all over the planet; in ad- dition, psychology has shown how fl exible the mind of the human child is, ready to adapt to any social convention favored by the group it grows up within. And yet, moral intuitionism has seen a boost from neuroscientists within the last few years and in the chapter text you’ll see how the studies performed by Antonio Damasio and oth- ers have provided support for philosophers who think our sense of right and wrong is somehow hard-wired into our nature: What makes us fl ourish as a social group is good for us, and as such deemed good by the society in question. But the idea is not new—24 centuries ago Aristo- tle (see Chapter 9) had similar thoughts.

Box 1.3 T H E R E T U R N O F M O R A L N A T U R A L I S M

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with an undamaged brain) come equipped with a sense of empathy. While not exactly a “moral center” (Damasio has been careful to point that out), the normal function of that area of the brain will result in a reluctance to cause harm to others, even if greater harm to a majority could thereby be avoided. This study dovetailed with previous research and speculations by other scientists: On the basis of a study of thirty people, out of whom six had suffered damage to their ventromedial frontal lobes, the neuroscientists concluded that we humans have an area in the brain that, when undamaged, makes us hesitate if faced with a tough decision involving other people’s lives. We have, from ancient times, developed an emotional reluctance to make decisions that will cause the death of other people, even if it is for the com- mon good. The research subjects with damage to that specifi c part of the brain had no problem making moral decisions that would save many but cause the deaths of one or a few humans. These subjects did not come across as callous, unfeeling peo- ple, and were absolutely not classifi ed as sociopaths. They would no more sell their daughters into sex slavery or torture an animal than would the “normal” subjects. However, when asked to make decisions that would cost human lives, they showed much less reluctance than the subjects with no damage to that part of the brain. Questions such as “Would you divert a runaway vehicle so that it will kill one per- son instead of the fi ve people in its current path?” were answered affi rmatively. The researchers concluded that the “normal” brain has evolved to recognize the value of a human life emotionally, probably because we are social beings and need to be able to have emotional ties to the people in our group. This study has made waves for several reasons. For one, it corroborated previ- ous studies that showed that humans have specifi c areas in the brain where moral decisions are made, a “moral compass.” In other words, we do appear to have been equipped with some sort of moral intuition from birth. For another, it weighed in on an ancient debate in moral philosophy: Are our moral decisions primarily emotional or primarily logical? And should they be primarily emotional or primarily logical? The vast majority of philosophers since the time of Plato have argued that the more we are able to disregard our personal emotions when we make moral decisions, the better our decisions will be. As you will see in several chapters in this book, philosophers (such as Plato, Chapters 4 and 8; Jeremy Bentham, Chapter 5; and Immanuel Kant, Chap ter 6) have argued that moral decisions ought to be either exclusively or predominantly ra- tional, logical, and unemotional. It is a rare exception to read a philosopher who ar- gues either that our moral decisions are in fact emotional (such as David Hume does; see Chapter 4) or that they should be emotional (argued by Richard Taylor; see Chap- ter 11). A handful of thinkers from Aristotle (Chapter 9) to Diane Whiteley ( Chapter 7) and Martha Nussbaum (in this chapter) argue that we shouldn’t make moral decisions without using our reason but that we shouldn’t disregard our emotions either. In Chapter 11 philosopher Jesse Prinz discusses whether we need moral empathy to make moral decisions. Box 1.4 discusses the Trolley Problem and its implications for our understanding of emotional and rational responses to moral dilemmas. The neuroscientists’ study seems to say that a healthy human brain will intui- tively incorporate emotions in its moral decisions involving other people’s lives— which would mean that all the philosophers who have argued that emotions should


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be avoided in moral decision making are somehow wrong and are even advocating something inhumane. So is that all we need to disprove them? Hardly. Neurosci- entists can tell us where in the brain our moral decisions take place, and evolution- ary psychologists can tell us how the whole fi eld of ethics has evolved, and some scientists even claim that when we make big complex decisions we tend to rely on our emotions, while smaller, simpler questions are typically solved rationally. These fi ndings may be enlightening to the fi eld of moral philosophy (and I person- ally think they are fascinating, and not to be disregarded). However, these scientists can’t necessarily tell us which moral decisions are better . But what may be even more important is that the classical philosophical point of arguing in favor of reason and against emotion is that even if it is hard to disregard our emotions in key moral deci- sions, then that is perhaps precisely what we ought to do from time to time? We may feel reluctant or squeamish about sacrifi cing one life to save a hundred, but that may be what is required of us in extreme situations, not because it is easy, or because we enjoy it, but because it is necessary. The diffi culty with this approach is that such ar- guments have been used, through time, to enslave countless innocent human beings,

The famous Trolley Problem is a so-called thought experiment fi rst envisioned by British philoso- pher Philippa Foot (see Chapter 10), and later developed further by American philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson. In Foot’s version a trol- ley is running out of control toward fi ve people who have been tied to the tracks. You can di- vert it to another track, but one person is tied to that track. Should you do it? Foot’s point was to illustrate various responses based on differ- ent moral philosophies (which we look at in upcoming chapters), but Thomson’s version is even more challenging: The only way you can stop the trolley is by pushing “a fat man” next to you in front of the tracks. Here, she says, you’re not just defl ecting harm, you are causing ad- ditional harm, to someone with rights. Subse- quent versions have various numbers of people on the tracks versus having to sacrifi ce a larger or smaller number of people to save them— including imagining that the person you must sacrifi ce is someone dear to you. Such questions are good at illustrating a variety of moral con- cerns about rights, equality and consequences,

but very few people will ever have to make such agonizing “Sophie’s choices,” deriving from the fi lm classic Sophie’s Choice where a mother cap- tured by the Nazis during World War II has to choose life for one of her two children, and death for the other. However, the Trolley Prob- lem has also been picked up on by experimental philosophers (philosophers believing that prac- tical experience and experiments should dic- tate our philosophical theories) Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen. What they found under lab conditions was that even if the test subjects know that they can save fi ve by killing one, the emotional response confl icts with the rational response. We just don’t want to harm that one person, even if we can save fi ve. And Damasio, in his 2007 study, adds to the result: Most of us have a natural empathy that make us reluctant to cause harm, even if reason tells us it is the only logical way. The philosophical question here is, of course, whether it sometimes makes sense to override our empathy and be rational— and save the many by sacrifi cing the few. We will discuss that issue in Chapter 5.

Box 1.4 T H E T R O L L E Y P R O B L E M A N D E M O T I O N V S . R E A S O N

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or use them as cannon fodder, or exterminate them, all in the name of reason. But it is also the only argument we have to justify shooting a plane full of passengers down if it has been hijacked and is headed for the Capitol, or to not forget about the law when a serial killer of children shows contrition in court and claims he has had a horrible life of abuse himself. At a less dramatic level, reason’s override of emo- tions is what we need when our child is crying because she doesn’t want to go to the dentist or to kindergarten; you will encounter this question again in Chapter 5. So, again, the neuroscientists can tell us what are normal and abnormal brain reactions, but without further philosophical discussion they can’t tell us what is morally right. Furthermore, if we take into account the results of the Stanley Milgram experiments and the Stanford Prison Experiment, we can’t conclude that humans will not harm one another—they may be reluctant, normally, to harm one another, but that reluc- tance can be overridden by other factors, such as threats, fear for their own safety, ambitions, and a wish to please their superiors. It takes a moral philosopher (with or without academic credentials) to engage in that discussion. And that is precisely what moral philosophers do. Some, such as Patricia Church- land, focus on the biology of the brain to get a more complete picture of where moral decisions originate, and how they work within human evolution and human social life. Others, like Martha Nussbaum, look at human behavior in general, to get a sense of how we understand our norms and values from a point of view that includes human emotions. We return to Nussbaum shortly.

Moral Issues and Storytelling

All cultures tell stories, and all cultures have codes for proper behavior. Very often those codes are taught through stories, but stories can also be used to question moral rules and to examine morally ambiguous situations. A fundamental premise of this book is that stories sometimes can serve as shortcuts to understanding and solving moral problems. Many literature professors may be inclined to tell us that people don’t read anymore, that the novel is dead, or that nobody appreciates good litera- ture these days. I myself am rather disappointed when students are unfamiliar with the classics of literature or have grown to hate them through high school manglings. However, it just isn’t true that people don’t read novels—best-sellers are fl ourishing as never before. And an element has been added to our appreciation of good stories: movies . The American fi lm industry has been in existence for over a hundred years, and it should be no surprise to anyone that as much as fi lms can provide simple entertainment, they can also give us in-depth, unforgettable views of human life, including moral issues. This book makes use of that treasure trove of movie stories as well as novels, short stories, epic poems, television shows, and plays as illustrations of moral problems and solutions. Using stories here has two purposes. One is to supply a foundation for further debate about the application of the moral theories presented in the chapter; the other is to inspire you to experience these stories in their original form, through print or video, since they are, of course, richer and more interesting than any outline can possibly show.


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Martha Nussbaum: Stories, Ethics, and Emotions

For the greater part of the twentieth century most Western philosophers had a tacit agreement that stories were best left in the nursery, but times have changed: There is now a growing interest in the cultural and philosophical importance of storytell- ing, in technological as well as pretechnological cultures, and stories are becoming shortcuts to understanding ourselves on an individual as well as a cultural level. One of the most infl uential voices speaking for narratives as a way to communicate about values is Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), a philosopher and a professor of law and ethics; her main interest is not the intellectual value of storytelling as much as the emotional force of narratives. Nussbaum believes there was a time when philosophers understood the value of narratives. The Greek thinker Aristotle (whom she greatly admires) believed that experiencing a drama unfold teaches the viewer basic important lessons about hav- ing the proper feelings at the proper time—lessons about life and virtue in general. As modern Western philosophy took shape, however, the idea of emotions seemed increasingly irrelevant. But within the past decade American philosophers, some- times inspired by the new fi ndings in neurobiology and sometimes on their own, have increasingly argued that emotions are not only a legitimate, but also an essential part of moral decision making—not the only important part, because reason is also crucial, but something that can’t be ignored. In a sense you’re getting the end of the story here before you’re treated to the beginning, because in the upcoming chapters you’ll be hearing much about the philosophical tradition of past centuries where emotions have been considered more or less irrelevant for moral decisions (such as Chapters 5 and 6 in particular), but the interesting thing is that philosophers today who do want to regard emotions as an essential part of thinking about ethics, such as Nussbaum, Mark Wheeler, and Dwight Furrow (see Chapter 10), are in a sense revising a viewpoint that was introduced by Aristotle himself 2,400 years ago: rel- evant emotions, in the proper measure, are indeed essential to our sense of moral right and wrong. Martha Nussbaum has found inspiration in the literary tradition. In the late twentieth century Nussbaum was one of the fi rst voices for a reevaluation of emotions in moral philosophy and a powerful factor in the new turnaround with her books Love’s Knowledge (1990), Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001), and Hiding from Humanity (2004). She points out that emotions weren’t ex- cluded from philosophy because they did not yield knowledge; in other words, it is not because of any lack of cognitive value that philosophers have refused to investi- gate emotions. There is actually much cognitive value in emotions, for emotions are, on the whole, quite reasonable when we look at them in context. When do we feel anger? When we believe that someone has deliberately injured us or someone we care about—in other words, when we feel the situation warrants it. Feelings such as disappointment, elation, grief, and even love are all responses to certain situations. They develop according to some inner logic; they don’t strike at random. How do we know? Because if we realize that we were wrong about the situation, our anger slowly disappears. Imagine this situation (which is an example of my own concoction, not Nussbaum’s!): You have an iPod you are fond of. You go to the school library to do

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some research, and for some reason leave your bag unattended for a few minutes, with somebody sitting at the computer station next to you. The iPod is in your bag. You come back, take your bag, and leave. Later you look for your iPod, and it isn’t where it is supposed to be. Oh no! You think back to the moment where you left your bag unattended. Somebody must have stolen it! And you hightail it back to the library where the same person is still sitting there, doing research, so in anger you ac- cuse him or her of having stolen your iPod. He or she denies any knowledge of your device, and a confrontation ensues. Your bag is shuffl ed around, and all of a sudden out pops the iPod from another pocket. It was never stolen—you just didn’t look carefully enough. So now, if you are a rational being, what becomes of your anger? It would have been righteous if your iPod had indeed been stolen, but now you have egg on your face. So do you apologize? Or do you leave, sneering and convinced that that person surely must have had something to do with it after all? If your anger fades away and turns into embarrassment, then you have an example of a rational emotion with moral relevance. If you still feel somewhat angry, then the feeling is irrational—unless you’re angry at yourself. The fi lm Smoke Signals and Big Fish at the end of the chapter are examples of exactly this type of emotion when the protagonists slowly cease to be angry and disappointed in their fathers. And most feelings have such an element of rationality—if they are responses to real situations, they are usu- ally somewhat logical—except love, says Nussbaum. Perhaps love is not that easy to analyze—people in love don’t seem to respond logically to situations that ought to change their feelings of love. (The person you love is seeing someone else, and what do you do? Continue to be helplessly in love.) But even love responds to such chal- lenges in a way; we probably realize that our feelings are, somehow, out of place. Why, then, have so many philosophers refused to deal seriously with emotions? Not because emotions lack cognitive value, but because they show how we react to situations outside our control. When we are emotional, we are not self-suffi cient, and most philosophers have, according to Nussbaum, preferred to investigate a more au- tonomous part of the human character, our reason. (Of course, some philosophers and psychoanalysts have pointed out that reason is not immune to outside infl uence,

Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), American philosopher. The author of Love’s Knowledge, Upheavals of Thought, and Hiding from Humanity, she suggests that novels are supremely well suited to explore moral problems. Through novels we have the chance to live more than our own lives and to understand human problems from someone else’s point of view. Since others can read the same novels, we can share such knowledge and reach a mutual understanding.

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either, but Nussbaum is addressing the trends in traditional philosophy before the twentieth century, when the idea of reason being affected by the Unconscious was not yet commonly accepted.) So Nussbaum makes two major points that are important for our discussion about using stories to illustrate moral problems: ( 1) Emotions can be mor- ally relevant in moral discussions if they are reasonable, i.e., they refl ect the reality of the situation. And ( 2) One of the best ways to investigate such moral emotions is to read fi ction . For Nussbaum, emotions provide access to values, to human relationships, and to understanding ourselves, so they must be investigated. And where do they mani- fest themselves most clearly? In narratives. Stories are actually emotions put into a structure. When we are children and adolescents, we learn how to manipulate objects and relate to others; we learn cognitive skills and practical skills, and among the skills we learn are when to feel certain kinds of emotions. The prime teacher of emotions is the story. That means, of course, that different societies may tell differ- ent stories teaching different lessons, so we must retain a certain amount of social awareness and social criticism when reading stories from any culture, including our own. People in their formative years are not just empty vessels into which stories are poured. Nussbaum maintains there is no rule saying that people must accept everything their culture teaches them, so those who don’t approve of the stories being told or who think the stories haven’t been told right will begin to tell their own stories. Important as emotions are, alongside our reason, in shaping our moral values, Nussbaum has of late found it necessary to specify that two particular emo- tions should not be considered conducive to moral understanding: disgust and shame . Here Nussbaum enters the political arena by claiming that some emotions are more morally and politically appropriate than others. When we say we are disgusted with something or someone, we set ourselves on a pedestal as being better and purer, says Nussbaum, and that to her is an unrealistic assessment that does nothing more than create an us-versus-them environment. To understand emotions we must read stories, but that ought to come easily to us, Nussbaum believes, since we already enjoy doing just that. She does stress, however, that we have to read the entire story, not just rely on a synopsis. There is an integral relationship between the form and the content of a story. As she says in her book Love’s Knowledge, we can’t skip “the emotive appeal, the absorbing plot- tedness, the variety and indeterminacy of good fi ction” without losing the heart of the experience. So in a sense Nussbaum does not specifi cally advocate using stories to illustrate moral problems, as we will be doing in this book. Instead, she supports reading stories as a way of sharing basic experiences of values and using philosophy as a tool for analyzing that experience. For her, the story comes fi rst, and then the analysis can follow. In the Primary Readings section, you’ll fi nd an excerpt from Love’s Knowledge . Why use stories, though? Why can’t we approach moral issues by more tradi- tional avenues, such as examples that are “made to order” by philosophers? Because, says Nussbaum, they lack precisely the rich texture that makes the story an experi- ence we can relate to. Besides, such examples are formulated in such a way that the conclusion is obvious. Novels tend to be quite open-ended, a feature that Nussbaum believes is valuable. Novels preserve “mystery and indeterminacy,” just like real life.

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Why not just rely on your own experiences to learn about life? Some of them must certainly contain both mystery and indeterminacy. To some extent we do that already; we draw on our own experience as much as we possibly can when judging concrete and abstract cases. But the trouble is, one human life is just not enough for understanding the myriad ways of being. As Nussbaum says,

We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fi ction, too confi ned and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us refl ect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling. . . . All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something. So in this sense no life is “raw” and . . . throughout our living we are, in a sense, makers of fi ctions. The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feel- ing each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.

Furthermore, it is much harder to talk about events in your own life than it is to discuss events in a story. We may not want to share our deepest feelings, or we may not be able to express them. But if we talk with friends about a passage in a favorite book or fi lm, we can share both an emotional and a moral experience. One fi nal word about Nussbaum’s theory: It is important that we remember that she has no wish to replace the traditional rational approach to moral issues with an emotional approach—to her, emotions can be relevant in moral decision making, but that doesn’t make reason irrelevant. But we have a fuller understanding of being human, and making moral decisions, if we allow our focus to include relevant emo- tions as well as reason. At the end of the chapter you’ll fi nd two narratives that, each in its own way, illustrate Nussbaum’s theory of storytelling as a key to understand- ing ourselves and one another and of emotion as having a rational component: Big Fish tells of a man who sees his own life as a story—perhaps excessively—and Smoke Signals shows the character development of an angry young man who learns that the cause of his anger against his father was only in his own head.

A Philosophical Example, a Real-Life Event, and Two Fictional Stories about Lying

Martha Nussbaum recommends that we use well-written fi ctional stories to explore moral issues, rather than rely on little pre-digested philosophical examples or real- life events. I’ll let you be the judge of which of these three stories work best as a way of discussing the moral phenomenon of lying . In all fairness toward philosophical examples I think we who teach philosophy for a living would say that sometimes all we need is a little philosophical example to illustrate an issue; we don’t always have time to read a novel, and examples don’t always have to have character development to make a point. And sometimes real-life events speak the loudest.

A Philosophical Example

This particular example is both famous and infamous; it is known as “The Killer at the Door,” and was suggested by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant for the

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purpose of teaching that lying is inappropriate at any time and for any reason, and is also featured in our chapter on Kant, Chapter 6. It is infamous because most philoso- phers fi nd it to be overwhelmingly unrealistic, so perhaps it isn’t exactly fair to use this as a typical philosophical example; however, it is precisely the kind of example Nussbaum calls lacking in “particularity, emotive appeal, and absorbing plottedness.” Kant says: A friend comes to your door and tells you there is a killer after him; he informs you that he is going home to hide. He leaves. Shortly thereafter the killer comes to your door and asks where your friend went. In order to show proper re- spect for truth-telling you are now supposed to tell the killer that your friend went home to hide. Because if you lie, then you have indirectly indicated that it is accept- able for everyone to lie, and then the killer won’t believe you, anyway. (In Chapter 6 we’ll look more closely at that argument.) What does this example tell us about the situation of trying to save a friend’s life? Not much—it just gives us a logical reason why lying is wrong. But it isn’t exactly a “slice of life” that we are being exposed to.

A Real-Life Event

During the presidential election campaign in 2008 Democratic candidate John Edwards seemed at one point to have the potential of being the front runner. But then journalists dug up a story that he had been seeing a young woman and kept it a secret, during his campaign and at a time where his wife, Elizabeth Edwards, was undergoing cancer treatment. When it was revealed that the woman had also had a baby, Edwards denied being the father—belied by his subsequent actions, and pictures taken by photojournalists. The revelations cost Edwards his political career, and his marriage, and in 2011 he was indicted with taking illegal campaign contribu- tions in an attempt to cover up his affair. What turned the public off was not only that Edwards had kept secrets and lied to the press and the American people—it was also his poor judgment to make such a private choice while running for public offi ce, and his emotional abandonment of his wife in her time of distress. So not only was it a case of lying, but also of being selfi sh and disloyal. Now here is truly a “slice of life” involving moral values, but is it particularly use- ful for a discussion about lying? Most of us are not going to be in a similar situation, and it may simply feel too remote to be of real concern to us. And some of us may also feel that there may have been another side to the story that the press didn’t tell us about. We might have discussed the issue when it came up, and many have prob- ably agreed that Edwards showed particularly poor judgment and a character fl aw that was unacceptable for a presidential candidate (not for the fi rst time in politics, of course) but few of us are probably going to refer to it as a “caveat”: “Beware of what happened to John Edwards, and make sure you don’t do likewise . . .”

A Fictional Story

A world-famous novel from the nineteenth century featuring the act and conse- quences of lying is Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary . Emma Bovary is a romantic young girl who, ironically, loves novels, and spends all her time reading romances.

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She marries a country doctor, believing this to be her own life’s romance, but she soon fi nds out that he is dull and uninspiring. So after a while Emma falls in love with a young man from the village where her husband has his practice, and begins to sneak out to secret meetings with her lover. She tells her husband that she is spending time with a friend, and when he discovers that she wasn’t where she said she would be, she has another lie which he chooses to believe, because he loves her. And when that affair comes to an end, she initiates another one—and begins to develop a yearning for pretty things and beautiful furniture, more than her husband can afford. So she spends a fortune on such items, and presents her husband with one set of faked receipts after another, leading to fi nancial ruin for him. And even so, he fi nds excuses for her, because he would rather be mistreated by her than live without her. But when a fi nal affair ends badly—she believes she will be spirited away by her lover, but instead he leaves her stranded with her baggage, having taken her money—and the truth about her spending spree becomes clear, she realizes that there is no future for her—and swallows poison, leaving their young daughter motherless. She dies in the arms of her husband who, until the end, has no anger in his heart, only pity for her and her unrealistic dreams. If we go to contemporary stories about lying, we might focus on the fi lm Insom- nia, about a detective from California who travels to Alaska to solve a crime and is intensely bothered by the white nights where the sun doesn’t set at all. So he is in a state of sleep deprivation, and makes a decision he will regret: During a stakeout he accidentally shoots and kills his young police partner, but claims it was the suspect who killed him—and during the course of the story we have to decide, as viewers, whether that lie can somehow be forgiven, or whether he ought to answer for it. Such stories serve Nussbaum’s purpose of giving a moral lesson with “particu- larity, emotive appeal, absorbing plottedness, variety and indeterminacy” (p. 25). We get to know the characters and we feel what they feel. We may get to like the character who is lying—while we at the same time realize that the price for such a behavior can be too high—or we are appalled by his or her lack of principle. On the other hand, we might like the character so much that we are willing to concede that sometimes lying might be the right thing to do—which is also a moral discussion that can be very interesting (see Chapter 5). Best of all, we can look at the stories as moral laboratories where certain values and actions are being tested: Can lying work? What might go wrong? Would it be worth the risk, or does lying feel wrong in itself? You decide whether you prefer the philosophical example, the real-life event, or the fi ctional story, but in this book we will follow Martha Nussbaum’s suggestion and, at the end of each chapter, look at a variety of stories, each with their own moral prob- lem and possible solution. The chapter text itself will have philosophical examples and real-life events, too, for good measure.

Study Questions

1. In your opinion, should children learn values in elementary school? Explain why or why not, and craft an argument for and against the idea as it might be presented by a teacher and a parent.


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2. Give three examples of statements about moral issues, illustrating three logi- cal fallacies.

3. In your view, does evil exist? Is there a difference between being evil and doing evil? Explain.

4. Comment on Nussbaum’s statement “We have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fi ction, too confi ned and too parochial. Literature expands it, making us refl ect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.” What does she mean? Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. Consider the multicultural challenge of storytelling. Do you remember any story that has enhanced your understanding of another culture? Do you remember any story from your own culture that expresses a moral you fi nd unacceptable? Do you know any story from another culture whose moral you fi nd unacceptable? Is it possible to fi nd some common ground? Explain.

6. Would you agree with Nussbaum that the well-written story does a better job of enlightening us about moral issues than the philosophical example or the real-life event? Explain.

7. Would you say that I have possibly stacked the deck in Nussbaum’s favor in juxtaposing a philosophical example, a real-life event, and two fi ctional stories? Could you imagine an imaginary example or a real-life event that would actually be better at illustrating the problems associated with lying than the fi ctional story? Ex- plain. You may want to go to Chapter 2 and look at various story categories, such as myths and parables, and come back to this question.

Primary Reading and Narratives

The fi rst Primary Reading is from Love’s Knowledge by Martha Nussbaum, explain- ing why fi ctional stories are better at teaching moral lessons than real-life stories and little made-to-order philosophical examples are. The second Reading is an excerpt from Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect, in which he fi nds parallels be- tween his own Stanford Prison Experiment and the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, illustrating a type of behavior many would call evil . The fi rst Narrative, a sum- mary of the fi lm Smoke Signals, links up with the Nussbaum excerpt. Two young American Indian males embark on a journey on which one—Thomas—grows as a storyteller, and the other—Victor—loses his anger toward his father. The next Narrative is the fi lm Big Fish, also about a father-son relationship, seen in light of what some would call storytelling, and others simply lying! The fi nal Narrative is an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden . First, Steinbeck argues that there is only one story that humans relate to, and have related to since the beginning of time: the story of good versus evil . In the excerpts, the twins Cal and Aron vie for the attention of their father, Adam. Their estranged mother, Cathy, is in the author’s eyes an evil person, and the question is whether her sons have inherited her vicious nature.

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Primary Reading

Love’s Knowledge


Excerpt, 1990 .

In this excerpt, Nussbaum argues that novels, short stories, and dramas are very well suited to providing an emotional lesson in moral issues because of the brevity of human life: We just can’t experience everything ourselves, so fi ction provides a shortcut to un- derstanding the range of human emotions. She also explains why such philosophical examples as those you will encounter in this book (such as Kant’s example of the killer at the door looking for your friend) aren’t good enough to teach the same lesson. You may be interested to know that in Nussbaum’s later books she also considers fi lms a valid medium for discussing moral issues.

Not only novels prove appropriate, because (again, with reference only to these particu- lar issues and this conception) many serious dramas will be pertinent as well, and some biographies and histories—so long as these are written in a style that gives suffi cient at- tention to particularity and emotion, and so long as they involve their readers in relevant activities of searching and feeling, especially feeling concerning their own possibilities as well as those of the characters. . . .

But the philosopher is likely to be less troubled by these questions of literary genre than by a prior question: namely, why a literary work at all? Why can’t we investigate everything we want to investigate by using complex examples of the sort that moral phi- losophers are very good at inventing? In reply, we must insist that the philosopher who asks this question cannot have been convinced by the argument so far about the intimate connection between literary form and ethical content. Schematic philosophers’ examples almost always lack the particularity, the emotive appeal, the absorbing plottedness, the variety and indeterminacy, of good fi ction; they lack, too, good fi ction’s way of making the reader a participant and a friend; and we have argued that it is precisely in virtue of these structural characteristics that fi ction can play the role it does in our refl ective lives. As [novelist Henry] James says, “The picture of the exposed and entangled state is what is required.” If the examples do have these features, they will, themselves, be works of lit- erature. Sometimes a very brief fi ction will prove a suffi cient vehicle for the investigation of what we are at that moment investigating; sometimes, as in “Flawed Crystals” (where our question concerns what is likely to happen in the course of a relatively long and complex life), we need the length and complexity of a novel. In neither case, however, would schematic examples prove suffi cient as a substitute. (This does not mean that they will be totally dismissed; for they have other sorts of usefulness, especially in connection with other ethical views.)

We can add that examples, setting things up schematically, signal to the readers what they should notice and fi nd relevant. They hand them the ethically salient descrip- tion. This means that much of the ethical work is already done, the result “cooked.” The novels are more open-ended, showing the reader what it is to search for the appropriate description and why that search matters. (And yet they are not so open-ended as to give

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no shape to the reader’s thought.) By showing the mystery and indeterminacy of “our actual adventure,” they characterize life more richly and truly—indeed, more precisely— than an example lacking those features ever could; and they engender in the reader a type of ethical work more appropriate for life.

But why not life itself? Why can’t we investigate whatever we want to investigate by living and refl ecting on our lives? Why, if it is the Aristotelian ethical conception we wish to scrutinize, can’t we do that without literary texts, without texts at all—or, rather, with the texts of our own lives set before us? Here, we must fi rst say that of course we do this as well, both apart from our reading of the novels and (as [French novelist Marcel] Proust insists) in the process of reading. In a sense Proust is right to see the literary text as an “optical instrument” through which the reader becomes a reader of his or her own heart. But, why do we need, in that case, such optical instruments?

One obvious answer was suggested already by Aristotle: we have never lived enough. Our experience is, without fi ction, too confi ned and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us refl ect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feel- ing. The importance of this for both morals and politics cannot be underestimated. The Princess Casamassima [1886, a novel by Henry James]—justly, in my view—depicts the imagination of the novel-reader as a type that is very valuable in the political (as well as the private) life, sympathetic to a wide range of concerns, averse to certain denials of humanity. It cultivates these sympathies in its readers.

We can clarify and extend this point by emphasizing that novels do not func- tion, inside this account, as pieces of “raw” life: they are a close and careful inter- pretative description. All living is interpreting; all action requires seeing the world as something. So in this sense no life is “raw,” and (as James and Proust insist) throughout our living we are, in a sense, makers of fi ctions. The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly— whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a certain sense, not fully or thoroughly lived. Neither James nor Proust thinks of ordinary life as normative, and the Aristotelian conception concurs: too much of it is obtuse, routinized, incompletely sentient. So literature is an extension of life not only horizontally, bringing the reader into contact with events or locations or per- sons or problems he or she has not otherwise met, but also, so to speak, vertically, giving the reader experience that is deeper, sharper, and more precise than much of what takes place in life.

Study Questions

1. Is Nussbaum right that philosophical examples don’t work as well as fi ctional stories when it comes to conveying a moral point? Why or why not?

2. What does she mean by “no life is ‘raw’”?

3. Nussbaum’s theory of moral discussion through fi ction also includes fi lms; can you think of a fi lm, not mentioned in this chapter, which would teach a lesson that is both a “horizontal and a vertical extension of life”?

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Primary Reading

The Lucifer Effect


Excerpt, 2007 .

Philip Zimbardo is a social psychologist. In 1971 he created the Stanford Prison Experi- ment, which involved role playing among students who had volunteered as experimental subjects. Some were to be “inmates,” others “prison guards.” The experiment was closed down after only a week because the level of brutality of the guards against the inmates exceeded all expectations and left the “inmates” psychologically scarred. To Zimbardo, the experiment revealed that, under the right psychological circumstances, even peace- ful people can be led to believe that extremely harsh and brutal behavior is appropriate. In his book The Lucifer Effect, he draws parallels between the Stanford Experiment and what happened in the Abu Ghraib prison between Iraqi prisoners of war and American reservists guarding them.

Dehumanization and Moral Disengagement in the Laboratory

We can assume that most people, most of the time, are moral creatures. But imagine that this morality is like a gearshift that at times gets pushed into neutral. When that happens, morality is disengaged. If the car happens to be on an incline, car and driver move precipitously downhill. It is then the nature of the circumstances that determines outcomes, not the driver’s skills or intentions. This simple analogy, I think, captures one of the central themes in the theory of moral disengagement developed by my Stanford colleague Albert Bandura. In a later chapter, we will review his theory, which will help explain why some otherwise good people can be led to do bad things. At this point, I want to turn to the experimental research that Bandura and his assistants conducted, which illustrates the ease with which morality can be disengaged by the tactic of de- humanizing a potential victim. In an elegant demonstration that shows the power of dehumanization, one single word is shown to increase aggression toward a target. Let’s see how the experiment worked.

Imagine you are a college student who has volunteered for a study of group problem solving as part of a three-person team from your school. Your task is to help students from another college improve their group problem-solving performance by punishing their errors. That punishment takes the form of administering electric shocks that can be increased in severity over successive trials. After taking your names and those of the other team, the assistant leaves to tell the experimenter that the study can begin. There will be ten trials during each of which you can decide the shock level to administer to the other student group in the next room.

You don’t realize that it is part of the experimental script, but you “accidentally” overhear the assistant complaining over the intercom to the experimenter that the other students “seem like animals.” You don’t know it, but in two other conditions to which other students like you have been randomly assigned, the assistant describes the other students as “nice guys” or does not label them at all.

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Do these simple labels have any effect? It doesn’t seem so initially. On the fi rst trial all the groups respond in the same way by administering low levels of shock, around level 2. But soon it begins to matter what each group has heard about these anonymous others. If you know nothing about them, you give a steady average of about a level 5. If you have come to think of them as “nice guys,” you treat them in a more humane fashion, giving them signifi cantly less shock, about a level 3. However, imagining them as “animals” switches off any sense of compassion you might have for them, and when they commit errors, you begin to shock them with ever-increasing levels of intensity, signifi cantly more than in the other conditions, as you steadily move up toward the high level 8.

Think carefully for a moment about the psychological processes that a simple label has tripped off in your mind. You overheard a person, whom you do not know personally, tell some authority, whom you have never seen, that other college students like you seem like “animals.” That single descriptive term changes your mental construction of these others. It distances you from images of friendly college kids who must be more similar to you than different. That new mental set has a powerful impact on your behavior. The post hoc rationalizations the experimental students generated to explain why they needed to give so much shock to the “animal-house” students in the process of “teaching them a good lesson” were equally fascinating. This example of using controlled experimental research to investigate the underlying psychological processes that occur in signifi cant real-world cases of violence will be extended in chapters 12 and 13 when we consider how behavioral scientists have investigated various aspects of the psychology of evil.

Our ability to selectively engage and disengage our moral standards . . . helps explain how people can be barbarically cruel in one moment and compassionate the next.

— Albert Bandura

Horrifi c Images of Abuse at Abu Ghraib Prison

The driving force behind this book was the need to better understand the how and why of the physical and psychological abuses perpetrated on prisoners by American Military Police at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. As the photographic evidence of these abuses rocketed around the world in May 2004, we all saw for the fi rst time in recorded his- tory vivid images of young American men and women engaged in unimaginable forms of torture against civilians they were supposed to be guarding. The tormentors and the tormented were captured in an extensive display of digitally documented depravity that the soldiers themselves had made during their violent escapades.

Why did they create photographic evidence of such illegal acts, which if found would surely get them into trouble? In these “trophy photos,” like the proud displays by big-game hunters of yesteryear with the beasts they have killed, we saw smiling men and women in the act of abusing their lowly animal creatures. The images are of punching, slapping, and kicking detainees; jumping on their feet; forcibly arranging naked, hooded prisoners in piles and pyramids; forcing naked prisoners to wear women’s underwear over their heads; forcing male prisoners to masturbate or simulate fellatio while being photographed or videotaped with female soldiers smiling or encouraging it; hanging prisoners from cell rafters for extended time periods; dragging a prisoner around with a leash tied to his neck; and using unmuzzled attack dogs to frighten prisoners.

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The iconic image that ricocheted from that dungeon to the streets of Iraq and every corner of the globe was that of the “triangle man”: a hooded detainee is standing on a box in a stress position with his outstretched arms protruding from under a garment blanket revealing electrical wires attached to his fi ngers. He was told that he would be electro- cuted if he fell off the box when his strength gave out. It did not matter that the wires went nowhere; it mattered that he believed the lie and must have experienced consider- able stress. There were even more shocking photographs that the U.S. government chose not to release to the public because of the greater damage they would surely have done to the credibility and moral image of the U.S. military and President Bush’s administrative command. I have seen hundreds of these images, and they are indeed horrifying.

I was deeply distressed at the sight of such suffering, of such displays of arrogance, of such indifference to the humiliation being infl icted upon helpless prisoners. I was also amazed to learn that one of the abusers, a female soldier who had just turned twenty-one, described the abuse as “just fun and games.”

I was shocked, but I was not surprised. The media and the “person in the street” around the globe asked how such evil deeds could be perpetrated by these seven men and women, whom military leaders had labeled as “rogue soldiers” and “a few bad apples.” Instead, I wondered what circumstances in that prison cell block could have tipped the balance and led even good soldiers to do such bad things. To be sure, advancing a situ- ational analysis for such crimes does not excuse them or make them morally acceptable. Rather, I needed to fi nd the meaning in this madness. I wanted to understand how it was possible for the characters of these young people to be so transformed in such a short time that they could do these unthinkable deeds.

Parallel Universes in Abu Ghraib and Stanford’s Prison

The reason that I was shocked but not surprised by the images and stories of prisoner abuse in the Abu Ghraib “Little Shop of Horrors” was that I had seen something similar before. Three decades earlier, I had witnessed eerily similar scenes as they unfolded in a project that I directed, of my own design: naked, shackled prisoners with bags over their heads, guards stepping on prisoners’ backs as they did push-ups, guards sexually humiliating prisoners, and prisoners suffering from extreme stress. Some of the visual images from my experiment are practically interchangeable with those of the guards and prisoners in that remote prison in Iraq, the notorious Abu Ghraib.

The college students role-playing guards and prisoners in a mock prison experi- ment conducted at Stanford University in the summer of 1971 were mirrored in the real guards and real prison in the Iraq of 2003. Not only had I seen such events, I had been responsible for creating the conditions that allowed such abuses to fl ourish. As the proj- ect’s principal investigator, I designed the experiment that randomly assigned normal, healthy, intelligent college students to enact the roles of either guards or prisoners in a realistically simulated prison setting where they were to live and work for several weeks. My student research associates, Craig Haney, Curt Banks, and David Jaffe, and I wanted to understand some of the dynamics operating in the psychology of imprisonment.

How do ordinary people adapt to such an institutional setting? How do the power differentials between guards and prisoners play out in their daily interactions? If you put good people in a bad place, do the people triumph or does the place corrupt them? Would the violence that is endemic to most real prisons be absent in a prison fi lled with

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good middle-class boys? These were some of the exploratory issues to be investigated in what started out as a simple study of prison life.

Study Questions

1. Zimbardo sees the same mental situation arising in the Stanford Experiment and in Abu Ghraib. Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Zimbardo describes how a college student can be psychologically led toward certain prejudices against other people by hearing labels used. Have you had similar experi- ences? Explain.

3. In his book Zimbardo is deeply critical of the war in Iraq, as a psychological climate that led to the Abu Ghraib scandal. Critics have pointed out that although the Abu Ghraib event was deeply disturbing, it doesn’t rise to the level of cruelty and atrocity perpetrated by al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, beheading civilians on live video as a form of terror. Would you agree that there is a signifi cant difference? Why or why not? If there is a difference, is it relevant?


Smoke Signals

S H E R M A N A L E X I E ( S C R E E N W R I T E R )

C H R I S E Y R E ( D I R E C T O R )

Film, 1998. Based on the short-story collection by Sherman Alexie , The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfi ght in Heaven . Summary.

Thomas and Victor are young Coeur d’Alene Indians living on the reservation in Idaho in the late 1990s. They grew up together and share the story of one fateful night when they were babies. On that night Thomas’s parents’ house burned down, with Thomas, his parents, and Victor inside. Someone saved Victor, and Thomas’s parents threw their baby to safety out the second-story window while they themselves burned to death. Thomas was caught in midair by Victor’s father, Arnold. Since then, Thomas has lived with his grandmother. Not much happens on the reservation; everyone knows everyone else, and the height of excitement seems to be playing basketball at the gym. One of the young Indians remarks, “Sometimes it is a good day to die—other times it is a good day to play basket- ball.” Sometimes they watch Westerns on TV and discuss whether the cowboys always win or whether the Indians sometimes win. Thomas remarks, with a grin, that there is nothing more pathetic than Indians on TV—except Indians watching Indians on TV! Thomas is a seer and a storyteller; everything he has experienced in his short life turns into stories—and his stories contain a considerable amount of pure fantasy too. That irritates Victor, who wants him just to tell the truth. Much about Thomas irritates

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Victor: Thomas braids his long hair very tightly; Victor wears his long hair free-fl owing. Thomas always wears a dark three-piece suit, whereas Victor wears blue jeans and T- shirts. And Victor cultivates a warrior’s inscrutable face, whereas Thomas has a ready smile for everyone. What irritates Victor most is Thomas’s stories about Victor’s father, Arnold. Victor knows him as a man who got drunk and beat him and his mother. Thomas sees Arnold as his hero, a magic man—the man who not only saved his life but also took him to a breakfast at Denny’s in Spokane once. They met on the footbridge across the Spokane Falls, and somehow Thomas has associated Arnold with that spot ever since; it has become a power place to him. And Arnold was a storyteller, like Thomas—with a love for a good story rather than a true story. But Arnold is no longer around for Thomas to tell new stories about—he left his family in anger when Victor was a child. Their quiet life is interrupted by a phone call from Phoenix: A woman named Suzy calls Victor’s mother with the news that Arnold is dead. He lived in a trailer close to her, and his things are still there, including his truck. Someone needs to get him and his belongings. Victor is reluctant to go because he harbors immense resentment toward his father for leaving him, but Thomas puts up the money for the ticket from his piggy bank under one condition: that he gets to go to Phoenix too. On the bus, Thomas and Victor have a variety of encounters with the world of the whites, not all of them pleasant. For instance, a pair of rednecks take their seats and force them to move. But Victor is not very pleasant either. He calls a young girl a liar for embellishing her one life story: her near chance of going to the Olympics. And he gets on Thomas’s case for not knowing how to be an Indian: He must have watched Dances with Wolves two hundred times, says Victor, and he still doesn’t know how to act like he’s come home from the buffalo hunt. Thomas protests that their people weren’t buffalo hunters but fi shermen. Victor replies that there is nothing glorious about coming home from fi shing—the movie wasn’t called “Dances with Salmon”!—and we get a sense that perhaps it is Victor, not Thomas, who feels uncomfortable about his role and his culture. After days of traveling nonstop they fi nally arrive in Phoenix and walk to the des- ert hideout of Arnold and Suzy. She turns out to be a hospital administrator and much younger than Arnold, but for years she has had a close relationship with him—“We kept each other’s secrets,” she says. The three of them share her frybread, traditional American Indian fare, and Thomas tells a wonderful story of how Victor’s mother fed a hundred In- dians with only fi fty frybreads—which turns out to be not quite true, although it is a good story. Suzy has heard about Victor and Thomas and all the basketball games Arnold played with Victor. And she has heard the true story about the night of the fi re. What had haunted Arnold for all those years was that he set the fi re by accident in a drunken stupor. But now that Victor hears the truth, he also hears something he dares not believe: that Arnold ran back into the burning house to save him. For years, Victor has resented Thomas for being the one saved by Arnold. And now he has to revise all his resentments. Coming face-to-face with the loss of his father, Victor grieves in the traditional Indian way: He cuts his long hair. The next morning, Victor and Thomas leave in Arnold’s truck, taking with them only Arnold’s ashes and his basketball. Victor is in a panicked, angry rush to get home, but there is yet another trial ahead for him. Late that night, on a dark desert road, he and Thomas crash the truck, barely avoiding ramming into two cars that had collided mo- ments before the boys’ arrival. The driver of the car that caused the accident, a white man,


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is drunk and obnoxious, and his wife is desperately apologetic. But down in the ravine is an injured woman, and the nearest town is twenty miles away. Victor’s truck is disabled, but he doesn’t hesitate for a moment: He must run for help. And he starts out running into the night, with the long stride of his ancestor warriors. He runs until his side hurts and his vision blurs, and by dawn he collapses. But he is close enough to a town to be seen by a road repair crew, and he gets the message about the injured motorist through. As Victor and the motorist—who would have died if it hadn’t been for his heroic run—are recovering in the hospital, Thomas is standing by, and we can tell that he has the material for many future stories. One woman says they are heroes, coming to the rescue just like the Lone Ranger and Tonto—and the boys answer that they’re more like Tonto and Tonto. One snag develops, though: The man who caused the accident has fi led false charges against the boys for assault and causing the accident, and Victor and Thomas are taken to the police station. All the old fear and resentment of the white power structure descend on the boys, who feel they won’t be believed—but not everyone outside the res- ervation is like the drunken white driver. His wife, for one, has issued a statement against

In Smoke Signals (1998) Victor (Adam Beach, left) and Thomas (Evan Adams) from the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in Idaho are on their way to pick up the ashes of Victor’s father Arnold in Arizona. Thomas irritates Victor because he wears his hair in tight braids, wears a three-piece suit— and was rescued as a baby by Arnold, whereas Victor believes his own father didn’t care about him.

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her husband, and the two women who were in the other car side with the boys, too. And the police chief is a man of good sense and sends the boys on their way. Six days after leaving Idaho, Victor and Thomas are back with Arnold’s ashes. The one who has undergone the most profound change is Victor; he now understands that his dad never planned to leave and that he just hadn’t gotten around to going home yet. Now he understands the ghosts his father lived with year after year. So he barely picks on Thomas anymore and even offers him the deepest gesture he can think of: He shares his father’s ashes with him. At last, Victor gets to scatter Arnold’s ashes where both he and Thomas feel Arnold’s spirit belongs: over the Spokane Falls. Meanwhile, in a voice-over, Thomas leaves us with thoughts about forgiving our fathers: “How do we forgive our fa- thers? Maybe in a dream? . . . Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often when we were little, or scaring us with unexpected rage or making us nervous because there never seems to be any rage at all? . . . Shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth, or coldness, shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning, for shutting doors, for speaking through walls, or being silent? . . . If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”

Study Questions

1. What do you think made Victor come to terms with his father’s disappearance and death? How has Victor changed? Why didn’t Thomas change as much?

2. Thomas can make any mundane situation into an interesting, magical time by telling stories about it—but the stories are not always true. Is this morally acceptable? Why or why not?

3. Apply Martha Nussbaum’s theory of the rationality of emotions to Victor’s situation: Was Victor’s anger at his father rational? Why or why not? How can we tell? (Clue: What happened to Victor’s anger when he learned the truth about his father?)

4. Why do Western movies play such a big role in Thomas’s and Victor’s lives? Do you think it is a positive or a negative role?

5. What is funny about the boys’ remark that they are more like Tonto and Tonto?


Big Fish

J O H N A U G U S T ( S C R E E N W R I T E R )

T I M B U R T O N ( D I R E C T O R )

Film, 2003. Based on the novel by Daniel Wallace. Summary.

Here you have another story about a son and his father, and about storytelling—but with a different focus, because this time it is the father who is the teller of stories. In the fi lm’s introduction we hear the core story of the father’s life: There was a big old fi sh in the river

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that couldn’t be caught no matter what kind of bait was used. But on the day when his son was born, Ed caught the fi sh, by using as bait his own wedding ring—because, as it turned out, the fi sh was female. And, as Ed Bloom adds, this time to his new daughter-in- law on his son’s wedding day, sometimes the only way to catch an uncatchable woman is to offer her a wedding ring! His son, Will, winces: He’s heard the story hundreds of times; he hates it—because it is fake, but also because it reduces him to a mere footnote in his father’s life. And since that wedding day three years earlier, the father and the son have not spoken to each other. But now Ed is dying of cancer, the chemo treatment is being stopped, and Will and his wife, Josephine, travel back to the United States from her home country of France to be with him and Will’s mother, Sandra. Will tells us, as the narrator, that it is impossible to separate fact from fi ction in his father’s life—most of the stories he has been telling over the years have never happened. But while he is ap- proaching the fi nal hours with his dad, the childhood stories emerge—stories Ed told his son of his own childhood, such as the one with the witch who lived in the neighborhood: Her glass eye would show the manner of death of anyone who peered into it. Two of Ed’s friends looked, and saw their deaths—Ed looked, too, and saw, but he never shared his vision with anyone. When Will sees his father, Ed is concerned, because “This is not the way I go”—but he doesn’t want to elaborate. When Will confronts him and wants to know the “true version of things,” he evades the issue and falls back on telling stories of his life. In his

In Big Fish (2003) Ed Bloom (here played as a young man by Ewan McGregor) tells a lot of stories about his life, and his son Will doesn’t believe any of them. One of his stories tells of his arrival in the magical town of Spectre, where he meets the little girl Jenny (here eight years old, played by Hailey Anne Nelson). Later, Will discovers that there may have been something to the stories after all.

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childhood, he read about goldfi sh—how they adjust their growth to their environment, so the bigger the pond, the bigger the fi sh. He decided to become a big fi sh, which en- tailed leaving his little town. But he was not alone—he had made friends with a giant who terrorized the town. So already, Ed was a giant-slayer, but in a peaceful way, because he pacifi ed the giant, who only wanted more to eat. During their travels they split up temporarily, and Ed found himself in a strange place, a small town where everybody was happy and apparently nothing happened. Grass grew like a lawn down Main Street, and everybody was clad in white. The town was Spectre. Mysteriously, the townsfolk told him he was too soon, but in town he met with three people who would mean very much to him in the future: The poet Winslow, who arrived and got stuck in Spectre; Jenny, who was a little precocious girl; and a naked woman at night in the river—a woman who appeared in different guises for different people, but in reality was a fi sh. And no one could catch her. Ed made an effort and escaped from town because he didn’t want to get stuck there too. While Will is reminiscing, Old Ed is bonding with his daughter-in-law Josephine, telling her another scary story—which turns out to be a joke! Josephine sees into the heart of the old man, loves his spirit, and is tolerant of his stories, far more so than Will is. She asks Ed to tell about how he met his wife, Sandra, Will’s mother, still a beauti- ful woman—and that is the primary story of Ed’s life. Here we, the audience, get to hear the story straight from Ed—this is not a fl ashback told by Will: On a visit to Calloway’s circus Ed not only gets the giant, Carl, a job but also falls in love, with a girl who disap- pears. Calloway knows her parents, and Ed offers to work for free, as long as Calloway tells him about the girl. And so he does, for months, for little tidbits of information, until Calloway fi nally tells him her name, Sandra, and where she goes to college (after Ed fi nds out that Calloway is really a werewolf). He promptly looks her up, only to fi nd out that she’s engaged to one of his school friends—one of those who saw his death in the eye of the witch. Ed starts courting Sandra anyway, and awakens the wrath of her fi ancé, who beats Ed up—which prompts Sandra to end the engagement. And shortly after, her fi ancé really dies, the way he had seen in the eye of the witch. But Sandra and Ed are in for more trouble, because he is being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Through a series of unlikely adventures involving a pair of conjoined, singing, beautiful Vietnamese twins, he returns to Sandra, who, in the meantime, had received the offi cial note that he was missing in action. Josephine fi nds the story beautiful—Will is disgusted because it’s all fake, and his wife now advises him to have a talk with his dad. Initially the talk goes nowhere: Will asks his father for once in his life, to tell him the truth, to be himself, to let his son know who he is—and Ed answers that he has always been himself. But some window of understanding is opening for Will; during a cleanup in the garage the family comes upon papers that fi t into the puzzle of Ed’s life: The MIA note is there—and Will always thought that was a fake story. And a mechanical hand—which his father supposedly sold as a traveling salesman. But there is also a trust, for a woman in Spectre, Jennifer; and now Will thinks he has found his father’s real secret life. He travels to Spectre, a real small town, and seeks out the woman, a middle-aged single woman in a nice house. Did she have an affair with his father? No, Ed took care of her, and the town, and her house, because he wanted to—they were his friends from his fi rst visit, but he professed his

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undying love for Sandra when Jennifer shyly told him she’d like him to stay. And, she says, his son was real to him—not her, not Spectre. And Jennifer became a recluse, and a witch (and we realize that the witch with the glass eye really was Jennifer, although it doesn’t fi t with the time line). So now Will has learned that some of his father’s stories were true and that he really was important to his dad—but when he comes home, there is no one there. Ed has had a stroke and is in intensive care. Will chooses to stay and watch over his dad while the others go home to rest up; Sandra has one last moment with her beloved Ed while he is asleep. The old doctor who has known the family forever asks Will if he wants to hear the story of when he was born. It’s not the one with the fi sh—it’s a simple story of an easy birth. And Will likes it. After Will has been sitting by his father’s bedside for a while, Ed surprisingly wakes up; he has lost almost all his capacity to speak, but Will understands that he is desperate because his death is wrong—this is not the way it happens according to the vision! Ed never told his story to Will, but now Will understands his dad well enough to tell the story to him . The exact way Ed dies I will leave as a mystery for you to experience when you see the fi lm, as Ed would have wanted it—suffi ce it to say that Will fulfi lls his father’s dream of dying the right way and tells the story right. And then, in a fi nal confi rmation, we’re present at the funeral, where Ed’s friends show up—Jennifer and the doctor, but also all those elusive characters Will used to think were made up: the Vietnamese singer twins, Calloway the circus manager, Carl the giant, Winslow the poet, and other story characters. They’re not completely the way Ed had described them (as you should see for yourself) but they were real after all. Flash forward to a few years later: We see Will’s little son tell his friends one of Ed’s stories. And Will concludes, “A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes his stories—they live on after him and in that way he becomes immortal.” Now does that mean that all the stories Ed told were true? Or is it rather that Will understood the poetic truth beneath his father’s tall tales? I’ll let you decide that for yourself.

Study Questions

1. Let’s repeat that question: Was everything that Ed told true? Or has Will discovered the poetic truth behind the improbable stories? Explain.

2. Is it morally right for Will to play along with his father’s death fantasy, or should he have insisted on realism, as he did before? Explain.

3. What might Nussbaum say to this story? Do we understand life better after having read/seen it? Does Will understand life better after hearing his dad’s stories?

4. Do you have a family member who constantly tells stories about himself or herself? Do you feel you understand that person better now, or did you have a good understand- ing before reading this?

5. What is the difference between a tall tale and a lie? Is one morally acceptable, whereas the other isn’t? Why or why not? You may want to take up this subject again after reading Chapter 6.

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East of Eden


Novel, 1952. Film, 1955. Summary and Excerpts.

John Steinbeck’s mammoth American novel East of Eden, following the destinies of three generations of the Trask and the Hamilton families, is for many Steinbeck fans his ulti- mate work on the topic of good and evil, perhaps even the twentieth-century novel that takes on the subject in the most serious way. Critics have called the character of Cathy/ Kate the most evil woman in world literature. But some literary critics have pointed out that East of Eden has a stylistic problem: Steinbeck spends several sections of the book talking directly to the reader about philosophical issues such as the nature of good and evil. As you know, I am a philosophy professor, not a literary critic, but what you prob- ably don’t know is that John Steinbeck is one of my favorite moral philosophers, as well as one of my favorite authors, precisely because he engages in a philosophical monologue in special sections while he is telling the story about the Trasks and the Hamiltons. And his moral philosophy, though perhaps not as intricate or as consistent as the ideas of some of the professional philosophers you are going to meet in this book, is profoundly moving and meaningful to the reader of the novel; we “get” what he means, because his ideas are illustrated by the story, and the story is interspersed with its own philosophi- cal comments—so, a two-in-one masterpiece, for those who like the mixing of stories and ethics. (The literary critic might say, well, Rosenstand just doesn’t get the criteria for a well-written novel. My answer to that would be, some literary critics just don’t get Steinbeck’s genius of mixing the two categories of concrete storytelling and abstract moral philosophy!) What you’ll read fi rst is an excerpt from one of the philosophical monologues, in which Steinbeck argues that all stories are really just variations on the timeless theme of good and evil. Next you’ll fi nd an excerpt plus a short summary of the main story line.

A child may ask, “What is the world’s story about?” And a grown man or woman may wonder, “What way will the world go? How does it end and, while we’re at it, what’s the story about?”

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our fi rst consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on fi eld and river and mountain, on economy and manners. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

Herodotus, in the Persian War, tells a story of how Croesus, the richest and most- favored king of his time, asked Solon the Athenian a leading question. He would not

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have asked it if he had not been worried about the answer. “Who,” he asked, “is the luckiest person in the world?” He must have been eaten with doubt and hungry for reas- surance. Solon told him of three lucky people in old times. And Croesus more than likely did not listen, so anxious was he about himself. And when Solon did not mention him, Croesus was forced to say, “Do you not consider me lucky?”

Solon did not hesitate in his answer. “How can I tell?” he said. “You aren’t dead yet.” And this answer must have haunted Croesus dismally as his luck disappeared, and

his wealth and his kingdom. And as he was being burned on a tall fi re, he may have thought of it and perhaps wished he had not asked or not been answered.

And in our time, when a man dies—if he has had wealth and infl uence and power and all the vestments that arouse envy, and after the living take stock of the dead man’s property and his eminence and works and monuments—the question is still there: Was his life good or was it evil?—which is another way of putting Croesus’s question. Envies are gone, and the measuring stick is: “Was he loved or was he hated? Is his death felt as a loss or does a kind of joy come of it?”

I remember clearly the deaths of three men. One was the richest man of the century, who, having clawed his way to wealth through the souls and bodies of men, spent many years trying to buy back the love he had forfeited and by that process performed great service to the world and, perhaps, had much more than balanced the evils of his rise. I was on a ship when he died. The news was posted on the bulletin board, and nearly

The fi lm East of Eden (1955) catapulted the young actor James Dean to instant fame—and less than a year later he was dead in an auto accident, becoming a cult hero for half a century. The fi lm focuses on the story of Cal and Aron. Dean plays Cal Trask as the main character, tormented by the doubts and low self-esteem of the young adult male, a portrayal that some see as completely timeless.

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everyone received the news with pleasure. Several said, “Thank God that son of a bitch is dead.”

Then there was a man, smart as Satan, who, lacking some perception of human dig- nity and knowing all too well every aspect of human weakness and wickedness, used his special knowledge to warp men, to buy men, to bribe and threaten and seduce until he found himself in a position of great power. He clothed his motives in the names of virtue, and I have wondered whether he ever knew that no gift will ever buy back a man’s love when you have removed his self-love. A bribed man can only hate his briber. When this man died the nation rang with praise and, just beneath, with gladness that he was dead.

There was a third man, who perhaps made many errors in performance but whose effective life was devoted to making men brave and dignifi ed and good in a time when they were poor and frightened and when ugly forces were loose in the world to utilize their fears. This man was hated by the few. When he died the people burst into tears in the streets and their minds wailed, “What can we do now? How can we go on without him?”

In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love. When a man comes to die, no matter what his talents and infl uence and genius, if he dies unloved his life must be a failure to him and his dying a cold horror. It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.

We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil. And it occurs to me that evil must constantly respawn, while good, while virtue, is immortal. Vice has always a new fresh young face, while virtue is venerable as nothing else in the world is.

The story John Steinbeck is referring to is the timeless story of making the choice between good and evil, choosing one’s good side over one’s dark side. This theme is the key to understanding the story of the Trask family in two generations: the two brothers, Adam and Charles, competing for their father’s affection, and Adam’s two sons, the twins Cal and Aron, competing for Adam’s affection. Here we will focus on the more famous last part of East of Eden with Cal and Aron, which has been featured in the classic Hollywood fi lm with James Dean; the relationship between the boys plays out as a modern version of the biblical story of Cain and Abel, but when we compare Cal and Aron’s story with the story of Adam and Charles in the previous generation, we realize that, in many ways, that also plays out as a Cain and Abel story. In the Bible, Adam and Eve’s fi rstborn son, Cain, is angry with his brother, Abel, be- cause God accepts Abel’s sacrifi ce of a lamb and rejects Cain’s sacrifi ce of a sheaf of grain. Cain strikes Abel in the head with a rock, and Abel falls to the ground, dead, the fi rst victim of a homicide. When asked by God where Abel is, Cain replies that he is not his brother’s keeper. But God knows that Abel is dead, and Cain is tormented by his guilt, so God promises to place a mark on Cain so that everyone will know that he is protected. Cain then leaves his father and mother and settles in the land of Nod, east of Eden. In Steinbeck’s novel, which takes place in the last part of the nineteenth and the fi rst part of the twentieth century, Adam and Charles are the sons of an old Civil War hero and politician, Cyrus. Charles, the younger, adores his father, but Cyrus pays attention

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only to Adam, who feels little affection for his father. Years after Cyrus’s death, the sons fi nd out that he was no war hero and that his prominent political career was built on lies. In the meantime, a woman has come into their lives. Cathy is a mysterious, beauti- ful girl with a past she won’t talk about. (But we, the readers, know that she is an evil human being: She has murdered her parents by setting fi re to their home and faking her own death.) The young men believe her to be the victim of an accident, but her injuries stem from being beaten half to death by a man she was about to take for everything he had. Adam falls deeply in love with her, and proposes to her. They marry, but on the sly, Cathy has an affair with Charles. Cathy gets pregnant and gives birth to twins, but motherhood doesn’t transform her into a humane person. On the contrary, she had only used Adam and their marriage as protection, and now she wants out. When Adam tries to stop her, she shoots him in the shoulder, point-blank, and walks out on him and the boys. She goes to the nearest big town (Salinas, California) and as “Kate” she becomes a town “madam,” and Adam raises the boys by himself, aided by his Chinese American philosophical housekeeper, Lee. Why does Cathy react the way she does? Steinbeck tells us that some people are simply born psychological monsters, with no comprehension that they are hurting other people, physically and emotionally. The evil that Cathy rep- resents is, in a sense, an evil that she did not choose, since she doesn’t understand how normal people feel about one another. Cathy is the classical sociopath who only does what serves her best without any consideration for others. The question now is, have the boys inherited her bad blood? As the boys grow into their teens, it becomes clear that they are very different. Aron is fair and likable, but Cal is dark and brooding. Aron is everything his father, Adam, considers good: obedient, friendly, considerate, an easy child. Cal, on the other hand, questions everything, has a hard time making friends, sneaks out at night on his own; in short, he is a “bad boy.” And yet, Cal is the one Steinbeck wants us to like. Aron is too good to be real. Cal is more like the rest of us. And, indeed, Aron’s goodness reveals itself to have a dark side. He is so absorbed in being good and pure that he actually ends up neglecting both his father and his girlfriend. And here we see how the concepts of good and evil had hidden associations in the early twentieth century: “Good” meant not only being considerate and kind but also being sexually pure; and “bad” or “evil” meant not only being selfi sh and inconsiderate but also having, and acting on, sexual impulses. Because Cal is a young man whose hormones are raging, he considers himself “bad,” and since Aron apparently doesn’t have that problem, he must be “good.” But Cal’s “badness” also manifests itself in his utter disconnect with his father. Adam thinks he understands his boy Aron completely, but he has no clue what goes on inside Cal’s head. Cal loves his father and wants to protect him, but his father pays attention only to Aron, not realizing that he is repeating his own father’s old sin, paying attention to only one of his sons. Eventually, Cal fi nds out that his mother is alive and runs a brothel in town. Here he confi des in Lee, who tells him that he may have inherited his mother’s evil nature, but even so, he has a choice.

Always before, Cal had wanted to build a dark accumulation of things seen and things heard—a kind of a warehouse of materials that, like obscure tools, might come in handy, but after the visit to Kate’s he felt a desperate need for help.

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One night Lee, tapping away at his typewriter, heard a quiet knock on his door and let Cal in. The boy sat down on the edge of the bed, and Lee let his thin body down in the Morris chair. He was amused that a chair could give him so much pleasure. Lee folded his hands over his stomach as though he wore Chinese sleeves and waited patiently. Cal was looking at a spot in the air right over Lee’s head.

Cal spoke softly and rapidly. “I know where my mother is and what she’s doing. I saw her.”

Lee’s mind said a convulsive prayer for guidance. “What do you want to know?” he asked softly.

“I haven’t thought yet. I’m trying to think. Would you tell me the truth?” “Of course.” The questions whirling in Cal’s head were so bewildering he had trouble picking

one out. “Does my father know?” “Yes.” “Why did he say she was dead?” “To save you from pain.” Cal considered. “What did my father do to make her leave?” “He loved her with his whole mind and body. He gave her everything he could

imagine.” “Did she shoot him?” “Yes.” “Why?” “Because he didn’t want her to go away.” “Did he ever hurt her?” “Not that I know of. It wasn’t in him to hurt her.” “Lee, why did she do it?” “I don’t know.” “Don’t know or won’t say?” “Don’t know.” Cal was silent for so long that Lee’s fi ngers began to creep a little, holding to his

wrists. He was relieved when Cal spoke again. The boy’s tone was different. There was a pleading in it.

“Lee, you knew her. What was she like?” Lee sighed and his hands relaxed. “I can only say what I think. I may be wrong.” “Well, what did you think?” “Cal,” he said, “I’ve thought about it for a great many hours and I still don’t know.

She is a mystery. It seems to me that she is not like other people. There is something she lacks. Kindness maybe, or conscience. You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself. And I can’t feel her. The moment I think about her my feeling goes into darkness. I don’t know what she wanted or what she was after. She was full of hatred, but why or toward what I don’t know. It’s a mystery. And her hatred wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t angry. It was heartless. I don’t know that it is good to talk to you like this.”

“I need to know.” “Why? Didn’t you feel better before you knew?” “Yes. But I can’t stop now.”

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“You’re right,” said Lee. “When the fi rst innocence goes, you can’t stop—unless you’re a hypocrite or a fool. But I can’t tell you any more because I don’t know any more.”

Cal said, “Tell me about my father then.” “That I can do,” said Lee. He paused. “I wonder if anyone can hear us talking? Speak

softly.” “Tell me about him,” said Cal. “I think your father has in him, magnifi ed, the things his wife lacks. I think in him

kindness and conscience are so large that they are almost faults. They trip him up and hinder him.”

“What did he do when she left?” “He died,” said Lee. “He walked around but he was dead. And only recently has he

come half to life again.” Lee saw a strange new expression on Cal’s face. The eyes were open wider, and the mouth, ordinarily tight and muscular, was relaxed. In his face, now for the fi rst time, Lee could see Aron’s face in spite of the different coloring. Cal’s shoul- ders were shaking a little, like a muscle too long held under a strain.

“What is it, Cal?” Lee asked. “I love him,” Cal said. “I love him too,” said Lee. “I guess I couldn’t have stayed around so long if I hadn’t.

He is not smart in a worldly sense but he’s a good man. Maybe the best man I have ever known.”

Cal stood up suddenly. “Good night, Lee,” he said. “Now you wait just a moment. Have you told anyone?” “No.” “Not Aron—no, of course you wouldn’t.” “Suppose he fi nds out?” “Then you’d have to stand by to help him. Don’t go yet. When you leave this room

we may not be able to talk again. You may dislike me for knowing you know the truth. Tell me this—do you hate your mother?”

“Yes,” said Cal. “I wondered,” said Lee. “I don’t think your father ever hated her. He had only

sorrow.” Cal drifted toward the door, slowly, softly. He shoved his fi sts deep in his pockets.

“It’s like you said about knowing people. I hate her because I know why she went away. I know—because I’ve got her in me.” His head was down and his voice was heartbroken.

Lee jumped up. “You stop that!” he said sharply. “You hear me? Don’t let me catch you doing that. Of course you may have that in you. Everybody has. But you’ve got the other too. Here—look up! Look at me!”

Cal raised his head and said wearily, “What do you want?” “You’ve got the other too. Listen to me! You wouldn’t even be wondering if you

didn’t have it. Don’t you dare take the lazy way. It’s too easy to excuse yourself because of your ancestry. Don’t let me catch you doing it! Now—look close at me so you will remember. Whatever you do, it will be you who do it—not your mother.”

“Do you believe that, Lee?” “Yes, I believe it, and you’d better believe it or I’ll break every bone in your body.” After Cal had gone Lee went back to his chair. He thought ruefully, I wonder what

happened to my Oriental repose?

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Later, Cal is faced with the choice that East of Eden is all about: the choice between doing the right thing and choosing the selfi sh way, the easy way, the evil way. This time it isn’t a question just of being “bad” and having hormones but also of doing harm, delib- erately, for personal gain. The underlying story of the two brothers, Adam’s sons in a new version of the old Cain and Abel story, plays out when Cal decides to get back at Aron for being his father’s favorite: He reveals their mother’s existence and identity to Aron. The end results are devastating for Aron, Cathy, and Adam, and I will leave it for you to read on your own.

Study Questions

1. Is Cathy evil? Is Cal? Explain.

2. The key element in East of Eden is the concept of choice. Steinbeck chose a Hebrew word to express it, Timshel, or, in Steinbeck’s translation, “thou mayest.” (As it hap- pens, Steinbeck may have gotten the translation wrong, but within the book, the word is a powerful symbol of the human freedom to choose, with the accompanying moral responsibility.) Is Cathy free to choose? Is Adam? Is Cal? Are you?

3. What does Steinbeck mean by saying (in the fi rst excerpt) that “there is no other story”?

4. Is having sexual urges the same as “being bad”? Why or why not? Compare the values at the time of the story (early twentieth century) with the moral values of today.

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Chapter Two

Learning Moral Lessons from Stories

W e may think that the most powerful moral lessons are learned from events in our childhood (when we are caught doing something we aren’t supposed to do, or when we aren’t caught), but chances are the most powerful lessons we carry with us are lessons we learn from the stories we have read or that were read to us.

Didactic Stories

Many of you may recognize this typical, unpleasant event from childhood: Your authority fi gure takes you aside to tell you Aesop’s fable “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” A lad was tending sheep at the outskirts of town, and he thought it might be fun to give the village a scare, so he cried, “The wolf is here! The wolf is here!” And the villagers came running, but there was no wolf. The boy tricked the town again and again, until that fateful day when the wolf really did come. The boy cried for his life, “The wolf is here!” but nobody believed him anymore. The wolf ate the sheep and the shepherd too. At least, that is the way the story was told to me when I was fi ve years old. Why are children told such a gruesome story? Because adults deem it neces- sary to teach children a moral lesson. Even a child understands the message: “The shepherd boy lied and suffered the consequences. You don’t want to be like him, do you?” It is a powerful lesson. Indeed, the appeal of the story seems to go be- yond European and American traditions: I have a colleague from India who tells me that when she was a little girl in Calcutta, she was told the story of the boy who cried tiger. Stories that are told to teach a moral lesson are called didactic stories. These instructional stories may well be as old as humanity. When giving a keynote ad- dress about stories in ethics at a philosophical retreat in Denmark some years ago, I asked the audience, a mixed group of several hundred people ranging from their teens to their eighties, if they had been told the story of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” when they were kids; a forest of hands went up, young smooth hands alongside gnarled old hands, and all of a sudden it seemed to me that I was looking down the corridor of time, from these living generations backward to the other generations long gone, each one of them telling their children about the lying shepherd boy—in all likelihood a story so old that it predates Aesop’s version.

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The New Interest in Stories Across the Professions

The interest in using stories (narratives) to explore moral problems is increasing, for stories can serve as a laboratory in which moral solutions can be tried out before any decisions are made. Here are some examples of how stories are being used as moral laboratories today.

• In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “Practicing Medicine Is Grimm Work,” medical student Valerie Gribben tells how she deals with diffi cult situations as a prospective medical doctor by keeping in mind the lessons in human nature she believes she has learned from reading the fairytales collected by the Brothers Grimm:

The Grimm fairy tales once seemed as if they took place in lands far, far away, but I see them now in my everyday hospital rotations. I’ve met the eternal cast of characters. I’ve taken down their histories (the abandoned prince, the barren couple) or seen their handi- work (the evil stepmother, the lecherous king).

Fairy tales are, at their core, heightened portrayals of human nature, revealing, as the glare of injury and illness does, the underbelly of mankind. Both fairy tales and medical charts chronicle the bizarre, the unfair, the tragic. And the terrifying things that go bump in the night are what doctors treat at 3 A.M. in emergency rooms.

So I now fi nd comfort in fairy tales. They remind me that happy endings are possible. . . . They also remind me that what I’m seeing now has come before. Child endangerment is not an invention of the Facebook age. Elder neglect didn’t arrive with Gen X. And dis- charge summaries are not always happy; “Cinderella” originally ended with a blinding, and Death, in his tattered shroud, waits at the end of many journeys.

She is not alone. For the past few decades medical students have been increasingly ex- posed to not only case studies involving medical ethics but also to stories of fi ction, such as Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Iván Ilyich” (1886) and the 1994 fi lm Philadelphia, that deal with medical problems. The students seem to feel better equipped to deal with “real” problems because of this exploratory background. Why? Because no matter how many case histories she examines or how many colleagues she talks to, a medical student may not be able to understand a patient from the inside quite as well as when a great writer tells the story from the patient’s point of view. The New York University School of Medicine’s Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database is a website dedicated to listing fi lms and works of literature that may be of help as a resource for medical personnel, such as And the Band Played On, Awakenings, Gattaca, Lorenzo’s Oil, The English Patient, The Doctor, and even Mil- lion Dollar Baby, with its euthanasia theme. Books include Christy Brown’s My Left Foot, Camus’s The Plague, and Jane Austen’s Emma. The Literature and Medicine program in Maine has since 1997 gathered health care professionals around the concept that reading and discussing literature can improve their professional skills and help them understand their patients and clients. In addition, patients with psychological issues have occasionally been encouraged to use movies as a sort of self-treatment, but such advice should always be followed up with a discussion. There are no quick fi xes to our psychological, social, and moral problems; good stories can help us begin to explore an issue—but they can’t be a substitute for insight or discussion. That also means that the stories you encounter in this

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book are meant to illustrate typical moral problems and possible solutions, but they aren’t meant to stand alone as problem solvers.

• Some psychologists are advocating a method called bibliotherapy to facilitate communication between parents and children. Through reading stories with their children, parents may fi nd it easier to explain diffi cult issues, because together, through the fi ctional universe, they can explore issues and emo- tions that may be more diffi cult to approach on either an abstract or a highly personal level. For example, it’s hard to explain death to children—either as a concept or as a real event in a family. Perhaps a story about the death of a pet could help focus the discussion. Of course, this may be just an easy way out for parents who don’t have a clue how to relate to their children, but ideally the sharing of stories is a positive way to make the child understand about ar- rivals of new siblings, a move to a new home, deaths in the family, and other traumatic events. (It may sound like a brand new idea, but in the next section you will see that this is in effect how myths and fairy tales used to work in traditional societies.)

• The criminal justice system is experimenting with the use of stories. A website— Picturing Justice, the On-line Journal of Law and Popular Culture— specializes in discussing fi lms that relate to legal issues. Examples range from the clas- sics Notorious and Twelve Angry Men to Amistad, The Life of David Gale, and the comedies Legally Blonde and My Cousin Vinnie. What is interesting is that the didactic value of such fi lms to the legal community is no longer something that just happens by accident after someone goes to the movies and sees a connec- tion to real-life cases—it is now something that is an accepted and established form of learning. But this isn’t just of abstract interest to scholars and lawyers: increasingly, the courts in the Western world are experimenting with exposing convicted criminals to novels and fi lms that may cause them to rethink their own lives and understand the severity of their crimes.

BIZARRO © 2001 Dan Piraro. King Features Syndicate

Psychologists are beginning to tap the therapeutic potential of movies—but of course merely watch- ing movies will not solve one’s emotional or moral problems.

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• Psychotherapists are having patients tell about their own lives as if they were sto- ries or asking them to select a famous fairy tale as a model or template of the way they see their own lives. The idea of telling one’s own story as a form of therapy and moral education is something we will look at in detail in the fi nal chapter.

• Stories have been found to have great potential for promoting cross-cultural or multicultural understanding. They can highlight cultural differences in a way that presents them as exciting and worth exploring, while emphasizing the fun- damental human similarities underneath the surface differences.

• NASA and Tor/Forge Books have teamed up in an attempt to create exciting sto- ries about space exploration. NASA’s hope is that such novels, written with both scientifi c accuracy and imagination, can awaken an interest in space and science in general among young people, similar to the way science-fi ction novels in the nineteen fi fties and sixties inspired an entire generation of space scientists and astronauts. We’ll have to wait a couple of decades, though, to see if the idea has caught on…

• Last on this list, but not least: An increasing number of philosophers are now looking to stories as a way not only to explain diffi cult theories to their freshman students but also to explore the philosophical richness of literature and fi lms in itself. The venerable publishing house Blackwell has had enormous success with its expanding series of philosophy books featuring a work of fi ction, such as Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, Harry Potter and Philosophy, all the way to The Simpsons and Philosophy and The Green Hornet and Philosophy . Active on the so- cial network Twitter, Blackwell continually solicits public participation, asking for new movie/graphic novel/novel title recommendations to add to their series. Unthinkable a few decades ago, such a success doesn’t happen in a vacuum: There is a genuine professional interest in reading philosophy into fi ction, and interpreting fi ction through philosophy these days, to the enthusiastic applause of some, and head-scratching of others.

Until recently, most American philosophers have been suspicious of using stories as illustrations of moral problems for several reasons. Some have felt that using stories would cause readers to be concerned with specifi c cases rather than with seeing the general picture. Others have worried that telling stories might manipu- late readers’ emotions instead of appealing to their reason: Such stories would per- haps lead people to do the right thing, but they wouldn’t lead people to think about moral issues, because a story is not a logical argument but, rather, a persuasion—a story is not logic but rhetoric. Interestingly, literature professors have been just as reluctant to strike up a con- versation with philosophers, fearing that the formal demands of a quality work of fi ction would be compromised if there is too much focus on some underlying truth or message—novels aren’t supposed to be “preachy,” in other words. But with the new bridges being built in recent years between literature and philosophy some of those fears are being put aside, and literature and philosophy people such as Charles Johnson (see end of chapter) and Stephen George have been collaborating on an emerging fi eld: Philosophy of fi ction. And stories don’t have to be preachy in order to be philosophical: There is a difference between stories that moralize and stories that


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discuss moral problems. In the past, philosophers seem to have assumed that stories illustrating moral problems are always of the moralizing kind. Now a different at- titude seems to be growing among ethics scholars; they recognize that stories need not be moralizing to illustrate a moral point. Such stories may express a moral point of view, and then that point of view can be open for discussion. Or a story may have an open-ended conclusion, one in which the moral issues are not resolved. Even moralizing stories may have their proper role to play from time to time, and stories are an excellent way to illustrate how diffi cult a moral problem can be. As noted in Chapter 1, the fi eld of philosophy is also slowly warming up to the old idea that feelings are not irrelevant in moral discussions. The psychologist Carol Gilligan ar- gues for the legitimacy of emotions in moral decision making. As you know, Martha Nussbaum points out that emotions are not a matter of something uncontrollable, like hunger, but instead involve decision making and rational choices. Another phi- losopher, Philip Hallie, states that without feelings for the victims of evildoing, we can’t hope to understand what a moral sense is all about. Jonathan Bennett, another contemporary philosopher, insists that although certain moral principles may be admirable, others may be warped: The Nazi exterminators (members of the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, 1920–1945) had fi rm moral principles, but they were principles most people don’t approve of today. Without sympathy for other people, our principles may go astray. One of the ways in which we can engage both our sympathy and our moral principles is through stories. Some of the stories in this book are didactic (they teach a lesson), and some of them are more open-ended. It seems that, usually, we prefer learning from stories that were not written especially to teach a lesson. That may be one of the secrets of literature: We may forgive a good story for preaching a little, but we can’t forgive a bad story for preaching. In other words, we are most accepting of a moral lesson if it is not too obvious, if it appears only between the lines and is subordinate to the plot and the characters. The stories that are most effective in teaching lessons may be those that are not obviously intended to do so. Examples of extreme didactic fi lms would be the classic The Birth of a Nation (the Civil War seen from the Southern view- point) and Reefer Madness, a fi lm generally viewed today as a propaganda fi lm against the use of marijuana. Stories with more dimensions to them, and thus more interest- ing to a modern audience, might be fi lms such as Monster’s Ball and Mystic River or the anti-drug fi lms Drugstore Cowboy and Requiem for a Dream (see Chapter 10). Of course, real-life events and discussions of those events are essential to our understanding of moral issues, but using stories is an alternative way of talking about these issues, because a story can serve as a slice of life that we are invited to share in.

The Value of Stories Across Time and Space

Why do we tell stories? And why is it relevant for moral philosophy? What we do know is that all cultures have narratives, and most cultures operate with some story types that are fi ctional. Apparently we can’t help telling stories with a begin- ning, a middle, and an ending. We are truly what the American philosopher Alas- dair MacIntyre has called us, “story-telling animals.” And recently, neuroscientists

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have begun to weigh in on why humans are so prone to storytelling. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, has proposed a theory based on years of research into the two brain hemispheres: Our left brain hemisphere attempts to make sense out of our feelings and experiences as well as our conscious and subconscious thoughts by putting a story together about them, a cause-and- effect story which helps us get a sense of who we are, and how to cope with life and the unexpected. Other researchers have found that we tend to identify with protago- nists in stories, and we react to stories with the same brain regions that are engaged when we react to real-life events. And good stories make us feel good—there is a release of oxytocin in the brain that may actually make us slightly addicted to good stories. The immediate evolutionary benefi ts to such a phenomenon seem to include a kind of social bonding or glue—we get hooked on telling each other the same stories, and that helps us survive as a group. From a philosophical viewpoint that may also open up for the possibility of manipulation and brainwashing by those who have the social power to tell the offi cial versions of the stories, so it is a double-edged sword to have the capacity for storytelling. It may make us live better, and make more sense of our lives, but it may also facilitate power plays. There are of course many reasons for telling stories, for reading and writing novels and short stories, and for making and watching fi lms. It seems that in early, pretechnological cultures the purpose of storytelling was twofold: On the human side, the purpose was to knit the tribe fi rmly together by setting up the rules and boundaries that would establish a group identity. Besides, storytelling helped to pass the time on rainy days, and it kept the children occupied for a while. On the cosmic side, the purpose was to establish the story of the beginning of time, when everything was created, so if a symbolic re-creation seemed necessary (and it did, periodically), one could tell and enact the “beginning” stories and in that way “renew” the cosmos. Storytelling has never been more important than it was in those ancient times, for in telling the story people helped re-create the universe, put the sun in its right place, and made sure that the seasons followed one another in the proper order. The strength of storytelling is no less apparent in many religions. Periodically (usually once a year), believers remind themselves of an important time in the his- tory of their religion: the creation of the world, the creation of the religion itself, or the establishment of the believers’ identity through a religious event. Usually a story is told about that event, and even if it is supposed to be a reminder rather than a re-creation, it is still a sacred and powerful vehicle. In ancient times the storytellers were the primary teachers of morals. Of course, parents have always had a hand in moral education, but in pretechnological cultures (what used to be called “primitive” cultures), those who knew the legends were the ones who, in effect, represented the social institutions of religion, school, and gov- ernment. The myths surrounding the origin of the world, of society, of food items, and of love and death and the stories of the important men and women in the tribe’s past provided rules for the tribe to live by—moral structures that could be used in everyday life to make decisions about crops, marriages, warfare, and so forth. The way to teach children how to become good members of the tribe was to tell the old stories.

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In our technological world we no longer have such a body of ready-made pre- scriptions for moral conduct—at least, we don’t think we do. In fact, however, we still tell stories, we still listen to stories, and we still take moral lessons from them. Some people read the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or other religious books and seek comfort in their stories of human frailty and perseverance. Some people keep their childhood comic-book collections and dive into the old stories from time to time for some basic moral reinforcement. Some people read biographies of remarkable men and women and are inspired by the stories of courage and bravery. Adults may not read fairy tales anymore, but we read novels—classics, best-sellers, or even graphic novels. And if we don’t read novels, we go to the movies or watch TV. And as my students like to point out, today’s computer games have graduated from being simple target practice to stories with deeply involved plots and complex characters. Wherever we turn we fi nd stories —some are real and some fi ctional, some are too outdated or too radical for us to relate to, but we fi nd at least some stories that have served as our moral guideposts. Even if you are not a great reader or movie-goer, you probably can recall at least one story that has moved you.

Fact, Fiction, or Both?

In the secular world we usually tell stories of two kinds: those that we believe to be historically true and those that we know never took place but that have their own special truth to them, a poetic truth. The fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood” is not a historical account, but children may enjoy it if they are old enough to deal with their fear of the wolf, who comes to a gruesome end. Parents enjoy telling it, because they can smuggle home a lesson: Don’t talk to strangers, and watch out for “wolves” in disguise. Box 2.1 looks at reality TV—which purports to be fact, not fi ction. What about accounts that we don’t know to be either historical or poetic? The story of Zorro, for example, is not a historical account, although there may have been an outlaw in Old California who vaguely resembled the Zorro character. Some read- ers feel cheated if they fi nd out that a story is more legend than history, but others fi nd it all the more fascinating because it is a mixture of what we think happened and what we wish had happened. It may not tell us much about history, but it tells us a great deal about people, including ourselves, who wish that Zorro were real. Even stories that we believe to be factual, such as the story of the battle of the Alamo or the sinking of the Titanic, are not usually simple reports of facts; such stories must have a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and most often we choose the beginning and the ending according to what we feel makes the most sense. In actual life, the stream of events goes on, usually with little indication that here begins something new or here a story comes to an end—except in the case of someone’s birth or death. Even in the latter case, the story goes on without the person who has died. So even “true” stories have an element of poetic creativity, in that we choose what to include in the story, what is relevant to the story (not every meal or visit to the bathroom is important in order for us to understand the life and times of Gandhi, or James Dean, or Princess Diana), and where to begin and end the story. Even eyewitness accounts, often regarded as the one true record of events, are full

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Although the academic interest in stories has been on the increase, some story afi cionados worry that the public interest in stories may be on the wane, considering the popularity of reality shows. TV shows such as Survivor and The Bachelor have scored top ratings, but that’s not all: The public’s interest in the lives of “public fi gures,” whether they be celebrities, criminals, or just ordinary people caught up in some media circus, has also been on the rise. Some media analysts claim there is a decreas- ing interest in made-up stories these days, and an increased interest in real stories. There are two things we can say about that: For one thing, “reality shows” aren’t really real—sorry to burst that bubble. As much as they feature “real people,” they are scripted to a great ex- tent and their content and structure are heav- ily edited. That means that even if they don’t have a clear plot structure laid out beforehand, they are still narratives—stories that inter- est us. For another, perhaps there is a reason why the stories of “real people” attract atten- tion these days. We only have to think of the media attention given to the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, the abduction of Elizabeth Smart, the disappearance and murder of Laci Peterson, the death of little Caylee Anthony in Florida and subsequent murder trial of her mother, and other abduction/murder cases fea- tured in the media. Some of these cases involve money, some involve violence and murder, most—if not all—involve women and girls; and, as we shall see in a later chapter, there are even philosophical theories about why we all of a sudden care so much about these strangers. The positive spin, as we shall see in Chapter 4, is that we extend the feelings we have for friends and relatives to these strang- ers, for a while. The negative spin, which I will

suggest here, is that our world, presented to us by the media, has started to seem overwhelm- ing to us. Our brains have evolved, through hundreds of thousands of years, into tribal brains, focusing on interacting intimately with a group of people probably no bigger than about one hundred members, mostly relatives and neighbors. That meant close interaction, with lots of talk and gossip about those rela- tives and neighbors. But most of us no lon- ger live in such communities—we don’t know our neighbors, and we have little connection to our relatives. But we still have the need for tribal gossip and concern—so we turn to those new neighbors of ours, the TV people. And the more “real” they seem, the more we (or some of us) feel engaged in their destinies. Some people would say, “Then get a life!” But this is our life in the modern world, for bet- ter or worse. The upside is that our horizon literally expands, through the stories of others, factual as well as fi ctional, introducing moral issues we would never have related to or even imagined in previous times. We have all now been educated in the unethical: insider trad- ing, child molestations by priests, religious fa- natics kidnapping children and brainwashing them, red herrings introduced in court cases to confuse juries, and so forth. The downside is, of course, that this expanded interest may be nothing but a thirst for titillation, a ghoulish rubbernecking taken to an extreme. Another downside may be that, as some psychologists have concluded, our natural empathy may ac- tually be eroded by reality shows because we end up thinking of the characters as fi ctional rather than real. How much should we engage ourselves in other people’s problems, and to what extent should the media report them? We return to such issues in Chapter 13.

Box 2.1 R E A L I T Y S H O W S : W H E R E D I D T H E S T O R Y G O ?

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of creativity. Two persons observing the same event will very likely come up with slightly different versions of it; they notice different things because they are standing in different spots and because they are different people with different interests in life. If eyewitnesses are asked to tell about an event long past, some of their memories will be sharper than others, some will mirror exactly what they saw, and some will mirror what they felt or what they feel now, which turns their stories into personal interpre- tations of the event. At best, any account of a past event can only approximate what happened. We can never truly reproduce the event. Religious legends reveal the same tension between fact and fi ction. If believers suspect that events described in the legends never happened or that they happened in a different and more “everyday” way than is described in the religious text, they may experience a general disappointment with their religion, or they may elect to deny the possibility that the religious stories are less than fact-based, or they may deny the plausibility of new interpretations of the old stories—such as we saw in the aftermath of the fi ctional novel by Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (see below). Other believers, however, may see the stories as being rich with poetry and telling human truths that are on a higher, more spiritual level. Aristotle, who was intensely inter- ested in the relationship between history and poetry, said that history may deal with facts, but poetry deals with Truth.

Traditional Stories

Myths We don’t know anything about the fi rst stories ever told, but if we are to judge from ancient myths and legends, there is a good chance that they served as reminders of proper conduct. The Cherokees tell of Grandmother Spider’s way of making clay pots, and it seems to be (among other things) a lesson for Cherokee women in how to make pots the correct way. Myths in general have two main pur- poses: to strengthen the social bonding among people and to fortify the individual psychologically. Traditional myths work on those two levels at once by presenting stories of gods, goddesses, and culture heroes who tell their society about the ideal social behavior and individuals about the proper role models to follow. In a sense, traditional myths are a successful combination of ethics of conduct and virtue ethics (see Parts 2 and 3). The myth of the loss of immortality told by the Trobriand people of New Guinea is such a story. It tells us that once humans could rejuvenate themselves; they could shed their skins and become young again. A grandmother took her granddaughter to the river and then went off by herself to shed her skin. When she came back, the granddaughter didn’t recognize her (she appeared to be a young girl) and shooed her away. Upset, the grandmother went back and put her old skin on again. The granddaughter told her that she had chased a young girl, an impostor, away. The grandmother said, “Just because you refused to recognize me, nobody will be able to be young again. We shall all die of old age now.” Aside from the fact that the story unfairly places the immense burden of causing humanity to die on an ignorant young girl—myths often blame a major disaster on a small event, as when Eve eats the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge—the lesson is that we humans are mortal and there is

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nothing we can do about it. The story also seems to say that humans, far from being victims, are very important beings, since they can cause such a cosmic calamity as the loss of immortality!

Fairy Tales Another ancient category of stories with moral lessons is the fairy tale. The fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers in early-nineteenth-century Germany refl ect what is probably a very old tradition of stories with morals, and they are not just for children; the stories were told originally to both young and old. The Trobriand people distinguish between three kinds of stories. First, there are the “myths,” which are sacred stories about the beginning of the world and of society. They must be taken very seriously. Second, there are the “true legends,” semihistori- cal accounts of heroes in the past and their travels. They are supposed to be taken at face value, for the most part. Last, there are the “fairy tales,” stories to be told in the rainy season, usually with some point of teaching the young about the customs of the people but also with the intent of pure entertainment. They are recognized as never having happened. Most cultures acknowledge that there is a difference between stories in which the good are rewarded and the bad are punished and stories of everyday life. The fairy tale has been described by psychoanalysts as pure wishful thinking, but many fairy tales involve gruesome events that are hardly wish fulfi llments, because they often happen to characters who don’t “deserve” them. Such events do serve a pur- pose, though, in making the punishment of the bad characters seem justifi ed. In spite of its enormous popularity, the tale of Little Red Riding Hood seems to be a product of the literary elite and not of folklore, but that doesn’t detract from its didactic power. “Hansel and Gretel” is a folklore classic with much the same lesson: Don’t go with strangers, and don’t let them feed you candy! But the most famous fairy tales from the Grimm brothers’ collection today are probably those that have been revised for modern audiences by Walt Disney Studios, such as Cinderella and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs . The cartoon versions are known by several gen- erations of moviegoers, videotape purchasers, and, lately, DVD collectors and their children. The Disney Cinderella is an upbeat story of the poor orphan girl who lives with her wealthy stepmother and stepsisters in a huge old house, where she is treated like an unpaid servant or a slave. When the king of the country invites all unmar- ried young women to a grand ball at the castle to meet the prince so he can choose a wife, the evil stepsisters sabotage Cinderella’s dream of going to the ball. They tear to pieces the dress that her little friends the mice and the birds have made for her, and leave her in tears as they depart for the ball. But Cinderella’s fairy godmother appears in a swirl of sparkles and transforms her into a radiant princess, with glass slippers. A pumpkin becomes a magic chariot, and her mice friends become horses, her dog becomes a valet, and her old horse becomes a coachman, but only for the evening. She must leave the ball before midnight, because then everything reverts to the way it was. You probably know the story: She meets the prince, and he falls in love with her, but midnight is approaching, so she runs away—leaving one glass slipper behind. And next day, the prince’s servant scours the countryside to fi nd the girl whose foot can fi t into the glass slipper. Despite new attempts at sabotage from

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Cinderella’s stepmother and the sisters, Cinderella emerges as the mystery woman from the ball, and she marries the prince and lives happily ever after. No punishment is meted out to her stepfamily for torturing her. That is the version most of us know. And although a child may rejoice that Cinderella is never going back to the harsh life of work and no love, there is perhaps a slight letdown that she magnanimously forgives her tormentors. But if you ever sit down with a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, you’ll encounter quite a different version. In the original story, Cinderella’s father isn’t dead; he is just oblivious to the torture his new wife and her pretty daughters put his daughter through. Her friends the doves and the pigeons are the ones with magic powers: There is no fairy godmother. While she is crying at her mother’s grave under a magic tree, the birds bring her a gold party dress, as well as gold slippers. The essential plot of Cinderella meeting the prince and losing the slipper is the same as that of the modern version—but the aftermath is far more bloody. Since the sisters’ feet are much bigger than Cinderella’s, they try to fi t into the slipper presented by the prince, in person, by cutting their heels and toes off, with blood seeping through the gold fabric. And when Cinderella marries the prince, the evil sisters are punished: They walk up the aisle as bridesmaids behind the bride, and Cinderella’s pigeons peck their eyes out. “And so they were condemned to go blind for the rest of their days because of their wickedness and falsehood,” as the story concludes. An interesting variation on the theme that actually reaches back to the older version is the fi lm Ever After (1998), in which one of Cinderella’s evil sisters and the stepmother are in fact punished after Cinderella marries the prince—in a way that seems utterly appropriate to a modern mind-set: They are sentenced to work in the laundry of the castle so they can understand the life they had forced Cinderella to live before her life changed. The shoe is now on the other foot (without cutting any toes or heels), and the moral lesson of karma is learned: What goes around, comes around. What is interesting here is the development of the moral lessons embedded in the old story. Fairy tales at the time when the Grimm brothers collected the stories were folk tales, told primarily by adults for adults, and the moral lessons were harsh and severe: Evil stepmothers, brothers, and sisters, or whoever tortured the good boy or girl, met a horrifi c end, a painful death or dismemberment, whereas the good person was rewarded with wealth and fame. In the Disney cartoons of the mid– twentieth century, the moral lesson seems to be not for the evil family members but for the suffering hero: Hang in there with fortitude, and things will change! Ever After refl ects the changing times of the 1990s: Cinderella is a woman of initiative, action, and intellect, not someone who needs to be rescued, but the stepsisters are still evil, and end up being punished in a way that will rehabilitate them and change them for the better! The drastic revenge theme from the folklore of times past, not just in the West, but around the globe, has been interpreted by psychoanalysts as having a cathartic, cleansing function, perhaps even more so than putting an evil stepsister to work in the laundry: Some psychoanalysts today maintain that the real value of such stories—which, they say, children should not be protected from but, rather, exposed

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to—is that children can get rid of their aggressions toward their parents through the stories. (As we shall see in an upcoming section, Aristotle would have agreed with this psychoanalytic point of view.) In addition, the child is exposed to evil but at the same time acquires a dose of hopeful strength and learns that evil can be dealt with. In other words, the most horrible, gruesome, bloody fairy tales may be the ones with the most positive message for the impressionable reader: Yes, there are terrible things out there, but with fortitude we can vanquish them.

Parables For two thousand years, Christians have found moral support in parables such as those of the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son. The parable is an allegorical story for adults; it is supposed to be understood as a story about ourselves and what we ought to do. Although the purpose of the fairy tale seems to be primarily to entertain and secondarily to teach a moral lesson, the purpose of the parable is primarily to teach a moral and religious lesson. Christianity is not the only religion with parables; the Islamic, Hebrew, and Buddhist traditions contain such stories. What fascinated the early readers of Jesus of Nazareth’s parables was that they were so hard to live up to—not just because it was hard to be good, but also because the moral demands of Jesus himself usually ran counter to what society demanded of its citizens or what it viewed as proper moral conduct. What was so diffi cult for Jesus’ contemporaries to understand? He demanded not only that we be compas- sionate toward all in need but also that we consider every person a fellow human being, not just those from our own village, country, or culture, and especially not just those who show compassion toward us. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) has been one such lesson that people with ordinary common sense and good manners fi nd hard to follow. The “bad” son who has squandered his inheritance comes home and is sorry. The father makes a fuss over the bad son and slaughters the fattened calf for him. The good son, who has stayed with his father, is upset, for he has never received any recognition of his stability from his father, and yet now it seems that the bad son is more important. And he is, to Jesus, for he has been on a longer journey than the good son: all the way to perdition and back. Christians, therefore, ask themselves if that means we should go on a binge and then repent rather than never go on a binge at all. The answer may be that the story is supposed to be judged from the point of view not of the good or the bad brother but of the father. Indeed, the secret to many of the parables is to fi nd out whose viewpoint they express. The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30–34) is about a victim of highway robbery and mugging. As he lies wounded at the roadside, he is ignored by several upstanding citizens but is helped by a social outcast, the Samaritan. (The story is outlined in Chapter 11.) This parable is told from the wounded man’s point of view (“who is my neighbor”), not from the point of view of the Samaritan.

A Story of Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac Although it is not classifi ed as a parable, the Old Testament story of Abraham being told to sacrifi ce his son Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19) has had the same kind of effect on its listeners. It is one of the hardest

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stories for a religion that believes in a loving God, be it from a Jewish or a Christian point of view, to explain. Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless until they have Isaac very late in their lives, through God’s intervention. God tells Abraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains of sand in the

The Trial of Abraham’s Faith (plate by Gustave Doré, 1866). Abraham, having received the com- mand from God to sacrifi ce his only son, Isaac, dutifully takes Isaac up the mountain to the place of sacrifi ce. Isaac, unaware that it is he himself who is to be the victim, is carrying the fi rewood that Abraham will use to light the sacrifi cial fi re.

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desert. When Isaac is a half-grown boy, however, God tells Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and sacrifi ce him like a sheep. Abraham leads Isaac away, heavy- hearted but obedient to God. He ties Isaac to the sacrifi cial stone and is about to stab him the ritual way when God’s voice stops him, saying the request was just a test of Abraham’s piety. God supplies a ram for Abraham to sacrifi ce instead. The implications of this story have confounded believers and nonbelievers for two thousand years. A God who commands such a thing must be a cruel God, critics say, cruel and with a strange sense of humor. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard sees the story as an illustration of the limitations of ethics: Ethically speaking, what Abraham was about to do was wrong; he had no business killing his son, because that is not how people are supposed to behave. But for Abraham, as for any believer, there is a law that is higher than the moral laws of society, and that is the law of faith —not faith that God will save his child, but faith that it really is God who is requiring him to sacrifi ce Isaac and that we can’t know God’s purpose. Kierkegaard saw Abraham’s ordeal as a test of his faith in God rather than of his morals, and a “leap of faith” is, for the Lutheran Kierkegaard, a matter between the individual and God and nobody else. The opinion of society does not enter into the picture at all. Other interpretations of the story see no split between morality and faith but view it as an illustration of God’s absolute demands on his people. Yet others see it as justifi cation for sacrifi cing everything one holds dear if a higher law demands it. With this last interpretation it really is irrelevant that God stopped Abraham at the last moment. For all Christians, the parallel to a later time when God did not stop himself from sacrifi cing his own son to save the world is a close one. (See Box 2.2 for Franz Kafka’s interpretation of this parable.)

In his nonfi ction piece “Abraham,” the Austrian- Czech novelist Franz Kafka (1883–1924) inter- prets the story of Abraham and Isaac in ways that are rather different from the traditional one. For one thing, he says, there was no need for any “leap of faith” for Abraham to accept the word of God, because if Abraham were to prove himself, then something precious to him had to be put on the line. If Abraham had so much— riches, a son, and a prophecy that he would become the father of the Jewish people—then he could be tested only by the threat of having something taken away from him. This is logi- cal, says Kafka; it requires no leap of faith at all. What would require a leap of faith is if Abraham had been a different sort of person. Suppose he truly wanted to please God by performing the

sacrifi ce but was a person of low self-esteem? He really wants to do what is right, like Cer- vantes’ Don Quixote, but he can’t quite believe that he can be the one God was speaking to be- cause he believes he is unworthy. He is afraid that if he proceeds with the sacrifi ce, it will turn out that the command was just a joke, and he will be a laughingstock, like Quixote, who always tried to do the heroic thing but ended up fi ghting windmills. For this Abraham, being laughed at would make him even more un- worthy of being called by God. It would be as though a worthy person had been called, but this grungy, unworthy Abraham showed up in- stead, foolishly believing himself to be the wor- thy one. Now this, says Kafka, would indeed require a leap of faith.

Box 2.2 K A F K A ’ S A B R A H A M

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A recent critique of the old story has been suggested by anthropologist Carol Delaney in her book Abraham on Trial: The Social Legacy of Biblical Myth. Delaney asks, Why should faith in God be illustrated best by a father’s willingness to sacrifi ce his son? Why couldn’t the test of faith instead be measured by a parent’s willingness to protect his or her child, not sacrifi ce it? The story has been told as if Abraham is the sole parent, with sole rights and responsibilities, and the biblical writers obviously didn’t see Isaac’s mother, Sarah, as someone with a right to her opinion about the matter. Delaney isn’t criticizing the male-dominated ways of the Old Testament so much as asking why nobody since then, of all the commentators in Judeo- Christian history, has thought to ask whether Sarah might have had something relevant to say about the murder of her son as a proof of faith in God. Delaney actually echoes Kierkegaard’s idea here that Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac would be completely immoral, but she doesn’t agree with his further step that morals and faith are differ- ent things altogether. In the section below called “The Bargain,” you’ll meet another story from the Bible, that of a father who sees parenthood as a lesser duty: the story of Jephtha’s daughter.

Fables and Counterfables In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, adults fi nally began to notice that children were not just small and inadequate adults, and chil- dren’s literature was invented as a literary genre. The gory fairy tale was toned down to suit the nursery, and another kind of story, which had previously been enjoyed by adults, was introduced to children: the fable. Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s fables be- came very popular as moral lessons for children. “The Mouse and the Lion” (the lion spares the mouse and later the mouse saves the lion’s life) taught that you had better not disregard someone unimportant, for he or she might be of help to you some day, and “The Sour Grapes” (the fox can’t reach the grapes, and declares that they are probably sour anyway) taught that if someone claims something is not worth having, it may be because he or she can’t have it. The main reason adults told these fables to children was, of course, that the grown-ups wanted their children to become good citizens, and the stories seemed an effi cient way to press home the point. Those early stories for children said, in essence, “Behave, or else”; they provided little opportu- nity for children’s imagination to take fl ight. An important exception is the work of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), who, throughout his fairy tales and stories, insisted that children’s imaginations should be left unfettered by the sour realism of grown-ups. In fact, Andersen’s stories have a true poetic quality and carry multiple meanings; they are not really children’s stories at all. Children can enjoy them, to be sure, but they will enjoy them much more when they are older and capable of read- ing between the lines. For Andersen, not only was the imagination of the children in danger of being stifl ed by adults, but also the imagination of the adults themselves was in danger of withering away. Andersen’s moral lesson is one of openness. He tells us to listen to the world and not just respond to it with preconceived notions; if we do, we will encounter only what we expect, and we will never again see the magic and splendor of the world the way children do. Other stories with moral lessons were being written for children during that same time period. Didactic stories took up the thread of the fables and taught children

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how to behave: to obey their parents, to be kind to animals, to fi nish their porridge, and to not make fun of people who looked different. Although today the lessons of those stories may seem, for the most part, quite inoffensive, the stories themselves often reveal sexism, racism, and a general naive belief that the writer had all the wis- dom in the world. Those “moral stories” not only present a moral problem but also moralize. This tendency to teach moral lessons enraged Mark Twain to the extent that he wrote a parody called “About Magnanimous-Incident Literature” (to which Mad magazine and an entire genre of comedy fi lms such as the Naked Gun series are indebted). Twain’s parody gives us the “true” ending to the little moral stories. In one story, the scruffy little homeless dog that the kindly village doctor cures comes back the next day with another scruffy little dog to be cured, and the doctor praises God for the chance to heal another unfortunate creature. End of moral story; here comes Twain: The next day there are four scruffy dogs outside the doctor’s offi ce, and the following week there are hundreds of howling mutts waiting to be treated. The original mutt is going crazy from all this helpfulness and bites the doctor, who wishes he had shot it in the fi rst place.

Stories with Role Models

What kind of people do we like to hear stories about? And after the story, do we go out and do the same thing as the hero in the book or the movie? When we talk about fi ctional characters who somehow teach a moral lesson, we are talking about role models. Cartoon characters such as Superman and Spiderman may have certain qualities that we identify with and would like to emulate. But if we include Batman, we encounter an interesting twist: Batman is not a wholesome character; he has a psychological problem (which was, to some extent, explored in the recent fi lms). Not all heroic characters are completely virtuous. If we look at fi c- tional heroes in Western popular literature, from King Arthur, Lancelot, and Robin Hood to D’Artagnan, Scarlett O’Hara, and even Harry Potter, we see that most of these people are morally fl awed. The tendency in the twentieth century had been to depict them as being as morally fl awed as possible, something that may refl ect a certain sense of cynicism. A talk-show guest once announced that she had learned her moral lessons exclusively from soap operas, and we know that soap characters are by no means morally above reproach. This is not a new phenomenon; in the medieval churches of Europe, peasant congregations were spellbound by murals depicting biblical scenes that some- times covered the entire inside of the church. The murals kept them occupied during the long hours while the priest spoke in Latin, which the peasants did not understand. The moral lesson of that artwork was obvious, but it was expressed through depictions not of good people so much as of bad people; scenes illustrat- ing people going to hell are usually much more vivid and artistically interesting than are scenes of people going to heaven. Perhaps the artists thought it was more fun to depict horrors than bland happiness. It does seem to be a human trait that we dwell on stories with a dark element, rather than on those with happy endings. Yet these stories can certainly teach a moral lesson. We must conclude,

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therefore, that not all moral lessons involve role models to be emulated; rather, a considerable number of moral lessons are negative rather than positive: Don’t. Sometimes characters who show themselves to be morally fl awed become our heroes not because they are good but because they are like us, or worse. If these “bad good people” see the folly of their ways in the end, we especially take them to our hearts. Perhaps we do this because we hope that we will be loved too, even if we make mistakes. It seems that, on the whole, we have the heroes we deserve, as it has sometimes been said. A cautious time has cautious heroes; a violent time has violent heroes. During the time that we accept them as our heroes, we let their images guide our actions; when their day is done, we can still learn from them— they can teach us about the way we once were. Some stories are moral investigations of a fl awed character, such as Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (see the Narrative in Chapter 9), who makes a fatal, cowardly decision in his youth and tries to live it down for the rest of his life. In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Jean Valjean morally rises above the crimes of his youth only to be haunted by them until the end of his life. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punish- ment examines the philosophical deliberations of Raskolnikov as he imagines the right of the extraordinary individual to do whatever he wants, including commit- ting murder. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary traces Emma’s deterioration through boredom and through fantasies (brought on by reading novels!). A work by the Dan- ish author J. P. Jacobsen, Marie Grubbe, in some ways parallels Madame Bovary. It investigates the downfall of a noble lady through three marriages: to a nobleman, to a soldier, and fi nally to a drunk. The cause of her deterioration seems to be the same as Emma’s: sensualism and boredom. The last time we encounter Marie, she is tending the ferry that runs between two small towns, to support her drunkard husband. The irony of the story is that in this squalor Marie fi nally fi nds the happiness that eluded her when she was a “fi ne lady.” Stories such as these are not written with the intention of sending their readers out on any heroic errands. They are, primarily, explorations of fascinating human characters. They also serve as moral evaluations by asking whether the characters redeem themselves somehow, even in their degradation. At times a character’s re- deeming act or quality goes against mainstream morality, as in the story of Marie Grubbe, and then the story forces us to ask which value is the ultimate moral value. Do we agree with society that Marie’s life was wasted, full of missed oppor- tunities? Or do we agree with the author that life, and morality, have many faces and that there is some intrinsic value in staying true to yourself, no matter how much that sentiment may differ from the public ethos? If such characters serve as a warning not to emulate them, we call them negative role models. We meet this concept again in Chapter 10.

Some Fantastic Tales for Grown-Ups

The stories that have affected Western culture are too numerous to count, but a few stand out as archetypes, models that we seem to return to over and over again. In this section we will look at three themes (or, in the language of literary criticism, tropes )

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that keep showing up in the world of fi ction: the bargain, the good twin and the bad twin, and the quest.

The Bargain There is a certain genre of stories that continually fascinates the adult imagination: the story in which someone bargains with fate (or with gods or devils) to gain some advantage—or doesn’t literally bargain, but simply puts his life and happiness on the line to obtain what he wants most. Why do such stories continue to intrigue us? Perhaps it is because we recognize the single-mindedness of some in- dividuals, and their success, and wonder what price they may have to pay (perhaps even hoping that they have to pay a price). Or perhaps it is because we, in desper- ate situations, also try to bargain with fate: If you let me live, I’ll give up smoking/ be kinder to my spouse/stop gambling/stop eating junk food, and so on. If you let me pass the test, I promise I’ll be a good student from now on. If you let me win the battle, I promise you I will sacrifi ce the fi rst living thing that approaches me when I come home. That is the bargain in the biblical horror story of Jephtha’s daughter. According to some scholars, Jephtha may have expected to be met by a dog or a servant, but it is his virgin daughter who comes to greet him. What does he do? Does he resolve to cheat God and save his daughter? No, he gives her a month to grieve for her virginity, and then he sacrifi ces her. (In this case, God does not step in to prevent it as he did for Abraham.) And let us not forget that Jephtha asked for a bargain with God, whereas Abraham was chosen to be tried. So was Jephtha a good man? That depends on what time period we’re in, and how moral issues differ: In the Old Testament, Jephtha upholds his end of the bargain, hard as it is for him, and is thus an honorable man. We may grieve for his daughter (who doesn’t even have a name in the story), but she is, essentially, his property, and he has a right, even a duty, to sacrifi ce her because of a promise made to God. Seen from a modern, secular perspective, Jephtha is probably condemned by most of us because he tries to make a bargain without foreseeing the consequences, but also because he is a terrible father, betraying the trust of his daughter, believing that his higher duty is his promise to God, rather than his obligation to his family. Sometimes, like Jephtha, we keep our bargains with fate, but most often we don’t. Stories in which a bargain has been made with the devil, however, usually cast him as a reliable businessman: He keeps his end of the deal, and he expects you to keep yours. The grandmother of all devil bargains is the story of Dr. Faust, the main character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s masterpiece, Faust. There was, in Württemberg, Germany, in the sixteenth century, an actual man named Johann Faust; he was an astrologer and a magician at a time when science, astrology, and magic were only just beginning to be separated, conceptually and practically. “Alchemists” were under- taking experiments based in part on scientifi c evidence and in part on magical for- mulae; such practices usually were outlawed as heresy by the Catholic Church. The Spanish Inquisition disposed of many an early scientist for being a heretic well into the seventeenth century. Even before Faust, though, stories appeared with the same motif: the necromancer (sorcerer) who sells his soul. Those stories have been fused with the legend of Faust because of that frequent representation in literature. Around 1589 (some fi fty years after the death of the actual Dr. Faust), Marlowe wrote the

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Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, but it was Goethe’s version (1780–1833) that became the ultimate metaphor for the scientist who will do anything, including sell his soul, for pure knowledge (in Faust’s case, to secure the formula for turning base metals into gold). (Later in this chapter you’ll fi nd an early story by Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, about a young man who dies from unrequited love—the novel that made Goethe instantly famous.) The story of Faust was made into an American tale by Stephen Vincent Benét, “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” but with a twist: Web- ster outwits the devil. (This is actually a whole subgenre by itself—the outwitting of the devil.) In the 1940s, Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann modernized the original story in his novel Dr. Faustus, which explores the mind-set of a man of the times; in Mann’s book the obsession is not science but art. Through the Faust story runs a moralizing thread: Faust does wrong in selling his soul. There are folklore and fairy-tale stories that are in complete accordance with that view. One traveling story, a story that has traveled from country to country in different versions, is the folk tale of the boy who wanted to play the fi ddle like no one else, and the devil taught him to play so sweetly that the fi sh would jump out of the river to listen, the birds would stop singing, and all the girls the boy ever wanted would fl ock to him. The trouble was that every time he wanted to put the fi ddle down, he couldn’t. In other words, the devil made him do it and he played himself to death. Some musicians might say it was worth it. The Faustian theme also has been explored in fi lms from time to time, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray , where Dorian’s painting ages, but not he himself, and Angel Heart, in which a character realized something he had forgotten—that he sold his soul—and there is no help or redemption for him in the end. Another such bargain- fi lm is Ghost Rider, in which a young man sells his soul to save his father’s life. At the end of this chapter you will fi nd a summary of the fi lm Pulp Fiction. One of the study questions hints at a possible interpretation—did the gangster boss sell his soul to the devil? But perhaps the Faustian bargain theme most familiar to young readers and movie-goers these years is that of Tom Riddle from the Harry Potter series, seeking secret, forbidden knowledge at the peril of losing his soul. Another character who indeed loses his—to the Dark Side—in return for power is Anakin Skywalker of the Star Wars prequels. But since he was trying to save his wife, it isn’t as obvious a self- centered deal as in most Faustian stories.

The Good Twin and the Bad Twin A story that is closely related to that of Dr. Faust, but with an added element, is Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As with Goethe’s story, Stevenson’s is loosely based on a real p erson—in this case an eighteeth-century Scottish cabinetmaker and city councillor by day and a burglar by night. The kindly Dr. Jekyll becomes the evil Mr. Hyde by drinking his own invention, a personality-changing drug intended, the story goes, to distill goodness from evil in the human character. Jekyll, who is not so kindly after all given that he throws away his life and respectability (a notion nineteenth-century readers found particularly problematic) for the sake of fi nding knowledge, par- allels Dr. Faust in that obsession—but here the story departs from the Faustian pattern. Not only is the devil absent (he is manifested only in the “well-deserved”

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death of Jekyll/Hyde), but also another theme is introduced: the double character. After all, Jekyll and Hyde are the same man, and the symbolism is easy to read: We all have a beast “hyding” in us, an alter ego, and we must not let it loose no matter how much we would like to. The reason Jekyll keeps returning to his Hyde persona is that it feels good, it amuses him; he gets to do things that Victorian England frowned upon, such as going out on the town. Of course, he exceeds even the toler- ance of any time period when he tortures and kills. The moral lesson is broad and completely in tune with nineteenth-century Victorian mores, as well as with most of the Christian tradition: Keep your inner beast in check, and don’t give in to your physical desires. When we look at the theme of twin souls, we generally have two versions: one person with two personalities, such as Jekyll and Hyde, and two persons who are inextricably linked but very different, such as good and evil twins, a theme that we will return to below . A famous story from the early twentieth century of one person with two “natures” is Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, the tale of Harry Haller, a middle-aged, middle-class man who is contemplating suicide at fi fty because he sees nothing positive in life any longer—and his dual nature, the Steppenwolf, a sarcastic, lonely being still thirsty for the outrageous experience. Another story is the popular fi lm Shrek: The haughty, beautiful Princess Fiona has a deep secret; at night she is transformed into a green-skinned ogre. One hundred years before Shrek, Hans Christian Andersen wrote his story of “The Swamp King’s Daughter,” a serious, symbolic tale of the daughter of a beautiful Egyptian princess and the vi- cious king of the swamp: In daylight she is a beautiful but evil woman; but at night she is a sweet, gentle, compassionate soul trapped in the body of a giant toad. The dual-nature stories are easily interpreted as the battle between our “angel” side and our “devil” side—or, as the Christian tradition has generally viewed it, our spirit and our fl esh. But as Herman Hesse says, “The division into wolf and man, fl esh and spirit, by means of which Harry tries to make his destiny more comprehensible to himself is a very great simplifi cation. . . . Harry consists of a hundred or a thou- sand selves, not of two. His life oscillates, as everyone’s does, not merely between two poles, such as the body and the spirit, the saint and the sinner, but between thousands and thousands.” The stories of twins are sometimes harder to interpret, but interestingly, they often work along the same symbolic lines: One twin (or sibling or friend) gener- ally represents “good,” or the spiritual life, and the other twin represents “evil,” or the world of physical desires, as with the story of Cal and Aron in East of Eden. (See Chapter 1, Narrative Section.) And often the author’s purpose is to describe two sides of any one of us, just as the dual-nature stories do. Where the story gets inter- esting, such as in Steinbeck’s novel, is the point at which the good twin suddenly seems to have an evil streak, and the “bad” twin reveals a higher moral nature, and we begin to doubt the stereotypes. But of course, life rarely imitates fi ction, except for one California court case in the 1990s where a woman actually hired a hit man to kill her twin sister because she wanted to take over her life—because her sister was admired for her goodness and kindness. The plot was foiled, and the “good” sister testifi ed against her “evil” sister in court and got her convicted.

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The Quest The fi rst quest story that we know of is that of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. Gilgamesh loses his only friend, Enkidu, to a withering disease. This brings home to Gilgamesh the fact that all humans are mortal, and he is seized by a terrible fear. So he sets out to fi nd the secret of immortality. This story has been told by Sumerians since at least approximately 1500 B.C.E. Gilgamesh goes to the ends of the earth and fi nds the oldest living humans, Utnapishtim and his wife, who survived the big fl ood by the grace of the gods. (They were safe in a wooden box that fl oated on the waters—an ark. ) Utnapishtim’s rescue, however, was a one-time deal, and Gilgamesh must look elsewhere for his own rescue from death. In the end he fi nds the plant that gives immortality, picks it, and drops it in the water. Gilgamesh must go under the sea where the monster snake lives; into its gaping maw he must crawl to get the weed—but he can’t retrieve it. Gilgamesh had immortality for a while, but then he lost it, for it is the fate of humans to be mortal. Gilgamesh’s quest was a failure, but it was heroic nevertheless, because it em- bodied a human longing to live forever, as well as the acknowledgment that we can’t, even if we are the king of Uruk. The quest motif is one of the most moving in the history of literature and fi lm, precisely because even if the hero doesn’t fi nd what he or she sets out to fi nd, the search itself remains the most important part of the story. The quest forces the hero to mature and makes him or her realize the true impor- tance, or lack of importance, of the quest’s object. Myths and legends abound with quest stories. The Navajo goddess Grand- mother Spider searches for the sun in the early days when the land is in darkness. She fi nds it and steals a piece and puts it into her clay pot to bring home. In the Greek legend of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Jason and his argonauts go on a quest for a sheepskin made of gold. Egyptian legend tells of the goddess Isis, who searches for the remains of her husband, Osiris, who was murdered. Some searchers even go to the underworld to fi nd what they are looking for: Ulysses goes to the realm of the dead to speak with the wise Teresias. Orpheus goes to the underworld to try to retrieve his beloved wife, Eurydice, from the dead. The Native American Modoc cul- ture hero Kumokum goes to the land of the dead in search of his daughter. Ishtar, the all-powerful goddess of the Middle East, fi nds that her powers are limited when her young lover, Tammuz, dies, and she goes to the underworld to buy him back. The earth goddess Demeter goes to the kingdom of the dead to get back her daughter, Persephone, who has been abducted by the king of the dead. These stories confi rm what we know: that we would go to the ends of the earth and the land of the dead if it could bring back those we love. We also know that it would be to no avail; Gilgamesh’s lesson is one that every human learns. Some quests are of a happier nature. In the African folktale about the girl Wanjiru, Wanjiru’s family sacrifi ces her so that the rains will come, but a young war- rior goes to the underworld to fetch her back. He carries her on his back to the world of the living and hides her until she is strong again; then he displays her at the great dance. Her family is now ashamed of the way they treated her, and the warrior and Wanjiru are married. Two quest motifs have, each in its own right, come to epitomize the search. One is Moby Dick, and the other is the legend of the Holy Grail.

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Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) has become the American model for the quest, but with a special angle: The searcher is mad, and the quest is meaningless, except to Captain Ahab himself. In many stories, although the object of the quest may be out of reach, it usually is something to which the reader can relate. In the case of Moby Dick, though, the reader identifi es not with the searcher but with an observer, Ishmael. The quest itself is seen as pointless, and quite mad. Eventually, Captain Ahab fi nds his white whale but he and the rest of the crew die, except for Ishmael, who alone “survived to tell thee.” Hollywood came up with a modern version of the whale search for a society that reveres whales but dislikes sharks. In Jaws the symbolism is stronger than in the Melville story; the gigantic shark is a more obvious representation of inhuman evil. However, the sense of ambiguity present in Moby Dick is missing in Jaws. The Melville story makes us wonder if Ahab’s quest was worth the passion and trouble; in Jaws we know the quest was ill-advised. In a sense, there is one Hollywood story that is much more closely related to Moby Dick than is Jaws. In one of its most superb productions, John Ford’s fi lm The Searchers, Hollywood created a folklore version of the mad quest. As the title indi- cates, in the movie it is the search, more than the object of the search, that matters. For eight years Ethan and Marty look all over the western United States for Ethan’s niece Debbie, who was captured by the Comanche Indians. Marty is the observer we identify with, the “Ishmael” of the story. Marty tries to reason with Ethan, who is obsessed with revenge rather than rescue. Ethan fi nds his “white whale,” the Co- manche chief responsible for murdering Ethan’s family and kidnapping Debbie, but he realizes, in the nick of time, that his motives were misguided. Ethan is redeemed and returned to sanity through human love. However, he has traveled too far on the road to obsession and human loneliness and is doomed to wander alone. We return to The Searchers in Chapter 10. The search for the Holy Grail, part of Arthurian legend, is a quest that succeeds only symbolically, if at all. Several years after the glorious time of the Round Table, Arthur’s knights become obsessed with fi nding the cup from the Last Supper of Christ, the Grail. They each go through trials to fi nd the cup, but only Galahad (or sometimes Percival) succeeds in seeing the Grail, and even he is denied any further access. Since the time that the tale was fi rst told, the quest for the Grail has become a symbol of the search for a profound truth, a holy revelation, for the meaning of life, if you will. (Box 2.3 looks at some grail quests in fi lm.) Even when the search is unsuc- cessful and even futile, as it is for Cervantes’ Don Quixote, who searches far and wide for the “impossible dream,” the search itself nevertheless lends the searcher a cloak of heroism, no less than it did for Gilgamesh. The grail theme can encompass any kind of quest, not just a search for a cup or an item. One of the surprise best-sellers in re- cent years was Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, a story set in the contemporary world and featuring a hunt for the truth behind the legend of the Holy Grail. To many readers’ surprise—even shock—the grail turns out to be not a cup, but—a person! A woman who, according to the speculative theory, gave birth to a child of Jesus Christ: Mary Magdalene. She, and the bloodline, are the Holy Grail or, in French, not the San Greal but the Sang Real. The DaVinci Code, the book as well as the fi lm, spawned a

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veritable cottage industry of TV specials and interpretive books, but in fact the theory had been fl oated decades earlier in the controversial book Holy Blood, Holy Grail by Baigent, Leigh, and Lincoln. (Baigent even sued Brown for plagiarism, but lost the lawsuit.) Although the plot captures the imagination of many, it remains speculation without solid evidence, according to most historians. The quest can thus be for something sublime, something ideal, or not of this world, or it can be for something as down-to-earth as money. Regardless of whether the story takes the high path or the low path, the quest as a story type seems to be very enduring.

Contemporary Story Genres

Sometimes the moral lesson in a story is hard to fi nd; we may be blind to it, or it may be somewhat dated, having evolved in another era. There is a scene in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) in which the young “savage,” John, who has grown up on a nature reservation unaffected by the modern era of eugenics, total sexual liberty, and test-tube babies, introduces his friend, the scientist Helmholtz, to Shakespeare. He reads from Romeo and Juliet, certain that the moral drama of the

Aside from the movie based on Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code, the grail theme has been explored in fi lms such as Quest for Fire, the hom- inid adventure story with gibberish dialogue by Anthony Burgess, and in out-and-out adventure stories such as Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is about the hunt for the Grail itself. The science fi ction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey is a grail quest for the ultimate mystery, the black, ancient monolith. The Fisher King is another fi lm that uses the grail motif. It presents a realistic portrayal of homelessness and teaches the lesson that anything is worthy of being the object of a quest if that quest is under- taken in the spirit of love. In other fi lms, from Stanley and Livingstone to The Mountains of the Moon, people traverse the jungles of Africa seek- ing out other people, the source of the Nile, or a better understanding of themselves and their role in the scheme of things. Stories that involve a search for an antidote may incorporate both the grail element and

an element of catharsis (a spiritual cleansing). Finding the grail is the cure for the ailment, but it also may serve as a liberating, spiritual healing process. Perhaps the one grail movie trilogy that is most familiar to younger mov- iegoers of the early twenty-fi rst century is in fact a reversed grail story, because it has to do not with fi nding a special object, but with getting rid of it: Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Ring that Frodo has to take to Mordor in order to destroy it is the source of evil, and a great temptation for everyone, including Frodo. As in the Holy Grail legend, it is only Galahad who is of suffi cient spiritual purity to even have a vision of the Grail, so Frodo is the only one whose heart is pure enough to un- dertake the journey (although, as many fans of the trilogy will want to point out, without the unselfi sh courage of Samwise Gamgee, his friend, the Ring would never have been destroyed).

Box 2.3 T H E H O L Y G R A I L I N T H E M O V I E S

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young lovers who can’t have each other will move his modern friend. Helmholtz, however, doubles up laughing, because he can’t for the life of him see that there is a problem: If Romeo and Juliet want each other, why don’t they just have sex and let it go at that, instead of making such an embarrassing fuss about it? He is blind to the social and moral structures of the past, and the savage is very upset that ethical communication seems impossible in a new era that has done away with family rela- tionships, birth, siblings, and spouses and that refuses to recognize the phenomenon of death. In a similar way, stories depicting unwanted pregnancies struck a deep chord in times past but haven’t had the same resonance since the advent of legal abortion and safe birth control. Old Hollywood fi lms about the trials of two lovers who can’t get a divorce from their spouses also sometimes require us to stretch a bit in order to empathize with the characters. Stories praising the glory of war, which were quite successful until the early twentieth century, have not done well with the majority of modern readers and viewers for quite some time now.

Wartime Stories: Duty and Honor Wartime stories with moral lessons were com- mon in past eras when it seemed that each generation of young men was expected to be initiated into manhood through some local armed confl ict. But the idea of war as a natural arena for the exercise of masculine virtues received a serious blow in

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), the archaeologists Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) search for the ultimate treasure in the Christian tradition: the Holy Grail, presumably the cup used by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Here Jones and Jones are barely escap- ing with their lives from a fi re in a Nazi stronghold.

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World War I, with its murky reasons for fi ghting and its wholesale slaughter of en- tire squadrons—young men from the same family or village or the same university, dying side by side in the trenches from mustard gas and machine gun fi re, and leav- ing villages and colleges empty of an entire generation of male youth. That agonizing era has been portrayed ever since in fi lms such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Gallipoli, and in recent years, A Very Long Engagement . The soldier on the white horse with a feather plume in his helmet, dying gloriously for his country, became one of the images left behind in the nineteenth century, giving way to twentieth-century bitterness. For many people the entire idea of glory in war has become nothing but propaganda, invented by the leaders to inspire their legions to march unquestion- ingly off to the front as cannon fodder. However, the image of the warrior as stalwart and honorable is so deeply imbed- ded in most human cultures that it shouldn’t be dismissed as merely the result of the manipulation of gullible people by poets, propagandists, monarchs, and generals. It seems to resonate with something deep in us that identifi es us as social beings, with a loyalty to our own people, for better or worse. Some would say it is a specifi cally male resonance; others see it as a class identifi cation, which should be uprooted in a global community—but many see it as a part of a natural love for where we grew up and whom we grew up with, regardless of class and gender, and not infrequently a love for the principles we have been taught. For some pacifi sts, any story of war is a distasteful reminder of human nature at its worst—but even for many pacifi sts, a wartime story can be meaningful in its focus, not on the glory of war, but on humans under pressure, displaying devotion to duty and their comrades. The classic defi nition of a just war (see Chapter 13) is that a war can’t be fought for territory, or for glory, but strictly for defending one’s country or preventing future genuine threats. That means a war can be fought only if no other option seems reasonable or practical. A story about a just war must show that war is the last moral option and that the goal is peace. In addition, it must demonstrate a clear vision of who is right and who is wrong. World War II spawned thousands of novels and fi lms telling the story of good triumphing over evil. Some fi lms attempt factually to depict actual wartime events, such as The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, Enola Gay, Hamburger Hill, and Heroes of Telemarken . Others spin fi ctional elements and characters into a story with a message about the experience of war, such as Twelve O’Clock High, Memphis Belle, Midnight Clear, Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line, We Were Warriors, and the acclaimed HBO series Band of Brothers. The Korean War has been depicted by the M*A*S*H fi lm and television series, the Vietnam War by a number of fi lms from The Green Berets to Apocalypse Now to Born on the Fourth of July; the Gulf War is featured in Jarhead; Black Hawk Down tells a story from our involvement in Somalia, and September 11 is the topic of The World Trade Center and United 93 . The war in Afghanistan is an element of the novel and fi lm The Kite Runner as well as the fi lm Brothers, the television se- ries Combat Hospital, and—from a female perspective—the novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which is featured in the Narrative section in Chapter 12. Films featuring the war in Iraq include Stop Loss, The Hurt Locker, The Green Zone, and the made-for-TV movie Act of Honor .

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In All Quiet on the Western Front (Universal Studios, 1930, based on Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel), Katczinsky (Louis Wolheim) is the old “trench hog” and Paul Baumer (Lew Ayres), the young idealist who is about to get his lesson in the realities of war. The West’s image of war changed with World War I. No more shining swords and prancing horses—there was nothing glorious about dying in the trenches of the European battlefi elds, and few soldiers understood the purpose of the prolonged fi ghting. However, the virtues of friendship, courage, and loyalty seemed all the more important as a twentieth-century war ethic. (From the collection of C. R. Covner.)

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The Moral Universe of Westerns: Hard Choices Stories of the American West, called Westerns, have served as moral lessons for both the American public and a worldwide audience for more than a hundred years. All nations seem to go through periods when they “rediscover” their past, but the American West as a historical period is both recent and very short: from 1865 to about 1885—from the end of the Civil War to the end of the open cattle range, which resulted from the advent of barbed wire and the bad winters of the 1880s. There have probably been more stories told about the Old West than could ever have happened. Even when the Old West was still alive, those in the East were reading dime novels that glamor- ized the West; the fi rst Western fi lms were shot outside New York City in the early 1900s. The process of creating a legend about the recent past was very rapid and even involved actual cowboys and gunfi ghters who moved from the plains and the deserts to Hollywood to lend a hand. Wyatt Earp himself, of Tombstone fame, went to Hollywood, and when he died, Tom Mix, the Western fi lm hero, was one of his pallbearers. Making entertainment out of recent history was one way to draw people to the theaters. If that were all, though, the Western never would have endured as long as it has. Part of its allure seems to have been its exoticism; the West is, still, a unique landscape. And then there is wishful thinking: Perhaps the Old West was never the way it appears in movies, but we wish it had been. An even greater appeal is the moral potential of a Western. For Western afi cionados, it is almost like watching a rit- ual. The story usually is one we are familiar with, even if we are seeing it for the fi rst time: There have to be good guys and bad guys, and horses, and they have to do a lot of riding back and forth among rocks in a gorgeous landscape. Then there is usually a good girl and sometimes also a bad girl. And there is a threat, either from Indians or the railroad or rustlers or (in later Westerns) big business, which is warded off by the strength and wit of Our Hero, sometimes even reluctantly. (He often has to be dragged into the fi ght.) When the problem is solved, the hero rarely settles down but rides off into the sunset so that he doesn’t get entangled in the peace and prosperity of the society he helped stabilize. In later Westerns, the good guys are Indians or blacks or a gang of outlaws and the bad guys are the army or other Indians or the law; the stable society becomes a negative rather than a positive image. Tradition- ally, though, the general pattern is the same: The power of the individual (the Good) rises above the threat of a larger force (the Evil). Sometimes the individual paves the way for civilization, but in the process makes himself superfl uous, as in what may be the best Western ever made, The Searchers (see p. 71 and Chapter 10). Sometimes the individual accomplished his moral triumph in spite of the community that lets him down, as in another classic, High Noon (see Chapter 6). And sometimes the in- dividual stands up for what he believes in but is sacrifi ced by the community who rejects his values, as in the underrated masterpiece The Life of Tom Horn . Why do people watch Westerns if they already know what will happen? Because the movie experience (or TV experience) itself is a moral event. People take part in the story by watching it, and they feel that when the problems on the screen are solved, the general problems of life are, in some symbolic way, put to rest at the same time. The moviegoer may not even be aware of this psychological process.

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One might think that if the Western had a moral message, it would seem pretty dated, and sometimes even offensive, to modern audiences. After all, the fi rst gen- eration of Westerns left the overall impression that it was fi ne to kill Indians, that women were weak and had to be protected, that blacks were nonexistent, that the land was there only to be developed, that animal life and suffering were irrelevant, and so on. However, some themes were timeless, such as courage vs. cowardice, and the Western developed a potential to change with the changing times. There were still good guys and bad guys, but in each period they refl ected the problems of the contemporary world, at least in a symbolic sense. In the 1950s the Western began to refl ect a growing unease with the stereotype of townspeople conquering the wilderness; the sixties saw an increasing sympathy for the outlaw. The Western of the seventies was infl uenced by the Vietnam War and began to address problems of discrimination, overdevelopment, and pollution. In the eighties the Western seemed to have nothing more to say, but in the nineties it acquired a voice once again;

The 1985 Western Silverado (Columbia Pictures) abandoned the 1970s trend of depicting the Old West in decline and gave its audience a story in a vigorous frontier setting with a happy ending. For that reason, the fi lm is sometimes referred to as a “retro-Western.” Many of the themes incorpo- rated in Silverado are anything but “retro,” however; for example, with this fi lm the Western genre entered a new era of racial awareness. Here the four buddies (Danny Glover, Kevin Costner, Scott Glenn, and Kevin Kline) ride out to save the town of Silverado from corruption.

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Western fi lms have from the early days managed to integrate modern problems into the period plot. The classic fi lm (and book) The Oxbow In- cident focused on mass hysteria, cowardice, and lynching. The Vietnam War era had its “Vietnam Westerns” in which massacred Indians symbol- ized the Vietnamese and the army symbolized the U.S. Army in Vietnam ( Soldier Blue, Little Big Man ). Post-Watergate Westerns showed corrupt politicians and greedy railroad tycoons ( Young Guns I and II ). Westerns of the 1990s explored the issue of violence and its justifi cation. Tomb- stone and Wyatt Earp both examine the effects of violence on a township and on the individual (Earp) who tries to put an end to it, and Unfor- given probably makes the strongest antiviolence statement of all newer Westerns, refl ecting on the loss of humanity in the life of a gunfi ghter. With the return of the Western, there has been a growing sensitivity not only to histori- cal accuracy but also to a multiethnic presence in the Old West. African Americans have found a heroic identity in the Western landscape ( Silverado, Lonesome Dove ), and American In- dians have emerged from old stereotypes such as devils or angels to become real people with their own language and their own problems and jokes ( Dances with Wolves, The Last of the Mo- hicans, Geronimo ). Strong female characters in Westerns are still rare, although there have been a few of them over the years in the fi lms Johnny Guitar, Rio Bravo, and High Noon, the television movie Lonesome Dove, and the television series Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. The Ballad of Little Jo, about a woman passing herself off as a man to get by in life; Open Range, featuring a female character who, in her determination, is as strong as the male “hero”; and in particular the fi lm Missing, with its female lead trying to rescue her abducted daughter, all help to dispel the impression that Westerns are exclusively about men and for men. Both the original (1969) and

the remake (2010) of True Grit feature a spunky teenage girl as the main character, set on aveng- ing her father’s death—although, in both fi lms, the boozing, talkative one-eyed U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn gets most of the camera atten- tion. True Grit is featured in the Narrative sec- tion of Chapter 11. Critics were divided about the 2005 Western Brokeback Mountain: Was this evidence that the Western was still able to renew itself, addressing current issues within the classic Western plot and scenery, or was this, in effect, the fi lm that signaled “the end of the Western” by introduc- ing a theme into the fi lm that seemed alien and uncomfortable to many fans of Westerns as well as to people living in the Western states? The fi lm, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, was about two young male sheepherders who fi nd sex during a lonely summer on the range, and a confl icted love for the rest of their lives as cowboys in Wyoming and Texas. It was hailed, or deplored, as the fi rst “gay Western,” but in fact other Westerns have experimented with the topic. The fi rst Western fi lm with an openly gay theme was Andy Warhol’s experi- mental 1974 fi lm Lonesome Cowboys; another Western with minor gay characters portrayed in a positive light is Tombstone, the acclaimed (otherwise straight) Western from 1993. Some fi lm commentators read hidden gay themes into the “buddy” Westerns of the 1960s and ’70s, but others see such fi lms as depictions of male friendships, nothing else. Critics familiar with Western fi lms pointed out, however, that Broke- back Mountain really was not so much a Western as a love story, about lovers who can’t fi nd hap- piness because of the world they live in, in the tradition of Romeo and Juliet, and that the outer accessories (the cowboy hats, the horses, the pickup trucks) were incidental. A television event that caused passion- ate discussions among Western fans was the

Box 2.4 T H E C H A N G I N G M E S S A G E S O F W E S T E R N S

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current Westerns often deal with cross-cultural and cross-racial issues in the Ameri- can melting pot. (See Box 2.4 for an overview of how the messages of Westerns have changed.) The Western, being the one narrative genre that is truly American, shows an amazing potential for being able to introduce many kinds of social and moral problems in a single framework in which people have to make big, moral decisions in a land where they are dwarfed by rocks, mountains, and deserts. These stories of momentous decisions appeal not just to Americans but to people all over the world. This makes the Western much more than just a movie genre. It has become a trans- cultural story told in a universal moral language.

Science Fiction: What Future Do We Want? Like the Western, science fi ction was born as a literary genre in the nineteenth century. The French author Jules Verne astounded the world with his fantasies of men on the moon and journeys to the cen- ter of the earth and the bottom of the sea. Even Hans Christian Andersen predicted, in one of his lesser-known stories, that in “thousands of years” Americans would be fl ying in machines to Europe to visit the Old World. Verne’s stories contained an element that has blossomed in modern science fi ction: a moral awareness. His stories reveal an awareness of the possible repercussions of the inventions, as well as a general political consciousness, which makes his books much more than mere entertainment. In England, the works of H. G. Wells combined science fantasy and social comment in the same way. In the twentieth century, science fi ction became a major genre of entertainment, from pulp magazines and comic books to serious novels and fi lms of high quality. Their subjects range from the pure fantasy of magical universes to hard-core thought experiments of exploratory science. Although science fi ction need not always involve ethical issues, it has proved to be one of the most suitable genres for exploring them, especially such problems as we believe may lurk in our future. In a category by itself is the end-of-civilization type of science fi ction, sometimes referred to as “cyberpunk.” The civilized world is destroyed by a nuclear war or a giant meteor strike or pollution or the advent of hostile aliens or an epidemic dis- ease. Although this type of story affords the author a chance to present many scenes of gruesome death or terrible disaster, the most serious problems usually occur in the relationships among the survivors. Will they degenerate into a “war of every- body against everybody,” as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes would say, or will the human spirit of compassion for one’s fellow beings triumph? This form also allows

award-winning HBO series Deadwood (2004–6). A parable of politics and human greed versus compassion, rather than a traditional Western series, the show turned many fans of West- ern movies away because of its raunchy lan- guage but won many viewers over through its

intriguing psychological portrayals of charac- ters in a society rising from the mud of a min- ing camp. In Deadwood as well as in Brokeback Mountain, and many other Western stories, the narrative becomes a universal story of humans facing diffi cult choices.

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us to discuss how the characters got into such dire situations in the fi rst place. If it is through human folly or neglect, such as global war or pollution, the stories can serve as powerful moral caveats, or warnings. Famous dystopia or cyberpunk fi lms include Fahrenheit 451 (excellent novel and fi lm, see below), A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, Soylent Green, X-Files: Fight the Future, Gattaca (see Chapter 7), Children of Men, Code 46, Armageddon, Starship Troopers, The Postman (great novel, so-so fi lm), Minority Report , The Island (see Chapter 7), both the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, and its 2010 remake, and V for Vendetta. The young-adult trilogy of novels, The Hunger Games, Catching Fire , and Mockingjay have captured the imagination of many young readers with the stories of young people being chosen by a future control- ling government to fi ght to the death in the annual games. A fi lm adaptation was expected to open in 2012. Interestingly enough, there is a “counterfable” to the end-of-the-world scenario. It is the story of the Happy Future—not a future without problems, but a future in which some of today’s pressing problems have been solved. Such stories pres- ent a world without nuclear threat, without racism or sexism, without nationalistic chauvinism—a world in which science has acquired a humanistic face and politics on earth, as well as in space, is conducted with a democratic spirit and common sense. The original Star Trek television series pioneered that hopeful fantasy of the future. The sequel, Star Trek: The Next Generation, showed that the Happy Future scenario was as welcome as ever, not in a naive sense, but as a vision of a maturing humanity that, free from the fears, deprivations, and resentments of the modern age, may be able to turn its energy toward new frontiers and challenges. Another great series of science fi ction stories that has also proved to have staying power is the Star Wars franchise. But in the Star Wars universe we fi nd no Federa- tion of civilized planets as in Star Trek; on the contrary, the evil forces are organized into an evil Empire, and the heroes, the Jedi Knights, are guerrillas battling the over- whelming military power—and its bureaucracy. Scholars and journalists have spent time analyzing this interesting opposition of space-opera scenarios—a benevolent Federation and an evil Empire—and some have pronounced Star Trek to be the fan- tasy of liberals preferring big government, and Star Wars the fantasy of conservatives fi ghting for individual freedoms in the face of the bureaucracy. Be that as it may, both series have created enduring stories that, in many ways, have become part of our American mythology, and both occasionally approach the question of what it really means to be human: Who (or what) counts as a person? In Star Trek we have the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, the android Data, and the hologram The Doctor, all on the edge of humanity, all counting as persons and yet having their personhood placed in doubt time and time again. In Star Wars we have a multitude of characters who are considered persons but not human, such as Chewbacca the Wookie, the ’droids, Yoda, and Jar-Jar Binks. The question of who counts as a person is especially popular in science fi ction novels: Several sci-fi au- thors have specialized in this issue, among them Cordwainer Smith, Octavia Butler, Rebecca Ore, Ursula K. Le Guin, and C. J. Cherryh. In stories about genetically al- tered chimps and other animals who do the dirty work for humans (Smith), humans adopted by aliens (Butler, Ore), and lone human envoys to alien societies (Le Guin

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and Cherryh), we are invited to explore (1) what makes us human and (2) how we treat those we think don’t qualify. In Chapter 7 we take a closer look at the issue of personhood and discuss the fi lm Gattaca, about challenges to the concepts of person- hood and rights. The golem may be the oldest character in the science fi ction genre. It comes from the Eastern European Jewish tradition, in which it was said that a man might create an artifi cial person out of clay, a golem, but if he weren’t careful to keep this creature in check with certain magical acts and formulas, the clay man would grow and eventually take over and kill him. One story tells of a rabbi creating a golem to help the Jews protest false accusations of blood-sacrifi cing of Christians during Passover. This particular golem helped the Jewish people for years by exposing Christian plots to plant dead bodies of Christians in Jewish homes. But the golem became too strong and powerful for the rabbi to handle, so in the end the rabbi had to turn him back into the clay from which he had been created. In another version of the story, the rabbi turned the golem back into clay because his job was done and there was no reason to keep him around anymore. (And the character Gollum in Lord of the Rings wasn’t named by accident—he is, in effect, a creation of the Ring, originally a hobbit-type creature transformed by its evil power.) In the early nine- teenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley created a similar artifi cial person, the monster of Frankenstein. Shelley’s theme was the same as that of the golem story: human arrogance and invention run wild. In a strange sense we might say that the golem story is very traditional: If you exceed your boundaries, your creation will come back to haunt you. In a broader sense, though, the story teaches us to evaluate our actions from a moral perspective. In the movies, the artifi cial monster has taken on a number of guises, from the maniacal computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Day After Tomorrow tells a story of instant global weather disaster, brought about by global warming. Here New York City is being hit by a gigantic tsunami, right before the big chill sets in and plunges the East into a new ice age. Critics praised the special effects but weren’t kind to the plot or the science behind it.

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and the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the Terminator movies to the corrupted robots in I, Robot . Sometimes there is a twist to the story, though: In some science fi ction stories, the monster is not the creation but the creators, such as in Artifi cial Intelligence: AI, in which a robot child is rejected by his human family. The innocent victim is here the hapless robot created as a thing for humans to use, a slave to the whims of humans. In any event, the artifi cial person serves well not just as a topic for discussion about what to do if artifi cial beings become viable in our society but also as a fi gura- tive image of ourselves. (Box 2.5 discusses the human qualities of the artifi cial per- son.) The artifi cial person makes us realize what it is to be human and what we ought to be like to be more human; it provides an excursion into our own descriptive and normative concepts of humanity and provokes us to explore how we should treat the Other. (In philosophy the person who is different from oneself is often referred to as the Other. The term signifi es that one is facing something or someone that one is fundamentally unfamiliar with. It can mean a stranger, a person of the other sex or of another race, or it can mean other people or beings as such, as opposed to oneself and one’s own experiences. Sometimes it signifi es someone complementary to one- self, but it may also mean that the Other is not as complete, worthy, or important as oneself and one’s own kind. You will encounter the concept again in Chapter 10.)

Artifi cial persons in fi ction and fi lms often yearn to become human. Frankenstein’s mon- ster suffers from that yearning, but he is not allowed to become what he wishes to be. Data, the android in Star Trek: The Next Generation, does not have the capability to feel human emotions, but he is intellectually curious about what causes humans to act passionately or maliciously. He longs to be human the way a child longs to grow up. The replicants in Blade Runner are ready to kill for a chance to be- come full-dimensional humans. And the robot Sonny in I, Robot awakens to consciousness and becomes the visionary liberator of all of his kind—the artifi cial beings created as servants without rights. The artifi cial human in Termi- nator  2 displays defi nite human characteris- tics; he bonds with a small boy and sacrifi ces himself for the sake of humankind. And the

little robotic boy David in Artifi cial Intelligence: AI (which should probably have been called Artifi cial Emotion instead) has been designed to bond with his human family and love them unconditionally. The tragedy arises when they see no obligation to return his love, because he isn’t human, and try to dispose of him like a used tissue. His dream is to become a real boy so his mother will love him. Just as the mon- ster side of the artifi cial person is symbolized by the golem, the wanting-to-be-human side is epitomized by Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who wants to become a real boy. As the story of Pinocchio teaches, you don’t become a “real” boy by doing the bad-boy things. If you do the bad-boy things (have fun and skip school), you become what bad boys become: an ass. Pinoc- chio is for all intents and purposes a very mor- alistic fable.

Box 2.5 T H E N O N H U M A N W H O W A N T S T O B E C O M E H U M A N

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The dangerous, serious golem has a strange, lighthearted counterpart in the Roman tradition that has, so to speak, acquired a life of its own in popular culture: Ovid’s story of Pygmalion, the sculptor who created a statue of a goddess, Aphrodite (in some versions Galatea), and fell in love with it. Aphrodite the statue came to life, and she and Pygmalion got married. The story has appeared in numerous versions in Western literature since then, most famously in George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion. The play (later made into a fi lm) tells the story of a professor of phonet- ics, Professor Higgins, who makes a bet with a friend that he can transform the street vendor Eliza into a proper lady with upper-class English pronunciation and vocabu- lary. The classic musical and fi lm My Fair Lady was the next step in the populariza- tion of the story. Another version was added with the fi lm Educating Rita (1983). A digital fi lm fantasy of an artifi cially created dream woman who acquires a life of her own, Simone (2002), brought the theme full circle back to the golem, the artifi cial person. All the women “come to life” in this female golem-type story have one feature in common: that they can’t be controlled by their makers—in addition to a life, each develops a will of her own—but fortunately for the sculptor or the scientist (a male), she usually ends up loving him in spite of his shortcomings. (For example, Professor Higgins is pedantic and boring.) One might say that the Pygmalion story is the male fantasy of creating life—not as a father, but as a master and lover—and the golem story is the male fantasy of creating life as a master and partner. Both story types involve the illusion of control and the loss of that control. Interestingly, there is no female counterpart to the golem or Pygmalion stories: The literary tradition has no female sculptor, painter, scientist, or even witch who creates a male to do her dirty work, or to become her lover—perhaps because (1) women already create life on a regular basis and need no fantasy to fulfi ll the need for creativity, or (2) most stories have, until the twentieth century, been told from the male perspective. If (2) is the more likely explanation, we might begin to look for stories in which women create androids to serve them faithfully! Be that as it may, golem and Pygmalion stories may symbolize fundamental human longings to create and fears that their creation may run amok, out of control. And essentially, this may be the very nature of the human experience, whether one is male or female: Some of us have children; some of us teach children; some of us teach young adults and adults; some of us create art; some of us invent new tech- nologies, weapons, devices, medicines; some of us blaze trails or give the world new paradigms and templates to change our self-comprehension. But do we know where these creations of ours will go once we have relinquished control or once control has been taken away from us? The golem and Pygmalion stories illustrate two aspects of the creative process: One is the fear that our creation will wreak havoc, and the other is the hope that our creation will love us, and be a success, and enrich the world. Parents, teachers, artists, inventors—we all have these hopes and fears. They are two sides of the same experience, the yin and the yang. The stories help us come to terms with them. A variation of the theme of the golem, with an element of Pygmalion, can be found in Charles Johnson’s short story “The Education of Mingo.” Antebellum farmer Moses Green, a lonely old white man, buys a black slave, Mingo, not for the work, but mainly so that Moses can have company. Since Mingo has no knowledge

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of Western culture, Moses educates Mingo as if he were a child—but instead of be- coming a companion, Mingo develops into a mental copy of Moses, even to the point where Mingo reads Moses’ subconscious intentions and acts on them. Instead of a partner or a son, Mingo has become an alter ego, a golem that Moses can’t control. You can read a summary and excerpt of this story in the Narrative section. And then we have science fi ction stories about the value of stories, such as Ray Bradbury’s famous science fi ction novel (and fi lm) Fahrenheit 451, in which the fi re department no longer puts out fi res, but sets them, whenever the government has discovered another illegal private stash of novels and other books, in a future society where the written word has become outlawed. Bradbury’s solution? Each book lover memorizes his or her favorite novel or nonfi ction masterpiece and recites it to new generations until the day comes when reading will again be a treasured activity. The other side of the debate about the value of stories may be represented by the com- edy Galaxy Quest, in which an alien race has followed our space opera series with great interest, believing that they are “historical documents.” They don’t understand that such shows are fi ction, created for entertainment. So is fi ction the same as lies, without value? As the fi lm speculates, even the silly stories of a low-budget television series may make us rise to the occasion and act more nobly than we ever thought possible!

Mystery and Crime: The Fight Against Evil As some surveys have found, we mod- ern humans have developed a deep sense of vulnerability—even before the terror attacks of 9/11, at a time when the crime rate was dropping, people still felt that everyday life was full of dangers. Perhaps that accounts for the perennial popularity of detective stories. Cop shows and murder mysteries give us some semblance of a feeling that something can actually be done to control the forces we feel are threaten- ing us. More than in any other genre, the attention centers on the issue of good and evil —not in an abstract sense, but as personifi ed on the streets. We may general- ize somewhat and say that science fi ction deals with desirable versus undesirable futures, Westerns deal with hard choices, and war movies deal with questions of duty, but crime stories above all specialize in questions of good and evil—and what to do about evil. Sometimes we follow the story to its ending with a great deal of hope: Something can be done. At other times, it seems as if forces of good are try- ing to empty the ocean with a slotted spoon. What makes this genre so compelling is that evil acquires a face: the face of the bad guy (male or female). And when that person is caught, sentenced, or killed, the greater formless threat of Evil seems to have been vanquished for a while too. Even when the bad guy wins, as he has so often in recent movies, we still have a sense that the fi ght against evil is not fruitless or without merit. As such, this genre has an inside angle on moral narratives: Re- gardless of whether the good guys or the bad guys win, or whether you can tell the difference between the good guys and bad guys (as in some movies from the 1970s), or whether the good guys are really bad guys (as in stories of corrupt cops), there is a subtext of a moral discussion going on: What is good? What is evil? And what can be done about it?

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The fi rst acknowledged detective story with a “whodunit” focus, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” was written by American author Edgar Allan Poe in 1841. In England, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle followed shortly after with his stories about the sleuth Sherlock Holmes. In France, Georges Simenon created the police detective Mai- gret in 1931. Major heroic fi ctional detectives—mostly private investigators—in the literary tradition include characters such as Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Dick Tracy, Lord Peter Wimsey, Philip Marlowe, Paul Drake (from Perry Mason ), Nero Wolfe, Miss Marple, and Easy Rawlins. At the movies, we’ve followed the puzzle-solving efforts of police detectives and private eyes from Nick and Nora Charles ( The Thin Man fi lms) to Dirty Harry to the detectives of L.A. Confi dential, Mulholland Falls, the Die Hard and Lethal Weapon fi lms, 48 Hours, and Devil in a Blue Dress. Television has given us cop shows such as Dragnet, Adam 12, Columbo, Barney Miller, Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Law and Order, Homicide, NCIS, and CSI. A borderline mystery/ sci-fi series that reached almost mythic proportions in the late 1990s was The X-Files, with its two-person team of FBI agents attempting to solve crimes that, in some cases, were “out of this world.” Mulder (the believer) and Scully (the skeptic) revealed con- spiracies within conspiracies, only to have their results sealed by yet another cover- up; the driving force behind Mulder’s idealism was that “the truth is out there.” The shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and NCIS and their spin-offs have in some sense taken over where The X-Files left off, in popularity and infl uence on our popular culture: With their highly glamorized stories of forensic crime scene research, the network shows have educated an entire TV-watching nation to the point that it has become commonplace among laypeople (including jurors!) to expect that electronic forensics plus DNA, hair, and fi ber will be found at each crime scene and will point unequivocally to a suspect—and that is, of course, not always the case. Statistically the most popular network television show in the early 2010s was NCIS , with the early subtitle of Naval Criminal Investigative Service . Premiering in 2003, NCIS has accumulated a loyal following of viewers who like the combination of grisly special effects (in particular autopsies), high-tech medical and computer forensics, and the breezy, almost family-type relationships between the members of Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’s team. With a nation engaged in two wars, the show’s frequent plots involving military men and women struck a chord without being engaged in any pro- or anti-war rhetoric. And the edgy, humorous banter be- tween the team members, with an undertone of utter respect for their leader, Gibbs, seems to speak to viewers who wish their co-workers were like Kate, Ziva, Tim, Tony, Abby, and Doctor Mallard, and their boss like Gibbs. But even Gibbs is not without a dark side: His past includes the loss of a wife and daughter to murder, a string of ex-wives and past girlfriends (after the loss of his fi rst wife) and a very secret episode in his life where he chose to play judge, jury, and executioner and took out the man who killed his family—a man the law had failed to hold responsible. Over the years, the show has succeeded in raising the moral question of the importance of character and loyalty, of how much an end is allowed to justify the means, and making choices between expediency and integrity. And as an added element of interest for the focus of this chapter, Special Agent Tony DiNozzo makes a habit of quoting lines from movie classics whenever a problem arises that bears resemblance to a plot.

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While most readers are used to considering crime and police detective stories quintessentially American, the genre is thriving with homegrown authors in many other countries. Especially Scandinavian authors have taken to the gritty, noir-style stories of law enforcement, private detectives, or journalists going up against de- praved individuals preying on the physically or socially vulnerable—the classic battle between good and evil in a hypermodern setting. Authors who have made American readers sit up and take notice are Swedish Stieg Larsson with his Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, Swedish Henning Mankell, Norwegian Jo Nesbø, and Danish Sara Blaedel. Interesting to Scandinavian critics, these stories have a high level of individualism, even within a setting typical for Scandinavia where everybody feels that they belong to a society where the government watches over you, like (generally) benign aunts and uncles, and there is virtually no tradition of vigilantism (except for the fi erce resistance in Norway and Denmark against the Nazis during World War II). But even so, the crime stories that fl ourish today have individuals who take it upon themselves to cut through red tape and catch the bad guys when the government is too slow, fails to see the true picture, or even collaborates with the shady characters, such as in Larsson’s trilogy. The Scandinavian genre of crime

The hugely popular crime show NCIS features frequent references to moral issues of character, pro- fessionalism and loyalty. Here at a typical crime scene we see (from left, second row) team leader Jethro Gibbs ( Mark Harmon), Tony Dinozzo (Michael Weatherly), Ziva David (Cote de Pablo), Timothy McGee (Sean Murray), and in the foreground the forensic scientists Jimmy Palmer (Brian Dietzen) and Doctor Donald Mallard (David McCallum).

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stories, despite the cultural differences, seems to resonate with American readers, perhaps precisely because of the “individual against the red tape” theme. Like Westerns and science fi ction, the mystery genre refl ects changing mores: For the longest time, law-enforcement offi cers were depicted as the good guys and criminals as the bad guys. And if the law wasn’t the hero, at least the detective was. As modern cynicism increased, it became common for novels and fi lms to depict the criminal as an “antihero” and the establishment as the evil power. In the Primary Readings section you’ll fi nd an excerpt from Raymond Chandler’s classic essay on the detective story “The Simple Art of Murder.” Lately, the patterns have merged into the good cop/detective/FBI agent fi ghting a two-front battle against both the bad guys on the streets and the bad guys in administration or the Internal Affairs Division. An example of this is the acclaimed fi lm (and novel) L.A. Confi dential, in which the truly bad guy is not the mobster or a street gang member but a high-ranking police offi cer. This story model refl ects something that we the audience don’t particularly like to see anymore—the criminal given the hero treatment, and we don’t automatically buy into the idea that perps are poor misguided souls who would have been upstanding citizens if they’d had a decent childhood. On the other hand, today’s audience doesn’t believe that law-enforcement offi cers are all knights in shining armor either. We do still want to believe, however, that somebody competent and committed is out there fi ghting crime. So the story model of the cop fi ghting criminals and superiors strikes a realistic, as well as a hopeful, chord for a modern audience. Particularly shocking to cable TV audiences was the launching of the Showtime crime series Dexter —because the hero of the series was also what under other circum- stances would be called the villain, a serial killer. But with dark humor the series won over the viewers by having Dexter kill (mostly) other serial killers who prey on the defenseless and innocent. Dexter lives by a code, The Code of Harry, bequeathed to him by his adoptive father who knew Dexter’s dark side, his bloodlust: (1) Never get caught, and (2) Never kill an innocent. Other rules include, “Never make a scene,” and “Fake emotion” to appear normal, because Dexter doesn’t have feelings like other human beings—at least not in the fi rst seasons of the show. Even so, because of his dedication to taking out the vicious killers that the justice system somehow failed to hold accountable, we fi nd ourselves rooting for perhaps the most prolifi c and skillful fi ctional killer of them all—which makes for an interesting moral twist to the story. And when Dexter himself violates Harry’s Code and goes after presumed killers be- fore the law can catch them, and even engages in a relationship with a mother of two children without ever letting on that he leads a hidden life, the audience’s loyalty is put to the test. Another twist to the crime genre was provided by the HBO series The Sopranos, about a middle-class New Jersey family—who also happened to be part of the Mafi a. Mafi a and middle-class morals collided in Tony Soprano’s attempt to raise a decent family and provide for them. The series asked, repeatedly, whether such an end could justify the means? Could one be a good person in one area of one’s life, and a bad one in another? The Sopranos just asked the question—the series left it up to the audience to ponder whether there are any easy answers, all the way to the fi nal show which, shockingly, ended in mid-stream. You can still fi nd Sopranos fans arguing over whether that was a brilliant ending, or a let-down.

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Are Stories Harmful? A New and Ancient Debate

In 1774 The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel, was published in Germany. The author was twenty-four-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who would later write the defi nitive version of Faust. In the novel—incidentally, one of the fi rst modern novels as we know it, with a story line involving the emotional develop- ment of a main character during the course of a happy or an unhappy encounter— young Werther suffers so dramatically from unrequited love that he takes his own life. (See the Narrative at the end of the chapter.) In the wake of the book’s publication, Germany, and later all of Europe, witnessed a rash of suicides being committed or attempted by young readers of Werther. Why did they do it? Goethe certainly never intended his book to be a suicide manual. This is one of the fi rst examples in modern times of a work of fi ction inspiring its readers to take drastic action. This book, along with other works of literature, art, and philosophy, ush- ered in the new Age of Romanticism, when the ideal person was perceived as an emotional rather than a rational being, and men, as well as women, acted on their emotions, often in public. The decision of young Werther was seen as a romantic

The Showtime original series Dexter plays games with our sense of right and wrong: Dexter ( Michael C. Hall) is the “hero” of the series, but he is also a villain, a serial killer driven by blood lust. Instructed by his adoptive father who knew his “dark passenger,” Dexter kills other serial k illers whom the law has failed to capture or the courts have not been able to convict.

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option and had a powerful emotional effect; even some famous poets of the day chose to end their lives, and the rest of Europe woke up to the dangers, and the thrill, of literature. Since then, scholars of literature have discussed why Goethe’s book had such an effect; it was not the fi rst tragic story printed, and poems and songs of unrequited love had been common since the Middle Ages. Several factors seem to have been in- volved. First, mass printing and distribution of literature were now under way. Sec- ond, the era known as the Enlightenment was coming to an end, and its effects were beginning to be felt. There was a focus on the rights and capacities of the individual, including the right (for boys) to receive an education. That meant that the common man, as well as many women, was now able to read. Third, the theme of the story, Werther’s emotions, seemed to strike a chord in the young readers who were mov- ing away from the idealization of reason, which had been central to the lives of their parents and grandparents, to an idealization of emotions—so we are talking about a kind of generational rebellion. All in all, you might say that this was a book that appeared at exactly the right time. And its fame landed Goethe a job with the royal court at twenty-six years of age. But for the rest of his long life, he was disturbed at the effect his book had had on its young readers. The aftermath of Werther was not the fi rst time in Western culture that the topic of the effects of an artistic work had arisen. In ancient Greece, Plato and Aristotle had debated whether art was a good or a bad psychological infl uence. Plato claimed that art, especially drama, was bad for people because it inspired violent emotions; people watching a play with a violent theme would be inspired to commit violence themselves. For Plato; the ideal life was spent in complete balance and harmony; if the balance was upset, that life would be less perfect. Reason helped keep a person in balance; if emotions took over, reason would be diminished, and imbalance would occur. And since art helped stir emotions, then art was dangerous. At the end of this chapter, you’ll fi nd an excerpt from Plato’s Republic expressing that theory. Ironically, Plato himself had been an aspiring playwright before encountering Socrates, and would have known about what makes a popular dramatic play—he had attempted to write those very plays himself when he was young. And when he has Socrates say (see p. 98) that going to the theater can corrupt “even men of high character,” we get a sense that Plato may be recalling an actual conversation with Socrates, or at least sharing the lesson he’d learned himself when turning away from the theater. But Plato’s student Aristotle had a different view of the theater: He was born in northern Greece, the same area where his favorite playwright Euripides came from, and was very familiar with his tragedies. Aristotle seems to have thoroughly enjoyed going to the theater, for its moral value as well as for entertainment, to the extent that he wrote two books about the theater, parts 1 and 2 of The Poetics . Part 1 was dedicated to an analysis and, literally, a prescription for writing good tragedies, and Part 2 focused on the proper writing of comedies. His book on tragedy has survived to this day (see the excerpt at the end of this chapter), but his book on comedy has been lost since the early Middle Ages. (At the end of the chapter you’ll fi nd a Reading from Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose featuring the fantasy of Aristotle’s book on comedy resurfacing in the High Middle Ages).

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Aristotle believed that art, and especially drama, was good for people be- cause it allowed them to act out their emotions vicariously; a good play would thus cleanse the spectator of disturbing emotions, and he or she could return home a calmer person: The exposure to strong feelings and to a considerable amount of stage violence would have a cathartic effect. Aristotle claimed that feeling pity and fear for the victim of the tragedy cleanses us by making us un- derstand that tragedy could happen to anyone, including ourselves. In his book on tragedy, Poetics (see the excerpt at the end of the chapter), Aristotle makes it clear that the best tragic plays are those in which misfortune happens not to a very good person but to an ordinary person who made a monumental error in judgment. And since most of us are ordinary persons, the play becomes a moral learning experience—a moral laboratory in which we can see our inner urges acted out and learn from the tragic consequences. (Box 2.6 explores the debate between reason and emotion.) One might wonder what kind of plays the ancient Greeks watched at the time of Plato and Aristotle that led to such different evaluations of the experience of drama from these two thinkers. For one thing, Greek drama had been around for only

Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther came as a harbinger of a cultural sea change from the dominant worldview of the eighteenth century, the Age of Reason, to the new age that was dawning, the Age of Romanticism. Goethe himself embraced the philosophy of the Age of Reason—the belief that reason, not emotion, is the true problem solver—but others took their cue from Werther and let the age of emotions roll in. Interestingly, these shifts of focus between rationality and emotion have happened at other times. In some ways one can say such a shift took place on a small scale between the 1950s and the late 1960s. And much earlier that same transformation had swept through a society in which intellectuals—perhaps purely by chance—had also been debating about the dangers and value of stories: Plato’s and Aristotle’s Greece. The Greek theater was only a couple of gen- erations old by the time Plato warned against its emotional pull, yet it had already developed a rich tradition of annual plays and prizes, all

in honor of a god imported from the Middle East, Dionysus. The older gods such as Zeus, Athena, and Apollo were still worshiped, es- pecially in Athens, but a religious battle was brewing during the lifetime of Plato and Aristo- tle for the souls of all Greeks: Whereas the old gods, in particular Apollo and Athena, symbol- ized reason and self-control (a principle that is predominant in Socrates’ and Plato’s way of thinking), Dionysus was the god of wine and excess. You may know him under his Roman name, Bacchus. This philosophical battle be- tween self-control and emotional abandon was won by Plato: His writings have endured, with their praise of reason, whereas nobody is a true worshiper of Dionysus anymore. Within the an- cient Greek world itself, however, one can say that Dionysus won: The theater fl ourished, with the moral support of Aristotle, who himself was from the north where they worshiped Dionysus. And today the ultimate legacy of the Dionysian religion, movies and television shows, are being produced and enjoyed all over the world.

Box 2.6 R E A S O N O R E M O T I O N ? A P O L L O V E R S U S D I O N Y S U S

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a couple of generations. It seems to have begun in the form of religious pageants at the annual festival of Dionysus in Athens and developed rapidly into a contest among playwrights of tragedies, comedies, and satyr plays (wild farces with sexual themes), with much prestige for the winners. More than fi fteen thousand spectators might see one performance of any play at the theater in Athens. The oldest surviving Greek play is The Persians by Aeschylus (ca. 472 B.C.E.); by that time, the emphasis on religious themes in the plays had already waned, and stories depicting the human condition (with some divine intervention) became popular. Just what was it about drama that Plato found so dangerous and Aristotle so uplifting? One of the stories in the Narratives section is a Greek tragedy, Euripides’ Medea, in which a woman kills her children to get revenge on her estranged hus- band. Another, perhaps the most famous, example of Greek tragedy is the story of Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. At Oedipus’s birth, his parents, the king and queen of Thebes, are told that their baby son will grow up to kill his father and marry his mother, so to thwart the fates, they have him placed on the ground in the moun- tains for the animals to dispose of. But his life is saved by a passing shepherd, who takes him to the court of the king and queen of Corinth to be raised as their son. As a young adult, Oedipus inquires about his future—and is told by the oracle that he is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. He fl ees his homeland, fearing that he might harm his beloved parents (who never told him that he was adopted). At a crossroads he meets a man who won’t give way to him, so Oedipus fi ghts and kills him. Later he marries the widowed queen of the land and becomes king. But after years of happily married life, Oedipus and his wife learn the truth: that he did indeed fulfi ll the prophecy and kill his natural father—the unknown man at the crossroads—and marry his natural mother. His wife/mother commits suicide, and Oedipus gouges out his eyes in grief and shame. Other stories watched avidly by the Athenian audiences include The Bacchae, a lesser-known story by Euripides in which a mother, in a religious frenzy, tears her own son’s head off, believing him to be a mountain lion; and Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon, about the king who leads the Greeks into the battle of Troy, only to lose his life on his homecoming at the hands of his wife and her lover. The common denominators in these tragedies were strong family passions, specu- lations on the nature of fate, and a considerable amount of bloodshed. In the excerpt from Poetics (at the end of the chapter), Aristotle points out that the quality of the trag- edy is far superior if the producers don’t rely on (in modern terminology) special effects but on the elements of the story itself: If it is well written, the audience will be shocked to the bone by the mere telling of the story—no stagecraft can make it more effective. The debate is still with us, although it now takes a somewhat different form. We now must consider whether violence in movies and on television inspires people (and especially children) to commit violence or whether it allows them to act out their aggressions in a safe environment. Psychologists who believe that violent fairy tales can be good for children clearly belong to the Aristotelian tradi- tion, although they may not support the excessive violence portrayed in movies and on TV. Video and computer games have come under increasing scrutiny for the very same reasons: Children and immature adult players may be infl uenced

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by the violence of the games. Whereas the early video and computer games were games of speed and skill, but without any (or with a very simple) story line, these games are today increasingly complex. Their plot lines not only involve the player/ players but also are designed so that the players, through their skills and choices, may experience a slightly different story each time they play the game. Game series such as the Jedi Knight, the Call of Duty, the Half Life, and The Sims have entered a new level of entertainment wherein the player is, to some extent, coauthor of the plot, within a range of possible plot lines. That gives the old phe- nomenon of storytelling a new twist—although stories have always been around, the storytellers have been celebrated unique individuals, in recognition of the truth that not everyone can tell a good yarn. If we can design our own stories now, will we have patience with stories that others have written? And will we be able to recognize a good story when we see it? However, what video and computer games have become notorious for in recent years is their increasing emphasis on (and some would say glorifi cation of) violence. In several school shootings, a connection between the shooters and their preference for violent video games has been brought up. For many, that is a preposterous as- sumption; for others, the association is obvious. Movies that have acquired a reputation for inspiring copycats are The Program (where young people challenge each other by positioning themselves in the middle of a heavily traffi cked street), the television series Beavis and Butthead (an arson epi- sode), The Burning Bed (an abused wife kills her husband), The Getaway (robbers observe the schedule of money transports), Stand By Me (kids knock down mail- boxes), Taxi Driver (said to have inspired John Hinckley in his attempt to assassinate President Reagan in order to impress Jodie Foster, who starred in the fi lm), Heat (a bank robbery in L.A.), and Set It Off (a fi lm about female bank robbers that served as a blueprint for a gang of two adult women and three teen girls who robbed banks in the state of Washington in 1998). The 1994 fi lm Natural Born Killers may have inspired both a bank robbery and the massacre of high school students in Littleton, Colorado, in 1999. The Columbine High massacre has also been linked to the fi lm The Basketball Diaries. In Los Angeles, a sixteen-year-old boy and two male cousins who stabbed the boy’s mother to death told detectives that they had been inspired by Scream and Scream 2 . In Michigan, a group of teens tried to make a Blair Witch Project –type horror video by kidnapping a young woman. And in 2007 a home inva- sion in Connecticut resulted in the strangulation murder of a mother and her two daughters who died in an arson fi re. One of the home invaders was sentenced to death in 2010; the other, standing trial the following year, told the court that his co- defendant took out 24 fi ctional books on violent murders, rape, and arson while in prison, preparing for the crime. (On the positive side I might mention that Madisyn Kestell, a 10-year old girl from Wisconsin, saved her mother’s life in 2011 by giving her artifi cial respiration as she had seen done in the drama series Grey’s Anatomy, and according to researchers from the University of Buffalo, reading Harry Potter stories and the Twilight series boosts young readers’ feelings of empathy for others.) Even if we might feel tempted to do something we’ve seen in a fi lm, most of us refrain because our common sense, experience, or conscience tells us it is not

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a smart thing to do. We believe we have a choice; we have the free will to decide whether or not to do things. Thus the question is, Should society play it safe and make sure that nobody has access to violent or suggestive stories because a few will imitate the action? In other words, should we allow censorship? Or should we let people take responsibility for what they watch and for what their children watch? Should we trust them to be their children’s guides rather than hand the job over to the government? Plato believed in censorship in his ideal state because he didn’t trust people to know what was good or bad for them. Was Plato correct in saying that it can be dangerous to be exposed to emotion-stirring dramas? It seems so, under certain cir- cumstances; but are those circumstances enough to justify imposing censorship on all viewers, even those who would never let their balance be disturbed? On the other hand, is Aristotle right that it is benefi cial overall to a mind under a great deal of tension to be exposed to violent fi ctional dramas? Given that televi- sion sets in American homes are on several hours a day on the average and that a great many shows during those hours will bring violence into the home, television is not necessarily a good prescription for a modern stressed-out person seeking relaxation. We should remember that the drama Aristotle recommended as benefi - cial was not available twenty-four hours a day, as it is on a TV set; Greek dramas were originally performed once a year in connection with religious festivals, and Aristotle’s philosophy in general advocates moderation in all things. In Chapter 9 you’ll read about his theory of the Golden Mean : nothing to excess, but in the right amount, between too much and too little. If he could have taken part in the mod- ern debate, he most certainly would have advised against overdoing the exposure to violence on TV and in movies. At the end of the chapter, in the Primary Read- ings section, you will fi nd an excerpt from one of Plato’s works and one of Aris- totle’s—and an excerpt from a novel by contemporary philosopher Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose, in which he pits the tradition of Plato against the words of Aristotle. Plato advised against the use of fi ction, and Aristotle advocated enjoying fi ction in moderation—comedy as well as tragedy. According to Eco, the Western world would have been a happier place, had Aristotle’s views prevailed! (For more on Plato and Aristotle, see Box 2.7.) Of course, children and adults are exposed to violence not just on TV and on fi lm; fi ctional violence is on the increase in comic books, in video games and com- puter games, and in the lyrics to music often favored by teens. The framework for this chapter, however, is the infl uence of stories, so I’ve chosen to focus on violence in movies and television. Whether we agree with Plato or with Aristotle, the fact remains that stories— both in written and in visual form—affect us. Some societies have reacted by ban- ning certain works or by conducting what to me is one of the foulest displays of cultural censorship: book burning. Other societies support the right of their citizens to decide for themselves what they wish to read or view. Most infl uential works were never intended as moral guidebooks for the public except in the broadest sense. Goethe didn’t write his Werther to persuade dozens of young, lovesick Germans to kill themselves—quite possibly, he intended for young

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Germans to examine their lives and loves more closely. Few authors would want their readers to imitate the actions of their fi ctional characters, although most would like to think their story has at least been food for thought. Stories considered good learning tools in twenty-fi rst-century America will in all likelihood be different from didactic stories in other times and places. It is a separate and very interesting question whether there is such a thing as universally morally commendable stories; we take a look at the subject of ethical relativism in Chapter 3. Box 2.8 examines the idea of a “wrong” moral lesson. Is it appropriate to talk about the impact of stories as if they take place in a vacuum, with vacuous people as receptacles? Of course not. Children and adults have a certain background that helps them process the stories they are exposed to, and this is where the infl uence of parents becomes important: If parents and children usually communicate about the stories the children are exposed to—or if parents are the ones telling their children the stories—ideally the children acquire a critical stance from the stories they will hear and watch as adults. That critical stance lowers the risk of their running out mindlessly to emulate some action that may look “cool” on the screen. It lowers the risk both that we take stories too seri- ously and that we don’t take them seriously enough. Indeed, we don’t even have to agree on which stories are morally valuable and which ones are misguided, or even nefarious propaganda. Many Americans fi nd Michael Moore’s fi lms Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 to be valuable and brave statements addressing troubling political aspects of our contemporary life, whereas others fi nd them to be offensive, overly partisan, and creative propaganda rather than a compilation of facts. Some of us fi nd Senator John McCain’s true stories of courage in Why Cour- age Matters to be morally fortifying, whereas others fi nd them to be preachy. But

Plato (427?–347 B.C.E.) was a student of Socrates, the man who is sometimes called the father of Western philosophy. He studied with Socrates in Athens for over twenty years, and after Socrates’ execution (see Chapter 8) he left Athens in anger and grief. A few years later he returned and became a teacher in his own right. While running his own school of philosophy he wrote numerous books, Dialogues, about the teachings of Socrates. Among his students was a young man from the province of Stagira, Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.). Deeply infl uenced by

Plato, Aristotle nevertheless developed his own approach to philosophy. For that and other rea- sons, Aristotle was not chosen as leader of the school when Plato died, so he left Athens for other jobs, including tutoring the young prince Alexander of Macedonia (Alexander the Great). But like Plato after his exile, Aristotle returned to Athens, opened up his own school, and began a short but immensely infl uential career of teach- ing and writing about philosophy and science. We talk about Socrates and Plato in detail in Chapter 8 and about Aristotle in Chapter 9.

Box 2.7 S O C R A T E S , P L A T O , A N D A R I S T O T L E

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either way, we relate to stories as having the potential for expressing moral values. So in the fi nal analysis, those of us who, like me, love stories and like to use them as moral lessons should remember to approach any story cautiously. Do stories create moral saints? No. Do they create moral sinners? No, not without coopera- tion from their audience. We must process the stories we are exposed to and ask questions such as, Do we understand its lesson? Do we want its lesson? Would we want the children in our lives to learn from the story? And if we say no, rather than trying to ban the story we should perhaps encourage others to acquire that same critical distance. Even if the story may not have a valuable lesson to teach children, it may still be an interesting story for adults! All the stories in this book are examples of how natural it is for humans to think in terms of stories when they want to discuss a moral problem. At this point, though, I would like to repeat something I mentioned earlier. These summaries of stories are by no means a suffi cient substitute for reading the stories or watching the fi lms your- self; the outlines merely provide a basis for discussing the specifi c problems explored in the stories in light of the theories presented in this book. If a certain narrative ap- peals to you, then read the original book or watch the original fi lm. In this way you will add another set of “parallel lives” to your own life experience. Besides, it’s not a bad idea to let the characters in fi lms and novels make some of our mistakes for us, as long as we don’t forget to make ourselves the central character in some stories of our own now and again.

What about fi lms that not only inspire confused souls to take the wrong kind of action but also directly teach lessons that are offensive to a large section of society? Censorship and Hollywood is a story that goes back to the mid-1930s and the Hays Offi ce, a group of self-proclaimed moral watchdogs who eliminated most direct refer- ences to sex in the movies until well into the 1950s. For many people, the “wrong” moral les- son is often associated with permissive sexual behavior, and that approach may well become a Hollywood issue once again, as the moral debate progresses in the twenty-fi rst century. But there are other kinds of lessons generally deemed “wrong” by our modern society: Should fi lms advocate violence? Should they advocate insensitivity toward the pain and suffering of

other people (or animals), as some comedies have done lately? In many cases what counts as violence and insensitivity, and even sexual per- missiveness, is in the eye of the beholder, but there is today a general consensus that promot- ing racial and ethnic stereotypes is not a positive lesson for a fi lm to teach, especially if its target audience is children. Even highly popular fi lms such as the Shrek series have been accused of desensitizing their audience of children through the fi lms’ adult-style cynicism toward old, favor- ite fairy tales and heroes—a cynicism that others simply see as humor. Ratings usually indicate if a fi lm is unsuitable for children, but while sex and violence are ratings issues, cynicism isn’t. In the end, perhaps this too comes down to re- sponsible parental monitoring.

Box 2.8 T E A C H I N G W R O N G L E S S O N S

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Throughout this book you will see examples of stories being the bearers of moral values. Of course, we have not even scratched the surface of the treasure of stories available to us, and I hope that our discussion will inspire you to experience and evaluate other narratives in light of the theories of ethics you’ll encounter in this book.

Study Questions

1. Name three didactic stories, describe their plots, and explain their moral lessons. Do you agree with those lessons? Why or why not?

2. Give an example of a story with a Quest motif or a Bargain motif, and explain its philosophical signifi cance: Does the Quest have a deeper meaning than what the story plot entails? Can the Bargain be viewed as a metaphor for a common life experience? Can you relate either type of story to something in your own experience?

3. Discuss the phenomenon of Goethe’s novel about Werther, who commits suicide because of unrequited love: What were the effects of the publication? Why did that phenomenon happen? Do you think something similar could happen today, inspired by a fi lm, a novel, or some other medium of fi ction? If yes, what should be done to prevent it, if anything? If no, why not?

4. Compare and contrast Plato’s and Aristotle’s views on whether watching a dramatic play (or, today, perhaps a fi lm) has a positive infl uence. Compare their viewpoints with the current discussion on the subject of violence in fi lms and on television. In your opinion, is one viewpoint more correct than the other? Why or why not?

Primary Readings and Narratives

This chapter concludes with four Primary Readings mixing ancient and modern views on fi ction and four Narratives. In a section from Plato’s Republic, you will read, in his own words, his argument that drama is bad for the mind; next, you will read Aristotle’s argument that drama can be benefi cial; the section is taken from his Poet- ics. The third Primary Reading is an excerpt from a novel, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in which Eco gives us an idea of how he thinks the lost part of Aristotle’s Poetics might have read. The fi nal Primary Reading is an excerpt from a classic text by one of the most famous writers of detective fi ction, Raymond Chandler, who ana- lyzes the core components of the detective story. Two of the Narratives are dramas. They were written more than two thousand years apart, but they are both intended to be spoken by actors and experienced by an audience, and they both contain violence and human tragedy: an excerpt from Eu- ripides’ play Medea and a summary of a scene from Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction. The third and fourth Narratives represent other aspects of the discussions in Chapter 2: an excerpt from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and an excerpt and summary of Charles Johnson’s “The Education of Mingo.”

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Primary Reading



Excerpt from Book X, The Republic, fourth century B.C.E. Translated by F. M. Cornford .

In this excerpt from Plato’s dialogue The Republic, Socrates ( left ) is having a conversation with Plato’s brother Glaucon about the nature of art and of drama in particular. Glaucon is supplying the “Quite so”s, and Socrates is supplying the rest of the conversation. You’ll fi nd additional excerpts from The Republic in Chapter 4 and Chapter 8.

Drama, we say, represents the acts and fortunes of human beings. It is wholly concerned with what they do, volun- tarily or against their will, and how they fare, with the consequences which they regard as happy or otherwise, and with their feelings of joy and sorrow in all these ex- periences. That is all, is it not?

Yes. And in all these experiences has a man an undivided mind? Is there not an internal

confl ict which sets him at odds with himself in his conduct, much as we were saying that the confl ict of visual impressions leads him to make contradictory judgments? However, I need not ask that question; for, now I come to think of it, we have already agreed that innumerable confl icts of this sort are constantly occurring in the mind. But there is a further point to be considered now. We have said that a man of high character will bear any stroke of fortune, such as the loss of a son or of anything else he holds dear, with more equanimity than most people. We may now ask: will he feel no pain, or is that impossible? Will he not rather observe due measure in his grief?

Yes, that is near the truth. Now tell me: will he be more likely to struggle with his grief and resist it when he is

under the eyes of his fellows or when he is alone? He will be far more restrained in the presence of others. Yes; when he is by himself he will not be ashamed to do and say much that he would

not like anyone to see or hear. Quite so. What encourages him to resist his grief is the lawful authority of reason, while the

impulse to give way comes from the feeling itself; and, as we said, the presence of contra- dictory impulses proves that two distinct elements in his nature must be involved. One of them is law-abiding, prepared to listen to the authority which declares that it is best to bear misfortune as quietly as possible without resentment, for several reasons: it is never certain that misfortune may not be a blessing; nothing is gained by chafi ng at it; nothing human is matter for great concern; and, fi nally, grief hinders us from calling in the help we most urgently need. By this I mean refl ection on what has happened, letting reason

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decide on the best move in the game of life that the fall of the dice permits. Instead of behaving like a child who goes on shrieking after a fall and hugging the wounded part, we should accustom the mind to set itself at once to raise up the fallen and cure the hurt, banishing lamentation with a healing touch.

Certainly that is the right way to deal with misfortune. And if, as we think, the part of us which is ready to act upon these refl ections is the

highest, that other part which impels us to dwell upon our sufferings and can never have enough of grieving over them is unreasonable, craven, and faint-hearted.

Yes. Now this fretful temper gives scope for a great diversity of dramatic representation;

whereas the calm and wise character in its unvarying constancy is not easy to represent, nor when represented is it readily understood, especially by a promiscuous gathering in a theater, since it is foreign to their own habit of mind. Obviously, then, this steadfast disposition does not naturally attract the dramatic poet, and his skill is not designed to fi nd favour with it. If he is to have a popular success, he must address himself to the fret- ful type with its rich variety of material for representation.

Obviously. We have, then, a fair case against the poet and we may set him down as the coun-

terpart of the painter, whom he resembles in two ways: his creations are poor things by the standard of truth and reality, and his appeal is not to the highest part of the soul, but to one which is equally inferior. So we shall be justifi ed in not admitting him into a well-ordered commonwealth, because he stimulates and strengthens an element which threatens to undermine the reason. As a country may be given over into the power of its worst citizens while the better sort are ruined, so, we shall say, the dramatic poet sets up a vicious form of government in the individual soul: he gratifi es that senseless part which cannot distinguish great and small, but regards the same things as now one, now the other; and he is an image-maker whose images are phantoms far removed from reality.

Quite true. . . . But, I continued, the heaviest count in our indictment is still to come. Dramatic

poetry has a most formidable power of corrupting even men of high character, with a few exceptions.

Formidable indeed, if it can do that. Let me put the case for you to judge. When we listen to some hero in Homer or on the

tragic stage moaning over his sorrows in a long tirade, or to a chorus beating their breasts as they chant a lament, you know how the best of us enjoy giving ourselves up to follow the performance with eager sympathy. The more a poet can move our feelings in this way, the better we think him. And yet when the sorrow is our own, we pride ourselves on being able to bear it quietly like a man, condemning the behaviour we admired in the theatre as womanish. Can it be right that the spectacle of a man behaving as one would scorn and blush to behave oneself should be admired and enjoyed, instead of fi lling us with disgust?

No, it really does not seem reasonable. It does not, if you refl ect that the poet ministers to the satisfaction of that very part

of our nature whose instinctive hunger to have its fi ll of tears and lamentations is forc- ibly restrained in the case of our own misfortunes. Meanwhile the noblest part of us, insuffi ciently schooled by reason or habit, has relaxed its watch over these querulous feelings, with the excuse that the sufferings we are contemplating are not our own and it is no shame to us to admire and pity a man with some pretensions to a noble character,

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though his grief may be excessive. The enjoyment itself seems a clear gain, which we cannot bring ourselves to forfeit by disdaining the whole poem. Few, I believe, are ca- pable of refl ecting that to enter into another’s feelings must have an effect on our own: the emotions of pity our sympathy has strengthened will not be easy to restrain when we are suffering ourselves.

That is very true. Does not the same principle apply to humour as well as to pathos? You are doing

the same thing if, in listening at a comic performance or in ordinary life to buffooneries which you would be ashamed to indulge in yourself, you thoroughly enjoy them instead of being disgusted with their ribaldry. There is in you an impulse to play the clown, which you have held in restraint from a reasonable fear of being set down as a buffoon; but now you have given it rein, and by encouraging its impudence at the theatre you may be unconsciously carried away into playing the comedian in your private life. Similar effects are produced by poetic representation of love and anger and all those desires and feelings of pleasure or pain which accompany our every action. It waters the growth of passions which should be allowed to wither away and sets them up in control, although the goodness and happiness of our lives depend on their being held in subjection.

I cannot but agree with you. If so, Glaucon, when you meet with admirers of Homer who tell you that he has

been the educator of Hellas and that on questions of human conduct and culture he deserves to be constantly studied as a guide by whom to regulate your whole life, it is well to give a friendly hearing to such people, as entirely well-meaning according to their lights, and you may acknowledge Homer to be the fi rst and greatest of the tragic poets; but you must be quite sure that we can admit into our commonwealth only the poetry which celebrates the praises of the gods and of good men. If you go further and admit the honeyed muse in epic or in lyric verse, then pleasure and pain will usurp the sovereignty of law and of the principles always recognized by common consent as the best.

Quite true. . . . What is this education to be, then? Perhaps we shall hardly invent a system better

than the one which long experience has worked out, with its two branches for the culti- vation of the mind and of the body. And I suppose we shall begin with the mind, before we start physical training.

Naturally. Under that head will come stories; 1 and of these there are two kinds: some are true,

others fi ctitious. Both must come in, but we shall begin our education with the fi ctitious kind.

I don’t understand, he said. Don’t you understand, I replied, that we begin by telling children stories, which,

taken as a whole, are fi ction, though they contain some truth? Such story-telling begins at an earlier age than physical training; that is why I said we should start with the mind.

You are right. And the beginning, as you know, is always the most important part, especially in

dealing with anything young and tender. That is the time when the character is being moulded and easily takes any impress one may wish to stamp on it.

Quite true.

1 In a wide sense, tales, legends, myths, narratives in poetry or prose.


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Then shall we simply allow our children to listen to any stories that anyone happens to make up, and so receive into their minds ideas often the very opposite of those we shall think they ought to have when they are grown up?

No, certainly not. It seems, then, our fi rst business will be to supervise the making of fables

and legends, rejecting all which are unsatisfactory; and we shall induce nurses and mothers to tell their children only those which we have approved, and to think more of moulding their souls with these stories than they now do of rubbing their limbs to make them strong and shapely. Most of the stories now in use must be discarded.

What kind do you mean? If we take the great ones, we shall see in them the pattern of all the rest, which are

bound to be of the same stamp and to have the same effect. No doubt; but which do you mean by the great ones? The stories in Hesiod and Homer and the poets in general, who have at all times

composed fi ctitious tales and told them to mankind. Which kind are you thinking of, and what fault do you fi nd in them? The worst of all faults, especially if the story is ugly and immoral as well as false—

misrepresenting the nature of gods and heroes, like an artist whose picture is utterly unlike the object he sets out to draw.

That is certainly a serious fault; but give me an example. A signal instance of false invention about the highest matters is that foul story,

which Hesiod repeats, of the deeds of Uranus and the vengeance of Cronos; and then there is the tale of Cronos’s doings and of his son’s treatment of him. Even if such tales were true, I should not have supposed they should be lightly told to thoughtless young people. If they cannot be altogether suppressed, they should only be revealed in a mys- tery, to which access should be as far as possible restricted by requiring the sacrifi ce, not of a pig, but of some victim such as very few could afford.

It is true: those stories are objectionable. Yes, and not to be repeated in our commonwealth, Adeimantus. We shall not tell a

child that, if he commits the foulest crimes or goes to any length in punishing his father’s misdeeds, he will be doing nothing out of the way, but only what the fi rst and greatest of the gods have done before him.

I agree; such stories are not fi t to be repeated.

Study Questions

1. Is Plato right that a well-balanced, emotionally stable character is rarely the main focus of a fi ctional drama? Can you think of any dramatic story involving an even-tempered person as the main character (or one of the main characters)? I have often asked my students this question, and I’ll let you be the judge of some of my students’ sugges- tions: How about Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects ? Hannibal Lecter from The Silence of the Lambs ? Mr. Spock from Star Trek ? James Bond? How about Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS ? Or serial killer Dexter Morgan? Are these characters even-tempered, emotionally balanced, in other words, unfl appable? And if so, are they still interesting as lead characters? Can you think of a female lead character who would fi t the description?

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2. Do you agree with Plato that having your emotions stirred on behalf of a character in a story undermines your ability to control your own emotions?

3. In your opinion, should we always be able to control our emotions in public? Why or why not?

4. Relate Plato’s viewpoint to the current debate about violence in entertainment.

5. In Plato’s view, what is the danger in watching comedies? Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. Evaluate the view expressed by Socrates that censorship is appropriate in our ideal state. Do you agree? Why or why not?

Primary Reading



Excerpts from Chapters 6, 13, and 14, Poetics, fourth century B.C.E. Translated by Ingram Bywater.

In these two excerpts from Aristotle’s Poetics, he has just explained that delight in poetry (fi ction in general) is natural for humans because fi ction is imitation of life, and so we learn about life from fi ction—and to Aristotle, knowledge is always a good thing. Here he proceeds to tell us what makes a good tragic story.

A tragedy, then, is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magni- tude, complete in itself; in language with pleasurable accessories, each kind brought in separately in the parts of the work; in a dramatic, not in a narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions . . . .

We assume that, for the fi nest form of Tragedy, the Plot must not be simple but complex; and further, that it must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation. It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness. The fi rst situation is not fear inspir- ing or piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most untragic that can be; it has not one of the requisites of Tragedy; it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feel- ing in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgment, of the num- ber of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity; e.g. Oedipus, Thyestes, and the men of note of similar families. The perfect Plot, accordingly, must have a single,


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and not (as some tell us) a double issue; the change in the hero’s fortunes must be not from misery to happiness, but on the contrary from happiness to misery; and the cause of it must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part; the man himself being either such as we have described, or better, not worse, than that. Fact also confi rms our theory. Though the poets began by accepting any tragic story that came to hand, in these days the fi nest tragedies are always on the story of some few houses, on that of Alcmeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, or any others that may have been involved, as either agents or sufferers, in some deed of horror. The theoretically best tragedy, then, has a Plot of this description. The critics, therefore, are wrong who blame Euripides for taking this line in his tragedies, and giving many of them an unhappy end- ing. It is, as we have said, the right line to take. The best proof of this: on the stage, and in the public performances, such plays, properly worked out, are seen to be the most truly tragic; and Euripides, even if his execution be faulty in every other point, is seen to be nevertheless the most tragic certainly of the dramatists. After this comes the construction of Plot which some rank fi rst, one with a double story (like the Odyssey ) and an opposite issue for the good and the bad personages. It is ranked as fi rst only through the weakness of the audiences; the poets merely follow their public, writing as its wishes dictate. But the pleasure here is not that of Tragedy. It belongs rather to Comedy, where the bitterest enemies in the piece (e.g. Orestes and Aegisthus) walk off good friends at the end, with no slaying of any one by any one.

The tragic fear and pity may be aroused by the Spectacle; but they may also be aroused by the very structure and incidents of the play—which is the better way and shows the better poet. The Plot in fact should be so framed that, even without seeing the things take place, he who simply hears the account of them shall be fi lled with hor- ror and pity at the incidents; which is just the effect that the mere recital of the story in Oedipus would have on one. To produce this same effect by means of the Spectacle is less artistic, and requires extraneous aid. Those, however, who make use of the Spectacle to put before us that which is merely monstrous and not productive of fear, are wholly out of touch with Tragedy; not every kind of pleasure should be required of a tragedy, but only its own proper pleasure.

The tragic pleasure is that of pity and fear, and the poet has to produce it by a work of imitation; it is clear, therefore, that the causes should be included in the incidents of his story. Let us see, then, what kinds of incident strike one as horrible, or rather as piteous. In a deed of this description the parties must necessarily be either friends, or enemies, or indifferent to one another. Now when enemy does it on enemy, there is nothing to move us to pity either in his doing or in his meditating the deed, except so far as the actual pain of the sufferer is concerned; and the same is true when the parties are indifferent to one another. Whenever the tragic deed, however, is done within the family—when murder or the like is done or meditated by brother on brother, by son on father, by mother on son, or son on mother—these are the situations the poet should seek after.

Study Questions

1. Would you agree with Aristotle that the best kind of dramatic fi ction involves an ordinary man who experiences misfortune because of an error in judgment? Think of modern fi lms and novels that might fi t this pattern (involving ordinary men and

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women). How about American Beauty ? Brecht’s Mother Courage ? Million Dollar Baby ? East of Eden?

2. What is “catharsis of emotions”? Do you agree with Aristotle that it can be obtained by experiencing dramatic fi ction?

3. As we have seen, Plato disapproves of a dramatic story, whereas Aristotle approves of it. In view of the fact that Plato wrote in quite a dramatic way about the downfall of Socrates (see Chapter 8), do you think Aristotle would have viewed Plato’s story as an example of cathartic literature?

4. Aristotle says a good tragedy shouldn’t need any “Spectacle” if the story is enough to make people shudder with fear and pity. In the Poetics he defi nes it as the actual, physical appearance of actors on the stage, but as you see in this excerpt he also speci- fi es that the Spectacle is unnecessary if the audience can imagine the situation through a good narration on stage. We could perhaps take that to mean a good dramatic per- formance doesn’t need any exaggerated display or special effects to get its point across. Can you think of movies that have been extremely vivid even with very few special effects, because they rely on our minds to fi ll in the gaps with our own visions of hor- ror? Are there movies whose impact has been completely dependent on special effects? Does that detract from the story?

Primary Reading

The Name of the Rose U M B E R T O E C O

Novel, 1980. Translated by William Weaver. Excerpt .

Usually we do not present a work of fi ction as a Primary Reading, but this exception relates to the Aristotle text you have just read. Aristotle’s Poetics consisted of two books, one on tragedy, and the other on comedy, but the latter has been lost since before the Middle Ages. We know, however, that Aristotle admired the theater, and that book would probably have paralleled his book on tragedy, outlining the proper plot type for a good comedy and so forth. The novel The Name of the Rose, by the Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco, is a murder mystery set in the High Middle Ages. It features the resurfacing of a copy of Aristotle’s book on comedy, and speculates that if a work by Aristotle had been available in those days that legitimized comedy and laughter, Western culture might have developed differently. It was made into a movie with Sean Connery as the monk/detective William of Baskerville—a literary reference that isn’t lost on any- one who is a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, because one of the most famous stories of the British private detective is the one called The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here William of Baskerville is visiting the monastery where serial killings are taking place, accompanied by his trusty young helper Adsel, the narrator of the story.


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William is getting close to solving the crimes and reads here (in the fi rst paragraph) from the long-lost book by Aristotle on comedy (written by Eco to resemble Aristotle’s style, because the book, as you know, has never been found). After the “quote” from Aristotle, William has a passionate discussion with the blind librarian Jorge about the effects of laughter, and it becomes clear that Jorge is responsible for hiding the book from the other monks—among other things.

In the fi rst book we dealt with tragedy and saw how, by arousing pity and fear, it pro- duces catharsis, the purifi cation of those feelings. As we promised, we will now deal with comedy (as well as with satire and mime) and see how, in inspiring the pleasure of the ridiculous, it arrives at the purifi cation of that passion. That such passion is most wor- thy of consideration we have already said in the book on the soul, inasmuch as—alone among the animals—man is capable of laughter. We will then defi ne the type of actions of which comedy is the mimesis, then we will examine the means by which comedy excites laughter, and these means and actions and speech. We will show how the ri- diculousness of actions is born from the likening of the best to the worst and vice versa, from arousing surprise through deceit, from the impossible, from violation of the laws of nature, from the irrelevant and the inconsequent, from the debasing of the characters, from the use of comical and vulgar pantomime, from disharmony, from the choice of the least worthy things. We will then show how the ridiculousness of speech is born from the misunderstandings of similar words for different things and different words for similar things, from garrulity and repetition, from play on words, from diminutives, from errors of pronunciation, and from barbarisms. . . .

“But now tell me,” William was saying, “Why? Why did you want to shield this book more than so many others? Why did you hide—though not at the price of crime—trea- tises on necromancy, pages that may have blasphemed against the name of God, while for these pages you damned your brothers and have damned yourself? There are many other books that speak of comedy, many others that praise laughter. Why did this one fi ll you with such fear?”

“Because it was by the Philosopher. Every book by that man has destroyed a part of the learning that Christianity had accumulated over the centuries. . . .

“But what frightened you in this discussion of laughter? You cannot eliminate laugh- ter by eliminating the book.”

“No, to be sure. But laughter is weakness, corruption, the foolishness of our fl esh. It is the peasant’s entertainment, the drunkard’s license; even the church in her wisdom has granted the moment of feast, carnival, fair, this diurnal pollution that releases hu- mors and distracts from other desires and other ambitions. . . . Still, laughter remains base, a defense for the simple, a mystery desecrated for the plebeians. The apostle also said as much: it is better to marry than to burn. Rather than rebel against God’s estab- lished order, laugh and enjoy your foul parodies of order, at the end of the meal, after you have drained jugs and fl asks. Elect the king of fools, lose yourselves in the liturgy of the ass and the pig, play at performing your saturnalia head down. . . . But here, here”—now Jorge struck the table with his fi nger, near the book William was holding open—“here the function of laughter is reversed, it is elevated to art, the doors of the world of the learned are opened to it, it becomes the object of philosophy, and of per- fi dious theology. . . . That laughter is proper to man is a sign of our limitation, sinners that we are. But from this book many corrupt minds like yours would draw the extreme

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syllogism, whereby laughter is man’s end! Laughter, for a few moments, distracts the villein from fear. But law is imposed by fear, whose true name is fear of God. This book could strike the Luciferine spark that would set a new fi re to the whole world, and laugh- ter would be defi ned as the new art, unknown even to Prometheus, for canceling fear. To the villein who laughs, at that moment, dying does not matter: but then, when the license is past, the liturgy again imposes on him, according to the divine plan, the fear of death. And from this book there could be born the new destructive aim to destroy death through redemption from fear.

Study Questions

1. Compare the real Aristotle text on tragedy and Eco’s pastiche (attempt at writing something similar). Has Eco done a good job, in your view?

2. Compare Plato’s view on comedy and laughter with what Eco believes to have been Aristotle’s view. Which comes closer to your opinion? Explain why. (Also, whom do you think Eco would side with: Plato or Aristotle?)

3. Is Jorge right that law is imposed by fear of God, and laughter is a distraction from fear, so laughter is dangerous? Compare Jorge’s and Plato’s comments on laughter. (Remember that Jorge is a fi ctional character.)

4. Could Eco be right that if Aristotle’s book had survived, it might have changed the course of Western culture? Why or why not?

Primary Reading

The Simple Art of Murder


Excerpt from an article in the Atlantic Monthly, November 1945.

Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) is considered one of the all-time great American au- thors of detective/crime/suspense fi ction. His style is straightforward and “hard-boiled,” but his main characters are rarely one-dimensional, and we get to know not only their façades but also their innermost feelings. His stories usually take place in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s, and have set the pattern for countless other detective/crime stories. His primary character, Philip Marlowe, is a private detective, with a love-hate relation- ship with the LAPD. In 1945 Chandler wrote a nonfi ction piece for Atlantic Monthly that was to become a classic: “The Simple Art of Murder,” primarily about his colleague, the crime-fi ction writer Dashiell Hammett (the author of the classic The Maltese Falcon ). Chandler’s own best works include The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye, and his novels have been made into movies, sometimes more than once. This excerpt from “The Simple Art of Murder” contains his analysis of the most compelling kind of detective story, and of the character of the detective.


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. . . The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be the fi ngerman for a mob, and the nice man down the hall is a boss of the numbers racket; a world where a judge with a cellar full of bootleg liquor can send a man to jail for having a pint in his pocket, where the mayor of your town may have condoned murder as an in- strument of moneymaking, where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a hold-up in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone, because the hold-up men may have friends with long guns, or the police may not like your testimony, and in any case the shyster for the defense will be allowed to abuse and vilify you in open court, before a jury of selected morons, without any but the most perfunctory interference from a political judge.

It is not a very fragrant world, but it is the world you live in, and certain writers with tough minds and a cool spirit of detachment can make very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it. It is not funny that a man should be killed, but it is sometimes funny that he should be killed for so little, and that his death should be the coin of what we call civilization. All this still is not quite enough.

In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dis- honestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fi t for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.

If there were enough like him, I think the world would be a very safe place to live in, and yet not too dull to be worth living in.

Study Questions

1. Chandler writes about the writer of crime/detective stories of the mid–twentieth cen- tury. “Cop shows” are the most frequent kind of television shows these days, and have been for decades. Do you think his analysis holds true even today, or have the major themes in crime and suspense stories changed?

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2. What does Chandler’s analysis of the detective say about Chandler’s view of moral values? Would you agree that the detective in a crime story (either a police detective or a private investigator) has to have those qualities, or are we looking for a different kind of hero today?

3. Could you imagine this description of the heroic detective applied to a female detec- tive? Why or why not?

4. Compare this analysis of a good dramatic crime story with Aristotle’s template for a good tragedy. Do you see any similarities?




From a fi fth-century-B.C.E. play. Translated by Moses Hadas. Summary and Excerpts.

The Greek dramatist Euripides (ca. 485–406 B.C.E.) was considered an eccentric and an intellectual radical. Nineteen of his eighty-eight plays have survived into modern times. In fi fth-century B.C.E. Athens, the annual festival held for Dionysus had developed into an established tradition of competitions among playwrights of tragedies, satyr plays, and comedies. Although the tragedies were originally supposed to deal with the life, death, and resurrection of the god Dionysus (Bacchus) and stories of the gods in general, they quickly developed into stories about human failings and revenge. The tragedy Medea, written in 451 B.C.E., is unusual in that it doesn’t follow the established tragic pattern of the triumph of divine justice, but Euripides rarely followed the established patterns of tragedies. He won only four fi rst prizes at the festivals in his lifetime, but after his death his plays became immensely popular. Toward the end of his life he left Athens; he died in Macedonia (where Aristotle was born in 384 B.C.E., twenty-two years later). In the preceding excerpt from Aristotle’s Poetics, you may have noticed that Aristotle specifi cally praises Euripides and his unique style. Greek mythology tells of Jason and his Argonauts, who captured the Golden Fleece from the king of Colchis and brought it back to Corinth in triumph. That is a heroic story, one of Greece’s legends of the golden age. Jason was helped in his quest by the daughter of the king of Colchis, Medea, who betrayed her father, her brother, and her country to help Jason, the man she loved. So Medea followed him to Corinth. That was the old myth—and Euripides tells us “the rest of the story.” Years have passed, and Medea is in a deep depression. She won’t eat, she can’t sleep, she weeps incessantly. Jason has tired of her—she is no longer young, and Jason has fallen in love with another woman, the young blonde princess of Corinth. He has taken her as his second wife without so much as asking Medea’s permission. Now the king, the princess’s father, is about to banish Medea from the kingdom, together with her and

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Jason’s two sons, because he fears that this woman, an unpredictable foreigner, may take revenge on his daughter. But Medea cannot go home because she caused her brother’s death and betrayed her father in helping Jason. She forsook everything for him, including her ties to her homeland, and, without a homeland, one was barely considered a person in the ancient Greek world.

It’s all over, my friends; I would gladly die. Life has lost its savor. The man who was ev- erything to me, well he knows it, has turned out to be the basest of men. Of all creatures that feel and think, we women are the unhappiest species. In the fi rst place, we must pay a great dowry to a husband who will be the tyrant of our bodies (that’s a further aggrava- tion of the evil); and there is another fearful hazard: whether we shall get a good man or a bad. For separations bring disgrace on the woman and it is not possible to renounce one’s husband. Then, landed among strange habits and regulations unheard of in her own home, a woman needs second sight to know how best to handle her bedmate. And if we manage this well and have a husband who does not fi nd the yoke of intercourse too galling, ours is a life to be envied. Otherwise, one is better dead. When the man wearies of the company of his wife, he goes outdoors and relieves the disgust of his heart [having recourse to some friend or the companions of his own age], but we women have only one person to turn to.

They say that we have a safe life at home, whereas men must go to war. Nonsense! I had rather fi ght three battles than bear one child. But be that as it may, you and I are not in the same case. You have your city here, your paternal homes; you know the delights of life and association with your loved ones. But I, homeless and forsaken, carried off from a foreign land, am being wronged by a husband, with neither mother nor brother nor kinsman with whom I might fi nd refuge from the storms of misfortune. One little boon I crave of you, if I discover any ways and means of punishing my husband for these wrongs: your silence. Woman in most respects is a timid creature, with no heart for strife and aghast at the sight of steel; but wronged in love, there is no heart more murderous than hers.

But Medea has a plan, and the old king has seen it coming with a sure instinct: Medea plots to poison both the princess and the king. She has one last, horrible argu- ment with Jason, who comes to make sure she won’t be destitute, because he has heard that she has been expelled from the country:

Rotten, heart-rotten, that is the word for you. Words, words, magnifi cent words. In reality a craven. You come to me, you come, my worst enemy! This isn’t bravery, you know, this isn’t valor, to come and face your victims. No! it’s the ugliest sore on the face of humanity, Shamelessness. But I thank you for coming. It will lighten the weight on my heart to tell your wickedness, and it will hurt you to hear it. I shall begin my tale at the very beginning.

I saved your life, as all know who embarked with you on the Argo, when you were sent to master with the yoke the fi re-breathing bulls and to sow with dragon’s teeth that acre of death. The dragon, too, with wreathed coils, that kept safe watch over the Golden Fleece and never slept—I slew it and raised for you the light of life again. Then, forsaking my father and my own dear ones, I came to Iolcus where Pelias reigned, came with you, more than fond and less than wise. On Pelias too I brought death, the most painful death there is, at the hands of his own children. Thus I have removed every danger from your path.

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And after all those benefi ts at my hands, you basest of men, you have betrayed me and made a new marriage, though I have borne you children. If you were still child- less, I could have understood this love of yours for a new wife. Gone now is all reliance on pledges. You puzzle me. Do you believe that the gods of the old days are no longer in offi ce? Do you think that men are now living under a new dispensation? For surely you know that you have broken all your oaths to me. Ah my hand, which you so often grasped, and oh my knees, how all for nothing have we been defi led by this false man, who has disappointed all our hopes.

Jason and Medea part with bitter words, and now Medea is in luck: King Aegeus of Athens pays her a visit and hears of her marital problems and banishment. He fi nds Jason despicable and admires Medea for her righteous anger. He himself is looking for a wife to bear him children and offers Medea a refuge as his wife as soon as she is “done with her business.” Medea now pretends to be submissive when Jason comes back and asks that the children be allowed to take gifts to his young bride. The enormity of what she is about to do is beginning to envelop her, and she fi nds it hard to control herself. After Jason leaves, she hands the gifts to the two young boys and can’t stop weeping—because she not only plans to kill the princess but also plans to kill her own children, to hurt Jason the only way she knows how:

O the pain of it! Why do your eyes look at me, my children? Why smile at me that last smile? Ah! What can I do? My heart is water, women, at the sight of my children’s bright faces. I could never do it. Goodbye to my former plans. I shall take my children away with me. Why should I hurt their father by their misfortunes, only to reap a double har- vest of sorrow myself? No! I cannot do it. Goodbye to my plans.

And yet . . . what is the matter with me? Do I want to make myself a laughing-stock by letting my enemies off scot-free? I must go through with it. What a coward heart is mine, to admit those soft pleas. Come, my children, into the palace. Those that may not attend my sacrifi ces can see to it that they are absent. I shall not let my hand be unnerved.

Ah! Ah! Stop, my heart. Do not you commit this crime. Leave them alone, unhappy one, spare the children. Even if they live far from us, they will bring you joy. No! by the unforgetting dead in hell, it cannot be! I shall not leave my children for my enemies to insult. (In any case they must die. And if die they must, I shall slay them, who gave them birth.) My schemes are crowned with success. She shall not escape. Already the diadem is on her head; wrapped in the robe the royal bride is dying. I know it well. And now I am setting out on a most sorrowful road (and shall send these on one still more sorrow- ful). I wish to speak to my children. Give your mother your hands, my children, give her your hands to kiss.

O dear, dear hand. O dear, dear mouth, dear shapes, dear noble faces, happiness be yours, but not here. Your father has stolen this world from you. How sweet to touch! The softness of their skin, the sweetness of their breath, my babies! Away, away, I cannot bear to see you any longer.

[CHILDREN retire within. ]

My misery overwhelms me. O I do realize how terrible is the crime I am about, but pas- sion overrules my resolutions, passion that causes most of the misery in the world.


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She sends the children away, and after a while, a messenger tells the gruesome details: The princess put on the golden diadem, Medea’s gift, and instantly the poison began to work:

The golden diadem on her head emitted a strange fl ow of devouring fi re, while the fi ne robes, the gifts of your children, were eating up the poor girl’s white fl esh. All afl ame, she jumps from her seat and fl ees, shaking her head and hair this way and that, trying to throw off the crown. But the golden band held fi rmly, and after she had shaken her hair more violently, the fi re began to blaze twice as fi ercely. Overcome by the agony she falls on the ground, and none but her father could have recognized her. The position of her eyes could not be distinguished, nor the beauty of her face. The blood, clotted with fi re, dripped from the crown of her head, and the fl esh melted from her bones, like resin from a pine tree, as the poisons ate their unseen way. It was a fearful sight. All were afraid to touch the corpse, taught by what had happened to her.

The princess’s old father rushed to the scene and took her in his arms, and that was how the poison spread to him; within minutes he, too, was dead. The news galvanizes Medea into action: Now she feels she must kill her children so nobody will take their revenge on them, and she rationalizes,

No fl inching now, no thinking of the children, the darling children, that call you mother. This day, this one short day, forget your children. You have all the future to mourn them. Aye, to mourn. Though you mean to kill them, at least you loved them. Oh! I am a most unhappy woman.

From inside the room, we hear the cries for help as she stabs her two sons to death. Jason returns, devastated at the turn of events. Medea gloats because now she knows she’s “got under his skin.” To the end, they quarrel over whose fault it is and who is to blame for the children’s death. Jason didn’t seem to care much for his sons while they were alive, but now that they are dead he loves them with all his heart. He invokes the power of the gods to avenge his children—but the gods don’t help him. No divine light- ning bolt strikes Medea down—she leaves him to become the wife of Aegeus.

Study Questions

1. This tragedy seemed nothing short of immoral to many critics in Athens because Medea gets away with quadruple murder. Can we defend Medea’s actions in any way? Is Jason free of blame? What do you think Euripides intended the “moral of the story” to be?

2. How would Plato evaluate Medea —as a moral learning tool or a dangerous tempta- tion to be irrational? How would Aristotle evaluate it? Does it meet his criteria for a well-written tragedy? (Tragedy has to happen to ordinary people as the result of some grave error in judgment of theirs and preferably should happen between family members.) In other words, if Aristotle is right and a good tragedy is the story of an ordinary person—not good, not bad—who makes a major mistake and suffers for it for the rest of his or her life, then who is the main character in Medea ? From whose viewpoint is the story told? Medea’s—or Jason’s?

3. Sadly, the phenomenon of parents killing their children is not unusual at all; it may be done in anger, or for insurance purposes, for convenience, or out of some peculiar sense

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of responsibility (“I won’t allow my children to become fatherless/motherless when I kill myself, so I’ll take them with me”). Rarely is it done for revenge, as in the case of Medea. Susan Smith, who in 1994 strapped her two little boys in a car and let it roll into a lake, killing both of them, wanted to be unencumbered so her former boyfriend would come back to her. Andrea Yates, who drowned her fi ve children in 2001, was diagnosed as suffering from severe postpartum depression and said she heard voices telling her to take their lives. But one murder case seems like a true Medea scenario: Susan Eubanks killed her four sons in 1998 specifi cally to get back at their fathers. Now remember that in the play, Medea isn’t punished; she leaves for a new life as the queen of Athens. How do you feel about that, considering that Smith is serving a life sentence, and Eubanks is on death row? (Yates’s life sentence was overturned and in 2006 she was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to a mental institution.)


The Sorrows of Young Werther


Novel, 1774. Translated by Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan. Excerpt.

The hypnotic power of Goethe’s book about young lovesick Werther may be hard to imagine today, but the fact remains that many young readers in Europe took their own lives after suffering along with Werther. Goethe presented the story as though he had found Werther’s letters to a friend—in the so-called epistolary (letter) style—and then told about the fi nal days in narrative form. From May to December, Werther undergoes all the highs and lows of falling in love, but in the end his beloved Lotte marries someone else. Shortly after writing this letter to his friend Wilhelm, Werther takes his pistol and shoots himself in the head.

December 4

I beg you—you see I am done for; I cannot bear it any longer. Today I sat near her as she played the clavichord, all sorts of tunes and with so much expression. So much! So much! What could I do? Her little sister sat on my knee and dressed her doll. Tears came into my eyes. I bowed my head and caught sight of her wedding ring. The tears ran down my cheek—and suddenly Lotte began to play the heavenly old melody. All at once my soul was touched by a feeling of consolation, by a memory of the past, of the other occasions when I had heard the song, of the dark intervals of vexation between, of shat- tered hopes, and then—I walked up and down the room, my heart almost suffocated by the rush of emotions. “For God’s sake,” I said, in a vehement outburst, “for God’s sake, stop!” She paused and looked at me steadily. “Werther,” she said with a smile that went deep to my heart, “Werther, you are very sick. You dislike the things you once liked. Go! I beg you, calm yourself!” I tore myself from her sight, and—God! You see my misery and will put an end to it.


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Study Questions

1. Evaluate Werther’s reaction from your own point of view: Is suicide because of rejec- tion a realistic scenario? Is it emotionally understandable? Is it morally defensible? Explain your viewpoint.

2. Apply Plato’s and Aristotle’s views to this excerpt.

3. Can you think of stories (movies or other media) that have had a similar effect on the audience in recent years? If so, do you think something should be done to prevent such infl uence in the future? Explain your viewpoint.

4. Goethe gives the story credibility by pretending that he found these letters of Werther’s (although he of course made the whole story up, including the char- acter of Werther himself). The format of letting a story unfold within a frame of a letter, or an ancient manuscript in the loft, or a videotape, dates all the way back to the fifteenth century and lives on because it is such a good way to lend credence to the story. This format was used in the 1990s in the popular film The Blair Witch Project, and recently in the film Cloverfield, to make the films look like documentaries. Can you think of other stories—novels or films—that use the same trick?


The Education of Mingo


Short story from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, 1977. Summary and Excerpt.

The story of Mingo’s “education” is a golem tale—not about an artifi cially created person, but about a human being whose mind becomes a mirror of the subconscious drives of his “master.” We can read this story as an indictment of slavery in the old South, about an unusual relationship between a slave and his master—about affectional bonding and moral responsibility. Or we can read it as a story of a creator losing control over his cre- ation. Or we can read it as a psychological story of what really goes on in the mind of old Moses. But we can also read it as a tale about the dangers of teaching! You never know what the student gets out of your lessons . . . Old Moses Green drives his one-horse rig into town and buys himself a slave; we’re in the antebellum South, in 1854. The slave that Moses buys, Mingo, is new to the New World, a prince of the Allmuseri tribe, according to the auctioneer. Moses doesn’t need a farmhand as much as a companion, because he is a lonely man. But Mingo speaks no English and knows no social customs other than his tribal ways, so Moses sets out to teach him everything: the English language, farming, table manners, ciphering, cooking, and so forth.

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He felt, late at night when he looked down at Mingo snoring loudly on his corn-shuck mattress, now like a father, now like an artist fi ngering something fi ne and noble from a rude clump of foreign clay.

But he soon discovers that Mingo, who is a fast learner, picks up not only on what Moses teaches him intentionally but also on what Moses himself does on his own time, such as swearing, dunking cornbread in his coffee, and other bad habits. He copies even Moses’ mannerisms and way of being. Within a year, Mingo has become a shadow of Moses—acting out not only what Moses wants him to do but also what Moses himself would subconsciously like to do. Moses’ lady friend, Harriet Bridgewater, has a wry wisdom of her own, and Moses is a little bit afraid of her. She is highly critical of his project of educating Mingo and tries to make Moses understand that he is bound to fail; Mingo’s background is too different. Moses argues that Mingo is doing fi ne and has become a sort of extension of himself—except for one thing: Mingo is supposed to treat strangers with respect, and kill chicken hawks. But Moses has observed Mingo treating chicken hawks as if they were human, and calling them “Sir.” So how deep does this mix-up go? Soon Moses discovers the horrible truth: Mingo has killed old Isaiah Jenson—because Mingo has picked up on Moses’ stray remarks about what an old fool Isaiah is. And since Mingo believes that he is supposed to act the way Moses wants to act, he kills old Isaiah. This is the moment of realization for Moses: His attempt to teach Mingo everything he knows and, in effect, create a person in his own image has failed—or it has worked too well:

“You idjet!” hooted Moses. His jaw clamped shut. He wept hoarsely for a few minutes like a steer with the strangles. “Isaiah Jenson and me was friends, and—” He checked himself; what’d he said was a lie. They weren’t friends at all. In fact, he thought Isaiah Jenson was a pigheaded fool and only tolerated the little yimp in a neighborly way. Into his eye a fl y bounded. Moses shook his head wildly. He’d even sworn to Harriet, weeks earlier, that Jenson was so troublesome, always borrowing tools and keeping them, he hoped he’d go to Ballyhack on a red-hot rail. In his throat a knot tightened. One of his

Charles Johnson has a Ph.D. in philosophy, and teaches litera- ture at University of Washington. He is the author of four nov- els, Faith and the Good Thing (1974), Oxherding Tale (1982), Middle Passage (1990), and Dreamer (1998); two collections of short stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1986) and Soulcatcher and Other Stories (2001); over twenty screenplays; and numer- ous articles and books on the African American experience. His works have won many awards, including the 1990 National Book Award for Middle Passage.


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eyelids jittered up, still itchy from the fl y; he forced it down with his fi nger, then gave a slow look at the African. “Great Peter,” he mumbled. “You couldn’ta known that.”

“Go home now?” Mingo stretched out the stiffness in his spine. “Powerful tired, boss.” Not because he wanted to go home did Moses leave, but because he was afraid of

Isaiah’s body and needed time to think things through. Dry the air, dry the evening down the road that led them home. As if to himself, the old man grumped, “I gave you thought and tongue, and looka what you done with it—they gonna catch and kill you, boy, just as sure as I’m sitting heah.”

“Mingo?” The African shook his long head, sly; he touched his chest with one fi nger. “ Me? Nossuh.”

“Why the hell you keep saying that?” Moses threw his jaw forward so violently muscles in his neck stood out. “You kilt a man, and they gonna burn you crisper than an ear of corn. Ay, God, Mingo,” moaned the old man, “you gotta act responsible, son!” At the thought of what they’d do to Mingo, Moses scrooched the stalk of his head into his stiff collar. He drilled his gaze at the smooth-faced African, careful not to look him in the eye, and barked, “What’re you thinking now ?”

“What Mingo know, Massa Green know. Bees like what Mingo sees or don’t see is only what Massa Green taught him to see or don’t see. Like Mingo lives through Massa Green, right?”

Moses waited, suspicious, smelling a trap. “Yeah, all that’s true.” “Massa Green, he owns Mingo, right?” “Right,” snorted Moses. He rubbed the knob of his red, porous nose. “Paid good

money—” “So when Mingo works, it bees Massa Green workin’, right? Bees Massa Green wor-

kin’, thinkin’, doin’ through Mingo—ain’t that so?” Nobody’s fool, Moses Green could latch onto a notion with no trouble at all; he

turned violently off the road leading to his cabin, and plowed on toward Harriet’s, pour- ing sweat, remembering two night visions he’d had, recurrent, where he and Mingo were wired together like say two ventriloquist’s dummies, one black, one white, and there was somebody—who he didn’t know, yanking their arm and leg strings simultaneously— how he couldn’t fi gure, but he and Mingo said the same thing together until his liver- spotted hands, the knuckles tight and shriveled like old carrot skin, fl ew up to his face and, shrieking, he started hauling hips across a cold black countryside. But so did Mingo, his hands on his face, pumping his knees right alongside Moses, shrieking, their voice in- fl ections identical; and then the hazy dream doorwayed luxuriously into another where he was greaved on one half of a thrip—a coin halfway between a nickel and a dime—and on the reverse side was Mingo. Shaking, Moses pulled his rig into Harriet Bridgewater’s yard. His bowels, burning, felt like boiling tar. She was standing on her porch in a check- ered Indian shawl, staring at them, her book still open, when Moses scrambled, tripping, skinning his knees, up her steps. He shouted, “Harriet, this boy done kilt Isaiah Jenson in cold blood.” She lost color and wilted back into her doorway. Her hair was swinging in her eyes. Hands fl ying, he stammered in a fl urry of anxiety, “But it wasn’t altogether Mingo’s fault—he didn’t know what he was doin’.”

“Isaiah? You mean Izay-yah? He didn’t kill Izay-yah?” “Yeah, aw no! Not really—” His mind stuttered to a stop. “Whose fault is it then?” Harriet gawked at the African picking his nose in the wagon

(Moses had, it’s true, not policed himself as well as he’d wanted). A shiver quaked slowly

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up her left side. She sloughed off her confusion, and fl ashed, “I can tell you whose fault it is, Moses. Yours! Didn’t I say not to bring that wild African here? Huh? Huh? Huh? You both should be—put to sleep.”

“Aw, woman! Hesh up!” Moses threw down his hat and stomped it out of shape. “You just all upsetted.” Truth to tell, he was not the portrait of composure himself. There were rims of dirt in his nails. His trouser legs had blood splattered on them. Moses stamped his feet to shake road powder off his boots. “You got any spirits in the house? I need your he’p to untangle this thing, but I ain’t hardly touched a drop since I bought Mingo, and my throat’s pretty dr—”

“You’ll just have to get it yourself—on the top shelf of the cupboard.” She touched her face, fi ngers spread, with a dazed gesture. There was suddenly in her features the intensity found in the look of people who have a year, a month, a minute only to live. “I think I’d better sit down.” Lowering herself onto her rocker, she cradled on her lap a volume by one M. Shelley, a recent tale of monstrosity and existential horror, then she demurely settled her breasts. “It’s just like you, Moses Green, to bring all your bewilderments to me.”

So Harriet is no help. Moses goes off to ponder the situation. He can’t turn the boy in, because that would be like turning part of himself in; and any way he looks at it, he and Mingo have become part of each other. But he realizes that the person he needs now is Harriet, and he returns to her farm to ask her to marry him—only to fi nd, to his horror, that in the meantime, Mingo has committed another murder. Harriet herself lies dead over by the water pump—Mingo has responded to a stray remark from Moses the day before, about Harriet’s being a talkative old hen. This is the moment of truth for Moses: Whatever Mingo has done, he, Moses, bears the responsibility. He fi nds Mingo and forces him down on the ground while he goes into Harriet’s house and retrieves her fl intlock rifl e. Holding the barrel against Mingo’s neck, he cocks the hammer—but he can’t shoot:

Eyes narrowed to slits, Moses said—a dry whisper—”get up, you damned fool.” He let his round shoulders slump. Mingo let his broad shoulders slump. “Take the horses,” Moses said; he pulled himself up to his rig, then sat, his knees together beside the boy. Mingo’s knees drew together. Moses’s voice changed. It began to rasp and wheeze; so did Mingo’s. “Missouri,” said the old man, not to Mingo but to the dusty fl oor of the buck- board, “if I don’t misremember, is off thataway somewheres in the west.”

Study Questions

1. Does the ending of the story indicate that Moses takes responsibility for how he has trained Mingo, or does he refuse to take responsibility? Explain. Does it make any dif- ference? How is this story an indictment of the institution of slavery?

2. How does Johnson show us that Mingo has become Moses’ alter ego ?

3. Is Mingo a golem? Is he a Frankenstein’s monster? Is he a Pygmalion’s statue? Is he “Mr. Hyde” to Moses’ “Dr. Jekyll”? Or is he perhaps a Pinocchio? Explain the similari- ties and the differences.

4. What is the signifi cance of the book Harriet holds in her lap moments before she dies?

5. Can you think of other stories in which a moral lesson is misunderstood or taken too literally, to the detriment of the characters in the story?


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Pulp Fiction

Q U E N T I N T A R A N T I N O ( D I R E C T O R A N D S C R E E N W R I T E R )

Screenplay, 1994. Film, 1994. Summary and Excerpt.

In this summary (with a short excerpt) * we focus on one aspect of a complex story. Pulp Fiction, which shocked its fi rst audiences with its graphic violence and strong language, has now acquired the status of an instant classic, often referred to in educational contexts precisely because of its casual attitude toward death and violence—up to a point. Here we look at the point where violence suddenly seems to have lost its appeal for one of the main characters, Jules. Jules and Vincent have had a rough morning. Hit men for a mobster, they have just murdered two young men, with Jules quoting a passage supposedly from Ezekiel, but heavily embroidered with Jules’s own words of doom, to them before he kills them, as he usually does; it is his style. Completing the job, they retrieve a briefcase for their boss. What Jules and Vincent don’t know is that another man is hiding in the bathroom. When he bursts out, emptying his Magnum at the two hit men, they fi re back, and he dies—but neither Jules nor Vincent is hurt. Vincent wants to label it a stroke of good luck and get out of there, but Jules is profoundly shocked and sees it as something else: divine intervention. Marvin, a young friend of Jules’s who has helped him set up the hit, follows them out of the bloodstained apartment into their car; while Vincent is discussing the incident of the bullets that missed, his gun accidentally goes off and shoots the young man in the face. Terribly upset, Jules worries that they are now driving on the highway with a bloody car and a dead body—his concern is not for the untimely death of Marvin. Later they are having breakfast in a coffee shop, coming down from the morning’s events. Jules is still contemplating what he thinks of as a miracle, the fact that he wasn’t killed, and he announces that he now considers himself retired from “the Life.” Something else is going on in the coffee shop. A young couple, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, are now rising up out of a booth, pointing guns at the patrons and the waitresses: They are going to rob the place. Vincent has gone to the restroom and is unaware of the developments, but Jules witnesses the entire holdup. The young couple take the money from the cash register and move in to rob the patrons. When Pumpkin points his gun at Jules, he gives up his wallet but fl atly refuses to hand over the briefcase. He lets Pumpkin look inside (we don’t get to see the contents, only its mysterious glow), but that is as far

* Author’s note of caution: Please be advised that the excerpt from the screenplay (Jules’s monologue) contains some profanity. Additional profanity has been omitted from the excerpt. The entire screenplay of Pulp Fiction uses vernacular speech laden with what many readers will consider vulgarities. In the fi lm it may be said to serve an artistic purpose, giving the audience an immediate understanding of the underworld in which the story takes place and often providing a deliberate counterpoint to intellectual dialogue; however, excerpts from the screenplay may strike some readers as being offensive. I suggest that the issue of offensive language, in fi lms as well as in everyday life, be part of the class discussion after reading the narrative, as indicated in study question 4.

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as it goes. When Pumpkin points his gun at Jules, Jules quickly twists his arm, and now Pumpkin is the one staring into the gun. The girl attempts to help her lover but realizes that Jules will shoot if she moves. Now Vincent comes back to the table and takes in the situation. Together, Jules and Vincent keep the young couple under control, and Jules tells them that under normal circumstances they would both be dead now—but today he is in a “transitional period” and doesn’t want to kill them. He instructs Pumpkin to go into the loot bag, fi sh out Jules’s wallet, take out the cash, $1,500, and just go away. And he tells Pumpkin:

Wanna know what I’m buying? . . . Your life. I’m giving you that money so I don’t hafta kill your ass. . . . You read the Bible? . . . There’s a passage I got memorized: Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfi sh and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the fi nder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furi- ous anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.” I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it means your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a coldblooded thing to say…. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’. It could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness.

Pulp Fiction (Miramax, 1994) appears to many people to glorify violence, but educators have discerned a deeper intention: a strong statement against violence. Here Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) and Pumpkin (Tim Roth) are preparing to rob the customers and staff of the diner.


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Or it could be you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfi sh. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.

Jules lowers his gun and puts it on the table; Pumpkin looks at him, at Honey Bunny, at the $1,500 in his hand, and then he grabs the trash bag full of cash and wallets, and he and Honey Bunny walk out the door.

Study Questions

1. What does Jules mean by suggesting that he might be the “righteous man”? What does he mean by suggesting that he might be the shepherd?

2. What does Jules mean by saying that he is giving Honey Bunny and Pumpkin the money so he won’t have to kill them?

3. What do you think is the point of talking about being “righteous” and “being evil,” given that the scene we are witnessing is a confrontation between robbers and hit men?

4. If you have seen the fi lm, you will know that the dialogue is laden with profanity (as is evident in the excerpt from Jules’s monologue). Do you think the foul language serves a purpose in this context? Why or why not? You might want to discuss the issue of profanity in contemporary speech styles.

5. Do you believe this particular fi lm might inspire more violence (as Plato would believe), or do you think that, in some way, it might serve as a “cleansing” experience (as Aristotle might say) or perhaps as a warning against wholesale cultural acceptance of violence?

6. You may have wondered what the briefcase contains. It is not revealed in the fi lm, but rumor has it that it contains the soul of the gangster boss. Would such an interpreta- tion make a difference to the story? Explain.

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Chapter Three

Ethical Relativism

O n occasion we are forced to face this fact: Not everybody shares our idea of what constitutes decent behavior. You may wait at the movie theater for a friend who never shows up because she is on the phone with another friend and it doesn’t occur to her that it is important to keep her date with you. Such actions usually can be dismissed as merely bad manners or callousness; still, you probably will not want to make plans with that person again. Moral differences can run deeper than that, however. Suppose you are dating someone to whom you feel very attracted. During dinner at a nice restaurant, your friend casually mentions that he or she supports a candidate or cause that you strongly oppose on moral grounds. The fact that your friend has a different idea about what constitutes moral behavior will probably affect the way you feel about him or her. We regularly read and hear about actions that are morally unacceptable to us. A young foreign girl is killed by her brother because she is pregnant and unmar- ried or perhaps merely going out with an American boy. To the Western mind the brother’s act is an unfathomable crime. But the brother believes he is only doing his duty, unpleasant as it may be; he is upholding the family honor, which the sister has tainted by her act of unspeakable immorality (according to the traditional code of his culture—hence the term honor-killing ). The world is full of stories about people who feel duty-bound to do things others fi nd repugnant. People in some cultures feel it is their moral obligation, or moral right, to dispose of their elderly citizens when they become unproductive. Pretechnological cultures, in particular, have a tradition dur- ing times when food is scarce of exposing their oldest members to the elements and leaving them to die. Often the decision rests with these older people, who feel mor- ally obliged to remove themselves from the tribe when they believe it is time. Some cultures feel a moral right or duty to dispose of infants in the same way—usually cultures with no safe medical access to contraception. Other cultures believe it is a sin to seek medical assistance—they believe life should be left in the hands of God. Some people believe it is a sin to destroy any life, even by inadvertently stepping on an insect. Some people think they have a moral duty to defend themselves, their loved ones, and their country from any threat; others think it is their moral duty to refrain from resorting to violence under any circumstances. Box 3.1 explores the cultural relationship between moral values and legislation.

How to Deal with Moral Differences

How do we approach this phenomenon of moral differences? There are at least four major paths to choose.

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Do a nation’s laws refl ect some basic universal moral values, or are they relative to their time and place in history? Philosophy of law generally speaks of two viewpoints concerning the rela- tionship between ethics and the law. The view- point of legal naturalism (or natural law ) holds that the law refl ects, or ought to refl ect, a set of universal moral standards; some naturalists con- sider those standards given by God, and some see them as part of human nature. The other viewpoint is referred to as legal positivism and holds that the law is based on consensus among legislators; in other words, there is no ultimate moral foundation for our laws; they are relative and merely refl ect shifting opinions over time. Whether we prefer naturalism or legal posi- tivism as an explanation of the relationship be- tween moral values and the law, or perhaps a hybrid form that acknowledges some universal values but otherwise sees laws as being contex- tual and relative, the assumption of a relation- ship between morals and legislation is ancient. From the Code of Hammurabi (developed by Babylonians in approximately 2000 B.C.E.) to the legislation of today, some laws have refl ected the moral climate of the time. Not all laws have done so, though some scholars argue that because laws tell us what we ought to do or ought not to do, all laws have a moral element to them; if noth- ing else, they promote the idea that it is morally good to uphold the law. However, sometimes the law does not seem to be morally right. The Athenians followed the law when they executed Socrates, but it didn’t seem right to his followers, and it doesn’t seem right to us today. When times change, what seemed right before may not seem right anymore, and if the legislative power is sen- sitive to that fact, the law will change. Sometimes it takes a civil war for such laws to be changed; sometimes it takes an act of defi ance; sometimes it takes only a simple vote. We can’t, therefore, conclude that all laws are morally just, because

experience tells us this is not so. Some laws may not even have an obvious moral element. A traf- fi c law that allows us to turn right on red hardly addresses a moral issue. Legislators, though, are naturally interested in the public’s opinion of right and wrong, be- cause, in Western-style democracies, that opin- ion will be represented by the laws of the country. Not all moral issues are relevant for legislators, however; whether you go home for Thanksgiv- ing may be an important moral issue in your family, but it is hardly the business of anyone else, let alone the state legislature. Whether you choose to download copyrighted music off the Internet without paying for it is the business of the courts, and many would also consider it a moral issue (like stealing), while some would not. Some issues are clearly considered both im- moral and illegal within a culture, while others tend to be viewed as strictly a matter of legality, or morality, but not necessarily both. If we look at the relationship between the moral codes and the laws of various societies we fi nd that they differ dramatically: One so- ciety’s legislation may refl ect the belief that the law should not dictate people’s moral choices as long as no harm is caused. Another society’s laws may be anchored solidly in the moral code of that society, usually derived from the soci- ety’s religion. The fi rst type of society refl ects a popular Western contemporary viewpoint; an example of the latter would be a Muslim soci- ety such as Iran, where a code of law inspired by Islam, the Sharia, is enforced. Over time, so- cieties have opted for various combinations of the law, morals, and religion, with a close con- nection between the three being very common until the twentieth century. However, as some philosophers point out, our postmodern culture is increasingly focused on what is the law, rather than on what is morally right —possibly because many consider the idea of moral right or wrong

Box 3.1 T H E I N T E R S E C T I O N O F M O R A L A N D L E G A L I S S U E S

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1. Moral Nihilism, Skepticism, and Subjectivism We may choose to believe that there are no morally right or wrong viewpoints—that the whole moral issue is a cultural game, and neither your opinion nor mine matters in the end, for there is no ultimate right or wrong. This view is called moral nihilism, and at various times in our lives, especially if we are facing personal disappointment, we may be inclined to take this approach. This is a diffi cult position to uphold, however, because it is so extreme. It is hard to remember, every minute of the day, that we don’t believe there is any difference between right and wrong. If we see somebody steal our car, we are inclined to want the thief stopped, regardless of how much our jaded intellect tells us that no one is more right or wrong than anyone else. If we watch a child or an animal being abused, we feel like stepping in, even if we tell ourselves that there is no such thing as right or wrong. In other words, there seems to be something in most of us—instinct, or socialization, or reason, or compassion, or maybe something else altogether—that surfaces even when we try to persuade ourselves that moral values are but an illusion. Related to the attitude of moral nihilism is moral skepticism, which holds that we can’t know whether there are any moral truths, and moral subjectivism, which holds that moral views are merely inner states in a person and that they can’t be compared to the inner states of another person, so a moral viewpoint is valid only for the person who holds it. Both skepticism and subjectivism are more common than nihilism, but they seem to be equally diffi cult to adhere to in the long run, be- cause at crucial times we all act as if there are valid moral truths that we share with others—we criticize a friend for being late, a politician for being a racist or a sexist, a sibling for not pitching in when the family needs help. We praise a stranger for coming to our aid when we are stuck on the freeway, we praise our kids when they come home on time—so it seems that even if we believe ourselves to be nihilists, skeptics, or subjectivists, we still expect to share some values with others of our own culture. Although moral subjectivism generally seems a more fl exible and appealing theory than categorical moral nihilism or moral skepticism—to the point that some

an individual choice ( subjectivism ) or a cultural matter ( ethical relativism ). But it is also possible that some decide to focus on the law rather than morals because they think it lets them off the hook: If a behav- ior isn’t illegal, it must surely be okay, right? Wrong, because we also have civil codes of ethics, such as rules for employees in a workplace, poli- ticians in local government, and professors and students on a campus, and because we have a tacit understanding of moral expectations among professionals, among friends, and among family

members. You may not be arrested for making inappropriate comments to coworkers, or for using your company computer during work hours for transactions on eBay or fi nding dates, or for dating someone you are supervising, but such behavior can surely get you fi red. And be- traying the trust of a friend or a family member will usually not get you arrested, either, but it may have irreparable consequences for your relationship. Reducing it all to what is legal is a misunderstanding of the nature of ethics, whether inadvertent or deliberate.

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thinkers choose to treat subjectivism as a subcategory of ethical relativism—the three theories have something in common that makes all of them less than success- ful: They have no confl ict-solving capacity . How would you persuade the car thief to leave your car alone on moral grounds if you are a nihilist? a skeptic? or a subjectiv- ist? In each case, you have given up on the idea of fi nding common moral ground. The best you can do is tell the car thief that he is behaving in an illegal fashion; you can’t claim that you have a moral argument that he ought to listen to.

2. Ethical Relativism We may choose to believe that there is no universal moral truth—that each culture has its own set of rules that are valid for that cul- ture, and we have no right to interfere, just as they have no right to interfere with our rules. This attitude, known as ethical relativism, is not as radical as skepticism because it allows that moral truths exist but holds that they are relative to their time and place. Ethical relativism is viewed as an attitude of tolerance and as an antidote to the efforts of cultures who try their best to impose their set of moral rules on other cultures. Can ethical relativism solve confl icts? Yes, quite effectively, under limited conditions: within a culture. Whatever the majority deems to be the moral rule is the proper rule to follow. However, intercultural moral disagreements can rarely be solved. This theory is discussed in detail in the next section.

3. Soft Universalism We may believe that deep down, in spite of all their dif- ferences, people of different cultures can still agree on certain moral basics. We may think it is a matter of biology—that people everywhere have basically the same human nature. Or we may view this agreement as a process of acculturation, whereby people adjust to the normal way of doing things in their culture. If the native peoples of harsh climates put their unwanted babies out in the wild to perish, it need not mean that they are cruel but, rather, that they want to give the babies they already have a chance to survive, and they know that having another mouth to feed might endanger them all. In this way we fi nd common ground in the fact that we, and they, do care for the children we are able to raise. If we believe that somehow, under the surface

In this cartoon Lenny, the moral nihilist, is being challenged by Bobo. How does Bobo restore Lenny’s sense of justice? Do you think it would convince a moral nihilist? Why or why not?

BOBO’S PROGRESS © Dan Wright. Reprinted by permission of Dan Wright.

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of antagonism and contradiction, we can still fi nd a few things we can agree on, even if we choose to act on them in different ways, then we believe in the existence of a few universal moral truths. I call this attitude soft universalism—universalism because it perceives that there are some universal moral rules; soft because it is not as radical as hard universalism, or absolutism. * Can soft universalism solve confl icts? Perhaps it can do so better than any other approach, because the main goal of soft universal- ism is to seek common ground beneath the variety of opinions and mores. But what exactly are those core values? Soft universalism speculates that they are grounded in our comman humanity, but what does that mean? Later in the chapter, you’ll see a suggestion from philosopher James Rachels, who speculates that there are three such universal moral values.

4. Hard Universalism Hard universalism (sometimes called moral absolutism ) is the attitude that most often is supported in ethical theories. It is an attitude toward morals in everyday life to which many people relate very well. Hard universalism holds that there is one universal moral code. It is the viewpoint expressed by those who are on a quest for the code (“I know there must be one set of true moral rules, but I would not presume to have found it myself”), by those who make judgments based on its analysis (“After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that this moral code represents the ultimate values”), and by those who put forth the simple sentiment that moral truth is not open for discussion (“I’m right and you’re wrong, and you’d better shape up!”). Whereas moral nihilism, with its claim that there are no moral truths, represents one end of the spectrum in dealing with moral differences, hard universalism represents the other end: It does not acknowledge the possibility or the legitimacy of more than one set of moral codes. Can hard universalism/moral absolutism solve moral confl icts? Yes, in a variety of ways: If you accept someone telling you that you must be wrong because you don’t agree with him or her, then that confl ict is solved right there; more frequently, an absolutist will try to show you, on the basis of reasoning and evidence, that his or her moral conclusion is better than yours. Appeals to evidence and reasoning are the com- mon problem-solving approaches among most absolutist philosophers, not appeals to force or fallacious arguments such as “I’m right because I’m right.” Being a hard universalist thus doesn’t equal infl exibility or dogmatism as much as a fi rm moral conviction—although such a conviction can of course also be dogmatic.

The fi rst set of viewpoints will not be discussed much in this book. The sec- ond one, ethical relativism, has greatly infl uenced moral attitudes in the West since the early twentieth century and is the main topic of this chapter. The third, soft

*Some readers have asked me if I am the originator of the term soft universalism, and I have to confess that I sim- ply don’t know; I have used it for the past couple of decades. I may have read it in someone else’s book many years ago, or I may have simply constructed it in contrast to hard universalism, as may be the case with other philosophers—it’s a handy, straightforward term. If anyone remembers encountering the term soft universalism before the publication of the fi rst edition of The Moral of the Story in 1994, please let me know! I would like to be able to give credit where credit is due.

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universalism, and the fourth, hard universalism, will be discussed in this chapter as well as subsequent chapters of Parts 2 and 3.

The Lessons of Anthropology

In the nineteenth century, cultural anthropology came into its own as a scientifi c dis- cipline and reminded the West that “out there” were other societies vastly different from those of Victorian Europe. Anthropological scholars set out to examine other cultures, and the facts they brought back were astounding to the nineteenth-century Western mind-set: There were cultures that didn’t understand the male’s role in pro- creation but thought that babies somehow ripened in the woman with the help of spirits. There were people who would devour the bodies of enemies killed in war to share their fi ghting spirit. There were cultures that believed in animal gods, cultures that felt it appropriate for women to bare their breasts, cultures that felt it utterly inappropriate to let your in-laws watch you eat, and so on. It was easy to draw the conclusion that there were cultures out there whose moral codes differed substan- tially from those of the West. That conclusion, the fi rst step in what has become known as ethical relativ- ism, was not new to the Western mind-set. Because people had always traveled and returned with tales of faraway lands, it was common knowledge that other cultures did things differently. Explorers in earlier centuries brought home tales of mermaids, giants, and other fantasies. Some stories were truer than others. There really were, for instance, peoples out there who had a different dress ethic and work ethic. The Ara- bian messenger Ibn Fadlan traveled north into Russia in 922 and watched a Viking burial; he wrote with disgust about how different and primitive the Viking customs were (his story was the theme of the fi lm The 13th Warrior ), so not all such reports come from Western travelers commenting about non-Western ways. But what we’re most familiar with is of course the tales about non-Western, exotic lands. The life- style of the South Sea islanders became a collective fantasy for Europeans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; imagine not wearing any clothes, not having to work all the time, living in perpetual summertime, and not having any sexual restrictions! Depending on their ethical predisposition, Europeans considered such peoples to be either the luckiest ones on this earth or the most sinful, subhuman, and depraved. Reports of cultural diversity were also supplied by Christian missionaries over the centuries; they confronted more or less reluctant cultures with their message of conversion. The idea of cultural diversity even in early historic times is well documented. The Greek historian Herodotus (485–430 B.C.E.) tells in his Histories of the Persian king Darius the Great, who from the borders of his vast empire, which at the time stretched from the Greek holdings in the West to India in the East, had heard tales of funerary practices that intrigued him. The Greeks were at that time in the habit of cremating their dead; Darius learned that a tribe in India, the Callatians, would eat their dead. In Darius’s Persia, burials were the norm. Herodotus wrote:

Everyone without exception believes in his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best . . . [Darius] summoned the Greeks who happened to be

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present at his court, and asked them what it would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatia, who do in fact eat their par- ents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing. One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar [a Greek poet] was right when he called it “king of all.”

Usually, the sound bite condensing Herodotus’s observation is “Custom is king”— we all prefer what we are used to. When anthropologists point out that moral codes vary enormously from cul- ture to culture, they are describing the situation as they see it. As long as those anthropologists make no judgments about whether it is good for humanity to have different moral codes or whether those codes represent the moral truths of each culture, they are espousing a descriptive theory usually referred to as cultural rela- tivism . Let us look at an example. An anthropologist acquaintance of mine came back from a fi eld trip to Tibet and told me the following story: In the little Tibetan village where he had been “adopted” by a local family and was doing his fi eld- work, the children worked hard and had very little leisure time. The concept of competition was totally alien to them. One day the anthropologist thought he would give them a treat, and he arranged for a race. All the kids lined up, puzzled and excited, to listen to his directions: Run from one end of the compound to the other and back again, and whoever comes in fi rst wins. The race was on, and the children ran like mad to beat each other and “win.” As one beaming kid came in fi rst, the anthropologist handed over a prize—some little trinket or piece of candy. There was dead silence among the kids, who just looked at each other. Finally one of the children asked, “Why are you giving a gift to our friend who won?” The anthropologist realized that because the children had no idea of competition, they had no knowledge that winning often is connected with a prize. To them, this new idea of “winning” was great all by itself, and there was no need to add anything else; indeed, the prize made them feel very uncomfortable. (The anthropologist said it also made him feel very stupid.) What the anthropologist was doing by telling this story was relating an exam- ple of cultural relativism—describing how customs differ from culture to culture. Suppose, though, he had added, “and I realized that they were right in their own way.” (In other words, suppose he had made a judgment about the validity of the tribal way of life.) In that case, he would have moved into the area of ethical rela- tivism . Cultural relativism is a descriptive theory that states that different cultures have different moral codes. Ethical relativism is a normative theory that states there is no universal moral code and that each culture’s codes are right and valid for that culture. It is a subtle difference, but philosophically it is an important one. (See Box 3.2 for more on descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics.) The cultural relativist sees the cultural differences and describes them: There are many moral codes in the world. The ethical relativist sees the cultural differences and makes a judgment: We can never fi nd a common code, and what seems right for one culture is right for that culture .

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The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) was a student of the cultural anthropologist Franz Boas, who had already declared that cultures around the world should not be judged by the standards of Western civilization and that moral stan- dards are not universal, but relative to each culture. Sharing her teacher’s viewpoint, Benedict did most of her writing toward the end of the era in which one could still speak of “uncontaminated” societies—cultures that hadn’t yet been overwhelmingly exposed to Western civilization. The term primitive still was used for some cultures, and Benedict used it too, but she was quick to point out that the attitude that Western civilization was at the top of the ladder of cultural evolution was—or should be— outdated. In a famous paper, “Anthropology and the Abnormal,” from 1934, she says that “modern civilization becomes not a necessary pinnacle of human achievement but one entry in a long series of possible adjustments.” With that emphasis she estab- lished herself as an advocate of cultural and moral tolerance, implying that Western civilization has no right to impose its codes of conduct on other cultures. Ethical relativism has remained popular ever since as a tool of cultural tolerance. In the same paper, Benedict tells of a number of cultural phenomena that may seem morally odd, to say the least. In the Primary Readings you’ll fi nd an excerpt focusing on the custom of extreme paranoia on an island in Melanesia. Here in the

It was not so strange that King Darius might have heard of peoples living as far apart as the Greeks and the Callatian tribe of northern India, because they were in fact his neighbors. At the time of its greatest expansion, Persia (today, Iran) covered a territory stretching from Greece in the west to today’s Pakistan in the east. Until the time of Alexander the Great, this was the greatest empire in the ancient Western world.





Mediterranean Sea

Black Sea

Red Sea Arabian


Caspian Sea

Aral Sea






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The terms descriptive and normative are im- portant terms for any ethical theory, not just relativism. When we talk about a theory being descriptive, we mean that the theory merely describes what it sees as fact, such as, In the United States it is, in general, not considered immoral to eat meat. In other words, a descrip- tive theory describes what people actually do or think. A normative theory adds a moral judg- ment, evaluation, or justifi cation, such as, It is okay to eat meat because it is nourishing, or a criticism, such as, Eating meat should be con- sidered immoral. In addition to descriptive eth- ics and normative ethics, there is a third ethical approach, metaethics . Metaethics does not de- scribe or evaluate but analyzes the meaning of the moral terms we use. Some typical questions would be, But what do you mean by immoral? What do you mean by meat—beef, horse, or snake, perhaps? Most ethical systems involve judgments, criticisms, evaluations, and jus- tifi cations, and are thus normative, but many systems also require an awareness of the terms used to justify the theory. Any time a moral de- bate moves into a discussion about the meaning of terms, it moves into the area of metaethics. An example of the vital importance of metaeth- ics in the political debate of the fi rst decade of the twenty-fi rst century is the discussion of the meaning of the concept of torture . In 2005 and 2006, Congress engaged in a debate about what should be permissible as “aggressive inter- rogation techniques,” as opposed to “torture.” The underlying assumption was that we, as a civilized nation, are bound by the Geneva Con- vention and can’t allow ourselves to engage in torture, but must allow for access to harsh in- terrogation methods in extreme situations, to

save American lives. It became apparent that what for some debaters constituted aggres- sive interrogation techniques within accepted limits—such as exposure to cold temperatures, constant light or darkness, and loud noises, including loud music—was for others clearly torture. Most debaters agreed that infl icting physical pain was a clear example of torture, but what about sleep deprivation? The most controversial technique was probably “water- boarding,” subjecting prisoners to having water poured over their covered faces while they are tilted backward until they believe themselves to be drowning. In 2008 it was revealed that the CIA had used this technique on three oc- casions, including an interrogation of a cap- tured high-ranking al Qaeda member, and had obtained important information thereby. For the CIA this constituted an aggressive interro- gation technique, not torture, but for several debaters, including members of the media, this technique should clearly be classifi ed as a form of torture, even if it doesn’t involve any actual danger of drowning. While waterboarding dur- ing the Bush administration was viewed as a rare but legitimate “aggressive interrogation,” it has since, under the Obama administration, been classifi ed as torture, and excluded as an acceptable method. Regardless of the question of the moral ac- ceptability or even the effectiveness of torture as such (which would be normative questions), this example merely serves to show that with- out a discussion of the defi nition of key words in a debate, we cannot hope to reach any con- sensus. In Chapters 5 and 6 we return to the question of the moral acceptability and effec- tiveness of torture.

Box 3.2 D E S C R I P T I V E E T H I C S, N O R M A T I V E E T H I C S, A N D   M E T A E T H I C S

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chapter text, another example will have to suffi ce: Among the Kwakïutl Indians of the Pacifi c Northwest in times past, it was customary to view death, even natural death, as an affront that should be retaliated against in one way or another. In one tribe, a chief’s sister and her daughter had drowned on a trip to Victoria. The chief gathered a war party. They set out, found seven men and two children asleep, and killed them. Then they returned home, convinced that they had done the morally right thing. What intrigued Benedict most about this story was not that the chief and the members of the war party viewed their actions as morally good, but that most of the tribespeople felt the same way. In other words, it was normal in the tribe to feel this way. Benedict concludes, “The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of good. It is that which society has approved.” Two things are worth mentioning here. First, Benedict is taking a giant leap from expressing cultural relativism to expressing ethical relativism. She moves from a description of the people’s behavior to the statement that it is normal and thus good for them to behave that way—in their own cultural context. Second, Benedict is say- ing that normality is culturally defi ned; in other words, cultures, especially isolated cultures, often seem to develop some behaviors to an extreme. (For Benedict the range of possible human behavior is enormous, extending from paranoia to helpful- ness and generosity.) Those individuals who somehow can’t conform (and they will always be the minority, because most people are very pliable) become the abnormals in that culture. Is the behavior of the Northwest Coast people totally alien to us? Benedict thinks not, because it constitutes abnormal behavior in our own society, not unthinkable be- havior. We might illustrate her idea with some examples. The postal worker who has been fi red and who shows up the next day with a shotgun and kills a number of his coworkers is “crazy” to us, but he actually is following the same logic as the chief: His world has been torn apart by powers over which he has no control, and he is retaliat- ing against the affront. The driver who cuts you off on the freeway because she had a fi ght with her husband is doing the same thing; so was the little girl who ripped a button off your coat in grade school because someone else ripped a button off her coat. There is no question of vengeance, because neither the driver nor the little girl was looking to punish a guilty party. The seven men and two children had nothing to do with the deaths of the chief’s relatives, and the chief never said they did. It is not a matter of seeking out the cause of the problem, of gaining retribution; rather, it is an experience of healing a wound by wounding someone else. (What if the strang- ers who were killed had been American or Canadian loggers who had grown up in a culture that believes it is proper to fi nd and punish whoever is guilty? Then we’d see retribution.) Perhaps we all take it out on someone innocent from time to time; some of us probably do it more often than others. The difference is that we’ve chosen to call what the Northwest Coast people did abnormal, whereas they, in the context of their tribal civilization, considered their actions to be normal and good. How do such choices evolve? Usually it is a matter of habits developing over time. If there is such a thing as a “normal” way for humans to behave, it is to adjust to the pattern of normality that prevails in their particular culture. Today, sociologists would call this process acculturation .

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Although Benedict obviously wants her readers to approach other cultures with more tolerance for customs alien to them, her choice of examples may seem odd to a modern, culturally sensitive reader: Is Benedict, in giving this account of a tribe of American Indians, actually helping to cement the old notions popular in white West- ern culture of the “savage Indian”? If so, she is not furthering any mutual intercultural understanding. There are two things to say here: (1) Benedict herself might answer with something like, “If you read this account as a criticism of Indian customs, then it is just because you are seeing it through the eyes of a prejudiced Westerner. The whole point is to recognize cultural differences as being equally meaningful within their cultural contexts.” We should not shy away from noticing differences—but we should not judge them either. (2) As readers looking at the disadvantages as well as the advantages of ethical relativism, we must conclude that relativism does not have as its goal any mutual understanding —merely noninterference. Trying to achieve an understanding requires us to fi nd some common ground, and relativism does not allow for any intercultural common ground. We return to the question of common ground later in this chapter. For Benedict, there is no sense in imposing Western morals on another culture, because Western morals are just one aspect of the range of possible human behavior that we have chosen to elaborate; they are no better or no worse than anyone else’s morals. Whatever is normal for us we think of as good, and we have no right to claim that our choice is better than any other culture’s. A novel that in many ways advo- cates this approach to other cultures is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, and you will fi nd an excerpt from it in the Narratives section of this chapter.

Problems with Ethical Relativism

Given the overwhelming intolerance for other cultures and customs that has been dis- played from time to time by Western civilization (a stance some refer to as “cultural imperialism”), many people fi nd something very appealing and refreshing about ethi- cal relativism. And we shouldn’t forget to see it in its proper historical perspective: It

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948), American anthropologist and defender of ethical relativism. Her best-known work is Patterns of Culture (1934).

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served as an antidote to nineteenth-century “Eurocentrism” and Western colonialism, in which the notion of Western religious and moral superiority (in addition to the technological superiority of the West) had been considered an obvious truth. Ethical relativism broke away from that self-congratulatory attitude and became the inspira- tion for a shift toward cultural tolerance in the early part of the twentieth century, an attitude that continues in today’s United States, with its plurality of cultural and ethnic heritages. Increasingly, throughout the twentieth century, it seemed of doubt- ful virtue among American intellectuals to impose a particular brand of acculturation on another group that believed it was doing just fi ne with its own set of moral rules. So many cultures in the nineteenth century had suffered precisely because of that attitude, from American Indians to Asian Indians, and many non-European cultures in between. For many Americans, the fundamental acceptance of the fact that other cultures had a right to be different was so ingrained that when a young American male was caned by the authorities in Singapore in the 1990s for spraying graffi ti on cars, the overall reaction was that if he chose to live in Singapore, he should not break its rules, and ought to be punished according to its rules—a modern “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” attitude. And it cuts both ways: When people from elsewhere visit the United States, we expect from them that they respect our ways of life: A young single mother from Denmark visited her American boyfriend with her baby in New York City some years back and did what she was used to doing in Denmark: The couple had dinner in a New York restaurant at ground level, and she put the baby carriage outside with the baby in it and got a table by the window so she could watch the baby. When she was arrested for reckless child endangerment, she was puzzled: “But we do this all the time at home!” she said. I can attest to that person- ally, having grown up in Denmark. Indeed, babies (in their carriages) and dogs on their leashes are left outside stores and restaurants all the time, in the summer, at least in the smaller towns. But not in New York City! What has become known as the cultural differences argument didn’t cut it with the judge—her lawyer’s argument that she should have a right to do what she used to was dismissed, and she was sent back to Denmark with her baby, presumably never to come back. So it appears that we have taken the method of problem solving suggested by ethical relativism to heart. And yet some people (who aren’t necessarily hard univer- salists either) have questioned the noninterference ethics of relativism. What if the culture in question sells children into the sex trade? What if it refuses women the right to vote and own property? And, in our post–September 11 world, what if other cultures believe that Americans are fair targets for terrorism everywhere? Are those beliefs and customs just a matter of their moral choices, which should be respected, or do we have a moral right—perhaps even a moral obligation—to step in and effect changes? This is the big issue that is challenging ethical relativism at the beginning of the twenty-fi rst century.

Six Problems with Ethical Relativism

Even if we grant that ethical relativism provided a positive lesson in the early twen- tieth century, suggesting the suspension of Western judgmental attitudes toward

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other cultures, there are serious problems within the theory. Here we look at six problems, all of them logical consequences of the basic idea of ethical relativism that there is no universal moral code. (Box 3.3 is an introduction to a standard philo- sophical approach: the adversarial method.)

1. No Criticism or Praise of Other Cultures Does this mean that it is always wrong to criticize another culture or group for what it does? If we are to follow the idea of ethical relativism to its logical conclusion, yes. We have no right to criticize other cultures, period. But on occasion things happen in other cultures that we feel, either by instinct or through rational argument, we should criticize to maintain our own moral integrity. Curiously enough, at the time Benedict wrote her article (1934), one of the most offensive social “experiments” in history was being conducted in the Western world. Europe was being overtaken by the Nazis, whose extreme racism was not kept secret, even though the existence of the death camps of later years was not generally known until after the war. A true ethical relativist would have had to stick to her guns and maintain that other countries had no right to criticize what was going on in Germany and Austria in the 1930s and 1940s. (As it happens, that pretty much mirrored the actual attitude of the rest of the world at the time.) Benedict, however, mentions nothing about this issue in her paper. People often say, in retrospect, that someone should have protested against or intervened in a particular situation while there was still time. Indeed, this was one of the arguments for going into Iraq in 2003: that Saddam Hussein had the makings of a Middle Eastern Hitler and needed to be stopped while there was still time. In the case of the war in Afghanistan, the relativist might have approved, provided the goal was stopping terrorists from attacking other nations, such as our own, but not

CALVIN AND HOBBES © 1995 Watterson. Dist. by UNIVERSAL UCLICK. Reprinted with p ermission. All rights reserved.

Bill Watterson’s comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had a knack for putting its fi nger on tricky philo- sophical issues, especially in the fi elds of ethics and metaphysics. Here Hobbes, the stuffed tiger that only Calvin can see move, speculates that the demand for tolerance in ethical relativism may not be much of an advantage.

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if the goal was to put an end to the Taliban regime. In the war in Iraq, the issue is even more complex: If the goal was exclusively to fi nd and destroy WMDs, weapons of mass destruction (which have not been found, although there is speculation that they have been hidden), the relativist might fi nd the invasion acceptable, because it would stop aggression toward other countries. However, if the goal was primarily a regime change, toppling Saddam Hussein and creating a democracy, the relativist would not approve, regardless of how much the living conditions would improve for Iraqis, in the short or the long run, because it would be interfering with the internal

You may by now have asked yourself, Is this the procedure we’ll be following in the rest of this book—to be introduced to an interesting view- point, and then be told how to pick it apart logi- cally until it seems to have lost its appeal? What happened to the simple joy of learning about a variety of viewpoints, without having to im- mediately learn how to dismantle them? Doesn’t that seem unnecessarily negative? You may not have asked yourself that, but I did once, as a Philosophy major. The answer lies in the so- called adversarial method, a method employed in philosophy ever since Socrates: In order to move forward toward a presumably true statement or viewpoint (which is the goal), you have to treat each theory presented to you as an adversary, an enemy, and pound it with whatever attacks your logical, rational mind can think of. Whatever re- mains after the analysis is then a theory worthy of consideration. It is not unlike the procedure of testing a presidential candidate. When the going gets tough and all the nasty (but usually reasonable and relevant) questions are asked, we see what kind of character the candidate has. Is he or she arrogant? weak? capable of a sense of humor? vindictive? intelligent? stupid? lying? truthful? honest? strong? What is the breaking point of the candidate? In the same way, we seek the breaking point of a theory. As you will see, almost every theory does have a breaking point, but that does not always dis- qualify the theory (that is, render it invalid).

If the breaking point comes late in the discus- sion and only when the theory is attacked by an extremely unlikely hypothesis or by trifl es, that speaks well for the theory and encourages acceptance or perhaps only a minor rewrite of the theory. Some theories, however, break early in the discussion and can be discarded. Ethical relativism is a theory with a fairly late break- ing point; in other words, there are some good things to be said for the theory, which is a good reason not to discard it altogether. There is, however, another approach: the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005) had, like many students who are fi rst being exposed to philosophy, grown disenchanted with the constant analytical hammering of well- intended theories and viewpoints, and suggested a compromise: he said that we ought to both “listen to” and “suspect” a theory. We should “suspect” it of trying to mislead us (through the adversarial method), but we shouldn’t forget to “listen” to the wisdom and the knowledge it may contain, because we may learn something and become wiser, even if the theory may not hold up in the long run, or be wrong about some details. So look for the positive in a philo- sophical viewpoint while at the same time detect its fl aws. And that is the approach you’ll fi nd within these chapters: Adopting Ricoeur’s sug- gested approach, we need to look at the weak- nesses of the theories, but that’s no reason why we can’t also appreciate their ideas and visions.

Box 3.3 T H E A D V E R S A R I A L M E T H O D

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affairs of a sovereign country. Similar issues could be raised about the confl ict in Libya in 2011: From a relativist point of view, helping the rebels topple the dictator Ghadaffi would be acceptable if it made our own country safer, but not if the goal was to make Libya safer for Libyans. In the eyes of the relativist, we are against geno- cide only because it happens to be against the norms of our own culture; for another culture, genocide may be right. For most people, however, even those believing they ought to be tolerant, there are moral limits to tolerance, and any theory that doesn’t recognize this is just not a good theory. Most Western people, tolerant as they might like to be, would prefer to see certain things come to an end: In China there are reports of female infanticide, a result of a strict one-child-per-family policy; in several cultures, primarily on the African continent, female genital mutilation is practiced, usually on young girls of seven to ten years of age. A report from WHO (The World Health Organization) 2011 states that 28 countries are still engaged in performing the procedure despite pressures from Western nations; 70 percent of young girls in those nations are being “circumcised,” in a place such as Somalia virtually 100 percent. In the estimate of WHO, 140 million women currently live with the psychological and physical con- sequences of having had the procedure done. Traditionally, the procedure is per- formed within the culture of women in each community, as a ritual act necessary for adulthood and marriageability, involving ritual tools that aren’t sterilized, and without anesthesia. The physical benefi ts are nonexistent—the benefi ts cited are in- variably related to social acceptance and supposed enhancement of virtues such as fi delity and chastity. According to WHO there has been some development within the past decade, since the 2000 United Nations report: In Senegal, for example, 5000 villages have opted out of the procedure. But in Indonesia and Malaysia the development has gone in another direction, into the medical clinics where doctors now perform the circumcisions under sterile conditions, and this development is of concern to WHO because it lends the procedure an aspect of legitimacy, as if it is now medically sound. Ironically, it has often been pointed out by Islamic scholars that the procedure is, in fact, against Islamic law, since it disfi gures the body created by Allah. At the end of this chapter you will fi nd a summary of a novel that deals with this issue: Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy . Another case of legislation going against common Western concepts of rights and equality would include the Sudan in 2000 where, similar to what was decreed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996–2001, the government issued a decree that women could no longer study at the universities or use their education in Sudanese society, because it was seen as impermissible by the Sudanese reading of the Koran. Professional women found themselves reduced to making a living doing manual labor. Hearing of such conditions, can one morally remain a relativist, holding that each culture must be left in peace to explore its own values? Many ethical relativists have felt that a line must be drawn between mere cultural preferences and assaults on human rights—but that means giving up on ethical relativism. However, when issues such as equal rights for women are raised in the United Nations, representa- tives of those cultures that do not recognize rights for women often respond with indignation, asserting that the West is merely doing what it has always done, trying

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to superimpose its cultural and moral values on other peoples in the old tradition of cultural imperialism. Although ethical relativism wanted to put an end to the wholesale export of Western values, the theorists have reached a critical point: Many people may agree with relativists that there is no need or excuse for the West to try to dictate every aspect of what other nations should think or do, but in extreme situations many of us would like to reserve the right to speak up for people in other parts of the world who can’t (or aren’t allowed to) speak up for themselves. We want to believe that we have the right to complain about governments that do not respect human rights and that abuse a part of their population; and, in fact, pressure on such governments has at times yielded results. Not only are we prevented from criticizing another culture’s doings if we accept the teachings of relativism, but we also cannot praise and learn from that culture. If we fi nd that the social system of Scandinavia is more humane and functions better than any other in the world, the conclusion based on relativism has to be that this is because it is right for them, but we still can’t assume that it is right for us. If we happen to admire the work ethic of Japan, we can’t learn from it and adapt it to our own culture, nor can Jainism’s teachings of nonviolence have anything to say to us. In short, ethical relativism, when taken to its logical conclusion, precludes learning from other cultures because there can be no “good” or “bad” that is common to all cultures. Curiously, that doesn’t mean that all ethical relativists would actually forbid us to learn from other cultures or to criticize others—on the contrary, ethical rela- tivists think of themselves as very tolerant and open-minded. The problem is in the logic of the theory itself: When it is applied to real-life situations as a moral principle, it reveals itself to have certain limitations.

2. Majority Rule The isolation of moral values to the conventions of specifi c cul- tural groups has another curious effect: It forces us to bow to majority rule . Remember that ethical relativism does not say there are no moral rules—only that the rules of each society are proper and valid for that society. What if you live in a society and don’t agree with the rules? Then you must, ipso facto, be wrong, because we know that the rules that are morally good in a society are those rules that are in effect. If you disagree with those rules, you must be wrong. That makes it impossible to disagree with any rules that exist, and therefore civil disobedience is out of the question. In Iran, if you disagree with the fundamentalist Islamic rules of punishment, then you are wrong. It is, in fact, right and proper in Iran to amputate the hand of a thief. If you are an American and disagree with the general attitude against euthanasia and doctors who help patients commit suicide, then you are wrong, and the attitude of the majority is right—not because the attitude has been subjected to moral analysis, but simply because it happens to be the attitude of the majority. It does not work, either, to point to a historical precedent and say that things were not always done as they are now, because ethical relativism cuts through time as well as space. There are no universal values among different time periods, any more than there are common values among different cultures of the same era. In other words, that was then and this is now. For an intellectual tradition such as ours, which prides itself on valuing minority opinions and promotes the idea of moral progress, the idea that the attitude

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of the majority is always right simply is unacceptable. And interestingly, as one of my students observed, if one is an ethical relativist, one would have to agree that ethical relativism as a moral theory should never have been voiced, or gained popularity, in a time period when hard universalism was the moral norm of the culture! If all cultures are right in their own way, hard universalism was right for early-twentieth-century America, and ethical relativism, being a minority moral opinion at the time, would be wrong by defi nition!

3. Professed or Actual Morality? There is a further problem with the idea that a group’s morality is determined by the majority or that a certain kind of behavior is normal, for what is “normal”? Is it the professed morality of the group or the actual morality? Imagine the following situation. The majority of a cultural group, when asked about their moral viewpoints, claim that they believe infi delity is wrong; how- ever, in that particular society, infi delity is common practice. Does that mean the morality of the culture is what the majority say they ought to do or what they actu- ally do? We might simply decide that it must be the normative rules that defi ne the morality and not the actual behavior; however, Ruth Benedict assumed morality to be the same as majority behavior . If Benedict had implied that morality is the same as what people think they ought to do, then all our example would amount to would be to show that most people have a hard time living up to their own moral standards, which is hardly a novel observation. However, Benedict’s theory of ethical relativ- ism clearly states that “moral” is the same as “normal,” meaning how the majority actually behave.

4. What Is a “Majority” ? Ethical relativism involves a practical problem as well. Suppose the question of doctor-assisted suicide had been determined by a referendum and the law against it overturned in your state. (The only two states in the nation at the time of this writing that allow euthanasia are Oregon and the state of Washington.) The majority now believe it is right for doctors to help terminally ill patients die. It was morally wrong the week before, but today it is morally right. By next year people may have changed their minds, and it will become morally wrong again. There is something very disconcerting about moral rightness being as arbi- trary as that and depending on a vote, especially since so few people actually vote in elections. So who exactly is the majority? Most of the people? the registered voters? or the actual voters? And what about the individual states? They obviously are part of a larger unit, the United States, and the moral standards of this larger unit would defi ne the morals of each singular state. But not all laws and customs are the same from state to state, and what is considered morally wrong by the majority in one state may well be considered morally acceptable by the majority in another (such as abortion or doctor-assisted suicide). Therefore, might we instead want to allow for morally autonomous subgroups in which the majority within each group defi nes the moral rules, even if they are at odds with the larger cultural group? If we have large minority subgroups within a state and their moral values differ from those of the majority, should such groups constitute morally autonomous units that should not be criticized? (See Box 3.4.)

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Sometimes the theory of moral subjectivism is listed as a subcategory of ethical relativism. You may recall that we placed it under the general heading of moral nihilism at the beginning of this chapter, because such theories deny that there can be any agreement about moral values based on something other than personal opinion. Ethi- cal relativism is not a morally nihilistic theory, because it holds that there are very strong rea- sons for agreeing about values within a culture precisely because they are values shared by that culture. However, there is defi nitely something “relative” about moral subjectivism, so we might say that it represents the transposition of “each culture is right in its own way” to “each person is right in his or her own way.” This theory, often re- ferred to in the media as “moral relativism,” is an extremely tolerant theory, a “live and let live” at- titude in which no one has the right to impose his or her moral viewpoints, including a preference for tolerance, on anyone else. It has its own se- vere fl aws, however: For one thing, it cannot solve moral confl icts because there is no common value denominator to resort to. That means we can’t hope to learn from other people’s advice or even their mistakes, because their values and situations will always differ slightly from ours. And because the theory can’t solve moral confl icts, we have no moral weapon against what we personally con- sider unacceptable. How would you argue against Hitler’s Holocaust from a subjectivist viewpoint? Against slavery? Child abuse? Female circumci- sion and other enforced mutilation rituals? The only thing you might say is that you feel those actions are wrong—but others can also feel and think any way they like. For most people this way of thinking is so excessively tolerant that it bor- ders on an obscene lack of social responsibility. Furthermore, appealing as moral subjec- tivism may seem when we have just escaped the confi nes of the moral regulations of our

childhood, it simply isn’t intuitively sound. We may think we can “live and let live,” but in ac- tual fact we react as if there is a basic appeal to confl ict-solving values. If you are a subjectivist and you see an adult at the supermarket repeat- edly hitting a small crying child, are you going to be content telling yourself that you wouldn’t do such a thing but that the adult in question is entitled to feel he or she is doing the right thing? Or would you try to appeal to some common value system by stepping in? Moral subjectiv- ism is not only counterintuitive and impractical but also downright dangerous as a moral theory because it provides no social cohesion and no protection against the whims of those in power, whose “feelings” may be as legitimate as yours but whose ability to carry them out is far greater. To summarize, the criticism of moral sub- jectivism is different from the criticism of ethi- cal relativism in the following ways: (1) Moral subjectivism cannot solve confl icts, but ethi- cal relativism can (through majority rule), and (2) ethical relativism is problematic because it implies a moral majority rule, but moral sub- jectivism does not (because each person is right in his or her own way). What the two theories have in common is the relativity of moral val- ues: The moral subjectivist has no right to call anyone else’s values wrong or evil, and neither does the ethical relativist (when judging other cultures). So the challenge to both moral sub- jectivism and ethical relativism is the experi- ence of something that is so egregiously against “common decency” or “our sense of human- ity” that we must speak up, regardless of our modern tradition of tolerance toward others’ life choices. Finding a universal foundation for criticism of traditions of female circumcision or ritual animal torture or child sacrifi ce is equally impossible from a basis of either moral subjec- tivism or ethical relativism.

Box 3.4 M O R A L S U B J E C T I V I S M A N D E T H I C A L R E L A T I V I S M : A C O M P A R I S O N

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5. What Is a “Culture”? Question 4 leads right into question 5, because ethical relativists have not explained exactly what they mean by a culture either. How can we know if something is the norm within a culture if it isn’t clear what a culture is? What sets one culture off from other cultures? Is the United States one culture (as most foreigners believe)? Or is it a collective of many smaller cultures, as many Americans see it? Is Europe one culture? Is Africa? Asia? Cen- tral or South America? Iraq contains at least three cultures, but it is one country. From the outside, perhaps, but once you see the regional differences, you’ll know it’s not so easy to focus on common denominators rather than on the differences. What unifi es a culture? It used to be geography: People living within the same area moved around only rarely and acquired the same general characteristics. But now people move all over the globe, join societies across borders as never before, and subscribe to newsletters and newsgroups on the Internet. For some people, the life they live online in the computer game Second Life (where you can take on another identity, choose your environment, and buy and sell property) is merely entertainment, but for some, that life takes on a reality of its own. And according to my students, so does the online role-playing game World of Warcraft, another community of players in a reality of their own. Currently the most popular of the social media, Facebook, is attracting young as well as older people worldwide as a way to communicate with others. Are these groups “cultures”? Could “culture” also be a matter of ethnicity ? Historically people have tended to stick with others of their own ethnic background, but that seems to be partly a geo- graphical limitation and partly a cultural choice (and culture is what we are trying to defi ne). People who were brought up not to be bigoted choose partners, friends, and neighbors from outside their own ethnic group all the time, yet they still feel they are choosing within their culture. In my ethnically and racially diverse college classes, it always strikes me that, diverse as we are, we generally have much more in common than we have with some people in our own families and neighborhoods, because the world of academia is our “culture”—our common experiences with classes and grades, studying and research, exams, and so forth create a cultural identity in itself. Is it race ? When people were less mobile, people within a region generally formed a culture, and there was ethnic and racial cohesion in the group. But now we are (at least in the United States) moving toward a mixed-race society, and biologists and sociologists are beginning to question the very concept of race and to interpret it as an eighteenth-century invention. Therefore, the category of race can hardly be a fi rm foundation for a defi nition of culture. Is it religion ? Places with one dominant (or one permitted) religion seem to be obvious candidates for a culture, but what about places in which people tend to dress the same, see the same movies, buy the same groceries, and drive the same cars but have different religions? Is it (as an- thropologists might suggest) how we view family relations ? Those categories also are not so stable anymore. And if we resort to vague categories of habits, worldviews, tastes, and so forth, all we end up with is a classifi cation of people according to some criteria, whereas other criteria may cut across those same groups. If an ethical relativist insists that as long as we can identify some form of cultural cohesion, then

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that group should not be interfered with in its moral practices, we run into horrible problems. Some ethnic groups in the United States differ from the majority in their views about male–female relationships, about using for food animals that others consider pets, about contraception and abortion, about the rights of fathers to punish their families. How large do such groups have to be in order to be considered morally right in their own ways? If we are generous and tolerant relativists, perhaps we’ll say that any large ethnic group should be considered morally autonomous. But would that mean the Mafi a could be considered such a subgroup? or neighborhood gangs? Would society then have to accept a plurality of “laws,” each governing the sub- groups, with no higher means of control? The relativist might accept that one set of laws—federal ones, for instance—would be above all other laws, but it would still be an extremely complicated matter, with possible contradictions arising between what the national law says and what the gang law says. Could we eventually end up in a situation in which acts such as looting are morally right for some because of their subgroup affi liation, but not for others? If ethical relativism is to be considered as a viable moral philosophy, ethical relativists need to agree on a clear defi nition of “culture.”

6. Can Tolerance Be a Universal Value ? One of the best qualities of ethical relativism is its tolerance, although we’ve now seen that it can lead to problems. However, there is something problematic about the very claim of tolerance coming from a relativist, for is someone who believes in ethical rela- tivism allowed to claim that tolerance is something everyone should have? In other words, can a relativist say that tolerance is universally good ? If all values are culture-relative, then that condition must apply to tolerance as well. Tolerance may be good for us, but who is to say if it is good for other groups! This notion severely undermines the whole purpose of tolerance, which is not usually con- sidered a one-way street. And what if the highest moral dictum of a certain cul- ture is to superimpose its values on other cultures? Does relativism teach that we must respect a moral system that doesn’t respect the morals of others? Western cultures of the past—and, some would say, even the present—have exported their own moral systems; the Communist bloc of the twentieth century sought expansion along those same principles; today, Muslim extremism in some parts of the world also seeks this kind of expansion, combined with political ambi- tions. One could say, as some ethical relativists have attempted, that as long as they keep their moral (and perhaps even political and religious) expansionism within their own borders, they have a right to think whatever they want—but the problem is that the moral focus of certain cultures is precisely to export itself to other places. Not only does ethical relativism not have a right to claim that tolerance is universally good, since it also claims that there are no univer- sal values, but it also can’t even give a practical answer as to how to deal with moral, religious, and political expansionism. Ethical relativism thus is logically prevented from achieving its main goal, resolving international moral confl icts through tolerance.

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Refuting Ethical Relativism

The “Flat Earth” Argument

Now we have seen why many people believe that ethical relativism doesn’t have enough to offer to be adopted 100 percent; it is a theory with immense theoretical and practical problems. For some critics, the logic of the key argument proposed by ethical relativism is faulty. Let us assume that the culture “up north” believes that abortion is morally wrong, whereas the culture “down south” believes it to be morally permissible. The relativist concludes that because there is a disagreement between the two groups, neither can be right in an absolute sense. But surely, the critics say, that is not so; some things are simply true or false. We may have had a disagreement in the past about whether the earth is round or fl at. (Indeed, the Flat Earth Society today is upholding that tradition by claiming that all space reports and photos from space missions are fraudulent and were concocted in a movie studio.) However, that doesn’t mean there is no correct answer; the idea that the earth is round is a verifi able fact. We may be able to verify that some moral codes are objectively right and others are wrong. The trouble with this critique is that it is easy to verify that the earth is round; all we have to do is look at how things gradually disappear over a fl at horizon. But how exactly would you go about verifying that abortion is objectively right or wrong? That would bring us into a much bigger discussion of the very nature of moral truths, which would be no help at all in determining whether ethical relativ- ism is right. The fl at earth example is, of course, not supposed to be taken that far. All it shows is that you can’t conclude, on the basis of there being a disagreement, that both parties are wrong. It is never as easy to fi nd out who is right in a discussion of moral issues as it is to settle questions of geography.

The Problem of Induction

Some critics believe that the very foundation of the ethical relativism theory is wrong; they believe it simply is not true that there is no universal moral code. If relativists were asked how they know that there is no universal moral code, they would answer that they looked around and found none or possibly that, given the diversity of human nature, there never will be one. This raises more questions, though, because we might reasonably suggest that they should look around a bit longer and refrain from making absolute statements about the future. Blanket state- ments bring on their own undoing, because any theory based on collecting evidence faces a classic problem: the problem of induction . Induction is one of two major scientifi c methods; the other is deduction. In deductive thinking we start with an axiom that we believe is true, and we apply that axiom to establish the validity of other axioms, or we apply the theory to specifi c cases. In inductive thinking we gather empirical evidence to reach a comprehensive theory. Ethical relativism is an example of inductive thinking; it bases its general theory that there are no universal moral codes on evidence from particular cultures. The problem of induction is that we never can be sure that we have looked hard enough to gather all possible evidence.

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As an example of the problem of induction we’re going to look at a phenom- enon that is well known to anyone watching court cases on TV or just about any crime show from NCIS to Law and Order and crime scene documentaries: the gath- ering of evidence at a murder scene. The detectives gather evidence according to a preliminary hypothesis: that this is a homicide, not a suicide or a natural death. (And if they can’t determine this from the start, they keep all interpretations open.) They gather what looks to them like evidence, usually casting a wide net, and this evidence goes to the district attorney, who decides whether to fi le a case. In other words, the detectives reach a theory of the identity of the killer based on the evi- dence they gather—they don’t gather evidence based on a theory of who-dun-it, or at least that is the way it is supposed to work. (That theory would have been deduc- tion. It would also shape a biased investigation. In other words, Sherlock Holmes was great at, not deduction, but induction !) So, theoretically, the evidence is pre- sented in court, and the jury decides whether it points to guilt or whether there is reasonable doubt. But what if a piece of evidence was overlooked? Blood spatter in a corner—or a fi ngerprint or a hair, or blood, or semen, belonging to someone other than the defendant? Or something that, to a forensic scientist decades down the line, would be hard evidence but has no signifi cance for today’s scientists? Some- thing like DNA before the mid-1980s? Or an eyewitness who left town without knowing she saw something important? Those are factors that can’t be completely controlled. And then there are the ones that can be controlled—such as a forensic scientist deliberately skewing the test results in favor of the prosecution. Either way, we are looking at a real problem of induction: Because we are dealing with empirical science—gathering evidence and building a theory—we can’t be 100 percent cer- tain when we have gathered enough material. Induction is a fi ne method and yields magnifi cent scientifi c results. We couldn’t do without it—but it is not 100 percent accurate. Fortunately, in natural science as in court cases, even in murder cases, we don’t have to be mathematically 100 percent certain in order to have a working theory or to be legally and morally certain: Circumstantial evidence, if there is a great deal of it, and nothing points elsewhere, is the accepted standard for fi nding someone guilty. Anything can be doubted—but not everything can be the subject of reasonable doubt. But as the Innocence Project, headed by Barry Scheck, has shown, there are people on death row who are, in fact, innocent of the crimes they are convicted of, because of the problem of induction: Evidence was overlooked or not available at the time, such as DNA tests, or (in a few nefarious cases) exculpa- tory evidence was not introduced in court. In Chapter 13 we take a closer look at the death penalty and such problems. Now what does this have to do with ethical relativism? Everything—because the method of investigation used by the relativist to claim there are no universal moral codes is the method of induction. The Greeks and the Callatians—different codes. The Northwest Coast Indians, the Tibetan noncompetitive people, all point to the absence of a universal moral code. So can we know, with 100 percent certainty, on the basis of collected evidence, that there are no universal codes? No. We have to leave it open; perhaps some day a universal code will appear—or perhaps we will fi nd that it had been there all the time, and we just didn’t see it.

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And, yet, I can’t help adding a comment that may throw a bit of cold water on the critique of ethical relativism: Although ethical relativism is, indeed, a theory based on induction—sampling world cultures and their moral systems and conclud- ing, on the basis of cross-cultural comparisons, that no cultures share any universal values—perhaps we should take a look at Ruth Benedict’s fi nal words in her article “Anthropology and the Abnormal.” You’ll fi nd them in Study Question 4 in the Pri- mary Readings section, and they are a very odd choice for an ending, coming from the most celebrated ethical relativist of the twentieth century: “It is as it is in ethics; all our local conventions of moral behavior and of immoral are without absolute validity, and yet it is quite possible that a modicum of what is considered right and what wrong could be disentangled that is shared by the whole human race.” This extraordinary sentence shows that much as we try to pigeonhole Ruth Benedict as an ethical relativist, she herself had a moment of doubt, or even hope: Perhaps, if we look hard enough, we can fi nd a common moral denominator in all cultures. The problem is that what she is expressing here is not ethical relativism, but soft universalism . So, was the primary voice for ethical relativism in the twentieth century not a relativist at all? Or might the issue be slightly different—that she indeed is an ethical relativist, but one whose theory is not vulnerable to the problem of induc- tion, because she doesn’t say that ethical relativism is a 100 percent certain theory? She says that until now, all cultures have looked different, but we can’t speak for the future. And with that remark, Benedict has perhaps rescued her own brand of ethi- cal relativism from the criticism that you can’t reach a certain conclusion based on empirical evidence. But that, of course, does not rescue all other forms of relativism. Any theory that claims to be 100 percent certain, based on empirical evidence, is still open to the criticism of the problem of induction.

James Rachels and Soft Universalism

The problem of induction is advanced not by hard universalists but by soft univer- salists, because they are the ones who advocate looking for some core values that all cultures might share. Soft universalism, to which you were introduced at the beginning of this chapter, is not a new idea; it was suggested by the Scottish philoso- pher David Hume in the eighteenth century. Hume believed that all people share a fellow-feeling, a compassion, that may show itself in different ways but is present in the human spirit regardless of one’s cultural background. Today, soft universalism claims that we ought to look for bottom-line moral common denominators rather than what separates us as cultures and as individuals. This idea has an increasing number of followers, among ethicists as well as laypeople. One of the most adamant critics of ethical relativism in modern times, and an advocate for the idea that all cultures have some values in common, was the American philosopher James Rachels (1941–2003). In the Primary Readings at the end of this chapter you’ll fi nd an ex- cerpt from Rachels’s last book, published posthumously, Problems from Philosophy, where he argues against ethical relativism. In an earlier book, Elements of Moral Philosophy, Rachels points out that the prob- lem of induction gives us a clue to what values might actually be in common for all

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cultures: Remember King Darius, who tried to get the Greeks to eat their dead and the Callatians to burn theirs? You may have asked yourself why any group would want to eat its dead. You may have wanted to ask Ruth Benedict why the Northwest Coast Indians were so aggressive. (She doesn’t say.) We all may wonder why some peoples approve of infanticide or of dismemberment as punishment. As soon as we ask why, though, we have left the realm of ethical relativism. Relativists don’t ask why; they just look at different customs and pronounce them fi ne for those who hold them. In asking why, we are looking for an explanation, one we can understand from our own point of view. In other words, we are expecting, or hoping, that there is some point at which that other culture will cease to seem so strange. And very often we reach that point. For instance, disposing of the dead through cannibalism is not at all uncommon, and it usually is done for the sake of honoring the dead or sharing in their spiritual strength. It would seem, then, that the Greeks and the Callatians had something in common after all: The Greeks burned their dead because they wanted to honor their spirits, and the Callatians ate their dead for the same reason. Some nomad tribes of the Sahara consider it bad manners to eat in front of their in-laws. American couples rarely talk about sexual matters in the presence of their in-laws for the same reason—it is considered bad manners. These cultures share some common values: Both value good family relationships, and both express embarrassment when a transgression occurs. James Rachels suggests that at least three values are universal:

1. A policy of caring for enough infants to ensure the continuation of the group

2. A rule against lying

3. A rule against murder

We may be horrifi ed to learn about the custom of killing female babies in the old Eskimo (Inuit) culture, Rachels says, but we gain a better understanding when we learn that female babies were killed only because a high death rate among male hunters led to a surplus of females in the community. Why would it be a bad thing for an Inuit tribe to have more women than men? Certainly not because the women were unproductive—in addition to raising children and cooking, they were the ones manufacturing tools and clothing from the animals brought home by the hunters— but because male hunters were the sole providers of food. (The Inuit diet is primarily meat.) Therefore, a shortage of men in relation to the number of women would mean a shortage of food. Another important fact is that babies were killed only during hard times and only if adoptive parents couldn’t be found. In such times, if the babies had been kept alive, the lives of the older children would have been in jeopardy. In other words, the Inuit killed some infants to protect the children they already had. Their culture valued what ours values: caring for the babies we already have. Why do all cultures have a rule against lying? Because if you can’t expect a fellow citizen to tell the truth most of the time, there is no use attempting to communi- cate, and without communication human society would grind to a halt. This doesn’t mean, obviously, that humans never lie to one another, but only that, on the whole, the acceptable attitude is one of truthfulness.

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The rule against murder derives from similar reasoning: If we can’t expect our fellow citizens not to kill us, we will not want to venture outdoors, we will stop trust- ing in people, and society will fall apart (not, as some might think, because everyone will be killed off, but because of general mistrust and lack of communication). Rachels believes that even under chaotic circumstances small groups of friends and relatives would band together, and within those groups the nonmurder rule would be upheld. So these three values are Rachels’s suggested universal moral codes, to be found in all cultures regardless of religion and other traditions, solving the riddle of ethi- cal relativism. At fi rst glance they do indeed seem incontrovertible. How could we imagine a culture that doesn’t care for its babies, that lies and murders? We can’t— but perhaps that is not because the values are universal but because Rachels has simply selected elements that ensure a culture’s basic survival. Can we be sure that all cultures have rules that dictate caring for as many infants as it takes to keep the culture going? Absolutely; but perhaps that is not a matter of ethics but of logic —in particular, deductive logic. How does a culture survive? By reproducing, and raising children. So all cultures that exist survive by raising children. Must all cultures sub- scribe to raising their children? Actually, no, but if they don’t, they’ll die out. But that is not unusual—some cultures, from time to time, decide that they will not repro- duce (such as the Christian group the Shakers in the nineteenth century), and after a while they will no longer be around. So the value of caring for infants is actually not universal in all cultures, just in all surviving cultures, which makes it a tautology, a self-evident truth. The trouble with rules 2 and 3 is that they seem to apply to “fellow citizens” only. As a member of society, you are expected not to lie to or murder members of your own social group, but there is really nothing preventing you from being morally free to lie through your teeth to an outsider or to an enemy government. You may even be free to prey on and murder members of other tribes, gangs, or countries. In many folktales the culture hero actually saves the day by cleverly lying to the stronger enemy, such as in The Odyssey where Ulysses lies to the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus, saying his name is “Nobody.” So there seems to be no rule against lying universally, only against lying to your own people. A scandal in the discipline of anthropology illustrates this phenomenon in a way that is quite signifi cant: The renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901–1978), who was a student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, and like them an ethical relativist, wrote a book about the sexuality of young South Sea islanders, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which be- came a best-seller. But in the 1980s it became clear that she had been the victim of a hoax: Her native contacts in Samoa had strung her along to see how many whopping lies she’d swallow before she became suspicious—but she was young and gullible. It appears that with some additional research Mead could have discovered that for herself, but she never did. So even though the Samoans certainly had an overall rule against lying within their culture (which we know because one of Mead’s contacts felt she ought to ‘fess up when she was in her eighties), it didn’t necessarily extend to the inexperienced young anthropologist. Besides, is it true that we are expected to tell the truth? Many would challenge that idea across the board of world cultures. In some cultures it is considered good

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manners to lie, to play down one’s own accomplishments (such as the Chinese tra- dition of berating one’s own cooking skills), not to tell the whole truth about a friend’s appearance if she or he asks your opinion, to lie about sexual relationships to protect those involved (the notion of chivalry is sometimes invoked). The Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang (see Chapter 11) said that “Society can exist only on the basis that there is some amount of polished lying and that no one says exactly what he thinks”—not exactly what Rachels had in mind. In folklore there is even a tradition of telling “whoppers,” and American Western folklore contains many prime exam- ples of “tall tales.” The frontiersman David (“Davy”) Crockett was elected to Congress in 1827 not just because he was a likable and conscientious man but also because he told better whoppers than his opponent (and had the grace to freely admit that he had been lying). So although it may not be true that a rule against lying is universal, if we characterize it as a rule against malicious deception we are closer to what Rachels means: Without that trust, your network of communications will break down. Another problem with Rachels’s three rules lies in the fact that, whatever rules may apply to a given culture, the leaders of those cultures, who should embody the cultural standards, are often the ones who break those rules. If it was to a leader’s ad- vantage to bend or break a rule, he or she might even consider it a duty to the throne to do so. Only in the twentieth century did the concept of rulers not being above the law become solidifi ed (to the extent that some leaders have to deal with civil lawsuits during their time-limited reign rather than face charges afterward). Even the near-universal ban on incest, which might well qualify as a fourth universal value, has traditionally been broken by leaders such as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, who would marry their own siblings, and the royal families of Europe in previous centu- ries, who sometimes matched up fi rst cousins because nobody else with “blue blood” was available. Interestingly, if we go back to the example from Herodotus about the Greeks and the Callatians, we are perhaps as close to a true universal moral value as we will ever come, and one that is not survival-oriented: a respectful disposal of one’s dead relatives. Rachels has not provided us with any rules that apply universally, only with rules that all responsible people seem to be required to stick to within their own

James Rachels (1941–2003), American philosopher and advocate of human and animal rights. He was the author of Elements of Moral Philosophy (1968), The End of Life: Euthanasia and Morality (1986), Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (1990), and Can Ethics Provide Answers? (1997). He completed his last two books only shortly before he died: The Truth About the World and  Problems from Philosophy, both with the publication date 2005.

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societies . Rachels has, however, provided all we need to show that ethical relativism is wrong in its assumption that cultures have nothing in common; we don’t have to fi nd a universal moral rule, just a universal pattern of behavior. Because Rachels believes that there are at least three such patterns—care of infants, not lying, and not murdering—we can call him a descriptive soft universalist: He describes what he thinks is the case, that we actually have some codes of behavior in common. But even if you can’t fi nd any codes in common, you might still be a normative soft universalist . In that case, you believe we ought to have some code of behavior in common and that we ought to work toward establishing or fi nding such a code. You can, of course, be both a descriptive and a normative soft universalist. In that case you believe human beings around the world do have a few basic moral codes in common; but you also believe that to move toward a world community in which we can respect one an- other’s differences while striving to work together to solve problems, we ought to fi nd some common ground and set up a basic moral code for humanity to live by, a code such as the concept of human rights. In the end, the soft universalist may point out that since the relativist’s position is logically impossible in that he or she wants universal tolerance but can’t have it because of not believing in universal values, so ethical relativism is in fact disingenu- ous, because it doesn’t take itself seriously as a theory—it is an armchair exercise. In a clash of cultures where your own culture is under attack—do you choose to defend it just because it’s yours? No, you defend it because you believe its values are good. And if you choose not to defend it, is it because you think nobody is right? Probably not—it is probably because you think the “other culture” has a point. And if you fi nd yourself on trial in another country and (truly) consider yourself not guilty, would you want to be acquitted because of your cultural affi liation? Anything that leads to an acquittal will probably be welcome, but in the end, wouldn’t you rather be cleared because you are not guilty? These basic situations reveal to the soft universalist that even if we may think we profess to ethical relativism, it can’t be upheld when push comes to shove—in effect, like moral nihilism, moral skepticism, and moral subjectivism, it involves an internal contradiction, because as a matter of fact nobody really believes that each culture is right in its own way, and there are no common denominators. The bottom line for the soft universalist is the fact that we are all mortal human beings, with the same physical limitations and the same capaci- ties for language, relationships, and pleasure and pain. Unless we’re sociopaths, we all want what’s best for our loved ones; we all want to live, unless by dying we serve some greater good (some take that further than others). We dread illness, cherish our good memories, and enjoy the company of our friends. We tell stories, and believe that ethics is indispensable to social life. How could we not have more in common than what divides us culturally? In other words, some moral values represent com- mon human standards rather than culturally relative standards. In James Rachels’s words—some of the last he ever wrote—“The culture-neutral standard is whether the social practice in question is harmful or benefi cial to the people who are affected by it.” You’ll fi nd more of that text, from Problems from Philosophy, in the Primary Readings. In the Narratives section we look at a fi lm that illustrates clashes between cultures, and possibly a “culture-neutral” set of values: Avatar.

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Ethical Relativism and Multiculturalism

With the increasingly pluralistic character of modern Western society comes an increasing belief that all cultural traditions and all perspectives represented in the public deserve to be heard—at universities, in politics, in the media, and elsewhere. Sometimes this is referred to as “multiculturalism,” sometimes as “cultural diversity.” Let us consider multiculturalism and its goals. America used to be called a melt- ing pot, meaning that there was room for anybody from anywhere, that all would be welcomed, and that after a while all individual cultural differences would subside in favor of the new culture of the United States. To many Americans (from many different ethnic backgrounds, in fact), this continues to represent a beautiful image as well as an accurate description of what America is all about. For many people around the world, this is what America seems to be. For others, however, the idea of the melting pot is a travesty, an illusion, and an insult. America may have embraced immigrants from countries such as England, Sweden, Ireland, and Germany, but many other people still feel as though they are living on the fringes of American society; they have not been accepted the way others have been. For such people, who feel that they and their ancestors were excluded from the melting pot because they were too different or simply unwanted, there is no such thing as a common American culture, only a domi- nant American culture; and they claim that what has been taught and practiced until recently has been monoculturalism (sometimes referred to as Eurocentrism ). Today there is an understanding even among those from the “dominant culture” that this damages the very concept of an American culture. The question is what to do about it. Some proponents of multiculturalism believe that what we must do is begin to listen to one another. I call this inclusive multiculturalism (also referred to as pluralism ). The general idea is to integrate everyone—by law, if necessary—into all aspects of our society; to break through the “glass ceilings” that prevent people of color (women and men) as well as white women from reaching top positions; to become sensitized to what others might perceive as slurs; and, if we are on the receiving end of such slurs, to learn to speak up for ourselves. An increased aware- ness of the multicolored pattern of our society will, the thinking goes, result in better working relationships, less of a sense that one cultural tradition dominates the country and that everyone who doesn’t share it must be left out, and more toler- ance and understanding among the groups. This awareness is supposed to begin in schools, where children should learn about as many cultural groups in American society as possible. Adding multicultural awareness to the curriculum means there will be less time for some subjects that are usually taught, but proponents of in- clusive multiculturalism believe that a growing cultural understanding is worth the price. Today, a new image is frequently offered as an alternative to the old image of the melting pot: the salad bowl . A metaphor for inclusive multiculturalism, the salad image implies that each group retains its original “fl avor” but that the groups also relate to one another; together they make a sum that is greater than its parts. The metaphor can be stretched only so far, though: Critics who believe that inclusive multiculturalism is not doing enough to foster cultural identity can always turn the image around and ask, Who supplies the salad dressing? The “dominant culture”!

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(Box 3.5 examines how some advocates of cultural diversity apply what appears to be an ad hominem fallacy.) For a while in the 1980s and 1990s, a certain approach was attempted in some schools, but its popularity seems to have declined over the last decade: The method of exclusive multiculturalism (also called particularism ) was intended to help children from minority cultures retain or regain their self-esteem, under the assumption that self-esteem is fragile for such children (which in itself might be a questionable as- sumption). To counteract this supposed lack of self-esteem, children from each eth- nic group were isolated so they could be taught about the cultural advances of their particular group. Many parents as well as students felt uncomfortable about this approach, claiming that it led to a new form of segregation. And indeed, problems with the method of exclusive multiculturalism haven’t quite been worked out to ev- eryone’s satisfaction: In a future society where mixed race and ethnicity are the rule rather than the exception, must a child then choose a primary racial or ethnic affi lia- tion? And where would students of Euro-American ancestry be placed, regardless of whether they have majority or minority status—surely not in separate groups learn- ing about the illustrious achievements of exclusively Euro-Americans? That would end up looking like white supremacy. All in all, it seems that the inclusive approach to multiculturalism has become the standard method in primary and secondary schools. Since the early 1990s I have

B.C. © 2006 Creators Syndicate, Inc. By permission of Johnny Hart Studios and Creators Syndicate, Inc.

In the debate about multiculturalism, the inclusive approach is sometimes perceived to result in the inclusion of nonmainstream ideas and traditions at the cost of mainstream traditions. The artist of the classic comic strip B.C., Johnny Hart, now deceased, excelled in poignant commentaries defending the Christian point of view. Here he defends the traditional greeting, “Merry Christmas.” In your view, does he have a point?

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tried to keep track of the progress of an inclusive approach to American history in high schools, and in recent years an increasing number of students have reported that they have been taught American history in high school according to inclusive multicultural principles rather than through history books refl ecting a monocultural approach. Ethical relativism has frequently been considered the moral philosophy best suited as a supportive argument for multiculturalism; however, that is a misunder- standing. Ethical relativism states that there is no universal moral code—that each culture will do what is right for it, and no other culture has any business interfering. That may work when cultures are separate and isolated from one another, because the moral code in that case is defi ned as the code of the dominant population . Re- member problem 2, “majority rule”? One of the problems with ethical relativism is precisely that it implies the moral rule of the majority. However, in our pluralistic society, that won’t work because the “dominant culture” (white society) is increas- ingly reproached for displaying cultural insensitivity. Can ethical relativism function, therefore, in a country as diverse as ours, where we may fi nd opposing values (“Loot- ing is antisocial” versus “Looting is a righteous act for the dispossessed,” for example) within the same neighborhood? Because a multicultural ethic asks us not to think in terms of one dominant set of rules, some might opt for an attitude of total moral

The idea that moral viewpoints acquire their importance from the groups that utter them rather than from their content is, to some phi- losophers, a misguided attitude. In the old days of Western culture, the dominant viewpoint was the one held by some—but not all—white males, and for most white males as well as for others that was enough to make the viewpoint “correct.” Churches and political groups occa- sionally take the same attitude: The identity of the group is enough justifi cation for the correct- ness of its views. Today we also see this same viewpoint applied socially by certain groups: If you are a member of an oppressed group, your viewpoint on right and wrong is valuable just because you are a member of that group, and if you are not, then your viewpoint is irrelevant. This form of relativism, which grants the im- portance of a viewpoint on the basis of gender,

race, and class, may be as misplaced as one that denies the importance of certain groups just be- cause they are who they are. Such an attitude, the argument goes, refl ects the logical fallacy of the ad hominem argument: You are right or wrong because of who you are, not because of what you say. In Jim Garrison’s words from Oliver Stone’s fi lm JFK, “I always wondered in court why it is because a woman is a prosti- tute, she has to have bad eyesight” (meaning some people think that just because someone is a prostitute, we can’t trust her testimony). Whether this attitude is assumed by those in power or by those who are dispossessed, it is equally faulty as a moral principle, according to the rules of critical thinking. Can you imag- ine situations in which a person’s identity alone would determine whether he or she was right or wrong?

Box 3.5 C U L T U R A L D I V E R S I T Y O R C U L T U R A L A D V E R S I T Y ?

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nihilism instead: No values are better than any other values because no values are objectively correct. Such nihilism might well result in the breakdown of the fabric of a society, and possibly in a greater cohesion within subgroups, with different groups battling one another. Rather than describe these battles as gang wars, we might call this phenomenon Balkanization —when groups have nothing or very little in com- mon except hatred for what the other groups stand for. It seems as though ethical relativism is not the answer to our new ethical problems of multiculturalism. Suppose we look to soft universalism for the answer? If we are soft universal- ists, we hope to be able to agree with others on some basic issues, but not on all issues. In the case of multiculturalism, we may be able to agree on the promotion of general equality, tolerance, and cohesion in the nation (in other words, the will and ability to live together); we have to agree that what we want is a functioning society we all share in. If we don’t agree on that, multiculturalism is a lost cause, and so is the whole idea of a United States. According to soft universalism, values can’t be al- lowed to differ dramatically, so we wouldn’t end up with acts such as looting being morally right for some and not for others, nor would the killing of family members for the sake of honor be acceptable in one neighborhood and not in another. These questions of common values in the context of a multicultural society are particularly burning, for without some values in common we simply won’t have a society. Is it possible to have one overall culture and several subcultural affi liations at the same time? In other words, can we have loyalties to our ancient ethnic roots and also be Americans (or Canadians, or Italians, or Brazilians, or whatever the case may be)? A few generations ago, immigrant parents made sure their children learned English and had American fi rst names, encouraging them to blend in as quickly as possible so that their future as American citizens would have as few obstacles as possible—an obvious ethnic identity being considered an obstacle. A generation of children lost the language of their parents, and in many cases their family history too. But over the past twenty-fi ve years or so, people have been involved in looking for their roots, to a great extent inspired by Alex Haley’s novel and television series Roots (1977), about an African American family’s history. This trend has involved a renewed inter- est in teaching the new generation of children the language of their grandparents as a second language. One’s cultural identity has been to a great extent perceived as formed through the original nationality of one’s immigrant ancestors: one is “Irish- American,” “Polish-American,” “Chinese-American,” and so forth—to the extent that the nationality to the left of the hyphen has seemed, to some, to outweigh the second identity: American. This is what has spawned the expression “hyphenated American”—someone who sees himself or herself as having a composite heritage and perhaps also a split cultural identity. Does this mean you have to identify with some ancient ethnic heritage because there really isn’t any American cultural identity per se? Box 3.6 explores what it might mean to have an American identity. In the after- math of the terrorist attacks of 2001, a new generation found, for a while, an answer to what it means to be an American—focusing on the common denominator rather than on individual differences rooted in ethnicity or national roots. But soon thereaf- ter the feeling of national unity gave way to other concerns in connection with natu- ral disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the economic crisis of 2008, and a renewed

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manifestation of what I in Chapter 1 called a “50-50 nation,” a deep political split between the Left and the Right. But, to the surprise of many who had thought we had put that common denominator of national identity on the back burner, it burst into the open with enormous enthusiasm and chants of “USA! USA!” all across the nation even among young people who were just children in 2001, the night in the spring of 2011 when President Obama went on TV and announced that chief terrorist and instigator of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Osama bin Laden, had been killed by a specially trained group of American Navy Seals during a highly dangerous and clandestine mission to the heart of the bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Perhaps the issue of national identity is not a fi xed entity as much as a concept that needs revisiting and redefi ning in times of crisis as well as in less stressful times.

When discussing the mores and habits of other cultures with my classes, I often hear students claim that there is no American culture—and if common denominators do exist, they are considered negative: brashness, ignorance or mistrust of other cultures, materialism, and so on. To many students, the fact that we are a very diverse society means that we have no shared culture; many consider themselves hy- phenated Americans: Irish-Americans, African- Americans, Italian- Americans, Arab-Americans, and so forth. A commercial a few years ago lined up a number of people of different races and with different accents, all proudly proclaiming “I am an American.” But what does that mean, other than citizenship? If you agree that an American cultural iden- tity exists, how would you characterize it? Is it founded in our Constitution? Is it a matter of a general outlook on life? Is it the fact that we, as a matter of course, question authority? Does it have to do with common cultural experi- ences, common holidays and food rituals (such as Thanksgiving), a love of traveling within our country, and perhaps also with an image of our- selves that has been invented by the movies?

Or perhaps it is the very freedom to defi ne oneself that other cultures seem to have only to a lesser degree? Many Americans don’t real- ize what it means to be an American until they travel abroad and experience other cultures—or perhaps tangle with legal systems that do not presume one to be innocent until proven guilty! Rather (as in the Napoleonic Law of France), you are presumed guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. In the event of a common threat from abroad, one’s cultural identity seems to loom larger, in the form of an appreciation for everyday things we used to take for granted and for the rights this society grants us—even the right to disagree about this whole issue. The philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand (see Chapter  4), an immigrant from the Soviet Union, called America the only truly moral culture in the world. In the Primary Read- ings section you’ll read an excerpt of America and Americans, the last book by novelist John Steinbeck, about what makes the American character unique—with negatives as well as positive points on his list, one point being that Americans tend to act in the extreme.

Box 3.6 A N A M E R I C A N C U L T U R E ?

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Study Questions

1. Describe the four major approaches to moral differences outlined at the be- ginning of this chapter. Which one comes closest to your own viewpoint? Explain.

2. Discuss Ruth Benedict’s claim that what is normal for a culture is what is moral in that culture. Discuss the advantages and problems associated with the theory of ethical relativism.

3. Discuss James Rachels’s three suggested universal values: Are they truly universal? Why or why not? Can you think of other universal values not mentioned?

4. Can one have both an ethnic and a national identity? Explain.

5. Is Steinbeck right that Americans typically act in the extreme? Think of oc- casions where we have tended to react strongly to perceived threats, environmental as well as human-made—both politically as well as individually. Why do you think that is? And might it be justifi ed? Explain.

Primary Readings and Narratives

The fi rst Primary Reading is an excerpt from Ruth Benedict’s famous paper “ Anthropology and the Abnormal.” The second is an excerpt from James Rachels’s book Problems from Philosophy in which he argues that some moral values are culture- neutral, which proves ethical relativism wrong. The fi nal Primary Reading is an ex- cerpt from John Steinbeck’s America and Americans, in which Steinbeck analyzes the pros and cons of the American character. The Narratives include a summary with excerpts from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, a novel pitting a Christian missionary and his family against traditional African customs, written as a critique of absolutist ethics; next, you’ll fi nd a summary of Alice Walker’s novel Possessing the Secret of Joy, which indirectly—but powerfully—criticizes ethical relativism’s tolerance toward the tribal practice of female circumcision; a third story explores the clash between two cultures in the science-fi ction fi lm Avatar .

Primary Reading

Anthropology and the Abnormal


Essay, 1934. Excerpt.

In her famous paper, Benedict talks about a Melanesian culture displaying extreme fears of poisoning. In addition, you’ll read in her own words her view that morality is merely what is considered normal in a given society.

The most spectacular illustrations of the extent to which normality may be culturally defi ned are those cultures where an abnormality of our culture is the cornerstone of


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their social structure. It is not possible to do justice to these possibilities in a short dis- cussion. A recent study of an island of northwest Melanesia by Fortune describes a so- ciety built upon traits which we regard as beyond the border of paranoia. In this tribe the exogamic groups look upon each other as prime manipulators of black magic, so that one marries always into an enemy group which remains for life one’s deadly and unappeasable foes. They look upon a good garden crop as a confession of theft, for ev- eryone is engaged in making magic to induce into his garden the productiveness of his neighbors’; therefore no secrecy in the island is so rigidly insisted upon as the secrecy of a man’s harvesting of his yams. Their polite phrase at the acceptance of a gift is, “And if you now poison me, how shall I repay you this present?” Their preoccupation with poisoning is constant; no woman ever leaves her cooking pot for a moment untended. Even the great affi nal economic exchanges that are characteristic of this Melanesian culture area are quite altered in Dobu since they are incompatible with this fear and distrust that pervades the culture. They go farther and people the whole world outside of their own quarters with such malignant spirits that all-night feasts and ceremoni- als simply do not occur here. They have even rigorous religiously enforced customs that forbid the sharing of seed even in one family group. Anyone else’s food is deadly poison to you, so that communality of stores is out of the question. For some months before harvest the whole society is on the verge of starvation, but if one falls to the temptation and eats up one’s seed yams, one is an outcast and a beachcomber for life. There is no coming back. It involves, as a matter of course, divorce and the breaking of all social ties. Now in this society where no one may work with another and no one may share with another, Fortune describes the individual who was regarded by all his fellows as crazy. He was not one of those who periodically ran amok and, beside himself and frothing at the mouth, fell with a knife upon anyone he could reach. Such behavior they did not regard as putting anyone outside the pale. . . . But there was one man of sunny, kindly disposition who liked work and liked to be helpful. The compulsion was too strong for him to repress it in favor of the opposite tendencies of his culture. Men and women never spoke of him without laughing; he was silly and simple and defi nitely crazy. Nevertheless, to the ethnologist used to a culture that has, in Christianity, made his type the model of all virtue, he seemed a pleasant fellow. These illustrations, which it has been possible to indicate only in the briefest man- ner, force upon us the fact that normality is culturally defi ned. An adult shaped to the drives and standards of either of these cultures, if he were transported into our civiliza- tion, would fall into our categories of abnormality. He would be faced with the psychic dilemmas of the socially unavailable. In his own culture, however, he is the pillar of so- ciety, the end result of socially inculcated mores, and the problem of personal instability in his case simply does not arise. No one civilization can possibly utilize in its mores the whole potential range of human behavior. Just as there are great numbers of possible phonetic articulations, and the possibility of language depends on a selection and standardization of a few of these in order that speech communication may be possible at all, so the possibil- ity of organized behavior of every sort, from the fashions of local dress and houses to the dicta of a people’s ethics and religion, depends upon a similar selection among the possible behavior traits. In the fi eld of recognized economic obligations or sex [taboos]

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this selection is as nonrational and subconscious a process as it is in the fi eld of phonet- ics. It is a process which goes on in the group for long periods of time and is histori- cally conditioned by innumerable accidents of isolation or of contact of peoples. In any comprehensive study of psychology, the selection that different cultures have made in the course of history within the great circumference of potential behavior is of great signifi cance. Every society, beginning with some slight inclination in one direction or another, carries its preference farther and farther, integrating itself more and more completely upon its chosen basis, and discarding those types of behavior that are uncongenial. Most of those organizations of personality that seem to us most incontrovertibly abnormal have been used by different civilizations in the very foundations of their institutional life. Conversely the most valued traits of our normal individuals have been looked on in differently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality, in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defi ned. It is primarily a term for the socially elaborated segment of human behavior in any culture; and abnormality, a term for the segment that that particular civilization does not use. The very eyes with which we see the problem are conditioned by the long traditional habits of our own society. . . . . . . Mankind has always preferred to say, “It is morally good,” rather than “it is habitual.” . . . But historically the two phrases are synonymous. . . . The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of good. It is that which society has ap- proved. . . . Western civilization allows and culturally honors gratifi cations of the ego which according to any absolute category would be regarded as abnormal. The portrayal of unbridled and arrogant egoists as family men, as offi cers of the law, and in business has been a favorite topic of novelists, and they are familiar in every community. Such individuals are probably mentally warped to a greater degree than many inmates of our institutions who are nevertheless socially unavailable. They are extreme types of those personality confi gurations which our civilization fosters. . . . The relativity of normality is important in what may some day come to be a true social engineering. Our picture of our own civilization is no longer in this generation in terms of a changeless and divinely derived set of categorical imperatives. We must face the problems our changed perspective has put upon us. In this matter of mental ailments, we must face the fact that even our normality is man-made, and is of our own seeking. Just as we have been handicapped in dealing with ethical problems so long as we held to an absolute defi nition of morality, so too in dealing with the prob- lems of abnormality we are handicapped so long as we identify our local normalities with the universal sanities. I have taken illustrations from different cultures, because the conclusions are most inescapable from the contrasts as they are presented in un- like social groups. But the major problem is not a consequence of the variability of the normal from culture to culture, but its variability from era to era. This variability in time we cannot escape if we would, and it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that we may be able to face this inevitable change with full understanding and deal with it rationally. No society has yet achieved self-conscious and critical analysis of its own normalities and attempted rationally to deal with its own social process of creat- ing new normalities within its next generation. But the fact that it is unachieved is not therefore proof of its impossibility. It is a faint indication of how momentous it could be in human society.


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Study Questions

1. Is it important for Benedict to discover why the members of the tribe on the Melanesian island are afraid of poisoning? Why or why not? Would it make a difference in terms of ethical relativism if we knew the origin of the fear?

2. Is she right in her statement that “the concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of good”? Why or why not?

3. Does Benedict’s cultural approach facilitate intercultural understanding? Why or why not?

4. Benedict is now viewed as one of the fi rst spokespersons for ethical relativism, al- though her aim in this paper was to explore the concept of the abnormal. Her paper ends with these rarely quoted words, exploring the possibility of intercultural stan- dards of normality: “It is as it is in ethics: all our local conventions of moral behavior and of immoral are without absolute validity, and yet it is quite possible that a modi- cum of what is considered right and what wrong could be disentangled that is shared by the whole human race.” Does this statement contradict the general view of Benedict as being an ethical relativist? Does it undermine the philosophy of ethical relativism? Is she contradicting herself? Why or why not?

Primary Reading

Is Ethics Just a Matter of Social Conventions?


Problems from Philosophy, 2004. Excerpt.

The American philosopher James Rachels (1941–2003) was a passionate critic of ethical relativism. In the chapter text you have seen his argument pointing to the existence of three universal moral values; here, in his fi nal book, he argues that there is a culture- neutral standard: “Whether the social practice in question is benefi cial or harmful to the people who are affected by it.”

The idea that ethics is nothing but a matter of social conventions has always been ap- pealing to educated people. Different cultures have different moral codes, it is said, and it is merely naive to think that there is one universal standard that applies in all places and times. Examples are easy to come by. In Islamic countries, men may have more than one wife. In medieval Europe, lending money for interest was considered a sin. The na- tive peoples of northern Greenland would sometimes abandon old people to die in the snow. Considering such examples, anthropologists have long agreed with Herodotus that “ Custom is king o’er all.”

Today the idea that morality is a social product is attractive for an additional reason. Multiculturalism is currently an important issue, especially in the United States. Given the dominant position of the United States in the world, it is said, and the way in which American actions affect other peoples, it is especially incumbent upon Americans to

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respect and appreciate the differences between cultures. In particular, it is said, we must avoid the arrogant assumption that our ways are “right” and that the customs of other peoples are inferior. This means, in part, that we should refrain from making moral judg- ments about other cultures. We should adopt a policy of live and let live.

On the surface, this attitude seems enlightened. Tolerance is, indeed, an important virtue, and many cultural practices obviously involve nothing more than social custom— standards of dress, food, domestic arrangements, and so on.

But fundamental matters of justice are different. When we consider such examples as slavery, racism, and the abuse of women, it no longer seems so enlightened to give a shrug and say “They have their customs and we have ours.” Consider these two ex- amples, both of which occurred recently.

In a Pakistani village, a 12-year-old boy was accused of being romantically involved with a 22-year-old woman of a higher social class. He denied it, but the tribal elders did not believe him. As punishment they decreed that the boy’s teenage sister—who had done nothing wrong—should be publicly raped. Her name is Mukhtar Mai. Four men carried out the sentence while the village watched. Observers said there was nothing unusual in this, but with so many foreigners in the region the incident was noticed and reported in Newsweek.

In Northern Nigeria, a religious court sentenced an unwed mother named Amina Lawal to be stoned to death for having had sex out of wedlock. The 60 people in the courtroom shouted their approval. The judge said that the sentence should be carried out as soon as the baby was big enough to no longer need breast-feeding. The woman identifi ed the father, but he denied the accusation, and no charges were brought against him. This was only one in a series of such sentences imposed there recently. Responding to international pressure, the Nigerian government announced that it would not enforce the sentence against Amina Lawal, but it was feared that vigilantes would carry out the stoning. She went into hiding.

The rape of Mukhtar Mai seems to have been regarded as a matter of tribal honor. Her brother was allegedly romancing a woman from a different tribe, and the elders of her tribe demanded justice. The stonings in Nigeria, on the other hand, are the applica- tion of the Islamic law of Sharia, which has been adopted by 12 Nigerian states since 1999. Both actions seem horrible. Our instincts are to condemn them. But are we justi- fi ed in saying the rape and the stoning are wrong? Two thoughts stand in the way of this natural response. Let us consider them one at a time.

1. First, there is the idea, already mentioned, that we should respect the differences between cultures. No matter how questionable the practices of another society may seem to us, we must acknowledge that people in those cultures have a right to follow their own traditions. (And, it will be added, our traditions may seem equally questionable to them.) Is this correct? As we have already noted, this thought has a certain superfi cial appeal. But when we analyze it, it falls apart.

Respecting a culture does not mean that we must regard everything in it as ac- ceptable. You might think that a culture has a wonderful history and that it has pro- duced great art and beautiful ideas. You might think its leading fi gures are noble and admirable. You might think that your own culture has much to learn from it. Still, this does not mean that you must regard it as perfect. It can still contain elements that are terrible. Most of us take just this attitude toward our own society—if you are an


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American, you probably think that America is a great country but that some aspects of American life are bad and need to be corrected. Why should you not think the same about Pakistan or Nigeria? If you did, you would be agreeing with many Pakistanis and Nigerians.

Moreover, it is a mistake to think of the world as a collection of discrete, unifi ed cultures that exist in isolation from one another. Cultures overlap and interact. In the United States, there are cultural differences between Irish Catholics, Italian Americans, Southern Baptists, African Americans in Los Angeles, African Americans in Mississippi, and Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Texans who happily execute criminals are quite different, culturally, from the Amish in Pennsylvania. In some ways, we think that “live and let live” is the best policy, but no one takes this to mean that you should have no opinion about what happens in another part of the country.

Similarly, in both Pakistan and Nigeria, rival groups coexist. When the Pakistani girl was raped, authorities in the Pakistani government took action against the local tribal leaders who had ordered it. Which group—the local leaders or the national government—sets the standards that we must respect? There is no clear-cut answer. Lacking an answer, the idea that we must “respect the values of that culture” is empty.

This also raises the critical question of who speaks for a culture. Is it the priests? The politicians? The women? The slaves? Opinions within a society are rarely uniform. If we say, for example, that slavery was approved in ancient Greece, we are referring to the opinions of the slave-owners. The slaves themselves may have had a different idea. Why should we take the view of the slave-owners to be more worthy of respect than that of the slaves? Similarly, when Mukhtar Mai was raped, her father and uncle, who were forced to watch, did not think it was right.

Finally, we should notice a purely logical point. Some people think that ethical relativism follows from the fact that cultures have different standards. That is, they think this inference is valid:

(1) Different cultures have different moral codes. (2) Therefore, there is no such thing as objective right and wrong. Where ethics

is concerned, the standards of the different societies are all that exist.

But this is a mistake. It does not follow, from the mere fact that people disagree about something, that there is no truth about it. When we consider matters other than ethics, this is obvious. Cultures may disagree about the Milky Way—some think it is a galaxy, others think it is a river in the sky—but it does not follow that there is no objective fact about what the Milky Way is. The same goes for ethics. The explanation of why cultures disagree about an ethical issue might be that one of them is mistaken. It is easy to over- look this if we think only of such examples as standards of dress, marriage practices, and the like. Those may indeed be nothing but matters of local custom. But it does not follow that all practices are mere matters of local custom. Rape, slavery, and stoning might be different.

The upshot of all this is that, while we should indeed be respectful of other cultures, this provides no reason why we must always refrain from making judgments about what they do. We can be tolerant and respectful and yet think that other cultures are not perfect. There is, however, a second reason why it may seem that being judgmental is inappropriate.

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2. The second troublesome thought is that all standards of judgment are culture- relative. If we say that the rape of Mukhtar Mai was wrong, we seem to be using our standards to judge their practices. From our point of view, the rape was wrong, but who is to say that our point of view is correct? We can say that the tribal leaders are wrong, but they can equally well say that we are wrong. So it’s a standoff, and there seems to be no way to get beyond the mutual fi nger-pointing.

This second argument can be spelled out more explicitly like this:

(1) If we are to be justifi ed in saying that the practices of another society are wrong, then there must be some standard of right and wrong, to which we can appeal, that is not simply derived from our own culture. The standard to which we appeal must be culture-neutral.

(2) But there are no culture-neutral moral standards. All standards are relative to some society or other.

(3) Therefore, we cannot be justifi ed in saying that the practices of another society are wrong.

Is this correct? It looks plausible, but in fact there is a culture-neutral standard of right and wrong, and it is not hard to say what that standard is. After all, the reason we object to the rape and the stoning is not that they are “contrary to American standards.” Nor is our objection that these practices are somehow bad for us. The reason we object is that Mukhtar Mai and Amina Lawal are being harmed—the social practices at issue are bad, not for us, but for them. Thus, the culture-neutral standard is whether the social practice in question is benefi cial or harmful to the people who are affected by it. Good social practices benefi t people; bad social practices harm people.

This criterion is culture-neutral in every relevant sense. First, it does not play fa- vorites between cultures. It may be applied equally to all societies, including our own. Second, the source of the principle does not lie within one particular culture. On the contrary, the welfare of its people is a value internal to the life of every viable culture. It is a value that must be embraced, to one degree or another, if a culture is to exist. It is a precondition of culture rather than a contingent norm arising out of it. That is why no society can regard this sort of criticism as irrelevant. The suggestion that a social practice harms people can never be dismissed as an alien standard “brought in from the outside” to judge a culture’s doings.

Study Questions

1. In the chapter text you fi nd references to Rachels’ book Elements of Moral Philosophy from which the theory of the three universal values was taken. In this book, written over 30 years later, Rachels still argued against ethical relativism, but was he still a soft universalist? Explain.

2. Summarize Rachels’s two major arguments why ethical relativism is mistaken.

3. What does Rachels mean by saying that there are culture-neutral values? Do you agree with him? Why or why not?


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Primary Reading

Paradox and Dream


America and Americans, 1966. Excerpt.

In 1966 the American novelist and essayist John Steinbeck, whom you met in Chap- ter 1 as the author of the novel East of Eden, wrote a book about the concept of an Ameri- can Identity: America and Americans . Steinbeck loved his country and its history, but he wasn’t blind to the less positive elements of what we might call the American character, pursuing the American Dream and being engaged in the American Way of Life. Remem- ber that this was written in 1966, and the world has changed dramatically in the forty- odd years since then. Even so, who among us, native-born Americans and immigrants alike, does not recognize exactly what Steinbeck is talking about, from a twenty-fi rst century perspective? Steinbeck says, in his essay “Paradox and Dream”:

One of the generalities most often noted about Americans is that we are a restless, a dis- satisfi ed, a searching people. We bridle and buckle under failure, and we go mad in the face of success. We spend our time searching for security, and hate it when we get it. For the most part we are an intemperate people: we eat too much when we can, drink too much, indulge our senses too much. Even in our so-called virtues we are intemperate: a teetotaler is not content not to drink—he must stop all the drinking in the world; a vegetarian among us would outlaw the eating of meat. We work too hard, and many die under the strain; and then to make up for that we play with a violence as suicidal. The result is that we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, dishonest, and ineffi cient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it upon everyone else. We speak of the American Way of Life as though it involved the ground rules for the governance of heaven. . . . We are alert, curious, hopeful, and we take more drugs designed to make us unaware than any other people. We are self-reliant and at the same time completely dependent. We are aggressive, and defenseless. . . .

John Steinbeck (1902–1968) is one of America’s most celebrated authors of fi ction, known for classics such as Of Mice and Men (1937), Grapes of Wrath (1939), and East of Eden (1952). In ad- dition to his many novels and short stories, he wrote books and articles on such topics as politics, history, and marine biology. Scholars have recently begun to recognize that Steinbeck also made considerable contributions to the fi eld of moral philosophy in his writings—fi ctional as well as nonfi ctional.

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Americans seem to live and breathe and function by paradox; but in nothing are we so paradoxical as in our belief in our own myths. We truly believe ourselves to be natural mechanics and do-it-yourself-ers. We spend our lives in motor cars, yet most of us—a great many of us at least—do not know enough about a car to look in the gas tank when the motor fails…. We believe implicitly that we are the heirs of the pioneers, that we have inherited self-suffi ciency and the ability to take care of ourselves, particularly in relation to nature. There isn’t a man among us in ten thousand who knows how to butcher a cow or a pig, and cut it up for eating, let alone a wild animal…. We shout that we are a na- tion of laws, not men—and then proceed to break every law we can if we can get away with it…. We fancy ourselves as hard-headed realists, but we will buy anything we see advertised, particularly on television, and we buy it not with reference to the quality or the value of the product, but directly as a result of the number of times we have heard it mentioned…. For Americans too the wide and general dream has a name. It is called “the Ameri- can Way of Life.” No one can defi ne it or point to any one person or group of people who live it, but it is very real nevertheless, perhaps more real than the equally remote dream the Russians call Communism. These dreams describe our vague yearnings towards what we wish we were and hope we may be: wise, just, compassionate, and noble. The fact that we have this dream at all is perhaps an indication of its possibility.

Study Questions

1. Identify the key points Steinbeck lays out as being the core of the American character. Do you agree? Why or why not?

2. Is this a positive or a negative image of Americans? Explain.

3. If you are a native-born American, identify what you perceive to be the American character in positive and negative terms. If you are a visitor or an immigrant, compare what you perceive as the American character with the character of the people of your original culture.

4. Is this an example of “profi ling,” or even “stereotyping”? If no, why not? If yes, is that a problem in itself, or does stereotyping have some merit?


The Poisonwood Bible


Novel, 1998. Summary and Excerpts.

The Poisonwood Bible is a story whose message of cultural tolerance has deeply affected readers. In some ways it can be said to support an ethical-relativist philosophy, but in others it seems to support soft universalism. Since this is a work of fi ction and not a philosophical treatise, the author shouldn’t be judged according to whether she presents a unifi ed theory or not: It will be up to you to decide whether she is, at heart, an ethical


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relativist or a soft universalist; the quality of the story is what counts. (I think we can exclude the possibility of hard universalism right from the start.) In 1959 Orleanna Price, a housewife from Georgia, travels with her husband and four daughters to the Congo in Africa so that her husband can fulfi ll his dream of bring- ing Christ to the natives. We follow their individual destinies all the way into the 1980s, seeing the consequences unfold of Nathan Price’s decision to take his family to Africa. The book is structured with biblical overtones, beginning with a Genesis section, and ending with an Exodus section, but we learn fairly early in the story that this is no story of happy missionaries bringing salvation to the heathens. It is instead the story of the clash between cultures, the culture of the (presumably hard universalist) Christian mis- sionary, and his wife and daughters who have grown up in an American world, meeting a culture where just about everything is different: the concepts of right and wrong, good and bad, what’s food and what’s not food, what’s clean and unclean, what’s near and far—and eventually, what is home and what is not home. All fi ve women react in their own ways, and with their own voices. Nathan Price’s voice is not heard except through the refl ections of the women, but he is the catalyst of the changes in their lives. Orleanna, a religious, faithful wife who initially just wants to stand by her husband in his work, eventually fi nds that the affront to the Africans and their culture perpetuated by her husband’s cultural and moral arrogance will require a lifetime of atonement from her. Rachel, the eldest daughter, becomes the voice of longing for her lost American culture of affl uence and convenience. Leah, once her father’s strongest supporter, fi nds her love and life’s work in the politics of revolutionary Africa and lives an African life perpetually apologizing for her whiteness; her twin sister Adah comes to terms with a physical dis- ability affl icting her since childhood, seeing herself in light of another culture. And the baby sister, Ruth May—well, you’ll have to read the book to fi nd out about Ruth May. In the fi rst excerpt, Leah tells us of the cultural differences she is experiencing in the Congolese village; the young teacher Anatole, who has been educated in the big city, tries to mediate between the village chief and Price. In the second excerpt, Leah relates an incident where the village chief calls her father on his sincerity in having elections, and his religious sincerity, and in the fi nal excerpt she sums up her life experiences as a white American in Africa, with Anatole by her side.

Anatole leaned forward and announced, “our chief, Tata Ndu, is concerned about the moral decline of this village.”

American author Barbara Kingsolver (b. 1955) has a deep inter- est in multiethnic issues. In 1963 her father worked as a medical doctor in Zaire (then Congo), and he brought his family along to the Caribbean in 1967 on another medical assignment. King- solver is the author of The Bean Trees (1988), The Poisonwood Bible (1998), and Prodigal Summer (2001), among other novels.

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Father said, “Indeed he should be, because so few villagers are going to church.” “No, Reverend. Because so many villagers are going to church.” Well, that stupefi ed us all for a special moment in time. But Father leaned forward, fi xing to rise to the challenge. Whenever he sees an argument coming, man oh man, does he get jazzed up. “Brother Anatole, I fail to see how the church can mean anything but joy, for the few here who choose Christi- an -ity over ignorance and darkness! ” Anatole sighed, “I understand your diffi culty, Reverend. Tata Ndu has asked me to explain this. His concern is with the important gods and ancestors of this village, who have always been honored in certain sacred ways. Tata Ndu worries that the people who go to your church are neglecting their duties.” “Neglecting their duties to false idolatry, you mean to say.” Anatole sighed again. “This may be diffi cult for you to understand. The people of your congregation are mostly what we call in Kikongo the lensuka . People who have shamed themselves or had very bad luck or something like that. Tata Boanda, for exam- ple. He has had terrible luck with his wives. The fi rst one can’t get any proper children, and the second one has a baby now who keeps dying before birth and coming back into her womb, over and over. No one can help this family anymore. The Boandas were very careful to worship their personal gods at home, making the proper sacrifi ces of food and doing everything in order. But still their gods have abandoned them for some reason. This is what they feel. Their luck could not get any more bad, you see? So they are inter- ested to try making sacrifi ces to your Jesus.” Father looked like he was choking on a bone. I thought: Is there a doctor in the house? But Anatole went right on merrily ahead, apparently unaware he was fi xing to kill my father of a heart attack. “Tata Ndu is happy for you to draw the bad-luck people away,” he said. “So the village’s spirit protectors will not notice them so much. But he worries you are trying to lure too many of the others into following corrupt ways. He fears a disaster will come if we anger the gods.” “ Corrupt, did you say,” Father stated, rather than asked, after locating where the cat had put his tongue. “Yes, Reverend Price.” “Corrupt ways . Tata Ndu feels that bringing the Christian word to these people is leading them to corrupt ways .”

Father was poised to go on with the story when suddenly Tata Ndu stood right straight up, cutting him off in the middle of hammering home his message. We all stared. Tata Ndu held up his hand and declared in his deep, big-man’s voice, giving each syllable the exact same size and weight: “Now it is time for the people to have an election.” “What?” I said out loud. But Father, who’s accustomed to knowing everything before it happens, took this right in stride. He replied patiently, “Well, now, that’s good. Elections are a fi ne and civilized thing. In America we hold elections every four years to decide on new leaders.” He waited while Anatole translated that. Maybe Father was dropping the hint that it was time for the villagers to reconsider the whole proposition of Tata Ndu.


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Tata Ndu replied with equal patience, “ Á yi bandu, if you do not mind, Tata Price, we will make our election now. Ici, maintenant .” He spoke in a careful combination of lan- guages that was understood by everyone present. This was some kind of joke, I thought. Ordinarily Tata Ndu had no more use for our style of elections than Anatole did. “With all due respect,” my father said, “this is not the time or the place for that kind of business. Why don’t you sit down now, and announce your plans after I’ve fi nished with the sermon? Church is not the place to vote anyone in or out of public offi ce.” “Church is the place for it,” said Tata Ndu. “Ici, maintenant, we are making a vote for Jesus Christ in the offi ce of personal God, Kilanga village.” Father did not move for several seconds. Tata Ndu looked at him quizzically. “Forgive me, I wonder if I have paralyzed you?” Father found his voice at last. “You have not.” “ Á bu, we will begin, Beto tutakwe Kusala.” There was a sudden colorful bustle through the church as women in their bright pagnes began to move about. I felt a chill run down my spine. This had been planned in advance. The women shook pebbles out of calabash bowls into the folds of their skirts and moved between the benches, fi rmly placing one pebble into each out-stretched hand. This time women and children were also getting to vote, apparently. Tata Mwanza’s father came forward to set up the clay voting bowls in front of the altar. One of the voting bowls was for Jesus, the other was against. The emblems were a cross and a bottle of nsamba, a new palm wine. Anyone ought to know that was not a fair match. Father tried to interrupt the proceedings by loudly explaining that Jesus is exempt from popular elections. But people were excited, having just recently gotten the hang of the democratic process. The citizens of Kilanga were ready to cast their stones. They shuffl ed up to the altar in single fi le, just exactly as if they were fi nally coming forward to be saved. And Father stepped up to meet them as if he also believed this was the heavenly roll call. But the line of people just divided around him like water around a boulder in the creek, and went on ahead to make their votes. The effect of it wasn’t very dignifi ed, so Father retreated back to his pulpit made of wired-together palm fronds and raised up one hand, intending I guess to pronounce the benediction. But the voting was all over with before he could really get a word in sideways. Tata Ndu’s assistant chiefs began counting the pebbles right away. They arranged them in clusters of fi ve in a line on the fl oor, one side matched up against the other, for all to see. “C’est juste,” Tata Ndu said while they counted. “We can all see with our own eyes it was fair.” My father’s face was red. “This is blasphemy! ” He spread his hands wide as if casting out demons only he could see, and shouted, “There is nothing fair here!” Tata Ndu turned directly to Father and spoke to him in surprisingly careful English, rolling his r’s, placing every syllable like a stone in a hand. “Tata Price, white men have brought us many programs to improve our thinking,” he said. “The program of Jesus and the program of elections. You say these things are good. You cannot say now they are not good.” A shouting match broke out in the church, mostly in agreement with Tata Ndu. Almost exactly at the same time, two men yelled, “Ku nianga, ngeye uyele kutala!” Anatole, who’d sat down in his chair a little distance from the pulpit, leaned over and said quietly to Father, “They say you thatched your roof and now you must not run out of your house if it rains.”

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Father ignored this parable. “Matters of the spirit are not decided at the market- place,” he shouted sternly. Anatole translated. “Á bu, kwe? Where, then?” asked Tata Nguza, standing up boldly. In his opinion he said, a white man who has never even killed a bushbuck for his family was not the expert on which god can protect our village. When Anatole translated that one, Father looked taken aback. Where we come from, it’s hard to see the connection. Father spoke slowly, as if to a half-wit, “Elections are good, and Christianity is good. Both are good.” We in his family recognized the danger in his extremely calm speech, and the rising color creeping toward his hairline. “You are right. In America we honor both these traditions. But we make our decisions about them in different houses.” “Then you may do so in America,” said Tata Ndu. “I will not say you are unwise. But in Kilanga we can use the same house for many things.” Father blew up. “Man, you understand nothing! You are applying the logic of chil- dren in a display of childish ignorance.” He slammed his fi st down on the pulpit, which caused all the dried-up palm fronds to shift suddenly sideways and begin falling forward, one at a time. Father kicked them angrily out of the way and strode toward Tata Ndu, but stopped a few feet short of his mark. Tata Ndu is much heavier than my father, with very large arms, and at that moment seemed more imposing in general. Father pointed his fi nger like a gun at Tata Ndu, then swung it around to accuse the whole congregation. “You haven’t even learned to run your own pitiful country! Your children are dying of a hundred different diseases! You don’t have a pot to piss in! And you’re presuming you can take or leave the benevolence of our Lord Jesus Christ!” If anyone had been near enough to get punched right then, my father would have displayed un-Christian behavior. It was hard to believe I’d ever wanted to be near to him myself. If I had a prayer left in me, it was that this red-faced man shaking with rage would never lay a hand on me again. Tata Ndu seemed calm and unsurprised by anything that had happened. “Á, Tata Price,” he said, in his deep, sighing voice. “You believe we are muwana, your children, who knew nothing until you came here. Tata Price, I am an old man who learned from other old men. I could tell you the name of the great chief who instructed my father, and all the ones before him, but you would have to know how to sit down and listen. There are one hundred twenty-two. Since the time of our mankulu we have made our laws without help from white men.” He turned toward the congregation with the air of a preacher himself. Nobody was snoozing now, either. “Our way was to share a fi re until it burned down, ayi? To speak to each other until every person was satisfi ed. Younger men listened to older men. Now the Beelezi tell us the vote of a young, careless man counts the same as the vote of an elder.” In the hazy heat Tata Ndu paused to take off his hat, turn it carefully in his hands, then replace it above the high dome of his forehead. No one breathed. “White men tell us: Vote, Bantu! They tell us: You do not all have to agree, ce n’est pas nécessaire! If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is fi nished. Á bu, even a child can see how that will end. It takes three stones in the fi re to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fi re.” We all understood Tata Ndu’s parable. His glasses and tall hat did not seem ridicu- lous. They seemed like the clothes of a chief.


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“But that is the white man’s law, n’est-ce pas? ” he asked. “Two stones are enough. Il nous faut seulement la majorité .” It’s true, that was what we believed: the majority rules. How could we argue? I looked down at my fi st, which still clutched my pebble. I hadn’t voted, nor Mother either. How could we, with Father staring right at us? The only one of us who’d had the nerve was Ruth May, who marched right up and voted for Jesus so hard her pebble struck the cross and bounced. But I guess we all made our choices, one way or the other. Tata Ndu turned to Father and spoke almost kindly. “Jesus is a white man, so he will understand the law of la majorité, Tata Price. Wenda mbote .” Jesus Christ lost, eleven to fi fty-six.

We are still the children we were, with plans we keep secret, even from ourselves. Anatole’s, I think, is to outlive Mobutu and come back here when we can stand on this soil and say “home” without the taste of gold-leaf chandeliers and starvation burning bitter on the backs of our tongues. And mine, I think, is to leave my house one day unmarked by whiteness and walk on a compassionate earth with Ruth May beside me, bearing me no grudge. Maybe I’ll never get over my grappling for balance, never stop believing life is going to be fair, the minute we can clear up all these mistakes of the tem- porarily misguided. Like the malaria I’ve never shaken off, it’s in my blood. I anticipate rewards for goodness, and wait for the ax of punishment to fall upon evil, in spite of years I’ve rocked in this cradle of rewarded evils and murdered goodness. Just when I start to feel jaded to life as it is, I’ll suddenly wake up in a fever, look out at the world, and gasp at how much has gone wrong that I need to fi x. I suppose I loved my father too much to escape being molded to at least some part of his vision. But the practice of speaking a rich, tonal language to my neighbors has softened his voice in my ear. I hear the undertones now that shimmer under the surface of the words right and wrong . We used to be baffl ed by Kikongo words with so many different meanings: bängala, for most precious and most insufferable and also poisonwood . That one word brought down Father’s sermons every time, as he ended them all with the shout “Tata Jesus is bängala! ”

Study Questions

1. The title itself is a take on mistakes committed by a hard universalist who doesn’t try to understand different cultural nuances: Nathan Price tries to tell the local population that “the word of Jesus is beloved,” which in the tribal tongue translates as “ Tata Jesus is bängala .” The problem is that, in the context, it comes across as “Jesus is poisonwood.” What do you think the author is saying with such a title?

2. What is the signifi cance of Tata Ndu’s being trilingual and telling Price that he comes from 122 generations of wise men? What is his message about the three stones and the cooking pot? Could this political philosophy work for a large nation? Why or why not?

3. According to the excerpts, is this text primarily ethical relativist, or soft universalist? If you have read the entire book, do you fi nd these excerpts a fair choice in representing the book’s viewpoint?

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4. Read the next narrative, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and compare its message with that of The Poisonwood Bible: What if the tradition Leah had been subjected to had been female genital mutilation? Would you still expect a message of cultural tolerance? Why or why not? Would you draw the line at tolerating certain cultural practices? Explain.


Possessing the Secret of Joy


Novel, 1992. Summary and Excerpt.

If you have read or seen The Color Purple, you will recognize some of the main characters in this moving and shocking novel: Olivia, Adam, and Tashi. (Olivia and Adam are the children of Celie, the key character in The Color Purple, and Tashi is their best friend in the African village where Olivia and Adam’s adoptive parents are missionaries.) However, Possessing the Secret of Joy is a story that stands on its own, making a powerful argu- ment against the ancient practice of female genital mutilation. * The novel weaves its way through the life of the storyteller Tashi. She is now an American, but originally she was of the Olinka tribe in Africa, a tribe Walker invented as a symbol for all African tribes. In real time and fl ashbacks, we are introduced to the nightmare of Tashi’s life: the death of her older sister Dura, at fi rst a vague memory, but in the end a reality so horrible that, to Tashi, it may be worth killing for. Tashi has always been afraid of bleeding to death, and she has always had a ter- rifying dream of a dark tower where she is being kept prisoner, unable to move. Her adult life is in complete disarray. Her husband, Adam, and her best friend, Olivia, try to understand and support her as well as they can, but Tashi has periods of mental instability and moments of great, uncontrollable rage. She sees psychiatrists, and she spends time at a mental institution. But in the course of the book, she tells her own story with increasing insight, and we realize that her mental condition is a result of two

*Female genital mutilation (sometimes referred to by Walker and others as female circumcision) is a process that can involve cutting the clitoris, removing it, or completely cutting away the inner and outer labia and sewing up the young girl with an aperture only big enough to allow for menstrual fl ow. The procedure is widespread in Africa and the Middle East and occurs illegally in the United States among some immigrant groups from those areas. The purpose of the procedure is not hygiene; it is strictly a cultural and religious ritual. Sexual pleasure becomes all but impossible, and a husband is assured of a virgin wife who is also going to remain faithful. In addition, health problems and chronic pain are often a consequence of the procedure. Most critics of the procedure see it as an affront to human rights and a tool for the subjugation and domination of women. Defenders of the practice argue that Western critics have no right to superimpose Western values on other cultures. As such, female genital mutilation presents a challenge to ethical relativism, which argues that nobody has the right to criticize the moral and traditional practices of another culture. World attention has been focused on this practice since the mid-1990s.


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traumatic events: a terrible experience when she was a child and another when she was a young adult. Tashi grew up in the Olinka village, the daughter of a Christian woman. Always a sensitive girl, Tashi was never the same after the death of her sister. As a young woman, Tashi left for America with the missionary family and became an American citizen. She and Adam were lovers, and Tashi loved her American life, but, even so, she decided as a young adult to return to Africa for a ceremony. She wanted to be “bathed” like the rest of the women in her tribe. Because of her Christian beliefs, her mother had kept her away from this ritual in childhood when most young girls were “bathed,” but Tashi, at this point in her life, felt that as a political and sentimental gesture of solidarity with her people, and in particular their charismatic political leader, she ought to undergo the ritual—without completely realizing its ramifi cations. She sought out the tsunga (medi- cine woman), M’Lissa, who performs the rituals. “Bathing” is a euphemism for female genital mutilation, and, from that day on, Tashi has experienced daily pain and health problems, in addition to a loss of sexual sensitivity. While still recuperating in M’Lissa’s custody, Tashi is found by Adam, who has been frantically searching for her. She re- turns to the United States, marries him, and has a baby, Benny, under extremely painful conditions because of the mutilation. As a result, Benny is born with a mental disability. Increasingly, Tashi experiences bouts of anxiety and rage. With the help of psychiatrists she has begun to remember the death, the murder, of her sister: Tashi was hiding outside the hut where her sister died, screaming and bleeding to death—from a botched proce- dure. And who performed the ritual? The same tsunga, M’Lissa, with the help of Tashi and Dura’s own mother. By the time we read this, we also know that Tashi is now, in real time, on trial in Africa for murder—the murder of M’Lissa. Did she do it? We won’t know until the very end of the story. But we learn that after many years of marriage to Adam, with increas- ing problems due to psychological instability, Tashi has chosen to return to Africa to confront M’Lissa, who by now is a nationally renowned person, symbolizing the Olinka tradition. M’Lissa welcomes Tashi and reveals to her that she now expects Tashi to kill her, because that will elevate M’Lissa to the position of a saint. She also reveals that she

Alice Walker (b. 1944), American novelist, author of The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar, Possessing the Secret of Joy, and The Same River Twice . Walker’s fi ction incorporates many of the cultural strands contributing to the lives of American people of color and relates the African American experience to that of the African. Walker focuses particularly on the life experiences of women who are African and African American.

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fi nds Tashi naive beyond belief to have come back for the mutilation when she didn’t have to—something M’Lissa would never have done herself. Even so, M’Lissa didn’t try to stop her but performed the operation just because she was asked to do it, and it was her traditional job. And M’Lissa now recalls Tashi’s sister who died—she had abandoned the bleeding little girl because her crying was too much for M’Lissa to bear. Is M’Lissa the great evil fi gure in the story? Responsible for the death of Dura and the loss of Tashi’s own spirit—Tashi calls it her own death—she is certainly a villain. But she herself is also a victim: Her own procedure was botched, with lameness resulting. She is a tool for the culture, passing the terror along to future generations of young girls as it was passed on to her. Tashi realizes that the true culprit is not the mutilator but the older men of the tribal society who want the mutilations done, who argue that God thinks of woman as unclean if she isn’t “circumcised”—the ones who think of an “uncircumcised” woman as “loose” and immoral, as someone who needs to be kept under control. But still, Tashi can’t help blaming M’Lissa:

It is what you told me. Remember? The uncircumcised woman is loose, you said, like a shoe that all, no matter what their size, might wear. This is unseemly, you said. Unclean. A proper woman must be cut and sewn to fi t only her husband, whose pleasure depends on an opening it might take months, even years, to enlarge. Men love and enjoy the struggle, you said. For the woman. . . . But you never said anything about the woman, did you, M’Lissa? About the pleasure she might have. Or the suffering.

At the end of the story we learn the source of Tashi’s nightmare about the dark tower, the truth about M’Lissa’s death, and Tashi’s own fate at the hands of the jury. And the secret of joy? On a very concrete level, the secret of sexual joy is to have an intact, unmutilated body and an unmutilated sense of self, of freedom. On a deeper level, the secret of joy itself is something we each have to fi nd. Tashi’s loved ones suggest that the secret is resistance . Alice Walker’s novel was received with alarm by many people who were unaware of the practice of female genital mutilation and welcomed by many others as a strong statement against excessive cultural tolerance. Walker was also criticized by some for betraying her African heritage in denouncing a traditional tribal practice as something that should not be tolerated in today’s world.

Study Questions

1. Explain how this story can be viewed as an attack on ethical relativism. How might an ethical relativist respond to Walker’s attack?

2. In view of the theme of female genital mutilation, do you fi nd ethical relativism to be an appealing or a problematic moral theory? Explain.

3. Can we understand why Tashi went back as an adult to have the operation per- formed? Is this a realistic idea? Why or why not?

4. In your opinion, is Walker doing the right thing, exposing the practice of female geni- tal mutilation as immoral, or should she show loyalty and solidarity with her African heritage by defending the practice? Is this a true dichotomy (an either-or situation), or is there another alternative?


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5. M’Lissa asks Tashi what an American looks like, and Tashi answers, “An American, I said, sighing, but understanding my love for my adopted country perhaps for the fi rst time: an American looks like a wounded person whose wound is hidden from others and sometimes from herself. An American looks like me.” What does Tashi mean? Do you agree with her? Why or why not?

6. Now that you have been introduced to both Kingsolver’s and Walker’s novels, you may want to compare and contrast them. What do they have in common? What are the differences? Which viewpoint (in favor of or against ethical relativism) do you fi nd more compelling? Explain.



J A M E S C A M E R O N ( S C R E E N W R I T E R A N D D I R E C T O R )

Film, 2009. Summary.

Avatar has become, at the time of this writing, the highest grossing fi lm ever, beating the record of Titanic —which, by the way, was also created by director James Cameron. Part of its success was without a doubt a whole new world of 3-D animated cinematog- raphy, but the solid story had a tremendous audience appeal of its own. However, as some reviewers remarked, the plot was hardly new—since it was essentially the same as Disney’s Pocahontas, and Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves : a young man encounters a woman from an entirely different culture, and slowly adjusts to the values of her cul- ture, discarding/modifying those of his own. Be that as it may, Avatar, with or without predecessors, deals in an entertaining way with fundamental cultural differences, and it is possible to detect basic versions of ethical relativism, hard universalism and soft universalism, and even a certain cynical version of moral nihilism weaving in and out of the plot line. We’re in the twenty-second century, on an earth-like planet, Pandora, in the process of being colonized by humans. Young Marine veteran Jake Sully, disabled in a recent war, receives a surprising job offer: a very special job only he is suited for, and the reward at the end will be a new pair of legs—something he would otherwise never be able to afford. The offi cer in command, Colonel Quaritch, makes it clear that Jake will be work- ing with scientists, but will in fact be reporting to him and be under the colonel’s direct command. Jake is fl attered and upbeat—he has every intention of doing a good job for the Corps. The reason why he is so well suited for the job is, sadly, that his twin brother, a scientist, just died, putting his research program in jeopardy, because he was supposed to be part of the liaison team between the humans and another culture on Pandora, the Na’vi; for that purpose a new technology has been invented, that of the avatar: a body grown in the lab, specifi cally tailored to the researcher, of similar looks and stature as the native population on Pandora: tall and blue, with a long tail. In the avatar body the scientist is able to breathe the air, which is poisonous to humans, and through a mind

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link machine, he or she will move around naturally interact with the natives, while the real human body lies in suspension in the lab. Since Jake’s brother was his twin, their physical qualifi cations will be similar, and Jake can take his brother’s place. However, his brother was a scientist, and Jake is a sol- dier. He will be coming to the research program with a completely different mind-set, and the other scientists are skeptical, especially chief researcher Dr. Grace Augustine, who reassigns him as a bodyguard for their avatar excursions into Pandora’s world, teem- ing with ferocious animals. After being transported to Pandora, Jake is ecstatic to be in his new blue body, because now he has regained the use of his legs. But during the very fi rst excursion with Dr. Augustine and the other scientists in their avatar bodies, an ani- mal chases Jake through the jungle into a waterfall. He escapes but has lost his way and only manages to survive the early part of the night through his Marine training—until he is hopelessly outnumbered by things that want to eat him. But someone intervenes, and saves his life by killing some of the animals, a young woman of the Na’vi people. To Jake’s surprise she feels sad that she had to take lives. She has nothing but contempt for him, until a strange phenomenon happens: little creatures of light land on him. He tries to brush them away, but she (speaking English, because there has been contact between the cultures for a while) explains that if the little luminous beings accept him, there must be something special about him, because these little beings are deeply connected with the entire spiritual force of the forest and the planet. He doesn’t understand, but will happily follow her home, to what turns out to be the central area of the forest, the Hometree, a gigantic tree that is home to her entire tribe. He meets the tribe, including her father the chief, and her mother the medicine woman/priestess, and ends up becoming accepted as a liaison between the tribe and the humans, provided he learns their ways and their language, with the young woman Neytiri as his teacher. Seeing it as a great opportunity to fulfi ll his mission for the Marines, Jake accepts.


The fi lm Avatar (2009) is a journey into the moral realm of cultural differences. Here the human Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in his avatar body learns Na’vi customs from Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).

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Whenever his avatar body sleeps, he is physically back in the lab at the station, reporting in. Over the months where he is getting deeper and deeper into the culture, learning how to master their riding animals and, the big step toward acceptance, their fl ying creatures the ikrans, his reports are increasingly enthusiastic. Jake is beginning to “get” the culture. But the colonel is becoming skeptical, since the entire purpose for the military is not to make friends with the Na’vi as such, but to gain access to the rare mineral “unobtanium,” which lies under their sacred grove and the Tree of Souls. The colonel is afraid that Jake is losing his focus and is essentially becoming a traitor. He has no interest in the values of the Na’vi, but sees them as mainly an obstacle that needs to be overcome, by hook or by crook. As Jake is immersing himself deeper into the Na’vi culture, becoming the chosen mate of Neytiri and mastering not only their language but also bonding with an ikran of his own and fl ying with the tribe, acquiring a respect for the spirit of the planet, the colonel is working on an alternative plan: devastating the en- vironment, burning the Na’vi out of their Hometree, and proceeding to tear up the jungle of the sacred grove to gain access to the mineral. Dr. Augustine suspects that a plot is afoot and removes the science team to the fabled fl oating mountains area, believing that common ground can be found between the humans and the Na’vi. And now the disaster happens: The general and his team will wait no longer, and proceed to bomb and devas- tate the Hometree, killing many Na’vi and making the rest homeless. The call now goes out to other tribes to unite against the invaders, and Jake is regarded as a traitor in both groups. In the confl ict that ensues, Jake must persuade the Na’vi that he is on their side, fi ghting for their planet. In order to do that, he will need to succeed in a near-impossible task: bonding with and fl ying the fabled giant ikran creature Mak Tao, and becoming one of the few masters of the Mak Tao, Taruk Mak Tao. You may be one of the millions world-wide who already know the answer. If not, watch the movie. And then you will also fi nd answers to whether Pandora can be saved from exploitation, whether there is a future for Neytiri and Jake, and whether he will be able to live a life on Pandora in his blue avatar body, rather than as a paraplegic on a space station.

Study Questions

1. Is Jake a traitor to his own people? Why or why not? What does the fi lm want us to conclude? Do you agree?

2. Is the underlying philosophy of the fi lm mostly one of ethical relativism or soft univer- salism? Explain.

3. Identify the colonel’s and his team’s attitude and explain: Is it predominantly a hard universalist view, or one of moral nihilism?

4. Apply Rachels’s set of three universal values to the Na’vi on Pandora: Do they take care of enough infants to keep the culture going? Do they have a rule against lying? Do they have a rule against murder? Can you think of some other value that the Na’vi and the human scientists share? Is it what Rachels calls “culture-neutral”?

5. If you have also seen Pochahontas and/or Dances with Wolves, identify the similarities and differences between them and Avatar .

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