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lest ye be judged”; while Oedipus Rex supplied the ancient Greeks with a percept to
match the admonitory precept “Call no one happy until he is dead.”
This recognition of the importance of examples for moral understanding, of
course, was also acknowledged by medieval theologians in their recommendation
of the use of the exemplum, a recommendation that can be traced back to Aristo-
tle™s discussion of illustrations in his Rhetoric. Much modern moral theory has
placed great emphasis on rules in its conception of moral deliberation. However,
this overlooks the problem that often our moral rules and concepts are too thin to
determine the particular situations that fall under them.That requires moral judg-
ment, and the capacity for moral judgment is exactly what is ideally exercised and
refined through our encounters with narrative artworks. Narrative artworks, that
is, supply us with content with which to interpret abstract moral propositions.
Here, it is not my intention to disparage the role of rules in moral deliberation, but
merely to point out that rules must be negotiated by the capacity for judgment,
which capacity can be enhanced by trafficking with narrative artworks just
because narrative artworks typically require moral judgments to be intelligible.
For example, Mary Shelley™s Frankenstein exemplifies the point that evil proceeds
from nurture, not nature “ from the environment and social conditioning, or the
lack thereof “ and, hence, that blame must be apportioned with respect to this prin-
ciple. Moreover, as this example should indicate, the way in which moral under-
standing is enhanced by narrative artworks need not be thought of as a matter of the
fiction supplying readers with templates that they then go on to match to real cases.
For, obviously, there can be no real case anywhere like the one portrayed in Franken-
stein. Instead, the moral understanding can be refined and deepened in the process
of coming to terms with this story and its characters, especially the monster and his
claims to justice.We are not in a position to measure real-life cases on a one-to-one
basis against the story of Frankenstein, but after reading the novel our moral under-
standing may be more sophisticated in such a way that we can identify cases of injus-
tice quite unlike that portrayed in Frankenstein. Thus, we see why authors need not,
and frequently do not, trade in typical cases, but favor extraordinary ones (consider
The Brothers Karamazov) in order to provoke an expansion of our moral powers.
In addition, just as narrative artworks enable us to clarify our moral compre-
hension of abstract principles, so too do they enlarge our powers of recognition
with respect to abstract virtues and vices. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen pre-
sents the reader with an array of kinds and degrees of pride in order to coax the
reader into recognizing which type of pride, as Gilbert Ryle puts it, goes best with
right thinking and right acting,23 while in Sense and Sensibility, she contrasts these
traits through the characters of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood in a way that the
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reader should come to see redounds morally to the former™s virtue. Similarly, so
many western novels and movies, like Shane, are about restraint, about its proper
scope and limits, as exemplified in a case study.
Molière™s comedy The Miser and Erich von Stroheim™s film Greed are obvious
examples of the way in which narratives limn the nature of the very vices their titles
name, while in Chekhov™s The Cherry Orchard, we are offered a striking contrast
between worldly prudence and imprudence in the persons of Lopukhin and
Madame Ranevskaya “ a contrast staged over the cherry orchard whose loss, due to
Madame Ranevskaya™s obliviousness to real life, deals a shattering blow to her family.
In Barchester Towers by Trollope, Mr. Slope exemplifies a paradigm of manipula-
tiveness, whereas in Dickens™s Bleak House, the reader gradually comes to see Mr.
Skimpole™s charm and frivolity as a form of callous egoism, thereby receiving a les-
son in what, avant la lettre, we might call the passive-aggressive personality.That Bleak
House and Barchester Towers were originally released in serial form, of course, encour-
aged readers to compare their moral judgments of evolving characters and situations
with one another between installments, much in the way that contemporary soap
operas provide communities of viewers with a common source of gossip, where
gossip itself has the salutary function of enabling discussants to clarify their under-
standing of abstract moral principles and concepts, as well as their application
through feelings, by means of conversation and comparison with others.24
Narratives involve audiences in processes of moral reasoning and deliberation.
As the father in Meet Me in St. Louis considers moving to New York, the viewer
also weighs the claims of the emotional cost such a move will exact on his family
against the abstract claims of the future and progress. And, of course, some narra-
tives present readers with moral problems that appear not to be satisfactorily
resolvable, such as Maggie Tulliver™s romance in The Mill on the Floss. This too
seems to enrich moral understanding by stretching its reflective resources as one
struggles to imagine a livable course of action.
As Martha Nussbaum argues, not only may narratives serve as models of moral
reflection and deliberation, they may offer occasions for moral understanding.
Nussbaum, of course, believes there is little legitimate room for moral principles
and abstract moral concepts in literary-cum-moral understanding, emphasizing, as
she does, perception as the model for moral reflection.25 However, though I do
not want to preclude that there may be cases of the kind of moral perception that
Nussbaum valorizes, I do not feel any pressure to deny that there are also cases
where the moral understanding comes to appreciate abstractions via concrete nar-
ratives.Why not have it both ways “ so long as we acknowledge that the process
of reflection involved in understanding narrative artworks is at the same time a
process of moral understanding, often, at least in the most felicitous cases, involv-
ing the reorganization and clarification of our moral beliefs and emotions.
Rousseau, it will be recalled, claimed that theater could not reform its audi-
ence, since a public art form, like theater, had, in order to persist, to root itself in
the beliefs and moral predispositions that its audiences already embraced, lest the
work appear unintelligible to them, only, in consequence, to be rejected out of
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hand. Now surely Rousseau is right that, in the standard case, living artworks must
share a background of belief and feeling with their audience. But Rousseau over-
steps himself when he infers from this that art cannot reform its audiences, at least
incrementally. For often moral reform is a matter of reorganizing or refocalizing
or “re-gestalting” what people already believe and feel.
For example, by calling attention to and emphasizing the fact that gays and les-
bians are fully human persons one can often convince heterosexuals that gays and
lesbians are thereby fully deserving of the rights that those heterosexuals in ques-
tion already believe should be accorded to all persons. And, of course, this type of
gestalt switch, which often contributes to the refinement of moral understanding,
is easily within the grasp of narrative, as topical novels and films, such as Gentle-
man™s Agreement,To Kill a Mockingbird, and Philadelphia, attest.
Undoubtedly, these particular examples are sometimes criticized for traffick-
ing in victims who are too pure, too saintly, or too unrealistic and, so, in that sense,
are somewhat misleading in the long run. But I think that, in the short run, these
choices are certainly tactically justifiable in order to get the job done, where the
job in question is to prompt the reconfiguration of thinking about Jews, Blacks,
and gays. And to the extent that people can be incrementally enlightened by nar-
ratives that operate on the audience™s antecedent framework of ethical beliefs and
emotions, Rousseau is wrong. For moral reform can be achieved by deepening
our moral understanding of that which we already believe and feel.
By focusing on the nature of narrative and by taking note of the way in which
narratives require audiences to fill in stories by means of their own beliefs and
emotions “ including, unavoidably, moral ones “ I think that I have shown why it
is natural for us to discuss narrative artworks in terms of ethical considerations.
For, simply put, much of our readerly activity with respect to narratives engages
our moral understanding. It is a failure of neither intelligence nor taste to discuss
narrative artworks in virtue of their moral significance, given the kind of artifacts
that stories are. For given the nature of narrative, the activity of reading, in large
measure, is a matter of exercising our moral understanding. It is appropriate to
think and to talk about narrative artworks in light of morality because of the
nature of narrative artworks and the responses “ such as moral judgment “ that
they are meant to elicit as a condition of their being intelligible, given the kinds of
things they are. It would, rather, be a failure of intelligence and taste if one did not
respond to narratives morally.
Moreover, if what I have argued so far is compelling, then perhaps the clarifi-
cationist picture of the relation of morality to (narrative) art can also suggest cer-
tain grounds for the moral assessments that we make of characters and of
complete narratives as well. Obviously, the moral judgments and understandings
achieved in response to a narrative artwork differ in at least one way from those
essayed in everyday life, since the moral experience that we have in respect to a
narrative artwork is guided by the author of the story. There is a level of moral
experience available from the narrative that depends on the guidance with which
the author intends to provide us. I contend that our moral assessments of the nar-
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rative, then, can be grounded in the quality of the moral experiences that the
author™s guidance is designed to invite and abet.
Some narratives may stretch and deepen our moral understanding a great deal.
And these, all things being equal, will raise our moral estimate of the work, which
may, in turn, also contribute to our artistic evaluation of the work, insofar as a nar-
rative artwork that engages our moral understanding will be all the more absorb-
ing for that very reason. Emma, as I have already suggested, is an example of this
sort. On the other hand, narratives that mislead or confuse moral understanding
deserve criticism “ as does Michael Crichton™s morally frivolous novel, Disclosure,
which pretends to explore the issue of sexual harassment through a case that really
has more to do with thriller-type cover-ups than it has to do with sexual politics.
Here the problem is that the novel is essentially digressive, and, in that respect, it
misfocuses or deflects our moral understanding from the issue of sexual harass-
ment. Likewise, narratives that pervert and confuse moral understanding by con-
necting moral principles, concepts, and emotions to dubious particulars “ as often
happens with cases of political propaganda “ also fare badly on the clarificationist
model, since they obfuscate rather than clarify.
The film Natural Born Killers, for example, advertises itself as a meditation on
violence, but it neither affords a consistent emotional stance on serial killing, nor
delivers its promised insight on the relation of serial killing to the media, if only
because it neglects to show how the media might have affected the psychological
development of the relevant characters. Indeed, its very title “ Natural Born Killers
“ would seem at odds with the hypothesis of media-made murder.The media ref-
erences in the film seem to divert our attention from the moral issues at hand, and
in confusing, or even perverting, our moral grasp of the issues, they are, along with
the film as a whole, candidates for moral rebuke.
Throughout this essay, I have emphasized the importance in narratives of
enlisting the audience™s emotional response to the situations they present. Because
of this, narratives can be morally assessed in terms of whether they contribute to
emotional understanding, where that pertains to morality, or whether they obfus-
cate it. For example, in many fictions about psychotic killers, like Silence of the
Lambs, the murderers are presented as gay. Gayness is part of their monstrosity, and
the audience is encouraged to regard these killers with horror. Gayness is thus rep-
resented as unnatural. Gayness and monstrosity are superimposed on each other in
such a way that gayness is turned into a suitable object of the emotion of horror.
This is to mismatch gayness with a morally inappropriate emotion. It is to
confuse homosexuals with the kinds of creatures, like alien beings, that warrant
emotional responses of fear and disgust. But to engender this kind of loathing for
homosexuals by enlisting a response to them that is emotionally suitable for mon-
sters is morally obnoxious as a result of the way in which it misdirects our feelings.
It confuses matters morally by encouraging us to forge an emotive link between
gayness and the horrific.
The ways in which the quality of our moral experience of a narrative artwork
can vary, either positively or negatively, are quite diverse. Many different things
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can go right or wrong in terms of how our moral understanding is engaged or
frustrated by a narrative artwork. Thus, it is unlikely that there is a single scale
along which the qualities of all our moral experiences of narratives can be plotted
or ranked. And since we possess no algorithm, we will have to make our moral
assessments on a case-by-case basis, aided, at most, by some very crude rules of
thumb, like those operative in the preceding examples.
For example, in the movie version of Schindler™s List, in the scene in which
Schindler leaves the factory, director Steven Spielberg manhandles our emotions
by trying to force us to accord Schindler a level of moral admiration that the char-
acter has already won from us. As Schindler whines about his Nazi lapel pin, we
are coerced into virtually subvocalizing,“It™s okay Oskar, you™re a hero and the pin
probably helped you fool the German officers anyway.” Here, our moral emotions
are engaged, I think, excessively. But, of course, this flaw is rather different and
nowhere as problematic as the case of the gay serial killers. In that case, the emo-
tions get attached to morally unsuitable objects for the wrong reasons. At least
Schindler appears to be the right kind of object for the emotion in question.
On the clarificationist model, moral assessments of narrative artworks can be
grounded in the quality of our moral engagement with and experience of the nar-
rative object. This engagement can be positive, where our moral understanding
and/or emotions are deepened and clarified, or it can be negative, where the moral
understanding is misled, confused, perverted, and so on. Moreover, there are many
ways in which moral understanding and feeling can be facilitated. For example, a
novel may subvert complacent views, prompting a reorganization that expands our
moral understanding, where such an expansion may count as a good-making feature
of the work.26 And, of course, many narrative artworks, perhaps most, engage our
moral understanding and emotions without challenging, stretching, or degrading
them. Such narrative artworks probably deserve to be assessed positively from the
moral point of view, since they do exercise our moral understanding and emotions,
but maybe it is best to think of them as morally good, but without distinction.
One advantage of grounding our moral assessments of narrative artworks in
the quality of our moral engagement with said artworks in comparison with
attempts to base our moral assessments on the probable behavioral conse-
quences of reading, hearing, and viewing such narratives is that we have little or
no idea about how to determine with any reliability the consequences of such
activities for real-world contexts. And if we can™t predict the consequences with
precision, there seems to be no acceptable method here. But, on the other hand,
using ourselves as detectors, we can make reasonable conjectures about how
those who share the same cultural backgrounds as we do are apt to understand
and be moved by given characters and situations.That is, it is difficult to imag-
ine participants in Western culture who could mistake Iago for noble or Darth
Vader for generous.
The clarificationist, then, can deal with those who are suspicious of moral
assessments of art on the grounds that such assessments appear to rest on unwar-
ranted presumptions about the behavioral consequences of consuming artworks.
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For the clarificationist contends that the moral assessment here is keyed to the very
process itself of consuming the narrative artwork and not to the supposed behav-
ioral consequences of that process.This is not to deny that the way in which narra-
tive artworks might interact with our moral understanding may have repercussions
for behavior. Nor would I reject the possibility that certain narrative artworks
might be censored, if (but that is a big if ) it could be proved that they cause harm-
ful behavior on the part of normal readers, listeners, and viewers systematically.
Rather, the clarificationist merely maintains that the moral assessment of narrative
artworks continues to be possible, as it always has been, in the absence of any well-
confirmed theory about the impact of consuming narratives on behavior.
Moreover, the version of the relation of narrative to moral understanding that I
am advancing must be distinguished from the closely related view propounded by
Frank Palmer.27 Palmer, following Roger Scruton, maintains that literature, in mobi-
lizing the kind of moral understanding I have been discussing, feeds and strengthens
the moral imagination™s capacity for knowing what it would be like to be, for exam-
ple, a Macbeth, and that this exercise of the imagination is thereby linked to practical
knowledge.That is, for Palmer, moral understanding, enriched in this way, has a role
in determining what to do. Knowing what it would be like “ what it would feel like
“ to be a Macbeth should figure in our deliberations about doing the kind of things
Macbeth does. Indeed, in general, knowing what it would feel like to do x is some-
thing one should consider before doing x. For instance, if as a result of such an exer-
cise of the imagination one thinks that doing x would bring about insufferable
discomfiture, that should count as a reason for not doing x.
But I am skeptical about this link to the behavioral consequences of consuming
narrative fictions, because I think that with respect to most narratives, the audience™s
role is more of the nature of an observer and that the contribution that narratives
make to moral understanding has primarily to do with the assessment of third par-
ties rather than with deliberation about action. Palmer™s theory seems to me to sug-
gest a reversion to the notion of identification. This is not to say that moral
understandings garnered from literature can have no impact on action, but only that
the link, where there is one, is less reliable than Palmer seems to believe.28
Furthermore, I think that imagining what it would feel like to be a character
is not the norm in experiencing fictions. We are more often in the position of
onlookers or observers of how the characters feel.Thus, Palmer™s theory does not
offer a comprehensive picture of the relation of the moral understanding to narra-
tive artworks.At best, it tracks a special case.

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