When someone hears the words “moral fiction,” or “moral art,” a person might wonder how to define morality. According to John Gardner, “moral” does not equal “not too blatantly immoral.” It can’t be simple, and it can’t be forced upon artists. Rather, morality voluntarily (p. 18):
- “presents a valid model of imitation”
- “shows eternal verities worth keeping in mind”
- contains “a benevolent vision of the possible which can inspire and incite human beings towards virtue, toward life affirmation as opposed to destruction or indifference.”
And (p. 19),
- “instead of teaching by authority and force, [true art] explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach.”
And just as we aren’t supposed to accept a vision of morality based on the power of those who express it, we shouldn’t assume someone’s definitions of “good” are reliable based on their opposition to those in power, either (p. 21).
Interestingly, this last comment reminded me of a law that appeared in the Torah portion a couple weeks back (Mishpatim): Just as a judge cannot favor the rich and powerful, they should also not favor the poor (out of pity, for example).
After discussing Tolstoy’s famous essay, “What Is Art?” Gardner explains two contradictory visions of who gets to define morality. In the first, there is a religious definition of morality. The “religion” in question can be an ancient, pagan one (such as those you see in Greek tragedies) or can be those set out in the Torah, Bible, or Koran. In either case, the source of morality is outside individuals, and characters (such as deities, epic heroes, or the main character’s most noble friend, lover, or mentor) are role models for proper conduct. An author’s job is to preserve and share these religious ideals.
Romantically sourced morality – such as that found in the Romantic poets, Dante, and many contemporary authors – disagrees. In this more secular form, an author’s job is to set a standard for what is good vs what is bad by looking inward. A search for authenticity among simple people, or perhaps nature, will guide the writer towards ideals of truth and beauty. G-d may exist, but He’s far away and not involved in daily life. Human judgment is considered sufficient to establish something is good (p. 36).
I’ll stop there, because I want to share the reaction I had to this dichotomy between religious and romantic definitions of morality, and then pose a question to readers.
When I looked at the examples Gardner gave of these two sources for morality, I noticed how many of those who reflect the Romantic worldview had great appeal to me as a teen. And yet, each of them trouble me today. First of all, if I deep down feel it’s okay to commit what is a crime in most societies, does that mean it must be good? Conflicts between opposed moral frameworks certainly will abound in this set-up. The Romantics got their inspiration from Rousseau, and a society based on Rousseau is more like Lord of the Flies than some idyllic return to Eden, as he proposed.
A contemporary philosopher might say, “Well, you can have your truth, and she can have her truth.” In a sense, I do agree, in that each person has a point of view that is worthy of an audience, and that there’s merit in hearing stories in which people’s experiences and beliefs differ from our own. Such an exercise brings us to a place of empathy, and sometimes even to modesty.
However, even though human beings have binah, the kind of intelligence that distinguishes between two things (and thus can sometimes lead us to instinctively pick good over bad), we also have an incredible ability to deceive ourselves. What we think of as “good” is often simply what we want (because of desire, convenience, or fear) and what is “bad” is the opposite (because it’s less pleasant, hard, and risky).
This leads me to two questions:
(For readers) Have you ever read a book and thought, I think the writer is pushing moral relativism too far (i.e. the writer is advocating for something immoral)?
(For writers) Where do you get your morality from while you write?