The Appearance of Gray Part 1
Posted by noothergods
In his post on Thursday, Brian touched on a subject that I’ve been planning to address, and I’m sure that he will add in his opinions later. However, I want to talk about how we approach morality in fiction. Now, as most of my fellow writers know, I have certain objections to the terms ‘Christian fiction’ and ‘Christian author’. I am both a Christian and an Author, both of these aspects of my identity inform one another, but neither defines the other. It would be equally inappropriate to call me either a Christian author or an authorial Christian, I am simply a Christian who also happens to be an author. Thus my work is simply fiction that happens to be written by a Christian. That being said, it has relatively nothing to do with my post today, just wanted to clarify my opinions on terminology and that I think this post applies equally to all fiction, no matter who the author is.
Relativism is common in modern culture and, to an extent, appropriate. I doubt that anyone reading this would argue that one flavor of ice cream is absolutely better than another. I also doubt that anyone reading this would argue that one book is absolutely the best book ever written. That is because these are matters of opinion and preference, not matters of fact. Since we can see that, in matters of opinion, relativism is perfectly appropriate, the question becomes: ‘is morality a matter of opinion?’
Currently, I am teaching an ethics class, and I encourage my students to be exact in their definitions. We must understand that while distinctions between right/wrong, moral/immoral, and ethical/unethical are intertwined, they are not the same thing. Right/wrong distinctions (the words good/evil may be inserted here) exist on a universal level. If we assume that truth equals reality (a safe assumption I believe), then truth must not only exist, but be universal in nature. Otherwise there is no reality. If truth exists on a universal level then there should be (I hesitate to say ‘is’ because I cannot address convention theory in a post this short) a universal standard for good/evil (right/wrong) distinctions. If there is not, then we are left with a situation of might makes right where whoever is the strongest makes the rules. Thus, any right/wrong distinction must be considered a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion (we can argue back and forth all day about which truth claim presents the correct fact in terms of right/wrong, but the key is that it must be a matter of fact, not one of opinion).
Moral/immoral distinctions on the other hand, exist on a cultural level (Moral comes from the Latin Moralis which refers to the rules for acceptable behavior in a society). Moral/immoral distinctions must be separated from right/wrong distinctions on the cultural level. Japanese morality creates a society that functions just as well as one based on Judeo-Christian morality (preferences in this may differ, but both create stable, functioning civilizations), and so they are equal in their efficacy for civil control. This does not mean that they are equal in terms of a right/wrong distinction, but that they are equal in terms of a cultural acceptable/unacceptable distinction. For instance, in Judeo-Christian morality suicide is unacceptable, but in Japanese morality it is perfectly acceptable. However, as a Christian, I say confidently that suicide is wrong. So, even though suicide is morally acceptable to the Japanese, it is a wrong (evil) action on a universal level. While the terms moral/immoral have come to be associated with universal right/wrong, I think that this distinction is a very important one. Thus moral/immoral distinctions become a matter of cultural, but not personal opinion (a.k.a. Different cultures may have equally valid moral codes [in that each code serves to maintain a stable culture], but individuals may not acceptably hold to a moral code that significantly differs from that of their culture [at least in practice]).
Ethical/unethical distinctions may be understood to refer to an individual’s adherence to a required sub-moral code within their society (lawyers and counselors are both held to an ethical code that differs distinctly from the general Judeo-Christian moral code of the U.S., because of their professions). This sub-moral code, for the individual, supersedes the societal moral code. For instance a defense attorney, when confronted with his clients admission of guilt, is expected to defend that client as the client wishes regardless of that admission. He is also expected to refrain from exposing his clients guilt, even though this would normally be the moral course of action. A person can be said to act ethically when this sub-moral code is followed, thus a defense attorney may act in a manner that is both ethical and immoral (see the example above). Thus ethical/unethical distinctions may exist at a sub-cultural and, potentially, personal level (however, at a personal level it becomes difficult to justify their existence).
I write all of this to say that when we are presenting our characters, and their actions, sometimes we must leave the appearance of gray, even when we do not believe that this gray exists. Take, as an example, Dante’s portrayal of Francesca de Rimini in Inferno. The reader encounters this woman in the second level of hell, reserved for the lustful, and she is absolutely unrepentant of her crime. Dante’s pilgrim is even sympathetic to the woman and her lover (her husband’s brother). Even though Francesca’s sin is obvious, and not in doubt, she refuses to accept that it was wrong. This sort of denial is perfectly acceptable in our writing and creates for the reader the appearance of gray, leaving the decision to the reader as to whether Francesca was actually deserving of the punishment she received.
This tool is invaluable to the writer, because it allows us to show real reactions to evil, to punishment, and to consequence. It also allows us to guide our readers gently, instead of pushing them forcefully, in the direction that we, as the authors, wish them to go. We must also realize that some readers will inevitably mistake or misinterpret our intention (I am reminded of a friend from my graduate work who was staunch in his opinion that Dumbledore represented God in the Harry Potter novels, even though the author’s own statements refuted this idea). The appearance of gray, and the distinction between moral/immoral and right/wrong, allows us to create characters who act in ways that are both culturally correct, and in character, while allowing the reader to determine the right or wrong of their actions. For example, a medieval Japanese character who believed that suicide was wrong would be quite a leap. A group of such characters would be very difficult to accept. However, a story that presented these character as believing that suicide was both acceptable and honorable, while still showing the inevitable consequences of that suicide, would be powerful.
The danger here is in writing only cultures that agree with my (the author’s) moral viewpoint. If I believe that suicide is either wrong, or immoral, then it becomes difficult for me to write a character or culture in which it is acceptable. However, if all of the cultures in my world adhere to the same morality, then it will become a dry (and somewhat unbelievable) world. So, what is the key? As authors you and I must write stories, and worlds, that allow this distinction between right/wrong, moral/immoral, and ethical/unethical standards to be seen. We must display worlds where cultural beliefs clash, but where a clear standard of right and wrong is shown. The difficult part is actually doing this. More on that in my next post in this duology.
About noothergodsI hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.
Posted on July 23, 2011, in Christianity, Educational Resources, Social Commentary, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged characters, Dante, Ethics, Evil, Good, Morally Gray, Morals, Right and Wrong, world creation, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.