ethics (moral philosophy) ethics establishes principles of virtue and by extension enables moral judgement of peoples’ actions. Ethics are formulated within a four-way relationship. There are the principles of virtue, what is correct action, and this is dependent on a conception of the person, what people are like, and if ethical values are to be supported, to explain why a person will want to be virtuous: ethics needs to be based on inherent human qualities, what people want to do because fundamentally they know it is right. An ethics that ignores what people are like is bound to fail, so an understanding of human nature is crucial. Ethics are also dependent on what the world is like: what is the nature of creation, what is the nature of God and of the world. Virtue has to be formulated within a valid concept of the world, secular or non-secular and if it isn’t then any ethical values will be unsound as they fail to recognize reality and the nature of things. In Voltaire’s Candide, the optimist Dr Pangloss claims that ‘we live in the best of all possible worlds’ which supports a naïve optimism and innocence as a virtue, but this view of the world is proved to be untenable because the world is a violent and cruel place and an ethics based on naïve optimism cannot be maintained.
With three elements in place, an understanding of human nature, an understanding of the world, and based on these a theory of ethical principles that state what is virtuous, then the final element is the enacting, testing and proving of those elements: how and why does virtue succeed or fail in the world, what are the challenges that ethics faces. This testing of ethics is where static concepts, the abstract principles of virtue, have to be measured against actual events in the world, and from this, as a representation of events in the world, a story operates as a form of rhetoric: stating and testing virtue.
Persuasive rhetoric that argues for a position on a particular issue is structured through logos, which is reasoned argument that is based on fact, pathos emotional argument, and ethos, ethical argument. A story functions not through persuasive rhetoric but narrative rhetoric. A character embodies, is representative of an ethical position: this is represented through the values that they express in their statements and is demonstrated in their actions: through the choices a character makes. Will their ethical values be proved, will their understanding of virtue help them succeed or make them fail?
In a narrative the characters inhabit a specific story world: there is no state and no law, so what is virtue in this world? The state is all controlling and repressive, so what is virtue in this world? The plot of the narrative presents what happens to the characters, offering a form of judgement in terms of ethics and morality: the virtue of the characters and the actions that follow from this rewards some characters with success and others with failure.
In so far as a story presents the actions of characters, human or non-human, in a shared environment it will offer a narrative rhetoric and this is articulated by two main approaches. Firstly, when the story presents a defined ethical position and the narrative divides actions into a judgemental moral dichotomy: there is good action that has virtue and bad action that is contrary to virtue, and at the conclusion of this form of narrative, virtue is rewarded and those who have acted against virtue, or who are weak and fail to be virtuous are reduced or punished. Within this narrative dichotomy characters may be fixed as good and bad or may change and develop, moving towards goodness, moving towards evil. What is significant in this form of narrative rhetoric is that it understood that a character, a person embodies moral qualities, that ontologically their beingness can be good or evil, so that when a person is good, they can do harm because this action is directed toward goodness, while the harm that an evil person does is part of their inherent evil.
Narrative rhetoric as a moral dichotomy, in creating figures as inherently good or evil is able to articulate an ontological conception of the self, and this conception of the self as good or bad will function in relation to the nature of the story world that the characters inhabit. In a civil society that is virtuous characters will do harm, but only to protect others, they support a society, wishing the protection and safety of this society, while evil characters do harm to satisfy themselves, because harmful emotions and desires, hatred, greed and lust, are selfish, with these being in themselves unethical in relation to social good. In a good society the good person supports the society.
Alternatively, When civil society is repressive, broken or corrupted then virtuous action rests with the individual, and characters act to protect and defend what is good, even if this is unlawful and they are outcast: this anti-social action is not articulated in the narrative as selfish, evil action, but as action based on virtue, the need to fight against evil: the virtuous individual in an immoral world should and will not wish to continue and support an immoral society: instead, they want to enact justice in a failed society. To ensure that these bad-behaving good characters are not seen as unethical or immoral, the narratives will represent the natural state of these characters as moral and good, they do not inherently want to do harm, but through experiencing injustice, and through witnessing the suffering and harm done to others they need to take action, and then to continue this sense of being inherently moral, the bad-behaving but still good, character, once this harm is done by them, they will no longer undertake harmful action for selfish reasons. These good, yet harm causing, characters act without social sanction, unlawfully, but do good because in these narratives the society may be wholly corrupt and is based on principles that are understood to go against human nature or against a morally fair social structure that has been usurped by unethical, selfish, damaged and corrupt people, and when the evil people are defeated the society can revert to a true and ethical form.
The moral dichotomy of good and evil is played out across thousands of film dramas, plays and books, so the impetus of narrative rhetoric is to support the belief that ethical action is selfless. This is a foundation for an ethics that operates as a method for guiding and constraining human behaviour, and this is because ethics as a concept is constructed through a model which indicates that ethical values must be shared, and that the aim of ethics is to create a model of virtue which is part of a shared human nature and a shared world. In a narrative when a character admits of no shared human nature, that they are unique, then they are then presenting themselves as a god-like entity that is confined ethical principles, which is understood by the audience as a false claim, so that the non-ethical character is selfish, cynical, evil or beyond this the character outside of morality is a monster, and a being who is unable to act within human ethical values, because they are not human. The power of evil characters to do harm is always understood as a failure of social, human values because there is shared human nature and doing harm to others goes against this good.
Of course many societies have not been constructed on the principles of shared humanity, and within slave societies, there will be a rhetoric and an ideology that separates the slave keepers from the slaves. In Spartan, Lacedaemon society, the Helots were the slaves, the Spartans the slave keepers and to create a distinction from the Helots who shared the same language and many of the same social and religious customs, the Spartans identified themselves as descendants of Hector, the greatest warrior of all, giving themselves a warrior identity through blood and ancestry, a rhetoric which justified their slave keeping, fundamentally separating them from the Helots, and this division was sustained through an ideology that inducted, trained and tested individual Spartans, so that they had to prove their entitlement to be part of this warrior class. So, there are different versions of ethics based on different beliefs regarding the self, and one contemporary mode of belief is that human rights, which is evidenced in nearly all contemporary narrative film. Humanism is one form of social system, but not the only one, and all societies, to become societies must create an ideology, a doctrine that commits individuals to that society, but the conception of the self, of the world, differs, so changing the ethics and what is ethical action in different societies.
There is a claim to universality of truth in narrative rhetoric, in offering a conception of the world as good vs. evil, but this is not a universal truth. The sense, the conception of a moral dichotomy, good and evil in people and in the world and the rhetorical narratives that stem from this can be ascribed to Judeo-Christian values and not necessarily to other cultural beliefs and traditions. Taoism is a religious and cultural belief system that is not centred on a moral dichotomy in life, but on the way, a path that needs to be followed, the way is a model for beingness which creates a system of virtues.
The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu presents ethical behaviour for a good life based on Taoist principles. A film narrative that carries a Taoist ethic won’t be liable to a Judeo-Christian reading and a story presenting these Taoist ethical values may seem confused and unclear to an audience who don’t understand the Taoist conception of the world. Narrative rhetoric, which appears realistic, to represent a valid reality is dependant for its realism on an audience who are positioned to accept this form of belief as part of reality and as largely congruent to their own ethical beliefs.
There is an understanding that younger audiences are unable to recognise the ethics and morality of narratives unless they are presented through clear and unambiguous stories. Rather than being unable to understand narrative complexity it is more the case that as young audiences learn how to read film narrative they are also learning and understanding a particular, social and cultural narrative rhetoric. At a later age it is expected that the audience can engage with a narrative that questions and debates a moral issue, but this is still formulated through narrative rhetoric within a socio-specific ethical framework.
The second approach to narrative rhetoric is through films that openly as part of their discourse question the ethics and the morality of the character’s actions: ethics are disputed, and these narratives aim to clarify what is virtue in particular circumstances in relation to specific issues. The sharp division between good and evil characters, heroes and villains is not present here, but the rhetorical aim is still to be ethical: to present what is virtuous. This open narrative rhetoric is predicted upon the audience being able to read films within an ethical and moral context. The narrative is not intended to be unethical and immoral, but it supports the audience in making an ethical choice: knowing what good is.
When a film narrative is deliberately transgressive and challenges established morality, or when the morality of a film is out of place or out of date it is not rejected just on the basis of a failed rhetoric, but because it is experienced as artificial and unrealistic. By the same account, narratives which are unrealistic in relation to actual life, heroes that can’t be killed, one personal battling hundreds of foes, actions that can save the world, are embraced, enjoyed and applauded, even though they are understood to be false in life, and these events don’t happen actuality, but their rhetoric in a film narrative presents a model of virtue that the audience understands and experiences as right and just.
It is possible to produce quasi-narrative films, which have limited story action and articulate no ethical position through depiction of character. These are narratives that just ‘show things’, but the subject chosen and the treatment of it will still have an ethical inflection, through the choice of subject matter and the way it is filmed, and ethical judgement will not vanish, but shift to the audience’s ethics: a film shows a series of killing, there is no commentary, the killers are anonymous, the killed are anonymous, and in response to this the audience’s understanding of the context of the killings will become the primary ethical framework. This privileging of the audience, with the filmmaker withdrawing from narrative rhetoric is sometimes argued to be ethically superior to narrative rhetoric, because it leaves moral judgement to the audience but this claim to a non-narrative film being more ethical because of its openness would depend on the audience’s ethics and morality which can be anticipated by the filmmaker: a film about drug taking might be understood to promote drug addiction and crime, but the filmmakers will assume or claim that the audience will attend to the social world of drug taking and not to learn how to take drugs and steal.
In the main a rhetoric of good and evil is so infused into narrative film, and also into general social perception that it is difficult to conceive of film narratives, or stores that function outside of this form. It might be that only particular issues that change in the society or are disputed in the society can be the subject of dispute: some films arguing for the reality of the film and its morality, some arguing that the film is unrealistic and immoral. This presents a challenge to any storyteller who wants to challenge societal norms, and has a substantial effect on how films are read and understood. A film narrative can will make a rhetorical argument, but only those that make the argument that concurs with the audience will be accepted. Taste, enjoyment, realism, are all influenced and to a large extent determined by the ethics of the audience.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019