moral dualism (theology, philosophy) The structuring of morality into the division of good and evil, and in relation to narrative film, the structuring of stories into narratives of good and evil. It is perfectly possible to create narratives that present no overtly dichotomous moral structure. Stories can be formulated without any rhetoric of good and evil, so that its prevalence in narrative film, stemming from narrative in Western drama and literature needs some explanation. Why are these forms of stories being offered to audiences and how can a filmmaker articulate ethics and moral values within this framework or apart from it?
Religions can be recognized as formulating ethics and defining morality but within these creeds there will be different conceptions of good and evil. Western, euro-centric, narrative film is host to two strands of theology that are now presented in the form of non-religious secular stories, with one of these religious influences being the far more dominant.
The dominant influence is the Manichean, stemming for the teaching of Mani in the 3rd century, which is very familiar to film, in that it presents a model of the world as a binary opposition, light and dark, good and evil, a duality. In contemporary society the Manichean dichotomy, even though it may not be recognise as stemming from any specific theosophical source, is often understood to be simplistic, and essentially anachronistic, because identifying, defining, judging people in terms of their being intrinsically good or evil is an out of date mode of thinking.
The second strand of religious thought, which is carried into film in secular form and is a moral viewpoint that is considered more valid in contemporary society has as its basis in the Christian moral theology deriving from Neo-Platonism that is articulated in the writings of Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo (354-430BCE), who was one of the doctors of the Roman Catholic Church. This morality defines evil as the privation of good: God is good and the world is good: people want to do good. There are no inherently evil souls. Evil is a failure of good, an absence of good, evil is not in the nature of things, evil is a lack, a privation, an emptiness. Neo-Platonism originates from Plotinus (204-270CE), and should not be mistaken for Platonic thought which originates from Plato (427-347 BCE)
The formation of these two separate theories of morality stems from differences in an understanding of creation and the nature of God. In the Manichean view creation came out of chaos and has divided existence and the world between light and dark, a struggle for life and goodness over the forces of death and darkness. This Manichean viewpoint has been replaced in the Judaeo-Christian doctrines by another model of creation. In Christianity there is one God who has always been and who creates all things, a God who is all knowing and all good. A difference between the two traditions is that Manichean moral dualism presents a clear dichotomy, so that the good can recognise evil and fight against it, action can be taken, cleansing the world of evil, while the Augustinian tradition, as developed through Augustine, indicates an essential goodness for all, and because of this anyone can be redeemed and forgiven, which indicates the Christian impetus towards understanding, redemption and forgiveness.
Both theosophical views have the same understanding of what evil is in terms of action and effect: the inflecting of harm is evil and to suffer harm is to suffer evil. There is human evil: harm done by humans who can understand what good and evil is, and there is natural evil, where the forces in the world do harm. However, these two theological views, in relation to explaining the cause and reason for evil, are incompatible because they offer different conceptions of creation and the on-going nature of the world. There will be those who take a particular and overt view on these differences and how they inflect upon moral thought, but in practice, in everyday life, one view or the other is applied, so that two models of good and evil are present and their incompatibility remains unaddressed. This use of two conceptions of evil applies primarily to Western societies that have developed through a Judaeo-Christian worldview: initially the empires and kingdoms which were led and guided by anointed and divinely chosen Christian rulers, with church and state combined, and which have now developed into secular republics, nation states and democracies, which still carry forward Christian-led principles: humanism and human rights, recognizing that people are intrinsically good, that they should do good, and that no one has a right to do harm.
The Manichean dichotomy can be seen in the formulation of film narratives in different forms. In films for young children there can be an almost entirely innocent world, there is no moral dichotomy, there are no figures of destructive evil and the film’s narrative is likely to be concerned with social roles and social conduct: friendship, family, doing right, enjoying life. The fairy tale is the children’s tale, a non-realist narrative form where evil is introduced: here the figures of evil may be human, or often nonhuman, inhuman: an animal, a type of creature. These non-human figures are evil in and of themselves, so that evil often has a supernatural, a non-human aspect. The devil is a long established figure, but their image as a fallen angel, someone fallen from good, in the Augustinian sense is replaced in popular tradition, rather than Church following Christian theology, by a man, man-animal figure: someone who is invested in and defined by evil: even though a moral duality suggests an equality, man can be good or evil, there has to be condemnation of evil, so that the devil, part man part animal, something unnatural is the resulting figure of embodied malice: rather than simply a man who has sinned and lost their way.
Both the tales of innocence and fairy tales/fantasies for children can be understood to establish the learning of narratives of good and evil: how children understand themselves and the world. They are good and the world can have evil in it, but the nature of evil is exceptional: the everyday is not a place of evil. The fairy tale can be interpreted to offer evil by analogy, it shows a child what the world is like, but in a less harsh form, but the non-realistic aspect also separates evil from the actual world: children’s films don’t show, human viciousness, hate, hurt, abuse, murder or genocide. Also, these films of innocence don’t prompt children to embrace evil and commit evil acts: doing harm is depicted as wrong and will not succeed. Showing evil succeeding, or as a reality to children is considered a wrong, as cynical, as an attack on an innocent nature, so that their introduction to evil is separated from realism in the fairy tale: fantasy and horror are the enduring non-realistic genres where evil is embodied and immutable.
Fairy tale narratives are morally dualistic, not relative, someone doing harm is judged by words or by action: they are exiled, destroyed, banished, punished, imprisoned for doing harm. These actions to destroy evil in the fairy tale are not understood to be comparative acts of evil because the villain or the evil creature brings destruction down upon themselves. Often dying or destroying themselves by their own hand rather than being killed by a child or another innocent.
As the audience moves towards adulthood film narratives shift towards realism, showing ‘reality’, but this is inflected, defined by a Manichean dichotomy. In this moral duality there is the narrative of the good community, perhaps embodied by the family, or the good person who aims to do no harm, and another figure emerges to oppose this goodness: a figure or a group that embodies evil, threatens this good community, the good person. Often the evil one comes from outside, or if the evil ones are hidden within the community they are not truly of the community, they are essentially outside and different to the community, but have kept their identity masked and mingled with good people by deceit. In these morally structured narratives the good do not wish to do harm, but they recognise the moral need to fight an evil, which is then banished or destroyed, so that peace and goodness can be restored. The good defined themselves as good, because they do not wish to do harm, but need to take action for their own security and protection.
Also, in terms of the good doing harm, hurting, fighting, killing, then this authority is granted through a special status: those who do harm will have social sanction granted through moral law, and often there is the chosen one, a member of the community who is selected to fight evil. Often this figure cannot remain in the society after they defeat evil, or they may have to be called from outside the society to help stop evil and they will then move back to outside of society after evil is banished. This is because in the fight against evil the protector has still acted to do harm, so that their nature is not entirely good. On occasion in these narratives, after defeating evil, the hero will give up the tools of violence, the right to do harm and join the community to live in peace. These plot machinations are necessary so that the actions of the good and the harm they do is not the same as harm that is done by those who are evil: moral dualism cannot suggest a moral relativism and indicating that any act of harm is justifiable for a certain point of view is not acceptable.
These film narratives, where good fights evil, are constructed as secular realist stories, sometimes representing actual events, but even when a story is based on fact it will be structured through a rhetorical narrative where clear moral principles can be displayed. To recognize these narratives one only has to consider if good and evil characters are established in the film narrative as clear oppositions and what happens to each type of character. Most narratives have a moral opposition, a moral duality and a relative few do not. The conflict of narrative film is not the depiction of real life struggles, such as the challenge of getting a mortgage, but of defeating that which intends to do harm: saving the world from the forces of darkness. Narrative film teaches a moral duality.
In contemporary film narratives, to acknowledge the persistence of harm and evil in the world, going beyond the world that is good, that lives in peace, that is disrupted by an evil figure, there is a world that has been overtaken by evil, so that evil has become the dominant power, and then, in this type of story a small group will fight back. Here, because the world is more evil the actions of the good are more violent, but the good still resist this violence and want it to end. In relation to the cinema audiences and the narratives that are deemed morally acceptable to be presented, that will be accepted by the audience this depiction of failed worlds, dystopian worlds, criminal societies, is a more recent formulation of the moral duality in terms of cinema and its narrative forms: it is reflective in relation to understanding that depicting the world as intrinsically good is untenable in contemporary society. To present a wholly good society is felt to over idealise the world, but the moral dualism still persists: the evil are the zombies, aliens, vampires, those who reject a civil and decent society: in a moral duality there are always good and evil people.
Within these stories, where the world, a society, is not essentially good, there can be a central good figure who acts in the same way that the evil do: they become a criminal, a gangster, a killer, a vampire, but this is carefully inflected to ensure that it is clear who is good because the good are drawn into evil and they do not embrace evil without remorse: a central good/evil, evil/good figure will be forced or lured into evil, they may accept it, but not entirely. There is a narrative difference between the characters who will undertake evil acts and entirely evil characters. The revenge film puts the central figure on a path where they will do harm, but they will either give up violence at the end, or suffer because of the violence they do. The revengeful are morally right but they act in immoral ways, so there is a price to pay for this investment in evil: stepping into the dark side.
The narrative arc of the stories that take place in an evil dominated world will function in two ways to ensure a dualistic morality: the central character who has submitted to evil will want to change and try to redeem themselves, or they will fail to change, or be unable to escape evil and die: having failed to find goodness. Crucially, they wanted to find goodness in their lives and this was their inherent impulse. It might be argued that these stories present a moral relativism, harm is done by all characters, but this is not the case as its clear what good is, acts of harm cannot simply be justified by argument, there’s a moral duality that exists in the world not a moral relativism. The tragedy, the Revenger’s Tragedy is a moral form where the movement of the tragic figure into evil action results in harm and self-destruction, and this action is tragic, a failure, a flaw, it’s not presenting evil-doing as possible and positive moral option.
There are a few intentionally immoral films with challenging narratives that deliberately provoke by showing evil without judgement or by having characters embracing evil. Here, there is a distinction between narratives which present immorality where morality has collapsed and narratives of amorality where there is no judgement on any act. Amoral narrative forms, morally unmediated depictions of killing or sexual violence, torture and pornography are not narratives that are deemed as acceptable narratives in the public arenas and the moral discourse of cinema or television.
Narrative films, fiction films that present immorality, or amorality, are subject to close and critical social scrutiny and judgement with the audience either condemning these works or sanctioning them with reservation: a film that depicts evil without moral restraint, where there is no figure for good, and evil remains unchecked can be interpreted by the audience as having a moral message: the film is indecent, immoral but it shows what the world would be like if morality did not exist: how vile and destructive that world would be, so the film has a moral purpose when properly read. Alternatively a film will be morally censored by the audience if it is understood to be praising and glorifying evil: it loves violence, and the essential aim of the narrative is understood to want to show and relish in the depiction of harm and death: this is an immoral, evil film. In this context the fact that the film is scrutinised, discussed, places it within a moral framework, which the film narrative has not presented, so that morality is imposed on the film, and often the filmmakers will state this as their intention: to offer the film up to critical judgement.
Films can be praised, censored or rejected by audiences in relation to specific social issues, issues that are perceived as social injustices by some but not by all. Films can be judged as progressive, reactionary, radical, conservative, liberal fascist, but continuing through film narratives is the structure of a moral dualism, which indicates how this dualism can be used to present a moral rhetoric: to present what is right and good in society and also be used to call for social change. Morality will change in society, but the framework of moral dualism in narrative remains.
In the horror film, moral dualism is the dominant mode, and essentially evil is a force that is against the living and the world of the living. Here evil can be a malignant supernatural force, it is something unnatural that wishes to destroy, or evil can be embodied in a figure that might resemble a human, or have once been human, but any essential humanity no longer exists, they are a monster. This malign figure, as an embodiment of evil, needs to do harm and if any remnant of humanity remains, this is a spectre of a person who has surrendered to evil due to failure and moral weakness, or they are a person who has been overtaken by a powerful evil, or a person has made a pact with evil to pursue their own power: they have given in and been overtaken by darkness. Often those who are innocent, the good that suffer from supernatural evil in the horror film, do so because they have stepped away from what is right and good or away from world of goodness into a place of darkness. In horror as in the realist films with an everyday world where evil threatens the community, then this evil can recognized and be defeated: there are good people who refuse to be overcome by evil and they turn to fight it, becoming noble and good in this action.
The social judgement on the horror film is divided: it is a pervasive and accept genre with a wide social circulation, but this is also given a caution: horror is a primitive form of story, out of touch with reality: it is low taste. Having evil as a force that exists goes against the Augustinian principal that good is a privation. Horror is an extension of the fairy tale, the evil is otherworldly: these narratives are not indicating that nature as a whole is evil: the real world is a good world, but there are forces of darkness that rise, dark realities that collide with the light, evil places, outside of normal, decent life.
Comedy as a form would seem unsuited to be included as part of a moral duality, because comedies are not serious stories, however, they do function within this framework. Comedy works through exaggeration, the audience understands that the bounds of normal moral behaviour do not apply, violence can be funny and entertaining, and at the same time that the exaggeration of the comic world is insightful of human behaviour. In relation to morality there is the tragicomedy, where an innocent will make a small and inconsequential mistake and suffer terrible consequences: this exaggerates moral transgression, the person is not evil, but suffers as though they are: the exaggeration of the suffering is funny because it’s an exaggeration of unfairness. The tragicomedy indicates that remaining good is hard to sustain and that to be truly innocent one must never stray in any way: it was a mistake to leave home, pick up the wrong phone, to do a small mean thing. Stories of mistaken identities can be serious and tragic or comic because the person suffers in place of the real villain. There is a moral lesson in here because the audience is shown that evil is the danger and anyone might transgress.
There are also comedies of divine idiots. A figure who is so good, so unaware of evil that they cannot be harmed by evil, and that their pure goodness will in the end transform or defeat evil. This exaggeration of purity is a wish-fulfilment: how the world might be if it were possible to transcend evil, so that evil could do no harm. As the naming suggests the person has near divine qualities, they exist with a spiritual value, a goodness that cannot be denigrated, and any attempt to do this will fail.
There is comedy slapstick, and here there is violence, but without the consequences of true harm: a person is kicked down the stairs and gets up again. Here the good person can do harm, tricking evil doers, making them suffer and this is funny: this harm is a good because those with ill intent suffer, and it’s fun because no real harm is done. In slapstick there’s the opportunity for the powerless to fight back against the powerful, so that there is a sense that those who have been wronged can set things right, by giving the arrogant boss a kick in the pants. The slapstick ceases to be funny when it becomes bullying, when the suffering that is being inflected is enjoyed for the harm it causes, when the misfortune of other is laughed at. In slapstick the comedian keeps a straight face, so it’s clear that they do not relish causing suffering. In slapstick, if the joke does turn to bullying then the perpetrator will not get their way and the joke will be on them: the bully will be seen to suffer and howl.
Comedy functions as moral form: characters just doing silly things or being inept or rude is not a comedy, and a sense of moral order is usually established within the narrative, there is the non-comic partner in the comedy duo who comments on the comedy, to indicate how the comedy might be unsuitable in real life, there is the normal moral world in the film and so this indicates the overarching morality: the comic character is out of step and this can be funny.
The narrative forms discussed above are articulations that can all be interpreted in relation to a Manichean dualism and these narratives dominate in fiction drama. A non-dualist Neo-Platonist narrative will construct a figure who believes that they can and will act in goodness, and in line with the nature of a meditative religious figure they will be more pensive and morally reserved, they will want goodness, and they will not pass judgement on others. In these stories there will be less likelihood of a clearly defined villain to create a moral dichotomy and if there is an evil figure then the figure of goodness will want to move the person from evil to good. The aim is not to punish the wrongdoer, but to save them, making the malign figure accept the truth that we all have an inherent goodness. Such narratives are unusual and rare. They may be seen when little harm is done: a marriage breaks up, something goes wrong with business. In these narratives no one is evil and if they have erred they can be redeemed and return to goodness.
The audience can invest in a Neo-Platonist character, but this is not the same investment as in an audience’s support for the hero, who the audience wants and expects to see win. In a morally dualist tale if the hero pursues the villain and then at the end gives them a hug and embraces them with love as a spiritual partner, this will not be the narrative that the audience expected to see or what they will accept as a resolution: after setting out a narrative where there is clearly demarcated good and evil and then shifting to the view that there is no real evil is not coherent. There are endings where the good decide not to punish the wrongdoer, but this is also a signal of virtue within the good person, and the wrongdoer will need to accept that they have done wrong.
Given that the form of the Neo-Platonist narrative does not have the clear dichotomy and clarity of action that is offered by a dualist story where the good can engage and fight against evil, the Neo-Platonist drama will often be viewed by the audience as being more morally complex: it appears to have a moral, spiritual, psychological complexity that is rare in the fiction film, but this perception is somewhat erroneous: it’s just that this non-Manichean figure has to be more reserved in their judgement and actions and this is understood and depicted as a kind of wisdom: in everyday usage an ‘august’ figure, a word derived from Augustine of Hippo, is a wise noble person, but they are sophisticated only is so far as they wish to maintain a particular view of themselves and the world: narratives with these wise Augustinian figures do not actually discuss morality in an open and complex way. When searching for this kind of narrative one might point to films that tell stories of actual religious figures, or figures who might, but then decide not to condemn others, or the Neo-Platonist figure might be the person who pleads for mercy and understanding on behalf of another when others want to punish and condemn.
If the Neo-Platonist figure is rarely present in narrative film this may be because the teaching that supports this takes place, or has taken place through religious, or quasi-religious education in Christian teaching in schools, it is offered and taught as a reality, how the real world is and how the real world should be understood, rather than the harsher morality and moral dualism of populist narrative fiction: the situation is that it’s acceptable to have fantasies of good defeating evil, and there being monsters and demons, but this duality is a limited moral understanding: its fine for fiction but not real life. Triumphing over evil feels good.
Another explanation for the popular cinema’s moral simplicity, its dominance by moral dualism, returns to theosophical ideas and the societies and social structures Neo-Platonism actually created and supports. The Neo-Platonist figures that are suggested for narrative film are single individuals who show goodness without any authority to enforce this: they lead by their goodness as examples of light. They will not be righteous killers, or leaders in an armed struggle, they will do no harm. In contrast, in contradiction to Augustinian doctrine being for the spiritual enlightenment of individuals the writings of Augustine were used as a doctrine for the Christian church, and historically the Roman Catholic Church was formed and functioned within empires and kingdoms, not as a democracy of spiritual individuals with universal rights and a shared humanity for all, but through a strict hierarchical division: the nobility and the church both had power given them by God, while the laity, the common people did not. The lay person, the non-noble is the sinner, who needs to be penitent and subservient to their good, the ruler and their priest.
The separation between the nobility, the church and the laity separates those who can act in God’s name to do harm and those who do not. The leaders have a right to rule, a right to judge, a right to punish, and a right kill in God’s name, and this right and this power cannot extend to all or everyone will have the right to set laws, become rulers and do harm. The authority to act to do harm is theologically justified, because in this view of rightful authority those who break the laws act outside of God’s laws, and therefore the breaking of laws is a sin, an act outside of God’s will, so an act of evil. The sinner has failed God and failed their church and their king. They can be punished by their rightful rulers, and those who punish are still entirely good. They act in God’s name.
This formulation can seem odd, that Neo-Platonism can be formulated to enable harm and this right is not shared, but it should be recalled that law, justice and punishment, until the formation of republics and democracies, was enacted in the name of the King/Queen who held their authority by divine right.
Within this historical context, feudal, monarchical, the presence of both Manicheanism and Neo-Platonism, and the enactment of two moral systems to define evil, can appear untenable, because it places two moral codes in the same society, but this use of two moralities supports a division of social power and clarifies who has moral authority: who can judge and condemn others and also who has no right to judge and is subject to judgement. Manicheanism is applied to one group, the serfs, the people, the natives, and Neo-Platonism is held by the rulers. The rulers know that they are intrinsically good and can do no wrong, so they can make and enact laws, judge and proffer punishment: their status and goodness grants them permission to do this, and any harm they do is not evil. Manicheanism is placed on the serfs, the lower classes, the servants, and in Manicheanism they are not inherently good, but divided: they are capable of evil, so in this scheme they need to be controlled to ensure they are good, and they will be judged if they do wrong. The two different moral systems enables the rulers to rule with impunity, and for the ruled to be led to accept the judgement of their betters.
In contemporary society this divine right to rule has shifted to a secular form of rule: those who act on behalf of the state are entitled to set rules, judge and punish and because there is a democratic system this is authority is legitimised by the people who are obliged to support the state. The state is posited as intrinsically good and can do no intrinsic wrong. This sense of a Neo-Platonist state morality is held in law. It is very difficult, in fact effectively impossible, to bring a start or the members of a state to account for a crime committed on behalf of the state, no matter how much harm it has caused: the state claims a right to do harm, because it is intrinsically good through Neo-Platonism. Often a state will enact harm against another state, which is judged to be legal and just, but also, often, it will be the state acting against groups, people who are already marginalised or unrepresented by the state. Neo-Platonism enables this morality and it justifies the rule of the state.
In a modern democracy Manicheanism has undergone a change: people are equal, the same, so there can’t be one group who have a moral right over others, and this equality also diminishes the sense of good and evil as intrinsic facets of human existence: demonising people is wrong, and the Manichean dichotomy has lost currency, but narratives of good and evil remain current, they are produced, consumed and enjoyed, because the sense that there are harm doers and wrong doers still needs to be possible. What the Manichean narrative does is gives individuals, citizens, people the right to be the law makers, to identify with those who enforce power and in this position, as a narrative, rather than an actuality, the audience is able to enact justice. This is understood to be somewhat barbaric, because there are figures of evil in these stories, but the sense that action is possible is extremely appealing: the hero can save the day, the individual can act. The democratic principle of the law is that the state will carry out this function, and only the state is empowered to do this, which can lead to a sense of powerlessness and passivity for those who are obedient to the state, but effectively treated as lesser members of the state as they do not have any actual power and authority because the state has claimed this right.
In these circumstances it’s good to go to the cinema for a couple of hours and to feel that one can be a superhero, to feel that if you are attacked, mistreated you can fight back and win. The Manichean narrative supports a fantasy of action within bureaucratic modern societies which are lugubrious and slow to bring justice or often fail to offer justice and these societies are systematically unjust, because democratic societies are still stratified by wealth, by race, by religion, and many people are ruled by certain ethnic, racial or political, social group: democracy makes the claim to offer fairness, inclusion, rights, safety, but fails to deliver this, so that idea of claiming individual action is still enjoyed, even though it is stigmatised as out of date and potentially harmful.
In this modern context Fine Art, which is the culture of the privileged aims to be abstract and pass no moral judgement, its aim is to be appreciated by those who have the taste, knowledge and education that it necessary to appreciate art: accepting fine art is a signal of cultural membership and goodness. Contemporary Art often states positive claims, to support diversity, inclusion, it is a moral and good art, but at the same time it will avoid being polemical. It sets no agenda for political action, it is not intended to judge or condemn the privileged, the wealthy, the elite who sponsor and therefore control art. Fine Art is tasteful, it can raise an issue, but it is nonthreatening to it clientele. Fine Art favours the Neo-Platonist. In contrast narrative film, cinema, the populist movies, present moral dichotomies where action can be taken: there is struggle, violence, victory, there are wrong doers who are taken down: the powers that be are killed and defeated, the corrupt corporation, the abuser, the criminal is revealed and punished. Here the people take action and they claim the power and right to do this, but this is a fantasy and popular cinema is carefully circumscribed: its constantly being judged and cautions are offered. Mainstream film is subject to an ongoing stigmatisation: it’s a cinema of poor taste, or limited moral value, it presents a Manichean dichotomy, a world of gold and evil that is no realistic: cinema is low on the moral scale: its escapist and flawed.
This divine right of rulers no longer exists. In secular societies rights and powers have been transferred from the monarch and church to the state. The nation state claims the right to set laws and take action to do harm and there is the assumption that these acts are good, while the acts of individual to do harm is denied, even if this can be morally justified. In comparison to the state, the individual has no right to do harm, no right to set laws, and no right to act outside of the law. Here the lawmaker rather than claiming divine right claim the right to act as they claim to protect the state and the people in it. This is a secular form of Neo-Platonism: those occupying state sanctioned positions are public servants, they serve a higher good, as do earlier religious figures.
Narrative film does on occasion make attempts to question the right of the state: there are political films that show the state doing wrong, but often these will be produced after any actual wrong has been recognised and addressed, so that there is a consensus regarding the truth and the morality of the film that can be agreed by the audience.
When nation states are in contention, what can be labelled and identified as propaganda narratives will be produced: these films, that put the harmful actions of the state into a context of good action will dominate. In most films narrative fiction steps away from actuality so that there can be a clear morality, and this is not clouded by moral ambiguity through moral or historical scrutiny.
So, given the ubiquity of good and evil in narrative fiction, can narrative filmmakers operate outside of a moral dualism? It is possible to present a moral absolutism where all acts of harm are evil, but this prevents the formulation of a morality where harm can be done as an action of goodness, so moral absolutism is not promulgated. It is possible to be immoral, amoral, and offer moral relativism in narrative, but these approaches are still linked to moral dualism and judged from this perspective. There are cultures that are not structured through moral dualism, but if a person is raised within a dualist society it is difficult and unlikely that they can abandon an understanding of things that they know to be true: that there is good and evil, right and wrong. Also, moral dualism does structure a society so that it will be obedient, so that it can protect and defend itself without moral doubt: this lack of doubt is a social power, offering the right to take action, to claim do good when doing harm. Moral dualism is simplistic but this framework for understanding and judging the world has been supported and sustained Western societies for two millennium and is due to continue. Neo-Platonism is the dominant form of morality, who morality is enacted in democratic states, and Manicheanism is the fantasy of morality that is still offered because societies are not inherently fair.
Liberal secular societies aim to remove concepts of evil as they are understood to divisive, confrontational, and aggressive, but groups, individuals do want to do harm against others, against society, and they will justify this through judgemental doctrines, so the secular state will still do harm, for their security, their protection, to defend themselves and there will need to be a moral justification for this: that others are evil, often the evil-doers are depicted as medieval in their doctrines and thinking. A declared function of law is to protect the public from harm, and to some extent this can be politically and socially effective: it is a claim to want to do good, but as a rhetoric it can seem ineffective, weak, hypocritical, politely cynical: actual harm is still done, there is violence, there is cruelty: declaring the plan to stop harm is emotionally distant: law is a bureaucracy that often fails people: that looks away from harm. A film narrative can offer an instant solution to the status and the failure of the state: the workers win the strike, the terrorists do not succeed in killing and escaping, the killer is caught and punished, the corrupt politician is led away to prison.
In terms of another possible approach to narrative film, using actuality, showing society as it is, creating narrative films based on real life, would be one that makes people look petty, weak, failed, stupid. Here stories would show society as a tangle of partially effective rules and damaging biases, with embedded inequalities and flaws. This kind of truth-stating narrative is produced occasionally, but it is not what is recognised as entertainment, it’s moral drama, but it’s not necessarily morally uplifting: it’s a downer. The social realist film has limited circulation because it present problems and these problems are already circulated in the news and other arenas. Narrative film in it form as popular cinema is effective as an emotion led rhetoric: it repeats and repeats that it is possible for good people to fight evil and win, not they they are weak, dis-empowered, it’s hard to make change, get justice and to do something of any significant good. Narrative film is the fantasy of action, and as part of this moral dualism enables this action and shows that this action is right. The cinema’s morality is understood to be archaic, but it has a function in society, and its Manicheanism does not impede or question an ethics of Neo-Platonism, this is the dominant moral code.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019