28 December 2015

Moral Realism in Fiction


(This is a continuation of yesterday's post on TV and philosophical fiction.)


The term "moral realism" is normally (I think) used in contrast to "moral subjectivism".  In this sense, moral realism is a view which holds that moral truths are objectively real and independent of any particular person's frame of mind, whereas moral subjectivism hangs the reality of morality on the contingencies of this or that person's understanding and context.

In this post I will be using "moral realism" in a different way, unrelated to the realism/subjectivism distinction, and instead derived from the use of the word "realism" in literary criticism, where it refers to narratives which attempt to portray personalities and events with the complexity and incongruities of ordinary life, instead of weaving worlds out of simplistic tropes or ideal types.  (Note that the use of tropes and types is not necessarily bad, but makes for a different kind of fiction.)

Moral realism as I use it here has to do first of all with the way a narrative portrays the moral dimension of events and personalities (i.e. the aspects related to habits of decision making, right and justice, courage and perseverance, honesty, humility and self-control), and the way the portrayal of this moral dimension of things directs the viewer's understanding of their nature and significance.  Specifically, moral realism is a characteristic of narratives which deal directly with that moral dimension of things, but in such a way that the reader or viewer is not directly given an abstract principle of behavior (whether through the use of contrived plots or narratorial comment), but allowed to see different habits, virtuous and vicious, at work in people, and to abstract for himself whatever moral principles he discovers in the narrative.

Someone might be asking here: What's the difference between moral realism and ordinary realism?  If a given piece of fiction is realist, won't it be "morally realist" as well?  Realism has different flavors depending on which aspects of ordinary life are most scrupulously preserved in the story.  So, for example, it is possible to have realistic science fiction, which carefully traces out the implications on political life and technology of one or two minor changes in reality.  (Stanislaw Lem's sci-fi tends to be realistic in this way.)  Obviously in this case, certain aspects of reality are not preserved.  Other realist fiction will exhibit little concern for psychodynamics but cover strategic problems in great detail, or engineering, or — name your topic of interest.  Moral realism doesn't require any other variety of realism, just the faithful portrayal of realistic human habits and behaviors in their moral dimension, while preserving the complexity and contingency of ordinary life, without delivering a ready-made "moral of the story".

(As I write, I'm thinking this through.)

Two dimensions of moral realism then:
1. Realism in the portrayal of human moral behaviors and habits.
2. Refraining from delivering a readymade moral lesson or abstract principle in the story.

What are the advantages of this kind of storytelling?
1.  If moral instruction happens through the story, the instruction will have a high degree of authenticity — i.e., it will be based on a legitimate intuition of human nature and the good, instantiated in definite individuals, as opposed to vague and abstract norms.

2. The greater the degree of moral complexity a story possesses, the more a reader/viewer can take away from it.  If a story has a single moral, and the reader/viewer already understands the moral, the story becomes superfluous.  But if the story has no single moral, but simply aims to capture human behavior as it actually is, it can become a fruitful object of extended consideration.

3.  The construction of a narrative around a particular moral principle tends to deflate the reality of the narrative, thereby making the presentation of the principle in question less compelling.