To Be Moral Or To Not Be Moral?
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I am currently working on my literature review. I decided to split it up into two parts: morality and film. In the first part, I want to look at research articles that revolve around the concept of moral ambiguity and how we as viewers respond to that. In the second part, I aim to analyze scripts of pilot episodes from TV shows that contain morally ambiguous characters. By separating my literature review into two parts, I will be able to better understand my topic and distinguish the psychology theory from film theory.
While I can’t wait to read scripts from TV shows that I enjoy, such as Sherlock and Breaking Bad, I first need to understand moral ambiguity. However, before I can even define moral ambiguity, I need to understand morality as a whole. We all have experienced our moral compass at work, whether we decided not to lie to our parents, or decided to return money to a person that dropped it. It is this intrinsic, internal desire to do the right thing. But… What is the right thing? How do you know what the right thing to do is?
As a whole, morality is fairly hard to define, as it constantly changes among cultures and over time. That being said, I found one definition that encapsulates our modern idea of moral systems: “interlocking sets of values, practices, institutions, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.” That being said, this definition almost strictly works from a Western point of view, as certain cultures prioritize certain values over others. For example, other non-Western countries place more emphasis on values like religion or loyalty. Another study claims moral development, “is not entirely about finding the right values, it is also about thinking of those values in a broader, more complex way… It is about how we think.” This definition is more broad and introspective, as it focuses less on the decision, and more on the process of decision making and how we shape our moral values.
Operating on both these definitions of morality, we can begin to understand more about moral ambiguity. In my research about moral ambiguity, I found that it can stem from two areas: actions and innate traits. Morally ambiguous actions means that “there is conflict in someone’s moral actions – they do some good things and some bad ones as we all do,” while morally ambiguous traits means that there is someone who is both good and bad simultaneously. These two concepts work hand in hand though, as characters can perform an action that is morally ambiguous that contributes to our perception of them as morally ambiguous.
At this point, we now understand both morality and what it means to be morally ambiguous. However, what we don’t know yet is how this is relevant to us? Why is it that humans like morally ambiguous characters? Do we even like them? What about them makes us like them? In order to conceptualize this, I am going to give you two people. The first person is a teacher. He often acts in a harsh manner towards his students and is known for being incredibly hostile. The second person is a man who loved a woman who ended up marrying someone else and had a child. This man, as we have come to understand, has joined a gang, which he ends up betraying to help the opposing side when he hears the leader of the gang is going to kill the child of his long-time love.
The two men that I referred to in the example are both versions of Severus Snape. Depending on the perspective of the person that we are understanding him from, which in this case is Harry Potter, we see him as a “bad guy,” until we start to understand his backstory and create a complex idea of him, in which he has done questionable actions but for a seemingly just cause.
When reading the example, you were probably more inclined to side with and empathize with the second man. In my research, I have found that moral ambiguity becomes easy to empathize with and understand when there are further explanations and backstory to their perspective. Morality, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Because this concept of morality fascinates us so much, we focus more on morality in films when the character is morally ambiguous, because it forces us to put the concept of morality at the forefront of our minds. We also use moral judgements to “decide if the creator of the message is a good storyteller, if the audience will be moved, and if they themselves find the story credible.” Because of this idea, we have a tendency to like morally flawed characters more for the most part and we find them more interesting because they resemble us.
We like to know that characters have complicated choices and struggle to come to conclusions. We like to know that characters are not simply perfect humans that make no mistakes. One criticism I remember hearing from Gilmore Girls a lot was that many people did not like Rory because she was seemingly too perfect in the first couple of seasons. They then started to hate her more because she shifted too far in the opposite direction of being too flawed, especially at the point when she dropped out of Yale. She became disliked for the exact opposite reason, yet the bottom line was that she was simply an unlikable character. I believe that there must be a balance between making someone relatable and likable, and it is quite a feat to find that middle ground.
Next week, I will share my findings on the pilot scripts I will be analyzing, as well as creating a list of the TV shows and movies I will be analyzing for the next few weeks.
Until next time!
- Haidt, Jonathan. “Morality.” Perspectives On Psychological Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2008, Pp. 65–72. JSTOR, Http://Www.Jstor.Org/Stable/40212229. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.
- Stocker, Michael. “Desiring The Bad: An Essay In Moral Psychology.” The Journal Of Philosophy, Vol. 76, No. 12, 1979, Pp. 738–53. JSTOR, Https://Doi.Org/10.2307/2025856. Accessed 18 Mar. 2023.
- Film And Morality – Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Https://Www.Cambridgescholars.Com/Resources/Pdfs/978-1-4438-4194-8-Sample.Pdf.
- Www.Ecommons.Cornell.Edu. Https://Www.Ecommons.Cornell.Edu/Bitstream/Handle/1813/5420/Thesis_and_Preliminary.Pdf?Sequence=1.
- Mezzenzana, Francesca, And Daniela Peluso. “Conversations On Empathy : Interdisciplinary Perspectives On Imagination And Radical Othering.” OAPEN Home, Taylor & Francis, 6 Jan. 2023, Https://Library.Oapen.Org/Handle/20.500.12657/60531.
- Barriga, Claudia. “Thoughtfulness And Enjoyment As Responses To Moral Ambiguity In Fictional Characters.” Home, 31 May 2011, Https://Ecommons.Cornell.Edu/Handle/1813/29125.
- Wylie, Jordan, And Ana Gantman. “What Is Moral Ambiguity And When Does It Trigger Curiosity?” Proceedings Of The Annual Meeting Of The Cognitive Science Society, 16 June 2022, Https://Escholarship.Org/Uc/Item/8f91c7xb.