The Hurt Locker
Image via Wikipedia

What does the moral psychology of characters in film and television narratives add to our engagement with them? This was the topic explored by Dr Jonathan Webber at last night’s Cardiff Philosophy Café, with the aid of three examples: Alfie (the original, with Michael Caine), The Hurt Locker, and The Thick of It. Showing that, in each case, we’re faced with a situation where the societal background of moral codes is under stress, even pushed to breaking point, Dr Webber examined how the responses of characters to their situations shape the narratives in which they are located, and suggested that we typically draw on our understanding of moral psychology to understand how stories will progress. At the same time, narratives necessarily provide us with a stripped-down, even simplified version of reality. We encounter characters without access to their histories, with a restricted view of the roles they play in the course of their everyday lives, and so on.

Nonetheless, despite the suspension of the “fullness” of reality which is part and parcel of fictional narratives, they can provide an exploration of a space of moral possibilities which has a kind of educative value for viewers.

Dr Webber presented Alfie as a tragedy in which the main character’s expectations of the women he seduces result in emotional pain for him and for them, based ultimately on his false ideas about the world around him, and particularly about the “essential nature” of women. The Hurt Locker enacts a kind of dialogue between Aristotelian ideas about the nature of courage (resting somewhere in the middle of a continuum between cowardice and recklessness) and scientific understandings of addiction: the main character’s (the allusively-named William James) addiction to danger does not displace his ability to assess rationally the situations in which he finds himself, and as such, he does not appear too different from his more conventionally courageous colleague Sanborn.

Among the many points raised by the audience in discussion afterwards, it was suggested that the educative role of narratives may rest on how they enable us to consider counterfactuals – that is, possible alternative actions characters might have taken, and the outcomes that may have issued from them. Also, it was suggested that the power of film and television as conduits for moral psychology may be closely connected to their being visual media – that identification and empathy with the situations and psychology of characters are made easier thanks to the nature of the medium.

Enhanced by Zemanta

One thought on “Moral Psychology on the Screen”

  1. Jonathan Webber’s project was presented through a number of disciplines including, at least, ethics, film and the arts, and psychology. Herein lies a danger. There must be a clear game-plan in the way interdisciplinary dialogue is set up. I thought that Jonathan Webber ‘s project rested on the idea that a syntheisis of disciplines can create a birds-eye view. I argue that this is impossible, Jonathan’s project was not so much a synthesis to a new understanding of film and its characterizations, but an assembly of independent observations at worst. At best, it was an inter-disciplinary soiree, a ritual, comforting exchanging of phrases taken from different disciplines. It is the artist who creates the birds-eye view.

    I will add some meat to my points and objections:

    Narrative styles of different disciplines can be brought together and explored in the imagination, but care must be taken. Causal relations can be summoned out of mere associations and metaphors; independent items of knowledge can be shot-gun-wedded into seeming unity; incoherences from one discipline can be grafted onto another, innocent, discipline. To recognise and avoid these problems a radical simplification of language might be the prefered first course of action.

    To take an example:

    “The psychology of character”.
    The word “character” is sufficient. I argued that if we want to use the word “psychological” to refer to a type of character or phenomenon, then to avoid doing no more than lazily doffing a clinical cap and asserting irrelevant beliefs about brain-mind causations, we need to stipulate that distinction. So, rather than speaking about the psychology displayed in a story we can speak of the characters displayed in a story, the stage of a story, and the eternal archetypal themes played out in a story.

    Thus “Alfie” has as its archetypal theme “the Lad”, a theme common to every culture. “The Hurt Locker” seems to have presented the archetype of “the Fool”, or “the Hero” on the beginning of his journey… common themes all. The stage is our own culture, and the story shows us how these archetypal themes can play out in it and in its different institutions (…we might then learn to be wise but I would not say that we learn new values or morals).

    Significantly, how can we even begin to explore the way in which the story, with its stage, themes and characters, presents our institutions if we, and our language, are firmly wedded to those same institutions in belief and practice? That is why we should be careful about using institutional phrases such as “psychology of character”. That is also why an artist must require great independence of spirit and belief.

    So it was that I suggested that Jonathan Webber strike some terms from his project lexicon. One term is “psychology”, the use of which imposes beliefs and, as a qualifier of, e.g., “character” or story, is simply vague.
    Next to go should be “structure”, while “narrative” needs tidying up. These terms played havoc all night. I may have heard “structure of the narrative”, and of characters being short-changed by the narrative…

    “Structure” is two things, the elements and the organizing and identifying principles of elements. In this case, the dialogue is the elements, while their organizing and identifying principles are the characters, archetypal themes, stage, etc. There is no space here for such phrases as “the structure of dialogue” . Dialogue doesn’t provide a structure or story. Elements do not provide their own structure. A set of flowers isn’t a bouquet.

    It isn’t the other way around. Narrative – as a holder of the organizing principle of dialogue, and the story, isn’t restricted if the dialogue doesn’t focus on all aspects of an individual. Characters aren’t defined by dialogue, even if dialogue provides the inert basis for their manifestation. It is, though, possible for a character to be incompletely presented, but then that will come down to a mixed and vague presentation of themes, of which character, and its associated archetype, is a theme. This is where the archetype of the Actor comes to the fore. We come to look forward to the solid presentation of themes.

    I thought that Jonathan Webber had a project in the making but unless the language was sorted out it could only generate confusion for it. The problem, I thought ,was that, as with so many other authors of mixed disciplines, he was selecting causal relations and identities between terms taken from different disciplines, and not always addressing the merely metaphorical nature f their associations. There was no clear game-plan in the way he set up interdisciplinary dialogue. The sense of his project was unclear- was it dependent on and generated by institutional beliefs, perhaps biological, psychological, or maybe structuralist? or was it independent of institutional beliefs- literary, an examination of metaphor in film, institution and culture? You can’t have it both ways, is what I wanted to say tonight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *