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.