Illusive Mind

The Unquestionable should be questioned

Monday, April 18, 2005

Morality, Fiction and Possibility


Brian Weatherson, a well known Philosophy Blogger has an intriguing paper published in the online Philosophy journal Philosophy Imprints

The paper is Morality, Fiction and Possibility which Weatherson has referred to it as ‘my favourite puzzle’ .

The paper starts off with the following story:

Death on a Freeway
Jack and Jill were arguing again. This was not in itself unusual, but this time they were standing in the fast lane of I-95 having their argument. This was causing traffic to bank up a bit. It wasn’t significantly worse than normally happened around Providence, not that you could have told that from the reactions of passing motorists. They were convinced that Jack and Jill, and not the volume of traffic, were the primary causes of the slowdown. They all forgot how bad traffic normally is along there. When Craig saw that the cause of the bankup had been Jack and Jill, he took his gun out of the glovebox and shot them. People then started driving over their bodies, and while the new speed hump caused some people to slow down a bit, mostly traffic returned to its normal speed. So Craig did the right thing, because Jack and Jill should have taken their argument somewhere else where they wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.

Weatherson notes that the last statement is intuitively false and that even given the poetic licence and/or authorial authority he doesn’t seem to be in a position to make moral judgements true like he can make other descriptive statements true.

Weatherson goes onto to cite a whole host of other examples of incongruous and discordant claims in fiction such as the author’s authority over certain logical contradictions, one of the solutions posed is the “impossible solution” that an author can only convey as true those claims which are logically possible, or imaginatively possible. If we can’t conceive of a square circle, we can believe the author is correct in suggesting that one of his characters is holing one in his hands.

However I think the moral claim is far more ambiguous than that. Can we accept that regardless of context some moral judgements are impossible to believe are right?

Suppose we modified the last sentence of Death on a Freeway, “So Craig did the right thing in getting rid of Jack & Jill as he was a typically bloodthirsty denizen of his time” Perhaps the confusion comes from the conflation with the contextual world of Death on a Freeway with our own social context. I can imagine a future society, particularly bloodthirsty and individualistic, perhaps Utilitarians who would feel no moral revulsion at the claim made as it is congruous with their social norms.

This might be more clearly illustrated by thinking about historical examples:
“The noble raped the newlywed as was the custom and he was right to do so in order to ensure the continued bloodline of Britain.”

Now by modern sensibilities we would say that the author is wrong, that spreading British blood is not a justification for raping newlywed women. However such acts were considered justified and politically expedient at the time, and by reading the author like his characters, within the context of the time we can imagine the moral consensus being that such actions in war are morally justified.

If such a context can be created historically it can also be created in terms of alternate histories and parallel dimensions. Thus we can imagine a universe in which it is considered right that people who slow traffic on freeways should be shot. The author does not have the authority to simply ‘make true’ what is right within the reader’s context but he surely has the right within the world he has created, though in the Death on a Freeway example it is not easy to distinguish between our own world and the one that has been created.

Imagine that this freeway his the only road for convoys of critical medical supplies, perhaps rushed to third world countries or the front lines. There are any number of ways the context can be shifted so many readers can agree with the judgement, but this is not the point. This is still reading the story in comparison to our own society.

Another way to think about the problem, is to think about the author’s voice. In Death on a Freeway, and in all the other examples Weatherson uses, the omniscient third person narrator is used. This is the voice that is able to comment on any part of the fictional world, including the thoughts of characters, the past and the future.

The same problem would not arise if a first person voice was used. We could immediately recognise the author as a character within the story and his judgements thus being contextualised. When he says “It is right that x” we read that “the character believes that it is right that x” and can accept that is true regardless of our own agreement or disagreement with the moral judgement.

This is much harder to recognise in the third person omniscient narrator, who we on one level, expect not to have beliefs or opinions about the world but simply be a kind of God who is stating the facts. But this is plainly nonsense as any statement such as “the brave hero” involves such comments and beliefs about the characters.

It just so happens that the author structures this descriptions so that we generally agree with the narrator. We may read Death on a Freeway and conceive of the narrator as twisted and deviant, and we may disagree with his assessment, but this I think that does not constrain his authority to make such assessments.

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