"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt


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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Morality is Not the Lack of Evil

I've mentioned in an earlier post about the danger and ultimate inability of government to dictate moral direction. I thought that maybe I would expand on the concept of morals since I might

My wife and I were watching The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian recently. In the movie there is the cliched scene where the good guys hold the main bad guy at their mercy, literally kneeling helpless, and then decide not to kill him. The movie presents this as some great moral test for young Prince Caspian (the villain had murdered his father and had tried to assassinate the prince). The fact that Caspian thinks hard on it, but does not ultimately kill this man is celebrated as some great moral victory.

Thinking on this scene though I began to wonder why this is seen as a moral victory. I mean Caspian didn't murder the man who murdered his father. Why not?

The character was not developed enough in the film to come to any conclusion (and I have to admit that I've never read the book). He did not seem to possess a great sense of ethics that could easily be defined or evidenced (he was that type of person who is the good guy because we're told repeatedly that he's a good guy). It seemed most likely to me, though, that Caspian did not kill because he would have felt bad or guilty about the action. In other words, because he was weak.

Simply not having the fortitude to kill is not a moral stance. It says nothing about one's ethics. While it is true that morality is about making a choice, the basis on which we make a moral judgement about an action must be on what is intended by the action. Intention is what provides the basis for judgement, since intent is the only aspect of the choice that a person has full control over.

In the case of Caspian, his intent is questionable. He seems afraid of what he may become, seems afraid of having to live with the guilt from the killing. --By the way, there's a fair amount of killing in the film and not all in obvious self-defense. Killing, in itself, is not presented as a necessarily immoral act.-- Weakness of this sort is not morality, nor is it a proper substitute. Compare this scene to the moment in The Dark Knight when Batman refuses to run over the Joker following the semi-truck flip. In Batman (at least the two most recent, Christopher Nolan films), we have a character with a highly developed and demonstrated moral code. Among the rules of his moral code is the fact that he does not kill. Thus, the temptation to run over the Joker (and his choice not to) is not a moral choice, but rather a refusal to be corrupted-- to make a choice he knows is wrong according to his moral code. In this case his morality is demonstrated and not chosen. Yet Caspian's refusal to kill is presented as a correct moral choice. Kill or not. Good or evil. So at the end of the day in Narnia, we're left with the film celebrating the fact that Caspian, this moral paragon, did not act in an evil manner and that seems to be enough to create morality.

This has always been a peeve of mine when this appears in the various forms of narrative. Goodness is not simply the lack of evil, and morality is not simply the lack of immoral behavior. Someone is good because of demonstrably good acts. Morality is an action taken, not an inaction of evil intent.

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