Monday, October 09, 2006


Apropos of nothing, and recognizing that the point is in some ways an old and familiar one, I was very struck by this passage from Fontana Labs at Unfogged.
We make moral judgments about characters and narratives all the time, and our moral responses to them are accountable to the same consistency pressures that are brought to bear on our everyday moral judgments about actual circumstances. (It's interesting that our moral responses are less apt for suspension than our [dis]belief[s], since we're able to imagine with ease various counterfactual scenarios but we have a harder time imagining worlds in which basic moral principles are false.)

I think that's right, and very nicely said-- and might give a little bit of pause to our assumption that our knowledge of morality is radically uncertain and opaque. At least it suggests a real stability to moral psychology, in good Smithian fashion.

Other than fantasy that defines some humanoid races (e.g. orcs) as Evil as such and therefore outside the boundaries of compassion or sympathy, are there any counterexamples? Interesting science fiction about alien encounters is set in our moral universe-- there may be interspecies war, but the characters face all the usual moral dilemmas about killing in wartime. And in non-fantastic genres, in mainstream fiction, part of our ability to engage with or become interested in a character is typically our ability to empathize with the character's moral problems or questions or failings or successes. The occasional exceptions to that, the Hannibal Lecters, don't posit an alternative moral universe but simply fascinate by their amorality. Lots of fiction emphasizes one moral truth at the expense of others-- loyalty to family at the expense of justice, or compassion at the expense of responsibility, or retributive justice at the expense of procedural justice. But those aren't the equivalent of moral-science-fiction or moral-surrealism.

I think The Stranger might be a kind of counterexample, since it really does seem to posit an alternative moral (or rather amoral) universe, one in which killing a man because the sun was in your eyes seems like no more unreasonable a thing to do than any other. But I've never liked or understood The Stranger, so I'm not sure.

Anyway: loved that second sentence.