Morality and Stories

Given the fact that stories are one of the most effective way of convincing people of things, they are also one of the ways most used for teaching morality, both to children and to adults. While Aesop’s Fables are one of the most evident examples here, this seems to be the case more generally.

Stories perform this task in a number of ways. The most basic way is by making moral claims a part of the real or supposed background in common with the real world, in the way discussed in the previous post. I pointed out earlier that we learn morality from the real world by noticing that our actions have effects that are good and bad even apart from morality. Stories can be even more effective than reality in this respect, because while “bad things will tend to happen if you engage in this kind of behavior” may well be true even in the real world, it can be made even truer in stories. Nury Vittachi describes this aspect of stories:

These theories find confirmation from a very different academic discipline—the literature department. The present writer, based at the Creativity Lab at Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, has been looking at the manifestation of cosmic justice in fictional narratives—books, movies and games. It is clear that in almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

A second way that stories teach morality is by directly indicating to people what is approved of and disapproved of by society. This is a way not only of suggesting that bad things will result from bad behavior, but of ensuring that to some extent, it is actually true. For “being approved of” is naturally felt by a person as a good thing, and “being disapproved of” a bad thing.

A third way, perhaps not entirely distinct from the second, is by presenting some characters as worthy of imitation, and other characters as unworthy.Thus for example some people object to The Godfather on the grounds that it presents criminals in an interesting and attractive light, thereby appearing to put them forward as people to be imitated.