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Is Good Fiction Immoral?

April 18, 2008

Adam Greenwood ponders:

Lying is immoral. Fiction doesn’t lie because the author is honest that he’s inventing. (Though sometimes authors can edge up to the line with “autobiographical novels” or Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or Wolf’s I Am Charlotte Simmons that the author claims is based on research and fact.)

What fiction does do is to seduce the reader into forming attachments to people who don’t exist. Is this immoral? My gut says darn straight it is. And what’s worse is that the best fiction is the most guilty. The more deeply realized the characters, the stronger and more genuine the attachment.

But if fiction is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Any way out of the dilemna?

Adam goes on to offer one solution (which I don’t find particularly plausible), and hints that he has another one in reserve, though he doesn’t say what it is (I have my hunches). My suggestion, for what it’s worth, would be to ask question why one would think that causing the reader to form attachments with non-existent people is immoral.

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11 Comments
  1. Dave Raber permalink
    April 19, 2008 7:23 am

    Is art itself immoral? Seems to me if “fiction” is such, then what applies to fiction probably also applies to painting, music, etc.

    Art is a gift of God, like food and sex–and everything! Of course it can be used to bad ends–as advertisements use art to entice us to buy stuff that is not necessarily good for us.

  2. April 19, 2008 9:15 am

    I’m with you Blackadder; I don’t see why fiction is immoral just because it inspires us to form such attachments, nor do I see such inspiration as necessarily a form of seduction. Frankly, I see this power of literature as a good thing, generally speaking. Good fiction, like all expressions of beauty, elicits love, teaches us to care and not to care, as T.S. Eliot would say. C.S. Lewis wrote of fiction:

    “In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

  3. April 19, 2008 9:49 am

    Hey Blackadder,

    Interesting post and there’s probably something to the moral analysis of literature. That being said, I think common sense refutes his contention. I think his intuition is perhaps off, like you hint at.

    I mean, reading fiction, immoral? Really? Telling a story is immoral?

    If this were the case, I’d have a lot of trouble being Catholic because that’s so ludicrous.

    But more seriously, I would say that certainly, turning a character in a story into a false idol, something that comes before God, is immoral. But I don’t think this is what happens when you read a story. You come to know characters like you come to know persons. I think it is fair to say that falling in love with a character is like falling in love with a person, and as long as it’s in it’s proper context then it’s great!

  4. April 19, 2008 7:23 pm

    Let’s look at the wider argument: X may tempt some people do bad things, therefore X is immoral. Greenwood wonders if this is true if X=fiction. Is a vintner immoral because his wine might tempt an alcoholic to sin? This particular train of thought seems to be based on a Manichaean-like dualism that things can only be wholly good or wholly bad and if you link a thing to some bad, then it must really be all bad.

  5. Adam Greenwood permalink
    April 22, 2008 12:21 pm

    It may help people understand where I’m coming from if they understand that I have two competing intuitions. The first is that there is something wrong or suspect about knowingly forming an attachment to something that doesn’t exist. The second is that fiction is not intrinsically wrong or suspect.

    If you don’t get my first intuition, let me see if I can try to explain it so as you can understand it, even if you don’t agree with it. Bear with me here as I grope, because my own understanding of my intuition is still pretty murky.

    So let me ask what you would think about worshipping an idol if I knew the idol to be non-existent and everyone else knew the idol to be non-existent. Would this be wrong? Lets assume that, as with fiction, though everyone knows the idol to be non-existent I suspend this disbelief during worship and in fact tend to approximate not only the outward acts but the inward experience of worship. If you do say this is wrong, is it wrong only because of the effects it might have or is it intrinsically wrong?

    Let me ask you another question–why is it intrinsically wrong to pass off fiction as truth? Its pretty easy to think of arguments for individual cases, since obviously I could dupe a lot of readers into taking unwise actions if I pass off my fictional story of having an end-times vision as a true story. But its harder to make out a general case–what about the kinds of stories that would only influence readers the way fictional stories do, why is it wrong to pass those off as true? I think most of us would say, among other things, that its wrong because the readers are forming attachments and relationships to the people in the story and these attachments and relationships are false. But does it become better if the reader is participaing in the deception instead of being its dupe? Much of the fiction-writers art is to help the reader forget that the characters and the setting aren’t real while reading.

    Finally, a third point, one that y’all Catholics will probably do a lot better understanding or explaining then I can. It seems to me that one of the objections to knowingly worshipping a false god is that it distorts what worship is for. Worship has a purpose that is directed to God and Him alone. Couldn’t the same be said for the feelings we have for others, whether it be affection, admiration, envy, revulsion, and so on. Isn’t the purpose of these clearly oriented towards are fellow human beings and not to manipulation for entertainment or instruction?

  6. Adam Greenwood permalink
    April 22, 2008 12:24 pm

    Where I and Anthony disagree is that I don’t think forming attachments to fictional characters is an unintended side effect of fiction, as drunkenness is with the vinter’s art. Forming attachments is part of the point. Fiction that fails to get you to mentally treat it as real–to suspend your disbelief–is failed fiction.

  7. Adam Greenwood permalink
    April 22, 2008 12:27 pm

    A lot of you, reasonably enough, offer the counter-argument that you have the intuition that fiction isn’t immoral. I have that same intuition, actually. So what I’m trying to do is to think of ways to reconcile my intuitions. Blackadder didn’t find my proposed solutions very convincing, and I admit they aren’t very, though they are probably more plausible for Mormons, who generally believe that God has peopled infinite worlds.

    I’m curious about Blackadder’s hunch.

  8. Adam Greenwood permalink
    April 22, 2008 1:10 pm

    Again I’m groping here, but I’ve had another thought: if we say that there’s nothing untoward about a relationship with a fictional character, aren’t we essentially saying that relationships only happen in our minds, that they are not real? That devaluates real relationships.

  9. Blackadder permalink
    April 22, 2008 2:12 pm

    My hunch was that you thought (or were kinda sorta flirting with the idea) that the characters depicted in fiction really do exist, albeit in some alternate dimension, or some such thing as that.

    Was I right?

  10. Blackadder permalink
    April 22, 2008 2:52 pm

    Part of the problem with answering Adam’s original challenge is that I don’t think I have a clear enough grasp on how fiction works, what it’s uses are, etc. If I remember correctly, Aristotle thought that it served to purge us of weaker emotions like pity, whereas Plato thought that it helped us to be more empathetic. It seems to me that where one comes down on such questions is going to matter a lot to one’s moral analysis.

  11. Adam Greenwood permalink
    April 28, 2008 11:46 am

    Something like that.

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