Tuesday, June 11, 2024

The Moral Sense as an Aesthetic Sense

 Brad Skow has a very interesting post at "Mostly Aesthetics", Adult Encounters with Children's Stories, about re-reading Jean George's classic, My Side of the Mountain, as a parent. Skow notes:

It was different when I read the story to my children. I thought much more about Sam's father. What was the matter with him? Even in the 1950s (the book was published in 1959), when your son ran away from home it was not considered good parenting to regard this as no big deal, to wait seven months before looking for him, or, when you did find him, to act as if everything was fine. If Sam's father gets a few stars for toleration and indulgence, and if the more extreme wing of the free-range parenting movement might approve his choices, still, I wrinkle my brow at him a little. 

 In this, I take myself to be going against the book’s own attitude towards Sam’s father’s actions, and inactions. The judgment “in” the book is that those are okay ways for a parent to react.

My Side of the Mountain is an interesting case here. While the book was published in 1959, most children's books mix the contemporary state of children with a romanticized view of how childhood was like about twenty or thirty or forty years before -- for the obvious reason that authors writing specifically for children draw on their own childhood, which was usually twenty or thirty or forty years before. In Jean George's case, she was born in 1919, so many of the elemtns in the book are less 1950s-ish than around 1930ish. And Jean George certainly regarded running away from home -- in a broad sense of children trying to exercise their slowly growing sense of independence by trying to live off on their own in some way -- as a standard part of childhood. In the Author's Note to the omnibus edition of the trilogy she discusses this; children at some point packing their bags and informing their parents that they were going off on their own was something of a family tradition. She herself did it, and her mother wisely (she says) let her do so. Of course, she, and every other child in her family who did it, came back after a few days. But this is where the idea for the book comes in: What if the child actually succeeded?  George thought that she herself, knowing from an early age a lot about camping and living in the country, probably could have done so, in principle. So this is the whole premise of the book -- a boy heads out to live on his own and succeeds.

In the late 1950s things were perhaps beginning to change, since the book almost didn't get published because the publisher was worried about encouraging children to run away. But George herself doesn't have a problem with parents allowing their children to try their hand at independence, and thinks it quite natural. The story, however, is based on an unlikely 'what if' -- what if a child could actually do it for more than a few days? Thus it's possible George would herself would not have encouraged a parent just to wait several months on a matter; the story is deliberately based on an exaggeration and extreme example of the idea.

Chesterton famously argued, in "The Ethics of Elfland", that while you could have coherent stories in which physical laws were arbitrarily changed, you could not have coherent stories in which ethical laws were fundamentally different. This is widely accepted, and I think for good reason. Part of our sense of stories is a general moral orientation that is at least adequate enough to classify characters ('hero', 'villain', 'victim', 'flawed', 'innocent') and identify the status of various plot happenings ('deserved', 'unfair', 'absurd', 'shocking', 'chilling'). Trying to tell a story that makes much sense in which it is a good thing for ordinary human beings to torture innocents as a matter of course is not going to work; you can try to force a narrative in this direction, insisting that in reality this is a good thing, but you can't make it make sense as a narrative, and readers are going to be baffled at this story in which you are trying to tell them that apparent villains are heroes and apparent atrocities are perfectly fine. The moral sense, whatever its limitations or defects, is one of our aesthetic senses, and at the very least trying to overturn it in a story is like trying to get people to enjoy music that consists entirely of discordant disharmonies.

But Chesterton's argument really only applies to the general framework. The 'ethical laws' have to be applied to particular situations. And we all know you can have particular situations where what would usually be obviously wrong is actually the right thing, or at least less obviously wrong, for the particular situation, not because the general principle has changed but because the particular circumstances add some kind of twist to the overall reasoning. For instance, someone trying to hunt someone down and kill them is usually a sign of a bad person doing bad things; but someone doing so to prevent harm to their own family is, if not exactly morally pure, morally intelligible. This is not necessarily a matter of strict ethics -- the moral sense as an aesthetic sense is not rigorously rational and instead goes on appearances. The original Ocean's Eleven movie was marketed with a tagline that was something like, "In any other city these would be the bad guys." We all know it's bad to steal; but stealing from corrupt casinos in Las Vegas seems less bad than ordinary stealing, and we accept it much more easily. (There is a potentially confounding issue, in that the moral sense is not our only aesthetic sense; we also have something like a sense of skill, and we can admire obviously great skill put to bad use. Thus we get picaresque heroes. Cleverness doesn't justify anything, but it does impress us. However, it's easier to admire the skill of a villain if the villain has at least some excuse for being a villain, and even things like picaresque work by playing off the relative stability of our moral sense.)

What this means is that the particular ethics 'in' a story is based on a condition posited by the story, as it interacts with the sort of loose, general framework of morals we use to interpret narratives. In the case of My Side of the Mountain, the story proceeds on the premise that a young boy can, with sufficient gumption and intelligence and love of nature, be independent. All the ethics 'in' the story presupposes this condition. It's irrelevant to the story as a story whether this is realistic or not. The story just takes it as true, and the ethics in the story is in a sense just how the ethics of parenting and supporting children works if this is true, even if this is just a fantasy premise, a 'what if'. As moral sense as an aesthetic sense is not rigorous, there is still of course some room for judgment call -- the conditional ethics in the story just might not be plausible enough for particular readers, while perfectly fine for others.

Skow also discusses The Lion King and its politics, but notes that such comments seem more "jokey" for The Lion King than My Side of the Mountain, but I think this arises because the comments completely ignore the conditions of the story. The Lion King is not about general issues with monarchies, but about the lion, Simba, who is son of the King of the Beasts. The story it is telling is his story, and in Simba's story the key issues are not general political problems but being the son of his father, taking responsibility for others, and getting justice for his father's murder against the usurper who is destroying the kingdom for which he has inherited the responsibility. Your personal opinion about the value of monarchy is irrelevant to this; the particular ethics of the story itself unfolds on the posited condition that the Lion is the King of the Beasts, and that the Kingdom of Beasts only works when the Lion exercises this role properly. Anything that ignores this condition is just not ethically relevant to what happens in the story. (There is also a bit of cheating in Skow's description; the story makes very clear that while Scar is a dictator, Mufasa and Simba are not, because the latter two recognize 'the circle of life', and thus that their rule is not unrestricted but is sharply limited by nature and custom. And he does not recognize the fact that the contrasting case he gives has its own obvious problems; it's not surprising that his posited condition, carnivores and herbivores regulating the food chain by parliamentary vote, sounds more like a satirical joke than a serious story.) 

Skow seems to think that the assumed condition is primarily ethical, but the primary condition governing the story is surely instead that we are not dealing with human beings but with beasts who have some human characteristics. It is not claiming that good politics is based on 'the circle of life' but that the order imposed by 'the circle of life' on beasts has some symbolic affinities to the order of justice in human politics. Thus not all of the general principles apply in the exact same way, even if you assume that monarchy in the human case is a particularly bad thing in itself  (which, I think, is not as easy to show as Skow seems to believe, given the ease with which human beings do monarchy and the immensely resource-intensive nature of parliamentary republics; and at the very least not so obvious as to be taken for granted by the moral sense as an aesthetic sense). You could, with some care, have a perfectly excellent story about a heroic dragon who eats horrible human beings; that's not because the story is positing that eating horrible human beings is okay, but because it's positing that it is a dragon that is doing it, in circumstances in which it makes sense for a dragon to do it. 

But all this is quite rough; despite its importance, serious consideration of how our moral sense works as an aesthetic sense is surprisingly rare.