This is the third of a few posts having to do with Frank Palmer’s book Literature and Moral Understanding: A Philosophical Essay on Ethics, Aesthetics, Education, and Culture (1992, Oxford University Press). You should start at the beginning.
As I said yesterday, the early work of Palmer’s book was the laying out of terms, rules, and opposing constructions. But with Chapter 4, “Moral Responses to Fictional Characters”… well, in the immortal words of Wayne Campbell, Game On!
The chapter begins with a recounting of the famous Radford/Weston debate of 1975. (Famous in some circles, anyway. It’s not as well known as the Ali-Frasier Thrilla in Manila of that same year, but it was a big deal at the Aristotelian Society.)
Colin Radford entered the ring first, to declare that our emotions about fiction are simply a category error, to which we humans are vulnerable because we’re just the kind of creatures that have emotions, even about things that we shouldn’t. Parker paraphrases Radford’s position thus: “…our emotional responses to fiction, brute and unavoidable though they are, rest upon a mistake.”
Michael Weston then took his place in the box, to declare that our emotional responses to fiction are not on behalf of the travails of the fictional characters, but rather of the literary work as a whole. Weston sees a work of fiction in ways analogous to a work of music, a composition by which we can be moved without an attachment to any particular component. He rejects emotional responses to characters by saying that we can’t actually interact with them, and that “fictional characters are never free to do other than they are portrayed as doing,” just as the notes of a concerto have to come in a predetermined array.
By this point, Palmer can take no more, vaulting the ropes himself to take on both opponents (albeit thirteen years later). In a sequence as finely scripted as a fight scene in which Jackie Chan singlehandedly dispatches a legion, Palmer walks calmly into the fray. He uses both Radford’s and Weston’s arguments against one another, and adds some fine moves of his own to leave them both gasping and bloodied on the mat.
Of course it would not be the Anna Karenina we know if her life had gone differently; but it would not be the Florence Nightingale we know if her life had gone differently. (95)
Oh, THAT left a mark!
But that’s just the highlight reel blow. The real work is to evoke Wittgenstein’s formulation that our attitude towards another person is ‘an attitude to a soul” (or, though he doesn’t refer to it here, what Martin Buber would call an I-Thou relation).
The application of this argument to fiction is that in so far as we are to regard fictional characters as doing things, as engaging in acts and actions, we cannot have a non-moral or non-human perspective on their actions. Our moral expectations are built into our very conception of what they are doing, e.g., when they tell lies, commit acts of cruelty, disregard bonds of friendship, mistreat their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, or when they are kind and generous, loyal and faithful, honest and true, self-sacrificing, brave, principled, or fair-minded. Whatever further significance we see in their actions, or however much we may enter into further debate about the nature and quality of their deeds and of their significance for the meaning of the literary work, our conception of a character as a human being has the mark of an ‘attitude to a soul’. (99)
The very fact that we see fictional characters’ actions not as neutral body-cam recordings of physical motion, but as bearing motivation and moral implication, means that we have entered into a specific, mutual relation with them. We grant them the emotional agency to determine both their actions and their intentions.
This is similar to the ways in which I can regard ‘real-world’ people I don’t know, whether historical (Gandhi and Stalin seem pretty different to me, though I never met either) or contemporary, as when we judge the character (a revealing word) of the political candidates from which we choose. We don’t know them, don’t interact with them. We merely hear and see what they do, and intuit their ‘character’ from those actions. On a day-to-day basis, Cory Booker is no more ‘real’ to me than Clark Kent; I grant them both reality because they both mean something to me, because I have an emotional resonance of a certain timbre and pitch when I see their actions. I have chosen to make them real, just as we can choose to deem some people other than human when it’s in our interest to mistreat them.