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Narrative art–film, TV, books, etc.–is a useful tool for analyzing ethical questions.  When watching stories unfold, we see characters make decisions, we evaluate their choices, and we assign value to characters based on our feelings about their behavior.  The stories’ authors (writers, director, actors, etc.) are somewhat able to manipulate our judgments through artistic choice: what information and perspective do they provided to the audience? what music is playing a character acts? which characters have nefarious-looking facial hair? but ultimately we own our evaluations, and they define us, and help us to grow as people.

This is what I want from narrative art, and any analysis of stories, including the quality of the stories, should, in my opinion, focus on questions of ethics.  I tend to like narrative art where (1) characters are forced to make complex, substantive choices; (2) they make interesting and reasonable decisions (not necessarily decisions I would make, but decisions I can sympathize with); and (3) they experience consequences that are logically connected to the decisions they made (though not necessarily following from any traditional morality), and consistent with the world they live in.  By contrast, I find narrative art uncompelling when the following occur:

1a) Characters are not presented with complex choices
1b) Nothing significant is at stake
1c) There’s no possible parallel between decisions made in the story and any real-life decisions
2a) Characters make hopelessly stupid decisions
2b) Characters’ motivations are not well explained, so their behavior appears to be random
2c) There are choices available to characters that seem to fit their goals that they do not make, with no particular explanation for why not
3) The consequences of characters’ decisions don’t make sense, or aren’t connected to the actions, or aren’t consistent with the rules of the world the story is set in

There’s plenty of wiggle room within these criteria, which I plan on using.  For instance (1c) could be a failure of the storyteller, but could also just be lack of imagination on my part in understanding why a particular scenario might be relevant.  For (2c), I could be missing a reason why a character might not act as I think they should/would.  (3) requires an understanding of how a world is supposed to work.  Etc.  But these criteria should push discussion of different works of fiction towards facts and consensus-building.

To be clear, I’m not asserting this framework as the only way to watch movies, or the best way.  I’m perfectly open to other frameworks*.  I’m also not claiming that my likes and dislikes always match up perfectly with these criteria–there’s almost certainly some mood affiliation* that creeps in.  But I think my preferences match very closely to my analysis along these criteria and so for now, it’s the way I’m going to analyze narrative art, and so I’ll continue to do so until I decide I don’t want to anymore.

Below are some examples of my favorite television series, which have deep moral quandaries baked into their premise–they happen early in the series, or before it starts, and drive much of the drama through the series:

  • Should a police officer subvert chain of command in order to gain political support for police work he believes will be effective?
  • Should a doctor leave a high-powered job to attempt to rescue a sister he believes is being mistreated, even when his parents believe his fears to be unwarranted?
  • Should a politician run for president without disclosing his multiple sclerosis?
  • Should an intelligence agent provide a violent drug kingpin with wide-ranging immunity from prosecution in order to acquire intelligence?
  • Should a military officer follow orders he’s sworn to obey when he believes his commanding officer to be utterly insane?

Below are some examples of stories I did or did not like, often cutting against the grain of popular opinion:

  • I liked the first Christopher Nolan Batman film, which focuses on Bruce Wayne piecing together a moral system based on ideas from a variety of competing father figures.  By contrast, the beloved second film, which I basically hated, focuses on attempts to contain an implausible, extraordinarily powerful enemy (1c) who largely behaves without purpose (2b), is able to orchestrate multiple criminal operations simultaneously without failure (3) and for whatever reason doesn’t just get killed by a rival (2c).
  • I liked Shane Carruth’s first film, which features two characters devising and implementing strategies to manage an interesting and complex new technology.  But his second film I didn’t like so much; as best I can tell, its main characters don’t make any decisions (1a), while a supporting character appears to be able to control people’s minds for weeks at a time and uses this power to steal petty cash from middle-class schmucks.  Really that’s the best plan, Mr. Thief? (2c)
  • I liked Terrence Malick’s earlier work, especially The Thin Red Line, which is loaded with ethical dilemma, but can’t get excited about his newer films.  Characters appear to make meaningful decisions, but there’s little context for why they do so (2b).
  • I found The Graduate to be focused on first-world non-problems (1b), and lacking explanation for why characters change their minds at various points in time (2b).  The comparison I want to draw is to Garden State: great soundtrack, lots of existential angst, but not much by way of story.
  • I like Breaking Bad, but the show suffers from nagging problems of plausibility.  It’s central characters lack street smarts, political tact, and any means of physically defending themselves, yet manage to survive and rise in the meth trade while making really poor decisions (2a, 3).  A more honest treatment of this topic should have killed its main characters many times over by now.

*: cIting my 2 year old blog posts LIKE A BOSS

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