Can novels and films make us better people?

Explorations in Ethics: A collaboration with the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Duke Magazine
August 1, 2011
 

The study of literature and film offers us an opportunity to learn what it means to be free and responsible individuals and to ask fundamental questions: What is the relationship between freedom and justice? What moral responsibilities does a free individual have toward society? What is the difference between liberty and license?

Literature and cinema treat these abstract questions in a concrete and particular manner. Should Hamlet revenge his father’s death and kill Claudius? Is Victor Frankenstein responsible for what his creature does?

By representing the specific moral quandaries these characters face, literature and film make vivid the messiness, complexity, contingency, and unavoidable difficulties of an ethical life.

Some of our best novels, plays, and films are populated by characters on the margins—criminals, outlaws, revolutionaries, anarchists, savages, vagabonds, and spies —who represent the threat and promise of an ethical life ordered differently than the one with which we are most familiar and comfortable.

These shadowy characters tempt us with what Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent calls an “evil freedom.” Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, Vito Corleone in The Godfather, Fox Mulder in The XFiles, Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and John Wayne in The Searchers live beyond the law. They act in a twilight realm where the power of the state is challenged or nonexistent and where they must define an ethos for themselves. Their “evil freedom” (evil, that is, in the eyes of the state and conventional society) permits us to ask whether our ethical norms are truly good or whether we believe them to be good only because the state or society has told us so.

Literature and film can be dangerous, but only by encountering such dangers do we confront the deepest ethical significance of our lives.

—Michael Valdez Moses

Moses is an associate professor of English.