24 October 2008

Feeling the way to moral philosophy 101

Better late than never ... since the 12th of October, I've been turning over in my mind various spin off from JSBlog's interesting and thought provoking Law and the Potter mythos and the intriguing source papers (especially Schwabach) which prompted it. I agree with Ray on almost everything he says; there is only one point on which I differ, and then it's an only partial difference in expectation of moral affect. Will Rowling's depiction of a society under a largely arbitrary emergency powers régime cause young readers to confront and think through legal issues, or will they just accept "the usual action story convention that a hero's violent actions against villains are rarely questioned"?

I certainly agree that that action story convention is harmful, and I also fear that it reinforces the strongman myth model of justice. However, I also suspect that the only way to tempt young minds away from this convention is to present them with situations where they are asked to consider it.

Children are naturally inclined to a warlord view of the world: "it's all ranks, being a boy, like the army" as David Mitchell's thirteen year old protagonist comments in Black Swan Green. At home, parents dictate rules; outside it, a popularity fuelled gang hierarchy does the same. Socialisation is a gradual weaning from this to a more polity based view – by communal pressure, by replacement of parent with police, or by thought through moral frameworks. Fiction which explicitly tells the young reader what to think will either lead to the second (replacement) or trigger rejection of the whole message. Inviting the reader to empathise with the protagonist's own moral dilemmas may not work at all; but it is the only hope of triggering them in that reader. If the reader admires Harry and identifies with him, then either the identification breaks or Harry's dilemma becomes the reader's. This, I think, is why Harry is presented as realistically indecisive; it is left to Ron to be the action advocate, Hermione the thinker (no accident that Ron and Hermione are mutually attracted and eventually marry).

In my Harry Potter and the war on terror post, just over a year back, I suggested that Harry's own arbitrary use of an unforgivable curse for trivial reasons (late in The deathly hallows) is, while very emphatically wrong, also realistic. Under stress, people become irrational and act on impulse. In danger, people react violently. In war, the fabric of socialisation is disrupted and people fall back on more visceral drives. I, at least, have to confess to having done things in the heat of the moment which I cannot defend – starting with the day when I deflected the attentions of a primary school bully onto my smaller friend. Harry (and, in theory, his readership) is, by the time of that action, eighteen – of military age, of voting age, of an age when he is required to take ownership of his society's strengths and failings. To pretend that such things don't happen would be to abdicate reality; to admit and confront them is more honest.

There are, I'm glad to say, a fair few authors around who try to pull off this valuable balancing act. Two examples which I've mentioned before are Philip Reeve's Mortal engines (et seq) and Jeanne DuPrau's The city of Ember (also et seq). Reeve's hero, Tom Natsworthy, is forced to kill those who would kill him, but never loses his revulsion or grief at that necessity – nor his agonised moral hesitation over it before the act. DuPrau's Doon and Lena try very hard to do everything within the laws of their community, only stepping outside those laws when they are left with no other moral choice – and in the sequel, The people of sparks, they are saddened by the accidental drowning of immoral and corrupt officials who sought to suppress them.

Film has much greater pressures on its bandwidth than text, and these moral subtleties are often amongst the first to be squeezed. In the film interpretation of The city of Ember, for instance, Lena and Doon spend little time on trying to work through their society's mechanisms before taking the law into their own hands, and the corrupt mayor meets prompt summary justice in the jaws of a giant mutant mole.

In none of these books are the moral issues explicitly sign posted; but they are, in my opinion, all the more powerful for that. Returning to Harry Potter, the almost nonexistent judicial and legal systems jostle with racism, compassion and redemption, the balance of security and liberty, and others too numerous to list. Ember and Engines each have their own, different but equally rich, spectra of moral issues. I'm glad of them, and glad that children are so captured by them. Both moral conscience and moral thinking are muscles, best developed by exercising them rather than instilling them. They are education at its best.

  • David Mitchell, Black Swan Green. 2006, London: Sceptre. 0340822791 (cased) and [978]340839260 (pbk)
  • J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the deathly hallows. 2007, London: Bloomsbury. [978]0747591061 (hbk.)
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