Moral Absolutism in Fantasy

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said [Father] Oats.
“And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax.
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.”
“Nope.”
“Pardon?”
“There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.”
“It’s a lot more complicated than that—”
“No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.”

— Carpe Jugulum, Terry Pratchett

One of the accusations often levelled at the fantasy genre is that it deals in moral absolutes. I’d go further than that. I’d say fantasy is one of the few places left in contemporary fiction where we can talk explicitly about morality at all. Which is probably one of the major reasons it’s often considered childish and unsophisticated.

Moral Ambiguity

You only have to look at the prevalence of ‘morally ambiguous’ characters in the most critically acclaimed TV shows to see what I’m talking about – Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men. I put that in ‘dubious quotes’ because often it’s just a character doing kind things and brutal things at arbitrary intervals. Moral ambiguity can be an easy cover for poor characterisation.

And for the most part, ‘morally ambiguous’ characters aren’t ambiguous at all. Walter White, the character most frequently tagged with the phrase, has murdered 21 people so far. The term seems to be critic-speak for ‘a bad guy that I don’t want to feel guilty about liking’. And for the most part these shows aren’t dealing with the moral complexities, they’re just showing a bunch of cool stuff, and the audience’s idea of ‘cool’ does not include ethical considerations. They’re not morally ambiguous, they’re amoral.

One of the few fantasy series to get mainstream (non-geek) success is Game of Thrones, which pretty much proves my point, although I’d say in that case they’re just throwing a bunch of sex and decapitations into the script in the desperate hope it’ll make them look grown up.

A counter-example

An example of a morally absolutist show is Doctor Who. The protagonists are very clearly designated ‘good guys’ and they spend a reasonable amount of time trying to figure out what the ethical thing is and how to do it. It’s speculative fiction, pretty far from mainstream popularity, often considered pretty naff, and in the UK is widely thought of as a children’s show.

In Defence of Moral Absolutism

People have shied away from moral absolutism partially because of its links to religion and Thou-Shalt-Nots. But believing that certain acts are always wrong doesn’t absolve you from having to make moral judgements for yourself. Quite the opposite: if killing is wrong, then moral absolutism says it’s wrong when God does it too.

This will probably seem simplistic. Isn’t killing sometimes justifiable? What about in self-defence? Yes, but necessary isn’t the same as right.

A good example is the justice system. [I believe] it’s always wrong to imprison another person against their will. [I believe] it’s also always wrong to do nothing to prevent murder and other crimes. So, we put people in prison. And that’s necessary, and the lesser wrong. But the second we start to believe it’s actually morally right to lock some people up, that’s when we become tyrants. A moral code that applies to some people and not to others is no moral code at all.

Accepting clear-eyed the fact that we often have to do something unethical to avoid a greater harm seems to me more mature than pretending that it’s all muddy and there’s no real right and wrong.

Morality vs Moralising

Granny Weatherwax, illustrated by Paul Kidby

The other major reason for associating moral fiction with childishness is that, especially in the Victorian era, stories for children were actively trying to entrench moral behaviour into children. Anyone would react against that! But preaching is optional. You can take a moral stance and write from a moral position without trying to force it on anyone else.

The fact is, just about everybody does have a moral standpoint.  They avoid certain behaviours and choose others based on what they think is right.  Like Granny Weatherwax, I think most people believe in a lot fewer shades of grey than they claim to. When critics uniformly call characters like Walter White ‘morally ambiguous’, they’re being dishonest with themselves and their readers. The decision of so many fantasy writers to expose their beliefs and values in front of their readers is one of honesty and bravery.

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2 thoughts on “Moral Absolutism in Fantasy

  1. This seems to set out to defend moral absolutism but is in fact dealing in moral relativism backed by convictions. “The fact is, just about everybody does have a moral standpoint. They avoid certain behaviours and choose others based on what THEY THINK IS RIGHT.” (sorry for caps, no italics option 🙂

    Or is it merely moral absolutism within one’s own belief system that the article is defending?

  2. yeah, Moral UNIVERSALISM is the one that says there is one set of right and wrong that applies to everyone. Moral absolutism says that things are either black or white, no shades of grey. It’s often considered simplistic.

    That said, I am also a moral universalist, and I sort of was defending that as well (“A moral code that applies to some people and not to others is no moral code at all.”). Much like relativism in science, I think there is one correct answer, but that I might not have it. I respect people’s attempts to work towards the truth, or to work towards figuring out what is ethical behaviour and trying to act on it. I am not so sure I have it 100% right that I’m going to judge the less obvious bits of other people’s moral codes, so long as they do appear to be trying to act morally. I am 100% certain I have some key elements right – like about not raping – so I will 100% judge people who do those thing even if it doesn’t fall outside their personal moral code (like maybe it’s their wife and they’re in the 50s).

    I don’t know if that clears it up or not.

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