Friday, February 26, 2021

Some Thoughs on Different Morality

So, this entire post is based on me miss-reading a YouTube comment. I thought the commenter said (I'm paraphrasing) that it would be interesting if people were to write fantasy stories in a setting where morality was different. He or she then followed with an example that was not a different moral reality- it was a different perception of morality. 

When I went back and re-read the comment, I discovered that the person had never been talking about inventing worlds where morality was different- they simply thought it would be interesting if people spent more time detailing what moral beliefs people (or creatures) followed in an invented world. 

Of course, by then I had several pages, written long-hand (at 3:00 AM) detailing the difference between alternate morality and an altered perception of reality.

There are very few stories in a setting which involves an actual different morality. The one that comes to mind is Perelandra by C. S. Lewis. The concept behind the story is `what if someone from our world went to a planet where sin was never introduced, and they had a chance to warn the Eve figure against disobeying God?' 

 The people on Perelandra are naked, and there's nothing wrong with that. Not `there's no man-made stigma against it' but literally nothing wrong with it. The main character, Ransom, can talk all day to a naked woman and not have even a twinge of lust or embarrassment -not even think of her as naked- because everyone on Perelandra is operating under a different moral system than that of earth.

What is immoral on Perelandra is spending the night on solid ground. All the land is floating, the landscape constantly changing with the swells and dips of the ocean waves forming mountains and valleys -all except one tiny rock island, which the people were warned by God not to inhabit. Doing so (Ransom eventually realizes) doesn't just show disobedience, but also a lack of faith -a desire to take control away from God by seeking an earthly permanence. 

Now, C. S. Lewis was a Christian apologist (that's not someone who apologies for being a Christian; a Christian apologist is basically a philosopher who starts out with the underlying assumption that Christianity is true and that all his philosophies must build off that foundation.) so he was deeply interested in the underlying philosophy behind what is and isn't immoral. Maybe that's why he was able to write a convincing story about a place where nakedness is find, but if you linger on a rock island as sunset approaches, you will feel rightfully guilty for pushing the line. Perelandra is a thought experiment. 

It's really hard to write stories with an actual different morality because certain moral laws are hard-wired into human beings, I believe, by God. This makes actual different moral systems hard to relate to. I'm not sure you can do it without changing physical laws as well.

Coming up with different moral beliefs for different societies, on the other hand, is much easier and makes your world more realistic. It happens in the real world all the time.

For example, according to Jim Bishop's book, The Day Christ Died, `In Rome, the people thought that they were being lenient in permitting condemned men or surly slaves to fight for their lives. Their feeling was: "They are to die anyway. We give them a chance."' 

The difference between moral beliefs and actual moral law (the cause/effect of our actions) is the difference between icing and cake. The icing may change how a cake looks, but it doesn't change the cake. Chocolate is still chocolate, yellow cake is still yellow, even if the `icing' is actually whipped cream and strawberries. 

Moral beliefs shift all the time, depending on the views of society, and particularly who holds power, but the underlying moral laws do not shift. An example is the chattel slavery in the American south. Treating people as animals was not moral during the time that slavery was legal, and didn't become immoral the second the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

As a pro-lifer, I would argue that the same principle holds in regard to abortion. I believe a baby is already a baby within the womb, and that calling him or her a fetus pre-birth is akin to slave owners calling black people sub-human. 

In both cases, because people are hard-wired to want to be moral -to object to killing babies, or treating people as animals- society has to de-humanize the victims in order to make such actions socially acceptable. 

It bothers me that people equate moral laws, given by God, with human laws which shift every time a government changes administration. I am especially concerned for the word-smiths of our nation, that we not confuse different morality with a different perception of morality. It is, to quote Mark Twain, `the difference between lightening and a lightening bug'.



Tuesday, February 4, 2020

More Thoughts on the Little Mermaid

When I wrote my previous post on Disney's `The Little Mermaid' I only talked about how rebellion shouldn't be treated as a role model. I think I did the movie an injustice.

`The Little Mermaid' is one of my favorite Disney movies ever, and that's because, to me, there are some pretty allegorical moments. 

The temptation scene is masterful, the way the eels watch Ariel and wait until she's most vulnerable to come at her; the fact that she doesn't give in right away. They have to work to convince her, pressuring her to make a decision while she's still hurt and angry. Then the way she throws her hurt back on Sebastian, using his mistake as an excuse not to listen to him, how that attitude shows that she's going to the Sea Witch as much from anger at her father and friends as from her fascination with Prince Eric... her conflicting emotions are just beautiful. Then there's that moment in the doorway where you can see on her face that she's realized this is a really bad idea and nearly turns back -only to keep going when Ursula calls out to her.

To me, that whole scene is a warning- a reminder not to let people pressure you into doing wrong and stupid things, and also not to tell yourself that you've already come too far to turn back. Maybe just as importantly, not to go into self-destruction mode as a `take that' to those who care about you. 

 The really allegorical bit is the end, where her father, King Triton is willing to take her place, her punishment. Yeah, the movie isn't a perfect allegory (the end falls apart in that regard) but where King Triton signs his name over Ariel's on the contract it always makes me think about God, and how Jesus took our punishment when he didn't have to- when he didn't deserve it. 

Because, despite all our rebellion, all our `take thats' he still loved us that much.


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Merry Christmas

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. 

                                                                                          John 3:16-18

Monday, December 18, 2017

It's A Wonderful Life

I went out to see `It's a Wonderful Life' for the first time in years. The movie was showing in a vintage theater, and my brother and I got to sit in the balcony. It was a lovely experience.

After all this time, I finally appreciate the move. As a kid -one with big dreams of my own- I hated how George never got to travel. Of course, at that age I probably would've been upset by the opening montage in `Up,' too. They're very similar in their way of showing how life and responsibilities can completely derail all your plans.

But the movie isn't about `hey, you've given up on all your hopes and dreams, but at least everyone else is better off.' It's about how caring for people can hurt- but it's still better than just caring about yourself. 

Old Man Potter, George's opposite and foil, shows that in his jealousy of George. His stealing the money is prompted by seeing George and Uncle Charlie's joy at the national recognition of George's younger brother, Harry. Old Man Potter is alone and hated, because he only ever looks out for Number One. Old Man Potter can't be proud of his brother, or son, or friends -not only because he has none, but also because to be proud of someone, you have to love them. Old Man Potter might not understand how George got there, but he recognizes George's success-by-proxy, even if George himself can't see it.

 George doesn't get what he wants in the way he recognizes, but he does get his dreams on a small scale. He never builds skyscrapers and bridges, but he builds `Baily Park'. 

After George and Mary loose all the money for their honeymoon, Mary and a couple of George's friends try to turn the old, broken-down house into an exotic getaway. They completely fail. The place is still a wreck. The sealing drips in a most un-exotic way. George comes in dripping wet, disappointed, and finds that his new wife thinks he's a hero and his friends are desperate to give him the closest thing they can to what he wants most.

These aren't obvious successes or fulfilled dreams to George -but only because he thinks he knows what success looks like. From the outside -from Old Man Potter's viewpoint- George succeeds at everything he puts his hand to. That's why he's a threat and a rival at all.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And lo, the angle of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

Luke 2:8-11

Monday, July 18, 2016

Mirroring Characters in The Black Cauldron

Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles make good use of theme, and one of the ways Alexander expresses his theme is with mirroring characters.  In The Black Cauldron (my favorite in the series) Taran has two mirror characters: Adaon and Ellidyr.  (Fair warning; if you haven't read the book and don't want any spoilers, you may not want to read this post.)

Adaon, son of the chief bard of Prydain, is everything Taran wants to be; kind, wise, brave and honorable, all without seeming to struggle for it.  Actually, he is a lot like what Taran eventually becomes by the end of The High King

Taran soon realized there was little Adaon had not seen and done.  He had sailed far beyond the Isle of Mona, even to the northern sea; he had worked at the potter's wheel, cast nets with the fisherfolk, woven cloth at the looms of the cottagers; and, like Taran, labored over the glowing forge.

Pottery and weaving are two of the skills Taran learns in Taran Wanderer, and he sails to Mona in The Castle of Llyr.   At this point in The Black Cauldron, Taran lacks Adaon's experience.  Most of all, Taran lacks Adaon's understanding that true honor does not depend on having your deeds recognized.  

Ellydyr, on the other hand, is an echo of where Taran is at the start of The Black Cauldron.  Ellidyr is near Taran's age, and even more proud and impulsive.  He, like Taran, is desperately seeking recognition -and confusing public recognition with honor.  Ellidyr, the youngest son of an impoverished noble, is obsessed with rank (as is Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, so named because at least that way he'll have a title even if it's only one Coll invented for him.)  Unlike Taran, Ellidyr is so consumed by his desire for `honor' that he is willing to act unscrupulously to get the public notice he thinks he deserves.  He is a warning of what Taran could become if he continues to think of honor as dependent on how others view him, rather than dependent on his own actions.

With the characters of Adaon and Ellidyr, Lloyd Alexander is able to clearly illustrate the choice Taran is making about the man he wants to become.  He shows us where each of those paths lead.  I don't think its a coincidence that both Adaon and Ellidyr die over the course of the story, or that Ellidyr sees what he has become before the end.  Alexander shows where the roads go completely, including their end.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Not Always The Center of Attention

There is this idea going around that one's viewpoint character has to be the most important person in the story.  

While the main character should be important (otherwise why are they the main character?)  The idea that they must be the most important person can, I think, keep a writer from seeing all the story possibilities.

Take Tolkien, for example.  He makes a point that his characters are just a small part in a larger history, but instead of detracting, the shift in focus makes his stories surprising and unpredictable.

When I first read `The Hobbit' I was shocked when a random side character slays the dragon.  "That's not how stories are supposed to go," I grumbled.  "If he's not going to do the heroic stuff, why is Bilbo the main character, huh, Tolkien?  Answer me that!"  Tolkien spent the next few chapters after his false climax showing exactly why Bilbo Baggens is a hero.  He gave us an internal struggle that was far more unforgettable than another monster biting the dust.  

One of the things that makes Tolkien so great is that his characters don't have to be the center of attention.  They carry an endearing sense of humility that I think a number of modern novels lack.  The characters struggle and often even fail.  Just like us. 

Main characters who do the hero stuff are not a bad thing, but sometimes the best moments aren't the obvious ones.  Sometimes to find those less obvious moments, the hero has to stand in the shade instead of the limelight.