Saturday, August 19, 2006

Moral Relativism and Harry Potter

I am taking up where Scott (from Left of the Dial) left off in one of his posts on Harry Potter. He takes the line that the HP series is a ripping good yarn, but that Harry and Co. so regularly violate basic principles of integrity (lying, cheating, stealing) without any evidence of an afflicted conscience to go with it, that these books describe a moral relativism that we can't respect and that this kind of literature marketed to kids is troubling at least on that level (though he's read the books with his kids).

His very bright wife, Lissa, has her own blog and also writes children's literature. Together, they made a robust case for their perspective which you can read all about and the 39 comments that go with the original post here.

That said, I got to thinking about the idea that most readers of HP are not troubled by these character flaws or the evidence of a morally relativistic world. Why aren't we? (I confess, I am one of those who is not... not troubled, I mean.)

I posted the following [excerpted] comment and have added some thoughts at the end:
Lissa said: As Scott has pointed out, it really makes [Harry] an anti-hero (an established literary identity), and that's very unusual to see in a series aimed at children--and the fact that many otherwise bright people seem not to notice the moral relativism at play in these books suggests that moral relativism (or situational ethics) has become something of a cultural norm. Which is disturbing, don't you think?

What has been intriguing to me is to think about why more of us aren't easily swayed by "the mountain of evidence" that the two of you (Lissa and Scott) are so capable of producing for your perspective. (Reminds me a bit of the failed OJ trial wherein jurors disregarded Marsha Clark's case and found him innocent... but, but, how could they do that?)

You ask if perhaps the cultural climate is moral relativism and I think actually you've pegged it. It isn't that moral relativism has somehow snuck up on us or that it is so clearly wrong or dangerous either (hold on for a minute while I develop this point). It's that we are confronted with it every day in layers upon layers.

Who any more leads an integrous, unblemished life? What we look at are the big swatches of what a person achieves over time more than their daily decisions or habits. Think of the obsession with reality TV where we really do see moral relativity at work all the time and have to decide who to root for. We actually have to make decisions about how much lying or cheating we'll tolerate in our own willingness to back someone.

We do it with politicians (current administration or the last one - take your pick of moral relativists leading our nation), with celebrities (Bono or Mel Gibson?), with our churches (will you align with a church known for avarice and womanizing or one known for pedophilia), or sports stars (Kobe or OJ), or causes (PETA or Operation Rescue)?

We have been bombarded (in recent times) with complex, morally disappointing leaders, stars and what we wanted to believe were vanguards of integrity and have become adept at sorting through the "superficial" errors they make or even the intentional bad-choices-that-we-don't-approve-of-but-will-tolerate while judging the larger picture of what that person or group of people is about and overlooking the things that really don't detract (for us) from that larger picture.

So when we read HP, we already have developed the skills to say what we think is worth being offended by and what is not. We really aren't trying to determine whether Harry is moral, has a conscience or not. We are trying to discover whether on the whole, this boy's life's trajectory is one we admire and root for. We have been training for this moment since the dawn of postmodernism...

We earthlings seem to feel we've been left on our own to outwit, outplay and outlast the bad stuff that wants to come for us.

So what do you think? Is moral relativism a problem? Does media exposure ruin our heroes so that we can no longer imagine them as full of integrity? Do we overlook basic human decency (whatever we deem that to be) in favor of a larger picture accomplishment (whether it is in politics, great acting, NGOs, or athletic skill)? Are we justified in doing that?

Do we believe any more that anyone lives a meaningful, important life without moral failing? Do we expect moral ambiguity and failure? Are we bored by integrity?

Would the Harry Potter books be as entertaining without the lying, cheating and stealing? Are we entertained by the outwitting the system that lying, cheating and stealing imply? (Think of the Reality TV Series Survivor.)

Is it possible, in fact, that we've created a heirarchy of morality in this postmodern context wherein some previously obvious wrongs are now optional, depending on the perception of the participants and the spectators?

These are some of my questions on this quiet Saturday evening...


Dave said...

I don't have any comment on the Harry Potter connection because I've never read any of the books or seen any of the movies and I'm not particularly interested in doing so either at this point, having missed so much of the party already.

But as far as moral relativism is concerned, I think I'm with you - it's just a recognition of the obvious, that we all hedge and concede whatever we believe our "ideals and absolutes" to be, from time to time based on circumstances, perceived self-interest, etc.

Moral relativism has been the whipping dog for conservative ideologues for the past couple of decades now. ISTM that these critiques have been made with such frequency and intensity that they've become axiomatic for a lot of people who are now reluctant or even fearful to acknowledge that moral relativism is not only common, but that it's a normal and healthy condition. Moral absolutism, rigidly applied, is what scares me. Not that I think it's even possible to attain perfect consistency and justice as a moral absolutist. I just think that a lot of drastic and sometimes catastrophic decisions are made when people posit one particular moral principle above all others as non-negotiable and sacrosanct - the rights and considerations of others get trampled in the quest for moral purity. I could list examples but I think the point is fairly obvious.

Really, I would like to just hear less about the supposed value of "moral absolutes" because I think that kind of rhetoric is vacuous and mostly just a posture that ideologues of various stripes like to adopt. It has the effect of thrilling audiences and winning loyal adherents, but as a guide for instruction and the cultivation of wisdom, "moral absolutism" has little to offer and IMO is a bigger menace at this point in history than "moral relativism."

Kansas Bob said...

I have seen a few HP movies but have not read any of the books - my kids' young years preceded HP publishing. I guess the first idea that one must get past is the idea of good witches and good spirits that do not involve God.

Apart from all that it does seem that their are two 'relativism' ditches to fall into. I think that one is the "no truth" ditch. The other is the "no experience" ditch. My life's journey has taken me to a place where I hold truth and experience with open hands. I try to not have too many absolutes around 'truth' and 'experience'. Whether the subject is political like abortion or spiritual like Jesus (maybe they are both political/spiritual) having absolutes:

+ shut down the exchange of ideas

+ breed arrogance and condescending attitudes

+ create a false sense of security

+ set kids up for a fall - most absolutes are fail over time

+ disappoint over time

Sorry for the long comment ... I'll close with a question from my wife,

"Are you saying that our relatives are moral?"

Anonymous said...

Seeing the flaws of the real people around us: the celebrities, the politicians, the pastors and the neighbor next door, can be a really healthy thing. I think you can't start too early letting kids know that all people are going to fail at times, and that it is difficult to be 100% consistant while trying to live your beliefs and ideals.

I personally believe in absolute truth, I just don't think anyone has it absolutely! ;-) I would say we live our lives on two levels: we have goals for living which should be high. Goals to treat other kindly, to help the poor, to seek justice, to live moderate lives, etc. I don't want to sin and lose my temper and treat people badly, even though I occasionally will throughout my life. So the other level we live on is the reality of the failures and the inconsistancies and the compromises that we live in day-to-day. But the reality of our failures shouldn't disuade us from trying to keep high standards. To paraphrase Hippocrates: Do the least harm. I think the problme in our society today isn't flawed people, it's the tendancy to glorify people's flaws.

I don't like reality shows. I don't like the lying and the cheating and backstabbing. I can't support any of them and they frankly embarrass me. While I know I don't live up to even my own standards, I guess I feel like I have the decency to be embarrassed when I fail, not flaunt it as "just who I am" or rationalize that it was the only way to succeed.

As for children, I think some of the problems with HP (which we love and read and reread around here) is this: In the realm of hero or role-model (which fiction and non-fiction books serve quite well) are the characters we love in HP worthy of respect, honor and emulation? Overall, obviously, our family has thought "yes" to this question, but I can see the problems.

I wouldn't call Harry an anti-hero, but I'd definitely call him a flawed hero. What I love about it, though, is that these stories have given us so many places on which to hang our own experiences. We mean well, but we hurt people along the way to achieving our goals. We make mistakes, we sometimes have to chose the lesser of two evils in order to move forward. God doesn't give us a black-and-white world to live in. While I think we should be striving for "white," we need to recognize that sometimes there is no right answer and we muddle through.

The characters in HP are impatient, impetuous, scared, heroic, loyal and self-sacrificing. While they may not always have pangs of guilt over questionable decisions, they smack of real people in real moral dilemmas, even with their handy magic. My children can relate to Harry and see he is worthy of respect, warts and all.

So, while HP received two enthusiastic thumbs up at my house, we also read the books together and talk about the situations. No condemnation, just discussions about whether or not Harry and others have made the best choices, and what might have happened if they hadn't. And by the way, who says there aren't negative consequences of Harry's rash decisions? Sirius is dead because Harry rushed in. That's a pretty heavy consequence, in my book!


julieunplugged said...

Wow, excellent comments.

Dave, I liked this especially:

we all hedge and concede whatever we believe our "ideals and absolutes" to be, from time to time based on circumstances, perceived self-interest, etc.

Bob, your introduction of the absolute of experience is wonderful to discuss. I was thinking about how we can go from the absolute of laws or rules to the absolute of believing that my experience must be obeyed or trusted. Great point!

What I found intriguing back when I was a missionary was that we encountered lying and cheating in the culture where we worked regularly and felt very morally superior to those Muslims who would steal the potted plant off your garden wall without a blink.

Yet we lived a lie. Every day. We lied about who we were, why we were in Morocco, where we worked, how we got our money, what our objectives were. Many of us even pretended to do work without even working (for the sake of a visa, one guy I know got one for writing a novel he never wrote).

This we justified in service of the Gospel in a hostile place that had laws against conversion and missionary activity and the translation of the Arabic Bible and its resale.

In central Africa, all mission agencies but one exchanged money on the black market. MAF chose not to (to honor the law) and went out of business there when the bottom dropped out of the artificially inflated Zaire (name of currency).

Like Carrie, I think we all are not going to be perfect in our attempts to honor moral codes. Otoh, I am beginning to wonder about the way we create and interpret moral codes. Says who?, is the first question... followed closely by, For what purpose?

I think we have in our culture a collective weariness of what appear to be silly rules imposed by a system that sees itself as knowing more than its members. HP reflects some of that spirit I think.

Carrie, I loved this!
And by the way, who says there aren't negative consequences of Harry's rash decisions? Sirius is dead because Harry rushed in. That's a pretty heavy consequence, in my book!

Exactly. :)


Anonymous said...

Otoh, I am beginning to wonder about the way we create and interpret moral codes. Says who?, is the first question... followed closely by, For what purpose?

I know you are a moral person. Someone who cares about justice and making life better for others. So I ask this in all sincerity: Are you saying we shouldn't have moral codes, or codes of behavior?

It seems to me we need goals to shoot for. It's a dilemma, like I said. A fine line where we set our standards of behavior high (for me based on Biblical ideals) and yet understand we aren't going to succeed all the time. We need high ideals with an ability to forgive, it seems, not an abandonment of the ideals.

And what you say about the missions groups makes me sad, even though I understand it in part, too.


julieunplugged said...

Carrie, I do think we need moral codes which is why I would want to ask "Says who?" and "For what purpose?"

Arbitrary rules (or those rules experienced as arbitrary) lead to resentment at minimum and oftentimes rebellion (we sure know this with our kids, for instance). For a moral code to work, the participants have to embrace it or at least accept the authority of those imposing it.

When I think of driving laws, for instance, most of us don't think twice about speed limits. We trust that the limits make sense and we mostly obey them within ten miles per hour.

When I think of the game Survivor, the question becomes is lying a part of this game (therefore lying in this context is not immoral) or is there a higher morality (apart from the game) that ought to govern the game?

Missions were confronted with this very question. In Zaire, the money was falsely controlled to be exchanged at an official rate that was not actually the reality of the value of the money. So which was corrupt? The official exchange rate or the black market?

Difficult question.

So that's all I meant. I didn't mean there were no moral standards to aspire to (I have them for sure), but I think we're always asking (in our now more relativistic world) what is meant by the codes and who has the right to say so.

I'm not evaluating the morals per se, but bringing out how I think society currently operates.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...


Thanks for explaining more what you are saying. These are all good questions and I wish I had equally good answers.

Earlier you wrote:
I think we have in our culture a collective weariness of what appear to be silly rules imposed by a system that sees itself as knowing more than its members. HP reflects some of that spirit I think.

I definitely agree with this. Some of the rules are set by govenment, but many of the ones I think you are talking about are those societal, and often nebulous, standards of behavior. And some of the rules are set by insitutions, like schools, businesses, clubs, churches and such. We have tossed many rules out on their collective ears even since I was a kid. I grew up in a era when girls had to wear dresses to school, for example. :P

But in bucking the arbitrary rules, it is sometimes difficult to draw the line. What makes total sense to one person seems arbitrary to another. The public schools in this area have gone back to stricter dress codes because the girls were showing up looking like street walkers and the guys were wearing pants down below their butts. there is still a lot of flexibility, but at least there are some definite guidelines for decency (imo). Of course, there are parents who disagree and are trying to make the school drop any and all dress codes saying it impinges on the students "privacy" and right to free expression.

So that is an example of the tightrope we walk. I like the dialog and I think it is important to question the "what" and the "who," but I also think you aren't going to please everyone, so you set standards based on what is good for the majority. Like the fact that studies show students learn better and there are less discipline problems in schools with stricter dress codes or uniforms.