Merits in Morally Ambiguous Media
By Tylor Cunningham
Often, interpretive disagreements about artworks are the very things that make those works interesting and worth engaging in further. When two people pull seemingly contradictory themes or messages from a story, that’s an opportunity to come together and compare notes; to see if there’s something deeper that they both missed in their initial engagement. However, when these interpretive disagreements are inherently moral and hinge on commentaries about the souls and characters of the characters and audience, they’re the very things that have made philosophers and commentators wary of fiction since Plato. From the Republic to articles posted within the last year on popular video game websites like Polygon, commentators have been concerned that the ambiguity in the moral lessons of a work run the risk of halting or reversing moral progress for the people of a polis. However, I believe that it’s exactly these ambiguities that enable us to become better moral reasoners in our everyday lives. In fact, it’s one of the most recent ambiguous narrative tales that highlights that fact for me.
Like many people, I started off this year’s Halloween Season with Mike Flanagan’s latest, critically acclaimed horror series on Netflix, Midnight Mass. The story was fascinating to me because throughout the entire series the universally recognized horror presence, a vampire, was never the most fearful thing in the show. It was constantly overshadowed by the show’s more subtle themes. The horror of the show was derived from the human beings who would consistently and convincingly interpret the very obvious vampire as, in fact, an angel sent from God to save, not eat, this small fishing town. The horror was in a human’s ability to do horrible things for seemingly justified ends, religion’s ability to corrupt them into believing that those horrible things were good because of the ends they served, and that very corruption’s ability to seep slowly and innocuously into entire communities. As one does when they’re taken by a story but they’re not quite ready for the story to end, I took to the internet to see what the discussion around Midnight Mass looked like.
To my surprise, one of the very first articles I came across was this Vox article by Aja Romano that drew all of the opposite conclusions that I did. Far from believing that Midnight Mass was revealing the underlying danger of corruption present in Christian comfort, Romano claims that the constant touchstone to Christian comfort, “becomes a homily” and “almost entirely erases atheists, agnostics, and people of other religions by emphasizing its Christian worldview.” Where I saw the long sermons and collective worship events as commentary on religion’s ability to utilize curated communities and comfort to indoctrinate people, often without their knowledge, Romano saw them as “serv[ing] no narrative purpose except to remind us how comforting God’s presence is, and that worship is beautiful.” Romano even claims, “Midnight Mass instead offers up a convenient villain while sidestepping most of the difficult questions about the consequences of religion unchecked by rationality, or the way organized religion can become a system of abuse or a tool of control.”
I think it’s a relatively uncontroversial claim that people, especially children, are affected and changed by the stories that they consume. Depending on who or what is presented as a hero or a moral paragon, an audience is susceptible to adopting the values of that element of a story and emulating them in their own life. So, when two different viewers of a particular story can pull two completely opposite moral lessons from the themes of the narrative, say about the corrupting potential of religion vs. its hopeful comfort, there is a risk that at least some of the audience will come away from the work ready to emulate and live according to a morally wrong lesson. How? This not about whether my interpretation or Romano’s is the morally correct lesson. That’s a whole different blog post. But, our interpretations do seem to be obviously opposite of one another. One wants the audience to come away with a skepticism of religion and an ability to question even the most seemingly good motives for actions and the other wants to emphasize the importance of community and hope that religion can provide in the face of even the direst circumstances. The two views are incompatible, and if one is morally right the other would have to be wrong.
This is the danger that Plato wants to avoid in the Republic. In Book II, his concern is mainly focused on young children and the fact that they cannot reliably or accurately judge what is true and false. Since fictions are very much educational for Plato, the risk lies in presenting false things as true, and especially in presenting bad behavior as good. More than just being potentially poor judges, young children are also particularly malleable so that they will begin to imitate anything that they are presented with. These general concerns aren’t limited to just children, though. There is active discourse on the problem of adult, typically male, audiences identifying with characters like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, and Arthur Fleck from Joker. All of these characters are the protagonists of their stories and so are implicitly coded to the audience as being sympathetic. As a result, the audience who identifies with them begins to take their worldviews as true and starts to imitate their actions and behaviors. When we dig deeper into the themes of these works as a whole, though, it becomes clear that they’re presented more as commentaries about the negative outcomes of toxic masculinity, nihilism, egoism, and crushing social pressures. But, by the time we have those conversations the damage is already done because of the initial ambiguity.
And so it is with Midnight Mass. Regardless of which interpretation is Flanagan’s intention, the audience is already pulling very different lessons from the work. Depending on which lesson is true, as Plato would want to characterize it, there is the risk that the show is presenting to some audiences a falsehood as truth and presenting bad behaviors as honorable. Either the audience coming away with more skepticism and discomfort about religion has been corrupted, or the audience coming away with a hopeful worldview about communities and comforts provided by religion has. The danger for Plato, lies in the ambiguity.
This concern runs through current commentaries on media and video games as well. In a Polygon article Khee Hoon Chan outlines a number of concerns in the same vein. Morally ambiguous stories risk “reinforc[ing] the kinds of false equivalencies that might slow down social change.” When audiences are presented with gray and ambiguous moral dilemmas in works and they have to do the work to untangle the dilemma, the stories promote notions that “’goodness’ is just a hair’s difference away from ‘badness,’ when it’s a perspective steeped in privilege: The oppressor is as multifaceted as the oppressed, and the hero is as capable of evil-doing as the villain.”
But views like Plato’s and Chan’s seem to ignore the fact that stories like this require work from the audience. It’s this work that makes them invaluable as moral educational tools. While it’s true that there are risks involved in reaching the wrong conclusions, what stories like this provide are avenues in which the audience can explore their own moral judgments, moral evaluations, and moral decision making. While it is helpful to be presented with moral paragons as figures worthy of emulation, the imitation of those paragons is never enough, and a considerable amount of work to understand why has to be done on the back end if we’re going to be truly moral ourselves. Julia Annas lays out this schema in Intelligent Virtue. One example she provides is a parent chasing off a dangerous dog (p. 22). If the child was going to merely imitate that action they would chase off any dog whatsoever, and that clearly isn’t the right lesson to be learned. Not all dogs are dangerous. What the child must learn is when it is appropriate to chase off dogs and when it is appropriate to embrace them. All the while they will be learning the difference between bravery and recklessness and ultimately understanding that they will make mistakes in this process. They must put in the work. That work will ultimately put them face to face with situations that are not immediately clear in their appropriate actions. That is, they’ll be confronted with morally ambiguous situations of large dogs typically described as dangerous but who aren’t acting aggressively, and they’ll have to work to analyze the situation to the best of their ability so that they can make a decision. If it turns out their assessment was wrong, then at least they will have a new experience and new information that they can use when assessing future situations. Their growth was aided in part because of the ambiguities of certain situations that required them to work through their own moral processes of assessment and judgment.
Ambiguous media like Midnight Mass provides audiences with the same kind of opportunities to learn and grow. As I said, my first reaction after finishing the show was to go engage with other viewers’ thoughts, and those differing views have encouraged me to rethink my own initial interpretation and write more about it. It encouraged Romano to write their own thoughts and reach out to an audience to think harder about what they just watched. After I finished watching Joker I immediately felt the need to work through the muddled ambiguities of the moral messages that it presented to me because it was not immediately clear whether what it was presenting should be interpreted as good or evil. In working through that I was able to better understand my own discomfort and moral critique of the movie. Stories like the first Captain America where the villains are Nazis, rarely encourage the kind of moral reflection and learning that ambiguous stories do because it is already so apparent where the morality lies. The Nazis are the bad guys and the Nazis will always be the bad guys. They rarely inspire the kind of communal moral deliberation that shows like Midnight Mass do. So, while it’s true that stories like the first Captain America offer us clear moral truths we can easily adopt for our everyday lives, they don’t teach us how to uncover those truths for ourselves.
Our lives more often resemble the ambiguous stories that we consume than they do stories with clear cut heroes and villains. So, while the latter are helpful in communicating true things, the former are just as valuable insofar as they provide us the space to learn how to uncover those moral truths for ourselves. It’s true that there is a danger these ambiguous stories can corrupt their audiences or that people will learn the wrong lessons. However, that can be mitigated by encouraging a sense of wonder and exploration in an audience for any media that they consume, and it’s largely outweighed by the benefit that comes from teaching people how to determine morality for themselves instead of just teaching them what morality is.
Tylor Cunningham is graduate student in philosophy at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is currently working on his dissertation that focuses on art’s role in moral education, especially in art that centers player agency like in video games and role-playing games. You can follow the project at sliceofphi.squarespace.com.
- Annas, Julia. Intelligent Virtue. Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Chan, Khee Hoon. “Games Need to Return to Black-and-White Morality.” Polygon, Polygon, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.polygon.com/2020/8/3/21352437/games-morality-last-of-of-us-bioshock-good-bad.
- Plato. “The Republic.” Plato: Complete Works, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, IN, 1997, pp. 971–1223.
- Romano, Aja. “Why I Felt Betrayed by Netflix’s Midnight Mass.” Vox, Vox, 1 Oct. 2021, https://www.vox.com/21509362/netflix-midnight-mass-mike-flanagan-horror-religion.