Character as Narrative (Part III)

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       In the last several posts, I have leveled critiques at two dominant analogies of moral character (especially in the military): Moral Strength (Strength of Character) and the Moral Compass. My concerns with these views are rooted in the ways that they view character as highly individual, effectively fixed, rooted in rationality and notions of perfection/purity (ignoring emotion and sentiment) and not subject to growth and evolution. In this post, I want to sketch out (very roughly) a possible alternative rooted in the thought of pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and feminist writer Margaret Urban Walker (with some of my own influences from Scottish philosopher David Hume): Moral Character as rooted in the idea of Narrative.

                What is the narrative approach? What does this mean? Roughly the idea of narrative is rooted in the telling and sharing of stories (narratives) designed to convey meaning to an audience by connecting through characters, plots, descriptions of events in ways that allow the audience to enter into a world, from the point of view of that world. A good narrative does that, and narratives that are not so good may only tell us a story from an outside perspective, not asking or allowing us inside the world through appeal to and exercise of moral imagination. Narratives may take many forms (short story, play, film, art, memoir, case study etc.) but go beyond simply a recitation of facts or events. In my view, using narrative as a way to think about morality and ethics opens up a richer, more holistic approach that takes seriously lived, embodied experience of moral selves in community.  In what follows, I am sketching out some of the basic elements in what an account of character in terms of narrative might look like. This is only a start. 

                 First, character is a growing, evolving process, and frequently not in linear, rationalistic ways that are individualistic. There are plot twists, character developments, upsets, crises and learning from events, and most importantly from the interaction with and influence of other characters.  Imagine Luke Skywalker without Ben Kenobi or Achilles without the death of Patroclus.              

                Second, from the philosophy of John Dewey (Ethics) there is a strong sense of the social nature of character and ethics more generally.  Our character makes us aware of and able to anticipate, respond to consequences of our actions, some more than others.  Character also provides a certain moral continuity connecting future actions to the past actions (learning from our mistakes, changing future behavior based upon a recognition of harms of past to others and ourselves.)

                Third, related to this idea is the notion from Alasdair MacIntrye that while we do write our own stories, others also write on our stories as we on the stories of others in our communities of practice. Like Dewey, MacIntyre recognizes the social and interconnected nature of our moral lives together; my moral life is mine, but it is not mine in splendid autonomous isolation from others. 

                Fourth, feminist ethicist Margaret Urban Walker points out that our moral actions are shaped by the narrative of our moral identity, in Dewey’s words, character is a‘persistent history of valuation’ is a history  of moral value and priorities; we try to act in ways that are consistent with this narrative. If we think about this, the idea of integration and consistency become important.

             There is a similar idea about precedent (stare decisis) in philosophy of law. Ronald Dworkin invokes the idea of the Chain Novel to make the case that there must be some integrity in the law; decisions of a judge must make sense in light of what has come before in the ‘story’, even if a judge is rejecting prior precedent. She must give an account, weave a narrative to make the departure from precedent make sense.  Just as we can tell the character of the law from the actions and decisions of judges (what they actually do), we can tell the character of the person from their actions, not just what they say they character is.  Does the story make sense? It won’t be like every other story, but we will recognize the logic (or lack thereof.) 

                Fifth, the meaning of the narrative is important, and not just what  it means to you. What does it mean to the audience, who is also a participant in the process? We are constantly judging and reacting to the narratives (moral character) of others in our moral sphere as we calibrate and justify our own actions.  Meaning is a significant part of that process in constructing and maintaining moral worlds and integrity.  

                Sixth, character as narrative must be responsive to context, and yet general enough to have appeal. The Star Wars series is arguably context specific (outer space adventure), but also has elements of mythology, narrative, humor and human experience that we can all relate to, even if we are not in that context. The brother/sister relationship, adventure, parent/child relationship, romance and attraction, warfare, political struggle are all a part of this narrative. From the narrative and observing the actions of the characters, we can say accurately what the moral character of Han Solo is like. Leia: “I knew there was more to you than money!” or what Luke might do as he searches for identity and connection to a series of father figures. 

                Finally, moral failure, challenge and plot twists are not only expected, but required to move things forward. The main character is important, but so are other characters and the journey – the process of growth and evolution – that make for a fully developed character, as opposed to a flat facsimile of a character which does not inspire interest or connection. One of the marks of a compelling narrative is the way in which it invokes empathy and moral imagination to connect us with the world of the narrative, and how that world then becomes a part of that world. Star Wars and the Iliad are now a part of the moral worlds of many people, their characters, plots and insights now part of moral deliberation, assessment and actions of other characters in other narratives.  To be ethical is not simply about our own moral narrative of character, but about being embodied, socially situated moral characters in larger and more complex narratives that bring questions, obligations, concerns, cares and a need for articulation of why. 

Published by shankskaurin

Philosopher and military ethicist. Author of two books, including "On Obedience" (USNI Press, 2020) I also teach war college students for the Navy. (Views here are personal only.) Mother to two energetic young lads. Foodie, gardener and Diva with a shoe obsession.

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