Morality and Story-Telling
I’ve been reading parts of Linda Zagzebski’s Divine Motivation Theory and her discussion of exemplarism got me thinking on a slight tangent — the notion of narrative and its relationship to ethics (the tangent is also connected to a continuing discussion with Bill Haines in other threads on this subject). Yeah, I know — narrative ethics is an old idea — I’m late to this party, and most of the guests have already gone home. But I like the idea. Still, the notion of “narrative ethics” is itself a complex affair, and to be honest much of it I don’t have my head around at this point. One issue that has caused me to think a bit is the relationship between narratives and moral education. Is there a relationship? Is it a necessary one? If it is a necessary relationship, why is that? (Of course, as you might suspect, Confucius pops up in here).
When we are trying to teach children how to be “good people” we usually tend – as far as my experience leads me to believe – to use at least two methods. The first method is strictly propositional, the second narrative in character. The propositional approach is the simplest: you tell the child that X is a wrong action because Y (some proposition) highlights that it is. “Don’t take that kid’s toy,” you might tell your child, because “stealing is wrong.” Of course, when kids are particularly small, this is perhaps the best you can do – you repeat a number of key propositions and try to get the child to remember and abide by them.
At some point, though, this method stops working (or seems out of place). Or at least this method seems at some point to truly motivate the child anymore. “What’s in it for me?” the child seems to ask at some point. “Stealing is wrong – so what?” Of course, to answer the “why be moral?” question you can at that point attach violations of those propositions to punishments (providing a motivating reason) or you can turn to narratives.
When we turn in the narrative direction, we connect propositions to individuals, saying “so and so doesn’t steal.” Typically, “so and so” is some form of exemplar that the child is motivated to emulate – so and so is rarely a stranger the child has just met. In fact, Zagzebski seems to imply, though I may be misreading her, that when we teach a person what “good” is, we can do it merely by a type of Putnam-like ostension, by claiming that this exemplar is a good person over there (or, in my instance, the reason for not stealing is over there). But the pointing here to me has to be a reference to something holistic, something narrative in character. Pointing to a non-stealer (or purported exemplar) isn’t enough; instead, the child must already have a sense of who that person is, or what their life is all about.
When we try to situated a proposition into a person’s life, it seems, we are attempting to give the proposition a different situated location – it now finds meaning within a larger “story.” “Not stealing” fits in – it “makes sense” in the whole of the exemplar’s life story (even if the child, or the parent, is unable to articulate why this is so — why this behavior “hangs together” with the rest of that person’s life). It just seems clear: such a person would fail to be who they are if they stole. The person — as a story — would lose cohesion and unity. The “life story” of that person would begin to become discrete disconnected moments as opposed to a unified narrative that provides a history and a future direction, a combination that gives meaning to the actions of the present engaged in by the exemplar (I’m tempted here by existentialist notions of authenticity; many of the existentialists seem to imply that true personhood requires a way of embodying a set of propositions by connecting them, in action in the present, to both the past and to the future).
On this portrait, morality seems to take on a different meaning than it has under the purely “propositional” approach. Morality becomes more about wanting to participate in a certain notion of what human life is (carrying on in a certain tradition embodied by such exemplars; linking up one’s own history and future direction in a way that bears resemblance to those others), or should be, as opposed to simply following disembodied propositions separated from such larger stories (for Kierkegaard, perhaps, the difference between the way in which a person stands towards objective and subjective truths, the first disembodied “spectating” and the second a kind of embodied participation). On this view, morality is about connection or participation in a truth, it’s about giving one’s actions (and life) a sense of significance (in part through that content) against a larger background (a storyboard populated by characters one takes as salient).
Some connection to Confucius can easily be made here, of course. When reading the Analects, one might loosely think of rituals (li) as “the propositions of morality.” One should do X when in the presence of one’s parents, for instance. Interestingly, however, Confucius seems to take a dim view of simply following rituals (li) simply because they are the rituals of the community (because the parent says so), and he takes an even dimmer view of merely following rituals because one fears the punishments that may come as a consequence of breaking them (the basis of a kind of legalism). Instead, Confucius seems to want the “learning of ritual” to be conjoined to a type of connection to the relationships that those rituals govern. So one must care for one’s parents (li) from a sense of actual love and devotion, a care that stems from one’s sense of extension of the self into the relationship of parent/child. One’s performance of the li, on this account, is a performance of selfhood, in this case one’s sense of being a son or a daughter. Such a connection or performance, however, seems to intrinsically require a background connection to a shared past and future, to a shared way of making present actions significant through this relational language of parent/child (and thus, for the child, through performances of filial piety).
I wonder whether this itself – this sense of connection or extension into the relationships that form the core of one’s life – requires the use of local exemplars (junzi or phronimos) who themselves embody the notion of an admirable human life in the way in which they have conducted their own lives over a period of time long enough for the junzi or phronimos to be understood not merely as the example of this or that behavior, but rather as this or that human story. So one might look at one person and think “what a father!” and another and think “what a ruler!” or “what a _fill in the blank_ relational identity!”
Much of this is ramble at this point – I tend to use my blog to jot down unfinished ideas. But one thing seems clear to me, in thinking back now – if this is right, being moral requires narrative. Moral education at some point must advert to it. This would be in opposition to those views that might view the use of moral narratives (in moral education, specifically) as a kind of heuristic device that makes “remembering what to do” easier (might get complicated to have to remember all those propositions, after all!).
This view is not worked through, and as usual I am left with more questions than anything else. If this view has any legs, it does seem to imply that connection with human stories as a way of giving significance to one’s own life (and one’s actions) is part of the substance of morality itself. Many times when I read Confucius I get this feeling that this is part of what he too is arguing.