Going to a feature film or watching a television drama is a moral activity. So says Carl Plantinga in a talk he gave to this year’s meeting of the Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Image, and in a book he is writing with the tentative title: Spectator Judge: Affect and Ethics in Narrative Film and Television. The Society meets annually, and this summer the meeting was at Franklin and Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was ably and agreeably hosted by Dirk Eitzen.
Plantinga argues that film and television narratives are ethically significant because they play a role in the construction of our systems of morality at both personal and cultural levels. First, his argument goes, narrative films cue us to judge, believe, and feel emotions in various ways. Second, they offer us representations that are particularly vivid, as to why we should make judgements, exercise beliefs, and experience emotions. Third, one of the ways in which films have this effect is by offering us various pleasures and enjoyments. Fourth, they invite us to transfer judgements, beliefs, and emotions from the realm of fiction to the real world.
Fiction films and television dramas, in other words, are persuasive devices. One might say that although analysis of film has largely been thought of as a branch of poetics, according to Plantinga’s argument it should better be seen as a branch of rhetoric. The spectator is typically invited by a film into the position of making judgements about characters and their actions, and this immediately makes film a moral activity. Film therefore offers a sentimental education, teaching people about emotional scripts and structures of feeling. It invites us into a state of transportation and engagement, and we are pleasurably rewarded by the moral and evaluative emotions we experience, carefully specified for us by writers and directors. For instance, we feel empathy and sympathy for a protagonist, and this will lead to relief and satisfaction in the promise of justice. In response to cruel or contemptuous behaviour of a character, we feel anger and disgust, and we are pleased to see wrong-doers punished. We recognize sacrificial acts, which induce states of admiration.
I think that Plantinga is right about film and television dramas being about moral and ethical matters. This is seen, for instance, by the reflection of values of the societies in which they are made. In the West, for instance, we place great value in individual experience and in each individual life. It seems to me, however, that, in film and television dramas that are art rather than just entertainment, room is left for us as spectators to make not just judgements that we are persuaded to make by writers and directors, but our own judgements. Here, perhaps, film and television dramas attain their most important moral significance.
Image of the Spectator Judge (from Carl Plantinga’s slide show).