Movies and Moral Understanding | Carl Plantinga
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Grant Title:
Screen Stories and Moral Understanding
Legal Organization:
Calvin University
Project Dates:
Start Date: 01 July 2020
End Date: 30 December 2021
Grant Amount:
$234,000

What if movies and TV could help us become better people? What if, instead of having a negative influence on viewers, screen stories could help us build a more complex moral understanding of the world? There has long been a concern that movies, television and web video could have a corrupting influence on viewers. With “Screen Stories and Moral Understanding,” Carl Plantinga and a group of interdisciplinary scholars are exploring how the opposite is true. 

In order to understand how screen stories can influence moral understanding, a number of questions need to be addressed: Are some movies and television shows better at this than others? If so, what makes them so? Under what conditions do screen stories most effectively engender deeper moral understanding, and how can psychology and social sciences be used to collect empirical data on this? What kind of receptivity on the part of the viewer is needed, and how do institutions—critics, content providers, advertising, fan groups—influence this?

“A very important function of the narrative arts, it strikes me, is to help people to ruminate … about how we ought to live in the world.”

Moral understanding is distinct from moral knowledge. Moral knowledge, for example, may consist in the ability to list the virtues, while moral understanding is about how complex situations and decisions overlap under different circumstances. Screen stories are particularly good at demonstrating this complexity because they allow the viewer to think through complicated moral decisions and contemplate their consequences.  

This research is divided into three categories.

1. Transfer and Cultivation
Plantinga’s research seeks to uncover how moral understanding comes from stories; how abstract concepts are communicated through narrative arts. This transfer can happen with any kind of story, but it’s particularly effective with fiction, because fictional stories are made up of types of characters and situations that can be generalized and applied to real life situations. This moral understanding is then cultivated, which gives the viewer the ethical skills needed to see complicated situations from the perspective of others.

2. Affective Experience
Screen stories have an emotional effect that strongly affects the viewer’s thinking and response. Sound effects, music, the pacing of edits, images of the human face, and many more techniques lead to an affective response in the viewer. Affect is a way of processing the viewing experience physiologically, below the levels of emotion and cognition. Emotional and affective experiences can be pleasurable, but they are also powerful ways of transferring the complexities of moral understanding to the viewer. This multisensory approach is the unique power of screen stories to reach us intellectually, emotionally, and even physically. Mapping out precisely how they accomplish this requires a broad and empirical approach, including psychology and the social sciences along with film studies and philosophy.

3. Reflective Afterlife
The period following the viewing of a movie or TV show plays an important role in the way moral understanding is gleaned from screen stories. Complex narratives take time to unpack, and this process often takes place with others. Reflecting on the characters and events in a story is a way of developing moral understanding in community. The implications of a powerful film can be integrated into culture and into individual lives through informal discussions, or through various cultural and institutional practices that encourage post-film reflection. These range from the institutions of professional criticism, social media, and fan culture, to the publishing and teaching practices of academia.

From Understanding to Action

Once we gain a deeper understanding of how screen stories impart moral understanding, we can tell better stories, create better conditions for that transfer, and take the step from understanding to action. Movies and TV shows are being produced about everything from fantastical superheroes to gritty, realistic situations. In each case, they offer us the opportunity to think through difficult situations with complex moral implications. This process develops a more complete and nuanced understanding of the moral dimension of everyday life. We can empathize, understand injustices, and see the world from new perspectives. Screen stories can teach moral understanding, and moral understanding can lead to moral, social, and political action.