Determining Moral Fiber?

Most human beings would like to believe that they are moral or ethical individuals, at least in their own terms, and most would like to prosper or, especially, succeed beyond their wildest dreams while retaining that morality. Most also have a definite idea on what constitutes moral/ethical behavior in life and in literature. The majority of F&SF novels comment on morality and ethics, either directly, indirectly, or by omission, because most books are, in the end, about some aspect of power, and what intelligent organisms do in response to or in pursuit of power reveals who they are in ethical terms.

But who the characters of a book are in moral or ethical terms is also defined by the ethical traits and background of the reader. I’ve seen this more than a few times in regard to characters in my own books, where one reader will declare that a character is morally weak or has no moral fiber whatsoever, and other reader will find the same character highly ethical. This is scarcely surprising, not when we see the same diversity in views among political pundits, politicians, civic leaders, and other public figures – and that’s just in the United States.

Obviously, a significant fraction of Islamic believers feel that any depiction of the prophet Mohammed is immoral, and a significant fraction of Western journalists and cartoonists see nothing immoral in presenting satiric images of the prophet.

At the same time, there are certain ethical issues that are universal. How much should one compromise one’s morals in order to survive? The moral extremists would opt for little or no compromise, but that raises another issue. One cannot be ethical or do good in the future if one is dead. Nor can one raise one’s children to be “good” people if one is dead. So if that moral compromise does not injure others and allows one to survive to do good in the future, is it that immoral? But then… one compromise can lead to another… and another… and may set a terrible example for others. Yet we’ve seen in life that that is not necessarily the case. There have always been those individuals living in despotic societies that were frankly immoral by any meaning of the term who professed allegiance to the regime in order to survive… and then helped others to survive and escape.

The conflict of values with survival and power have always interested me, and that’s why I write about them so often, and with different viewpoints in different situations, in a way, trying to show that matters often are not nearly so simple as they seem. Despite what has often been said, doing what is “right” is never as simple as it seems… and that usually makes a good book… and just as often that’s also why one reader finds a book good and another despises it, not because the book is necessarily badly written, although that’s often the justification given, but because what’s presented conflicts too much with the belief system of that reader.

5 thoughts on “Determining Moral Fiber?”

  1. alecia says:

    You wrote: “How much should one compromise one’s morals in order to survive?” I think that is more likely a problem for those who write books or make movies, or tv shows or some other form of entertainment than it is in ‘normal’ lives. I’ve never run across the problem & I’m no spring chicken. I think most people have to deal with much smaller issues other than survival – like keeping friends, or just getting along in general, thus not being truthful on all issues. I have found that telling the truth is more problematic than telling little lies, but creative types rarely visit this issue – there’s not much drama there.

    1. Telling the truth can be absolutely fatal to one’s employment, which is part of survival, especially in bad economic times or when the market for one’s skills is limited. And yes, I do speak from personal experience, as well as from observation. All too many bosses, supervisors, and even CEOs don’t want to hear the unvarnished facts, even as they protest violently that they do. I saw this more than a few times in my ten years in the consulting field. As a Congressional staffer, I also saw how too many voters didn’t like the facts, either, which is why, in the interests of political survival, more than a few politicians opt for saying what their constituents want to hear.

      1. JakeB says:

        My experience with most people who pride themselves on their honesty is that they are 1) happy to discuss others’ shortcomings or failures very directly and 2) extremely resentful if they are addressed in the same manner. In fact, I have the suspicion that someone who bruits his honesty about is using it as a sop to his ego: it is an excuse for acting like a jerk while, at the same time, since most people also value civility and manners, he is usually not addressed in the same brutal terms and can therefore continue to feel good about himself, or even superior to all those losers whose failures he has to point out (since noone else has the guts to say it like it is!).

        1. Grey says:

          This is well-put, JakeB. “Be honest with me” rarely means it.

  2. Ryan Jackson says:

    As a side topic to go with this. How many of us ever question or consider changing our morals unless something forces us to consider it?

    I had a thought in regards to your point about your characters having different morals based on their own views. One of your major protagonists in the SpellSong books pretty much lives by Darksong for a good long while until the physical side effects start to hammer them down. They do this because in their view the morally questionable acts they do with DarkSong are preferable to just annihilating lives. Would this character have ever stopped with that outlook if the rules of magic didn’t have severe and potentially lethal consequences?

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