Media and morality

Zero Dark ThirtyThe new movie Zero Dark Thirty, which tells the story of the tracking and eventual killing of Osama Bin Laden, has received several Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), but it’s attracting another kind of attention as well: several writers, including Jane Meyer at The New Yorker and Peter Maass at The Atlantic, have accused it of condoning or even glorifying the use of torture by US intelligence agencies. Other writers, as well as the director and screenwriter of the film, have disputed this assertion – Wired’s Spencer Ackerman, for instance, suggests that the filmmakers actually had a duty to include the torture scenes – but the debate is perhaps most interesting because of the question it raises: does what we watch, read and play influence our views of right and wrong? How do media affect our morality?

The connection between media and morality is almost taken for granted: Plato, for example, banished all storytellers from his imagined Republic except those whose tales were “in accordance with the patterns we laid down when we first undertook the education of our soldiers” because listeners or viewers would, he thought, admire and imitate characters’ bad behaviour. Later thinkers have, for the most part, agreed with Plato, as the moral panics that have greeted new media over the centuries, from novels to comic books to video games, can attest; as well as ongoing concern about the possible negative moral effects of media, there’s also a long tradition of works created specifically to teach the morals we consider to be desirable. But while there’s been a lot of research done on how media exposure affects specific behaviours, relatively little has focused on how it influences our judgment of right and wrong.

Morality itself has only been a serious subject of research for about fifty years, since Lawrence Kohlberg first studied how children develop moral reasoning. Kohlberg’s work (which has been replicated in many different contexts around the world) identifies six stages of moral development, starting with the desire to avoid punishment (Stage I) and the desire to obtain rewards (Stage II), which are then followed by a wish to fit in and conform in order please others (Stage III) and a duty to follow rules, laws and social codes (Stage IV). Last comes the sense of participating in a social contract (Stage V) and, finally, a morality that looks to universal ethical principles of justice and the equality and dignity of all people (Stage VI). The distinctions between Stages IV, V and VI are best illustrated by looking at how each views laws: to Stage IV, a law is an absolute that must be obeyed in all circumstances; to Stage V, a law is seen as an expression of the will of the people, and may be altered (formally or informally) if enough people agree to it; to Stage VI laws are only to be obeyed if they are seen as being just in the light of universal ethical principles. People at these three stages of moral reasoning might, for example, have reacted to laws that discriminated against African-Americans by saying “It’s the law, so follow it,” “Follow the law until we change it,” and “Disobey an unjust law,” respectively.

There are a number of important things to note about this progression. First, the stages describe a way of coming to a decision about a moral question; describing someone as being in a particular stage means that she makes moral judgments in that way more than half the time, and even those who are primarily at Stage V or VI make some decisions based on lower-stage reasoning. As well, research has found that people can understand a moral argument one stage above their own, and tend to give more weight to arguments based on that higher stage. Second, not all people will necessarily reach all six stages (indeed, Kohlberg’s examples of Stage VI all came from historical figures.) Third, youth cannot be taught to behave morally through “character education”; though they can be taught to express particular opinions on morality, moral education has been shown to have no effect on actual behaviour. Finally, certain things may cause moral development to be arrested – in particular, exposure to violence: studies of children who had grown up in Northern Ireland and Lebanon during times of conflict there found that many had not progressed beyond Stages I and II. [1]

These points raise some interesting questions. If exposure to real-life violence can prevent youth from progressing in their moral development, can exposure to media violence have the same effect? The short answer is “probably not”: the two main theories aimed at explaining why the youth in the studies did not progress to Stage III and beyond are, first, that they were affected physically by the constant stress of their environment (this has also been found in youth who are victims of or witnesses to domestic violence) and, second, because they had learned from their peers to base their moral reasoning on a “vendetta mentality” (essentially, they had progressed to Stage III, and were conforming to a society whose values expressed Stage I and II morality.) Exposure to media violence, no matter how frequent or graphic, is unlikely to have similar effects.

That’s not to say, however, that media exposure cannot influence our moral development – either in positive or negative ways. To begin with, all of our moral behaviour is learned, and much of what we learn about the world comes from media. We may learn what kind of behaviour is punished (Stage I) or what kind is rewarded (II); we certainly learn the values of our society (Stage III) at least in part from media, as well as social codes such as expectations for gender behaviour (Stage IV). For instance, fairness towards GLBTQ people may be seen as a question of fundamental moral principle, but in practice many people report that their attitudes have been changed due to an increase in positive portrayals of GLBTQ characters on television – likely perceived by many as an expression of changing social attitudes on the issue, according to Stage III reasoning. [2] Similarly, works such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and films such as Silkwood and Cry Freedom have been credited with changing social attitudes on a variety of issues (and, of course, individual leaders may be influenced by media products, as Woodrow Wilson and Richard Nixon were by Birth of a Nation and Patton respectively.)

As well, media products may provide us with the kinds of moral dilemmas that have been shown to be one of the ways of positively affecting moral development. (It’s important to note that though Kohlberg advocated a moral education program based on discussing moral dilemmas, he did not believe that this was enough by itself and suggested that children should be encouraged to take action in their schools and communities based on their moral reasoning.) Efforts at direct moral instruction through media have been no more successful than traditional character education classes: one study found that few children who viewed an episode of Clifford the Big Red Dog in which the characters encountered a three-legged dog were able to identify the intended moral about being inclusive of people with disabilities, instead thinking its message was “Be nice to three-legged dogs.” [3] By contrast, moral dilemmas dispense with a clear message in favour of a situation that has no clear answer, forcing readers or viewers to weigh different moral principles against one another. Hamlet, for example, still intrigues us in part because it offers a number of moral dilemmas with no clear answer: should Hamlet avenge his father’s death even if it means possibly committing murder? Is it more important to preserve the peace of the kingdom or to ensure that it is not ruled by a criminal?

Effectively presenting a moral challenge in fiction can be very challenging. One issue is that if readers or viewers are too deeply immersed in the story, they may not be inclined to view it from a moral perspective. They can still receive unconscious messages about morality, of course, based on how characters are punished or rewarded and on the social attitudes expressed, but the value of weighing morals against one another is lost. The playwright Bertolt Brecht pioneered the notion of distancing techniques designed to keep viewers from becoming fully immersed in the action (Brecht, a Marxist, intended his plays to force audiences to analyze political issues, but the effect is the same.) Distance the audience too much, however, and the story becomes simply an academic exercise. Another concern is that even when media products attempt to present moral dilemmas, they more often than not “stack the deck” in favour of one interpretation. The TV series 24, for example, raised questions similar to those in Zero Dark Thirty about the rightness of using torture as part of an investigation of terrorism – but because this was nearly always done in the context of a “ticking clock” counting down to a terrorist attack it was difficult to argue against the use of torture. The series’ producers were actually asked by the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point to do “a show where torture backfires” because he feared young soldiers and intelligence agents were getting the message that torture was both effective (Stage II) and socially and morally acceptable (Stages III-VI). [4]

Another complication with using media to post moral dilemmas is context. To be effective, dilemmas have to be customized to a viewer or reader’s stage of moral development – ideally calling on a form of reasoning one stage above her primary level. Children can be asked to make judgments based on social mores (Stage III) rather than the possibilities of punishment (I) or reward (II) while teenagers and adults can be drawn past cultural conventions to adherence to the law (IV) and higher stages. Aside from the viewer or reader’s stage of development, many other contextual elements have to be taken into consideration. The same media product may be seen in very different ways in different times and places, and people also have a tendency to see messages in media that reflect their own opinions: conservatives are much more likely than liberals, for example, to believe that Stephen Colbert is sincere in the opinions he expresses on The Colbert Report [5], while liberals and conservatives were similarly split on whether the producers of All in the Family expected viewers to sympathize with Archie Bunker.[6]

Because of these reasons, it may actually be better, in terms of posing a moral dilemma, if torture is shown to be at least partially effective in Zero Dark Thirty: if it is clearly ineffective then there’s little or no moral quandary, but if there is at least the possibility of getting useful information then our decision becomes more difficult. Do we base it solely on the likelihood of getting the information we want (Stage II) or on our perception of ourselves as a “civilized” society that does not condone torture (Stage III)? Do we permit any activities that can be justified under the letter of the law (Stage IV) or do we first ask whether our current laws anticipated these situations and whether they need to be amended (Stage V)? Or do we weigh our principles against one another, and ask whether the need to bring murderers to justice outweighs the universal rights of all people to humane treatment (Stage VI)?

Does Zero Dark Thirty ask these questions? That depends in part on who is watching it: viewers with established opinions about the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program depicted in the film may be more likely to see it as taking a stand instead, and the film-makers may have intentionally or unintentionally stacked the deck as 24’s producers did. But it certainly can inspire those questions. Research has shown that TV frequently dismissed as mere entertainment can provoke significant discussions of moral questions among teens [7], and movies like Zero Dark Thirty similarly give us the opportunity to have important conversations – in the classroom, in the home and as a society.


[1] Garabino, J., Kostelny, K., and Dubrow, N. (1991). What children can tell us about living in danger. American Psychologist, 46(3), 376-383.
[2] 2009-2010 Network Responsibility Index. GLAAD, 2010
[3] Mares, Marie-Louise and Acosta, Emily Elizabeth (2008). Be Kind to Three-Legged Dogs: Children’s Literal Interpretations of TV’s Moral Lessons, Media Psychology,11(3),377 — 399
[4] Regan, Tom. Does ‘24’ encourage US interrogators to ‘torture’ detainees? The Christian Science Monitor, February 12 2007.
[5] Heather L. LaMarre, Kristen D. Landreville, and Michael A. Beam. (2009). The Irony of Satire: Political Ideology and the Motivation to See What You Want to See in The Colbert Report. The International Journal of Press/Politics 14, 212-231
[6] Kellner, Douglas. Film, Politics and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood Film in the Age of Reagan. Velvet Light Trap: A Critical Journal of Film & Television 27.
[7] Irlene Sandra and Dorr, Aimee, 2002. “Teen Television as a Stimulus for Moral Dilemma Discussion.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (New Orleans, LA, April 1-5, 2002).

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