Movies, the Moral Emotions, and Sympathy By Noël Carroll

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Movies, the Moral Emotions, and Sympathy

By Noël Carroll



Movies are a mass art form. By “movies” here I am, of course, referring to mainstream, motion-picture, narrative fictions, whether seen on the silver screen or TV (where many TV programs are themselves movies, in my sense of the term). Movies, in the way that I am using it, are intended to command large audiences. Typically nowadays they are made in order to make substantial profits and, in order to do so, they need to be capable of engaging the multitudes.1 Movies succeed, when they do succeed, in large measure, by addressing the emotions of spectators. The emotions are able to perform this function so well, because the emotions, or, at least, the emotions usually stirred up by the movies, are broadly convergent across vast populations, populations, indeed, that generally enjoy being thrust into the relevant emotional states, so long as they do not have to pay the price that those states standardly exact (as sadness, for example, correlates with personal loss). That is one of the reasons that viewers flock to the movies. The emotions not only contribute to the intelligibility of motion- picture narratives, but they do so in a way that promotes pleasure.2

In this chapter, I will argue that the moral emotions are one of the important, if not the most important, levers available to movie makers for recruiting the mass audiences that movies are designed to enlist. I will outline how the moral emotions underpin our reactions to the persons, actions, events and scenes that movies depict and then conclude with a discussion of the way in which sympathy (and antipathy), as motivated by moral concerns, support our other emotional responses to the movies, including our moral-emotional responses. However, before examining the operation of the moral emotions in the movies, something needs to be said about the broader relationship of the emotions in general to the movies.


Emotions and Movies

Possibly since Homer sang of the wrath of Achilles, but, at least, from Plato’s Republic onwards, the arts have been associated the emotions in the West, not to mention rasa theory in the East. The relation between the movies and the emotions is especially pronounced; many of the leading movie genres take their very names from the emotions they are designed to arouse – horror, suspense, mystery, thrillers, and tear-jerkers. Others, like comedy and drama, though not wearing their relation to the emotions upon their sleeves, are clearly linked to the emotions – to comic amusement, on the one hand, and to pity, anger, joy, sadness and so forth, on the other.

People often go to the movies to have their emotions aroused – to have a good cry or a good scare. Although such experiences may be unwelcome in life outside the movies, they are coveted when they come cost free – where, for example, our fear is not tied to real danger. Movies afford an intense, visceral experience, an invigorating emotional bath, if you will, one for which customers are willing to pay good money. Thus, it should come as no surprise that profit seeking movie makers should be disposed to rely so heavily upon arousing emotions as a basic strategy.

Moreover, inasmuch as the emotions are part of our biological equipment, most of us share if not certain basic emotions, then, at least, certain emotional domains – certain concerns, such as those involving harm, to which different cultures craft sometimes diverging but also often converging paradigmatic emotional-response patterns. Because some emotions are arguably nearly universal, while many others are recognizably connected to recurring human interests, the emotions are an ideal medium for those, such as movie makers, who aspire to conquer a mass market. Movies exploit the potential of the emotions to be positively exciting for most people worldwide. That is why movies made in Southern California are sought after by kids growing up in Lebanon. That is why a film like Avatar can clear over a billion dollars early on in its initial global run, stimulating, as it does, across continents the emotions of moral indignation, awe, fear, loathing, admiration, joy, as well as feelings that have no precise names in our vocabulary.

Although the movies may be said to be made for the emotions, the emotions, as is obvious, were not made for the movies. Our emotions are biological adaptations shaped by natural selection in order to protect and advance vital human interests. Fear, for example, alerts the organism to danger and prepares it to freeze, flee, or fight. Anger signals that a wrong has been done to me or mine and readies us for retaliation. Disgust focuses upon pollution and initiates bodily responses like gagging, choking and vomiting where the impurity at issue is a foodstuff or a stench. Bonding emotions of all sorts – like patriotism – are the foundation of communal activity and the achievement of group ends and purposes. The emotions enable us to negotiate the world – in many cases, almost automatically.

That is, in contrast to slow cognitive processes like deliberation, the emotions rapidly size-up situations in terms of our abiding interests and generally prime some or another behavioral response to our plight and/or our prospects. Deliberation is methodical and, well, deliberative; emotional appraisal is fast. And a speedy decision was often just what the moment called for in our ancestral environments, where a sudden motivating apprehension of fear at the possible presence of a predator was a better policy than sitting down and reasoning one’s way through the evidence. Back then, it was better to be safe than sorry. Often, it still is.

The emotions are appraisals of our interests that give rise to bodily reactions – some physiological, some phenomenological – which, in turn, generally lead to an action tendency of some sort, as when angered we are prompted to “get even.” These appraisals can be very fast; they may even bypass processing in the frontal cortex of the brain and stimulate our behavioral response systems directly. Moreover, with respect to the speed at which the emotions deliver their appraisals, the emotions and the movies are well-suited to each other, since the pace of the action in the movies is very fast, often faster than in life outside the movies. At present, many movies are cut a rate of three shots a minute. In order to follow all this flurry of activity, a rapid-response, tracking system like the emotions would have to be in place. And, of course, it is and it is no accident that movie makers have taken advantage of it.

Another feature of the emotions that has been a boon to fictioneers in general and to movie makers in particular is that the emotions can be ignited by imaginings. That is, emotions do not require our belief in the existence of the objects, persons, and events that elicit them. We may send a shudder of anxiety down our own spine by imagining that we are in the process of cutting off our index finger with a meat cleaver, even while we are aware that the event in question is not happening.

Undoubtedly, the human capacity to be moved emotionally by contrary-to-fact, imagined situations was adaptive, since it enabled our forebears to be apprehensive about places and things not immediately present to them. Tribal elders, for example, could instill fear in the hearts of children by telling them stories about how they would be devoured by crocodiles if they wandered too close to the riverbank, thereby increasing the likelihood that the kids in question would mature and reproduce.

Although the emotions did not evolve in order to make movies possible, the fact that the emotions can be engendered by imaginings is a prerequisite for movies becoming a mass art. For had it not been the case that with respect to our cognitive architecture that fictions could provoke emotional responses, then the movies would lack the affective calling card that gathers vast audiences before them. The movies in this regard exploit mental powers that developed to deal with something else, just as the movies take advantage of the speed of emotional processing that evolved to scope out situations where time was of the essence rather than to keep up with fast-moving stories.

Even if the benefits to movie makers of engaging the emotions are obvious, the way in which movie makers succeed in achieving this may be theoretically less apparent. But here it pays to remind ourselves that the emotions are primarily appraisal mechanisms. They evaluate persons and objects, actions and events with respect to vital human interests.

Jealousy, for example, alerts one sibling to another sibling’s perceived encroachment upon his/her parents’s affection and, therefore, concern. That is, jealousy, in such cases, detects challenges to the conditions of one’s well-being and triggers alarm when they are threatened. Disgust zeroes-in on impurity, fear on perceived danger or harm, and so on.

In the latter cases, the emotions in question evaluate the circumstances in terms of protecting, first and foremost, our physical integrity. But the emotions may also function to advance our sense of social standing, as contempt does by assessing others as inferior to ourselves.

Yet note: if the emotions involve appraisal, there must be some standard or criterion, however implicit, against which the particular objects of our emotional states are being assayed. Anger, for example, is the appraisal of an event as a wrong done to me or mine: you willfully step on my foot; I assess that to be a wrong, thereby setting off a train of physical events and sensations and, most likely, a desire for retribution.

These appraisals can originate near the site of perception without any further need for computation: the self-regarding preacher spills water on himself and we laugh; our perceptual pattern-detectors recognize that an expected pattern has been broken. Nevertheless, on other, probably less frequent occasions, our emotional appraisals emerge only after extended cognitive processing and rumination – as when we finally put together all those subtle signs of favoritism that the boss has been bestowing upon our office rival.

However, whether specific emotive reactions arise with perception or result from cognitive processing downstream, these episodes are appraisals relative to certain criteria, as, for instance, perceived danger is a criterion for fear – i.e., the emotive appraisal of a situation as dangerous.

In the ordinary course of events, when an emotion engulfs us, it focuses our attention on those features of the situation that are pertinent to the human interests or themes it is the function of the relevant emotion to advance or protect, while, at the same time, filtering out aspects of the situation that are not germane to the presiding emotional theme. We focus on the car speeding toward us – assessing its dangerousness – while not registering the numbers on its license plate.

The emotions are selectively attentive in terms of the interests they govern. In the first instance, the emotions batten upon prominent elements of the situation that threaten our interests or that afford opportunities to advance them. But then feedback, reinforced at the hormonal level, to this initial assessment of the situation leads us to scan the scene further, selecting out more features of the situation that are pertinent to the dominant emotional concern. For example: that the driver in the aforesaid automobile is aiming it at us – that he intends to kill us.

When in the grip of an emotion, the state selectively organizes or gestalts the situation under the aegis of its central theme or concern. It structures attention selectively in light of criteria, namely, the criteria appropriate to the abiding interest it is the function of the emotion to protect or advance. In the preceding car-scenario, fear gestalts the scene in terms of perceived harm. Perceived harm is the criterion of relevance for the emotive appraisal that we call fear.

Turning from the ordinary course of events and back to the movies, we can immediately note one striking difference between them. In life, our emotions do most of the work of organizing the events that come our way. We size-up the situation, picking out and appraising, albeit under the guidance of the emotion, what is relevant for our attention. What is relevant, of course, is what falls under the criterion or the criteria of the presiding emotional state. In this respect, we may say that our emotive appraisal is criterially focused.

However, when it comes to the movies (as well as the other arts), we notice that a great deal of the selection that it is up to the emotions to secure in life has already been done by the movie makers. Whereas in most instances in life the emotions have to start the process of gestalting the stimulus from scratch, with movies a great deal of that work has already been done for us by the movie maker who has designed the fictional situation in such a way that its criterially pertinent variables stand out saliently in ways that make our emotive appraisal of it in the manner the movie maker intends virtually unavoidable. If in everyday life, our emotions criterially focus events for us, movie events have been, to an appreciable extent, criterially prefocused for us.

For example, were we to film the car sequence imagined above, we would economically select just those details needed to mobilize and exacerbate the fear-appraisal – perhaps we would include a shot of the car headed toward us and then maybe a close-up of the malevolent driver staring us down. We wouldn’t include a shot of the license plate or of the back seat of the car. The sequence would be selectively prefocused criterially – in this case by means of editing – in terms of features appropriate to inspiring fear – the appraisal of the event as dangerous then leading to a gut reaction.

Movies have a panoply of means for engendering emotions in audiences. Undoubtedly the most obvious structure for eliciting spectator emotion is the narrative. Clearly, the narrative structure is an instrument for making certain events and the various components of those events salient. Comedies, for example, will often favor incongruous trains of events – the heretofore physically inept hero suddenly and unexpectedly rises to the challenge of saving his beloved and vanishes his imposing adversaries (think Buster Keaton here) – where perceived incongruities are criterial for comic amusement.3

Dialogue and voice-over commentary can also call attention to the emotively relevant features of the fictional events before us; fictional characters, including fictional narrators, can bring our attention to those elements in a scene that we are mandated to focus upon, as do the off-screen voices in The Magnificent Ambersons which voices shape our assessment of young George’s behavior.

Although the use of narrative and dialogue as a means of criterially prefocusing the audience’s emotive appraisal is shared by movies, theater, and, indeed, with many other art forms (including narrative painting, opera, song and so forth), there are also certain devices available to function in this way that are more historically characteristic of the movies (including video and TV) than they are of the other arts. One thing that I have in mind in this respect is variable framing – the alteration of what is made visually salient to the viewer by scaling (making the object of attention larger in the visual field), indexing (by pointing the camera toward the object) and by bracketing (placing the object within a frame that excludes that which is irrelevant). These processes of variable framing can be implemented by editing, camera movement, or by the deployment of lenses of varying focal lengths. Variable framing insures that viewers will be looking where the movie maker intends them to be looking precisely when the movie maker wants them to be looking there.4

If the movie maker wishes to stimulate pity in the audience, she may show us a close-up of a character, previously established by the narrative to be praiseworthy, as that character’s face writhes in agony in response to a flogging administered by a merciless prison guard. However, emotion may not only be elicited by moving the camera in. Expanding the field of vision may also be effective in engendering suspense as when the movie maker cuts from the close-up of the heroine bobbing above and below the water line in a fast moving stream to a broader shot of the ominously cascading waterfall toward which the erstwhile heroine seems inevitably headed.

The variable framing selectively picks out or criterially prefocuses the elements of the sequence that are pertinent to the affect the movie maker wants to prompt, and with those appropriately valenced or charged items dominating our attention, we are, all things being equal, smoothly led to make the apposite, viscerally inflected appraisals – such as pity, on the one hand, or suspense on the other. Call the audience’s share here emotive upstake where emotive uptake is the aim of the creator’s activity of criterially prefocusing certain features of the movie world.

Of course, there are other devices available to movie makers for the purpose of criterial prefocusing. Sound, both noise and music, digetic and nondigetic, can be deployed in the service of criterial prefocusing. Loud, offscreen sounds may alert us to oncoming menace – as, for example, when we hear trees snapping and something very large approaching the altar where Anne Darrow is bound in the original version of King Kong. Likewise, nondigetic music may underscore (literally) the emotive significance of an event as when a march cadence annotates the gathering of the forces of the righteous in a Western.

Perhaps needless to say, variable framing does not even exhaust the visual means available to movie makers for the purpose of criterial prefocusing. Other devices include lighting, masks (like irises), and racking focus, all of which enable the movie maker to control what the spectator sees – what she focuses upon. For example, in order to provoke fear, the movie maker may first show us the protagonist standing against a background in soft focus; suddenly a blur appears; then the movie maker reverses the field of focus and the blur metamorphoses into that incarnation of evil, Michael Meyers. By racking focus in this way, the movie maker criterially prefocuses the protagonists’s circumstances in light of imminent danger, thereby setting up for emotive uptake in viewers in terms of the emotional appraisal that we call fear.

Emotional appraisal, of course, can occur before we have a fully determinate conception of the nature of the particular object of our attention. For instance, fear may begin to take hold before we recognize that the blur in the previous example is none-other than the death-dealing Michael Meyers. That it is large, advancing, and obscure may be enough to set off an alarm of apprehension. For obvious reasons of security, the emotions are typically hair-triggered, often discharging before we have fully cognized the object in question and relying instead upon very basic processes for recognizing patterns and deviations therefrom.

In summary, the emotions – the glue that keeps movie audience in their seats – depends heavily on what we called criterial prefocusing; criterial prefocusing is what predisposes us to the varieties of emotional arousals that ideally the movie maker intends to elicit. Such emotional arousal may also be called emotive uptake. As we shall see in the next section, the elicitation of the moral emotions by the movies is, as might be expected, simply a special case of provoking emotional arousal in response to movies. It involves criterially prefocusing scenes and sequences so as to facilitate emotive uptake. The way in which the elicitation of the moral emotions differs from the elicitation of the non-moral emotions is primarily a matter of that which is criterially prefocused in the moral cases versus what is critierially prefocused in the other cases.


The Moral Emotions and the Audience’s Response to Movie Characters, Actions, Events, and Scenes

The moral emotions are a subcategory of the emotions in general. As we have seen, the

emotions in general are normative inasmuch as they are appraisals. The moral emotions emerge

naturally from the non-moral emotions, since they are evaluative, albeit evaluative in a very special

manner – specifically, the moral emotions are emotions that respond to actions and events that

conform or that fail to conform to moral standards.5 The moral emotions enlist, so to say, the non-

moral emotions for moral purposes.

Anger, for example, has an evaluative dimension – it is an emotional response mobilized by the perception of a wrong done to me or mine. Moral anger or moral indignation specifies the relevant sort of wrong in terms of things like injustice. Moral fear responds to harm where the harm in question is an evil, perhaps a great evil, such as genocide. Moral contempt is contempt, but contempt which assesses others to be morally inferior, while moral disgust targets moral pollution – that is, impurity with a moral dimension, like gang rape. The examples so far involve negative moral emotions. But there are positive moral emotions as well. Admiration is an emotional response to excellence in persons; moral admiration appraises the moral excellence of persons. It is a form of moral judgment.

It should not be surprising that the emotions are connected to moral judgment, since, as we have seen, the emotions are naturally selected adaptations for making assessments rapidly. The emotions are a form of value judgment. Hence, since moral judgments are evaluative, albeit ethically, it is most likely that they will possess some relations to the emotions in general. Indeed, many moral judgments are rooted in moral-emotional responses.

We are constantly making moral judgments in the course of everyday life. We are always judging the character and the actions of the people who surround us. Most of these judgments are borne in emotion, as when we angrily disapprove, if only to ourselves or to our confidants, of the permissive parent who allows her noisy children to run up and down the aisle of a crowded airplane.

The idea that moral judgments are rooted in the emotions may appear to fly in the face of common pictures of moral judgment. Usually, we (especially philosophers) tend to think of moral judgments as being issued after a chain of reasoning. However, although this may happen sometimes, there is evidence that great many moral judgments are based on gut reactions. Recent research by social psychologists, such as John Haidt, indicates that moral judgments are generally fast, automatic, intuitive appraisals;6 in short, they are emotions.

For example, when subjects are asked to morally evaluate a situation involving a brother and sister who agree to try incest, but in secret, only once, and employing several methods of birth control, subjects assess the behavior of these siblings as morally wrong, despite the fact that the case has been set-up in such a way as to undermine certain standard objections to incest, including that it will set a bad example, that it will spiral into an addiction, and that it will lead to physically compromised offspring. Nevertheless, even though their objections do not hold up, most subjects will not budge from their initial negative appraisals. Those appraisals, thus, are probably not based on reasons; instead they are most likely based on emotional responses. This hypothesis, moreover, is supported by the fact that when pressed to support these moral assessments, subjects give as reasons issues that have already been precluded by the story, such as the threat of birth defects.7

On the account emerging from contemporary moral psychologists, upon recognizing certain patterns, the stimuli, such as the suggestion of incest, are processed rapidly, triggering, almost immediately, feelings of approval or disapproval. Reasoning, if it comes into the emotion process at all comes into play after the initial intuitive appraisal takes hold, monitoring our gut reactions , sometimes modifying them, and often, if asked, confabulating after-the-fact rationalizations to back-up our emotional responses. The moral intuitions here are cognitive, at least in the sense that they depend on pattern recognition, but they need not be front-loaded by reasoning. Indeed, some moral psychologists claim they never are. I am not convinced that they are right in this matter, although the evidence suggests that many more instances of moral judgment fit the intuitive model than fit the rationalistic one.

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