Without some form of morality, it is difficult to tell a good story. In any meaningful story, and therefore in any meaningful life, a character must have a sense of right and wrong, and that sense of right and wrong has to be universal. If his sense of right and wrong isn’t universal, he is a psychopath, and if he has no morality, his story is not going to be meaningful.
Many people are moral for religious reasons, stating their morality comes from the Bible or a sacred text (which, while these books can influence morality, are not written with the intention of defining a moral code. If they are, they are terribly written and the authors couldn’t land their point.) Natural Law, then, becomes a kind of catch all conglomerate of sacred texts, an attempt to arrive at a universal code for meaningful morality in a civilized society. As a culture, America subscribes to natural law even more than Constitutional law. The foundation for constitutional law is natural law and without it, the constitution makes no sense. In some ways, I think, the constitution is a defense of natural law. But each time a debate takes place regarding a Supreme court justice, the old debate of natural law and constitutional law rises again. It’s an important debate, but lately I’ve been wondering about another, perhaps more universal and less debatable form of law. I’m wondering about a law that, while more prophetic, is perhaps somewhat more verifiable in terms of its ability to create meaningful experiences for members of a society.
I’ve been wondering lately about the possibility of a new perspective on law. I’ve been wondering about our need for what I’ll call narrative law. Lately I’ve been thinking of the importance of morality more in story terms than in black and white notions of right and wrong. Nothing against black and white notions of right and wrong, only my sense is that those who subscribe to those notions do so with a self-righteous motive, which is in itself immoral (in story construction) and no better than kicking dogs. Such notions, mostly coming from a sacred text, are also difficult to verify in terms of their ability to create meaning. People will always push back when you try to put boundaries on their pleasure.
In religious communities, morality matters because it is offered in submission to God. But this is not enough for a post-religious culture. (Not that we as Americans are post-religious, but much of the rest of the west is and we certainly have our post-religious quadrants, including the media.) Is morality important to me because there exists a God? Yes. Do I practice morality because there exists a God? I’m not sure. Perhaps. But such a perspective leads to fear/guilt/shame and so forth, and those emotions create binary reactions to their controlling characteristics. (Ever wonder why Christians in the Bible Belt have so much trouble drinking in moderation, and therefore think of drinking as sin? The criminal may be the black-and-white mentality, not the wine.)
Morality, in the last couple years, has felt more important to me because of it’s demand in narrative structure. Robert McKee, perhaps the leading scholar on story structure, believes that stories are not as good as they used to be. And though McKee is not a religious man, he imagines the principle issue in the decline of story is this erosion of morality. In his book Story, he says it this way:
“The final cause of the decline of story runs very deep. Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for, what is foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth-the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethcical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism – a great confusion of values. As the family disintegrates and sexual antagonisms rise, who, for example, feels he understands the nature of love? And how, if you do have a conviction, do you express it to an ever-more skeptical audience? This erosion of values has brought with it a corresponding erosion of story.”
If story is a litmus test through which we can determine what is meaningful in life, than morality certainly has meaning. Without morality, a character cannot tell a good story, and once the credits roll in his life, he will realize he journeyed without a compass, and took himself precisely nowhere in all his travels.
I’m aware that a number of readers of this blog are not people of faith. Narrative law, however, does not require faith, except a faith in narrative structure, that is. In an age when males procure their inner-need for masculine affirmation through sexual conquest rather than the care and protection of the female heart, and the family has indeed disintegrated, a sober case for a universal morality is a demand in short supply. When our consumption of goods demands bond-servants in textile mills in Asia, we are in need of a universal morality. And when media methodology reduces truth to polarizing perspectives in order to ratchet up perceived tensions only to report on the tensions they’ve caused, we are in need of a moral center.
What encourages me most about the potential for narrative law is it’s broad appeal to religious and non-religious communities. Perhaps narrative law is a form of morality we can find more common ground in, and less debate, than that of natural law.
In short, I’m wondering if narrative structure can help us define universal morality. Some who read this blog will respond by demanding that everybody kneel to the moral structure posited by their sacred text, but this is irrational. Again, their sacred text does not contain a complete moral code, and regardless, not everybody in a free society should be forced to adhere to it. But perhaps more of us can adhere to a moral structure having been created through the study of effective narrative.