In Defense of Evil Stories
When Odysseus sets sail from Circe’s island, she advises him to stop up his ears and eyes when he passes the Sirens or he will suffer terrible consequences. He makes his crew do it, but keeps his own senses clear, asking only to be tied to the mast so he cannot act on any bewitchments. This story could almost be an allegory about the moral danger of art. In this dissertation, I defend a small part of what I take to be the Odyssean thesis: that art is worth the danger it represents, and, specifically, that what I call "evil stories" are worth the danger they represent. The phrase "evil stories" is a shorthand, for me, for the longer phrase "stories which require us, in order to understand them, to imaginatively simulate the point of view of characters who commit acts of great harm for sadistic, malicious, or defiant reasons." I argue that auditing “evil stories” is not, for most people, and as part of a balanced imaginative diet, so morally dangerous that they ought to be avoided; moreover, I argue that it can be morally opportune to audit them and, in some special cases, morally obligatory. My strategy to defend this thesis is two part. First, I formulate and respond to what I take to be the most serious reasons to suspect that auditing evil stories is too morally dangerous. Those reasons include: the idea that auditing evil stories is itself an immoral action (chapter 3); the idea that it is a virtue to be unable to perform the mental operations involved in adequately auditing evil stories (chapter 4); the idea that understanding evil actions or characters is tantamount to condoning them (chapter 5); and the idea that being fascinated by evil undercuts one's standing to condemn it (chapter 6). Second, I venture several tentative arguments in support of the idea that evil stories can actually provide opportunities for moral growth and education: the idea that evil stories provoke unique and valuable kinds of moral reflection and that we can sometimes be obligated to audit them (chapter 7); and the idea that auditing evil stories is uniquely revelatory of some kind of moral truth (chapter 8). In the course of all this rebutting and reason giving, I propose a way of thinking about the ethics of audition in general which I call "role-centered response moralism," which develops obliquely across the subsections of various chapters.