Has Visual Learning Damaged the Moral Landscape? (Answers from Victor Hugo and St. Thomas.)

TVI worry when a person gets all his news from watching TV. I worry that he loses the ability to distinguish between ideology, strategy, and tactics. I worry that he can’t tell the difference between motive and emotion. I worry that maybe he doesn’t even care. Everything becomes a matter of appearances. On TV truth is drowned out in a cacophony of competing voices and bad behavior.

Les Miserables: Studying the motives

When you read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (or even watch the musical) you get told what motivates the characters. You need that information to make a good judgment about the characters. The hero Jean Valjean is flawed. He succumbs to hopelessness, bitterness, and anger. The policeman, Javert, is dedicated and law-abiding. He seems like a good person.

Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread to feed his family. He is put in prison. Valjean tries to escape from prison – multiple times. Valjean breaks parole. He robs a kindly bishop. He assumes a false identity. These are all bad things. But they can only be understood properly in the context of the story, and in following Valjean’s development as a person. Some of Valjean’s actions are defensible. Some are not. In the course of the story Valjean is forced to confront his culpability – his failure to achieve ethical maturity.

The policeman, Javert, sees a prostitute assault a respectable looking citizen. He arrests the prostitute. The prostitute, Fantine, was reacting against harassment, which is something Javert didn’t see. When Valjean (in his new identity) tries to explain to Javert what happened, Javert is not interested in anything besides what he saw with his own eyes. Javert seems like a good person. But we learn that Javert has a grudge against Valjean. In the end, Javert can’t live in a world where a person like Valjean finds grace and redemption. Javert commits suicide.

The characters in Les Mis are good, bad, and in-between because of their motives and the circumstances in which they act. To make good moral judgments about people we need a method to determine who is in the right.

Thomas Aquinas: Making moral judgments

I’ll use St. Thomas Aquinas’ method here. Valjean’s theft of the bread is a good place to start. Thomas discusses private property in the Second Part of the Second Part of the Summa Theologiae (Question 66). He says everything properly belongs to God, and all external goods have been put here for the common good. The human laws concerning private property must serve the primary purpose of external goods. So, in order for these laws to serve justice they must support the common good. When the common good is discarded then private property lacks legitimacy. Thomas says, “in cases of need all things are common property.”

When Jean Valjean stole the bread to feed his family, Thomas would say that this was not theft at all. It was the appropriation of external goods that had reverted to community property due to the “manifest and urgent need” of Valjean’s family.

We have an example here of something that cannot be assessed by watching someone take a loaf of bread. I admit it is difficult to imagine watching someone take something, and not to assume the act is theft. But, the action doesn’t tell the whole story. It is the motive and circumstances behind the action that exposes its moral dimension.

Let’s say you had a video of Fantine attacking her tormentor, Bamatabois. You wouldn’t have all the information needed to form a proper judgment of her actions. Images of bad behavior are not enough to determine how, and to what degree, the behavior is defective. Behavior can be bad in more than one way. Behavior can be bad because of the bad motives of the actor. Behavior can be bad because the actor is acting on sudden impulse, or defending herself. Behavior can be bad because, even if the actor has good motives, the behavior is part of a flawed strategy.

These are important distinctions. Bad behavior arising from bad motives shows moral failure. Bad behavior arising from a flawed strategy shows a lack of competence. It is possible of course for a person to be both morally corrupt and inept. In any case, you can’t get to the truth of the matter by watching video clips of an event on TV. A person needs to be interested in the truth to do the extra work in finding out what is causing the bad behavior. Watching it on TV isn’t enough. Maybe it isn’t visual learning that has damaged the moral landscape after all. Maybe it is lack of interest in the truth.

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