Responsibility in the Moral Imagination


We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,

        Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,

        He that may never more from me be parted

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say

        That book was Galleot, Galleot the complying

        Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day.”

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, ll. 73-142

In Dante’s Inferno, we are greeted with a vignette as familiar to the English writer as Romeo and Juliet – predating it by centuries, the tale of Francesca and Paola. Based on actual events, these are two souls trapped in the depths of hell because of the sin of lust. While the interpretations of Dante regarding hell don’t match wholly those of the Orthodox, the Inferno is often less about theological questions (which are the framework for the series of vignettes) and more about the meaning behind the scenes it permits to be disclosed.

The significance of this scene, like all of those in hell, is less about whether such persons would be condemned (we actually do not know the answer in most cases) but the fact that something gravely wrong, judged by almost any standard conceivable, occurred. Being trapped in hell gives Dante the chance to meet those responsible and ask what error brought them there. In a framework where these tragedies and errors were rendered meaningless or immediately forgotten, there would be no basis for remembering them and letting them stand as witnesses against such behavior. Consider that though the Buddhist would be trying not to be caught up in such things either, would the man reincarnated as a cockroach remember to tell of how he became something worthy of being trodden underfoot?

The specifics of the story appear to be that Francesca was married to a man who was of repute but deformed, probably from a childhood disease or gestational problem, and during the course of their marriage falls in love with the man’s brother, Paola. Upon discovery of this infidelity, the husband murders both of them. The sleight against his deficiency is total – he could not help being deformed and was left unloved on account of it.

Dante’s story explains that it was in reading the Arthurian Romance – Le Morte D’Arthur (as I am aware of, this tale has more than one rendition, so I am uncertain which version) – together that Paola and Francesca fall in love. As in the story, Lancelot falls in love with the King’s wife, Galahad enabling them, so the spirits liken the book itself to Galahad delivering Lancelot to Guenevere.

The central idea for which Francesca and Paola’s story is presented is the question of the culpability of the writer in what his writing induces in those who read it. Even though Lancelot and Guenevere’s affair is depicted as ill-fated and ill-advised (in the end, Lancelot gives it up) nonetheless, it becomes a fixation for Francesca and Paola, ultimately to their detriment.

We have created some post-facto ways to think around this problem without addressing it. What if the man had simply not murdered them? But this is already addressed in the text, implicitly – the story that they read, of Arthur, Arthur being a just and moderate man did not murder either Lancelot of Guenevere for this, though in the end more deaths resulted from his relative inaction than resulted from Francesca’s husband’s jealous wrath. (In the story the affair creates a division among the lords which leads to a war.)

A very post-modern way of thinking around such problems is the idea of non-possessive relationships such as polyamory (or take the ‘free love’ of the 60’s, or the activity of ‘swingers’.) I have discussed elsewhere how this is a dangerous delusion on a very basic level since the physical union these people are seeking is inherently a matter of the love the Greeks called ‘Eros’ – which Lewis identifies as being the ‘love of bodies’. This love is objectifying and possessive and as such, is inherently jealous. The male and female are called such because of their one-to-one correlation.

Beyond even this, there is still the matter of who is ‘in’ and ‘out’ of such relationships, formalities such as marriage emerged to mediate and control these boundaries. There were still murders of jealousy even in places where marriages were not as formal, or more or less non-existent. Moreover, without the clean-cut rule it is hard to say how one is supposed to resolve the issue – who belongs to whom? A jealousy unjustified by rule or law may be worse rather than better.

Overall though, this approach – of trying to remove the stigma of certain acts as a way to remove negative side effects – fails to consider the issue at hand. Intriguingly, Bjorn Lomberg has run into a similar issue in debating with Greens about solutions to environmental issues. Greens believe the problem is deeper and that Lomberg’s solutions – for instance using a lot of white paint in cities to make them cooler – do not address root causes. The root cause in this case is that human industry causes pollution, which cannot actually be dealt with entirely without ceasing human industry. Global warming is a convenient proxy for this. Lomberg is approaching them with the notion that they really wish to solve the problems they claim they wish to solve – say we were merely lamenting the murder of Francesca and Paola – and not an underlying root cause that if spoken of, would easily turn the face of Wormwood against them.

Likewise, if we merely were concerned about murders of jealousy and not the underlying root cause of needing to discipline the chaos of sexual attraction – it might be a reasonable solution to introduce systems that reduce it (even if they cannot eliminate it) such as polyamory, gender mainstreaming, etc. The point is that as we wish to exist in a place where there IS human industry, and those avoiding the issue of what the ‘sin’ of lust really is wish to exist IN that chaos of sexual attraction, experience it and savor it.

Given that I have already established that the surface issues are of no account to me, the inner issue remains – the culpability of the writer in how his writing affects the reader.

In Michael Polanyi’s definition of ‘art’ (I will use quotes since I find the general category as typically used somewhat specious). what defines it is its ability to be separated from its creator, to be able to be understood without reference to the one who made it. This indicates that art is not primarily self-expression, but self-emptying – the creation of something actually other. Self-expression only matters inasmuch as it creates a better product (for various measures of ‘better’.)

This is part of the general concept that once one creates something that DOES become art, one loses control of it, as one loses control of an arrow once it is loosed from the bow (Kyudo nonwithstanding.) In the case of an arrow, if one fires an arrow and someone walks into it and is killed, is one a murderer?

One way to look at this problem is to simply look at the intent of the person firing the bow – if he wanted to kill the man, he is a murderer, if not, he is not. This simplistic mode of thought usually leads to considering all killing murder – even in war – and having to create special ‘excuses’ for soldiers to kill. Sometimes these excuses include ‘dehumanization’ – the compulsion to denature one’s opponent so as to avoid thorny issues regarding the killing itself.

This first formula could be called the malevolence formula, after the first domain of the good in the Friesian school (will – benevolence.) In this formulation, what matters is the intent, and the intent to kill is malevolent, and therefore those who intend to kill are malevolent. The epicycle in this theory to make it work with reality is rather brutal – dehumanization (or just denaturalization in general.)

This is obviously not a Christian formula regarding killing, since in Old Testament times killing was specifically commanded, and David’s opponent Goliath is not denatured to retain David’s justice. While no general license for killing is ever given (as it is in the Koran) no denaturalization is required to justify wars or even executions. This continues in the New Testament: for instance, Paul justifies the governors executing people by saying that they ‘wield the sword as a terror to the evil’, and Ananaias and Saphira are struck down by the Spirit – not ACCIDENTALLY, but directly slain – for lying concerning a large sum of money they had acquired for selling property. They cannot be the only ones who deceived others by misreporting the sum of a sale so they could secretly keep the rest for themselves, but they are the only ones we know of who were immediately executed for it.

Moreover, Saul is not condemned for killing or murder, but for persecuting Christ. This does not make the killing or murder right, but it is the persecution of Christ by harming his body that is at stake, not the specific means by which this is carried out.

Clearly, since we have a crime called ‘manslaughter’, our present system of law does not buy into the Malevolence formula. The general category of ‘wrongful death’ includes the concept that negligence on the part of the killer implies culpability in the death. The culpability is not the same, but intent is only a factor.

Another idea is the idea that the killing itself is murder, regardless. (This also is not the Christian idea.) In this, the mere act of taking life, regardless of context, is wrong. This pertains to the second domain of the good (or value) – morality of persons. Obviously, this is as completely unworkable on its own as the Malevolence theory (or at least if we follow Kant’s dictum about the communitivity of morality) as it focuses on the act of killing itself, which can bleed over into other realms where killing may be necessary. Imagine a farmer unable to thin his crops – at least the Benevolent could arrange for some accident. The Beneficent must not kill. Further, unlike the Benevolent who does not necessarily know the intent of someone when a killing happens, the Beneficent is able to judge simply in that the act occurred. If he were so inclined and so empowered, he could easily judge who was deserving of punishment for murder. That I released the arrow makes me the murderer.

One can formulate a fairly diverse series of these judgement theories (and people function with different ones, for certain, contra Kant’s claim regarding the moral.) As an aside, the Christian theory is ultimately centered around obedience, and then moving outward, all other theories. If we look at it this way, we can construct a hierarchical Rule of Culpability that includes but defangs all of the theories. Though the Fresians do not count Obedience as one of the domains of value (the good) being Platonistic, I (not being Platonistic) as a Christian must. It is in fact the most immediate good – the simplest, least sophisticated and most definable in content. “Did I do as I was told?” is even easier to answer than, “Did I wish to do good?”

Here are the domains of culpability; we assume that all men are servants, that is, they have a superior whom they serve, whether they exist as a slave (whose master more or less dictates their every action) or as a freedman (whose master only intervenes on issues where their limitations prevent them from making a good judgement.) If along the way the bowyer finds there is a yes – he is in the clear to some degree. The consequences of the death still exist and must be dealt with, of course. In this system (though I do not provide it) there would be a different term for a violation of each level; ergo, a man like Saul who disobeyed God but did mean well would not be the same as a man who both disobeyed God and had ill intent. (The commandment ‘thou shalt not murder’ is redundant in this situation, as would be all moral commands.)

  1. Did I break my masters’ command?
  2. Did I intend to kill?
  3. Did I kill?
  4. Did I cause harm?
  5. Did I break the law, rules, regulations, or the ideals of my profession?
  6. Was the act ugly?
  7. Was the act profane?

In situations where we are given no direct guidance from our master (let us say we are a leader of men, so our master is God–, and we have no vision, no word) we must look down the list to see where we end up. That last category, of the profane, is how killing, which is often necessary for survival, was safety-netted in many pagan societies: by making an act that may be wrong on all other six levels but error made necessary into a sacred act, it is rescued from being unjust.

Naturally, these levels pertain to realities, and simply making what are otherwise murders sacred acts does not remove other consequences, but may prevent the person from abandoning the good altogether (a fate worse than being killed.) Such a thing explains why people construct their own personal religions with their own personal idols – I have even heard people call masturbation a sacred act. This is because other than not being extremely harmful, it does not pass the test for any level of this set of hierarchies in general, and if we consider this the underlying structure of our judgments regarding culpability, we can see why resorting to the creating of religious significance would be done.

In 4. this is a purely utilitarian judgment – we might say, ‘but isn’t the act of killing bad because it is harmful?’ – but theories about killing do not originate in theories about harm, but in some wrongness about death. Our perception of wrongness in death of other things – like plants – are projections of the mystery of it in ourselves. Some plants are simply made to live and die (preserving themselves through their seeds.) Death for a plant and death for a man cannot be reduced to one another, though they both involve cessation and questions of survival. So the wrong act happening is adjudged in level 3, but in level 4 we look to see if that act which may have been wrong in itself, resulted in more good than harm. This is obviously only one level of judgment (and we can see why utilitarianism is unworkable on its own.)

To think about this, think about the situation of killing a serial killer. It’s pretty obvious that not only is this person going to kill, but these acts are going to go all the way down the list to being ugly and profane. Therefore, even if this person only kills one more time, the result will be net positive. (We set aside a moment questions about how this would affect the killer’s mother.)

5. is rather hard, but pertains to what the system of domains calls ‘ethics, the ideal good and bad.’ This is a recursive step since such ideals probably involve rules or ideals constructed implicitly using this formula I have just presented. Ergo, a perfect conception of the Just would for the human potentially involve an infinite process. This is one reason why places with a plethora of laws (and in particular, conflicting laws) have so much trouble making judgments. Attempting to determine if something was in violation of a pluralistic set of ideals, values, norms, etc, is an almost infinite process if the ideals are too many to be internalized and must therefore be rationalized (i.e. worked out) before being understood.

6. is a judgement of intuition with the man as its instrument – we might apply something like Christopher Alexander’s 15 properties of order or just a plain old smell test to determine beauty. Death tends to be ugly in itself, though. (Note how though, Christ’s death on the cross is not singular, but is a complex of different images being fulfilled; since it is something that is inherently ugly like deformation, but is beautified by complicating functions, I would regard it as Grotesque.)

Obviously, humans are unsatisfied on the whole with the idea that war is always evil – even if we stress a particular domain, we may be struck by the beauty of the tragic sacrifice itself, or the religious significance of a conflict (take the lionizing of revolutionaries by otherwise pacifistic leftists – this is a matter of the sacred and of a foreign god or religion to Christianity.) And if we are commanded by the one we serve to war, though we may condemn the one giving the command based on a judgment, we find it hard to condemn the loyal servant.

Returning to our original subject, that of the culpability of a writer or artist for the impact his art has, we also will note a strange inconsistency – an asymmetric polarity regarding that impact. We would be likely to credit a creator for a positive impact but discredit them for a negative impact. This seems like a thorny issue! But if we use the method above we can see that it is not. Regarding the Death of Arthur as a story, it is obvious that any hedonic elements in the story might have negative impacts. This is worse than not having the hedonic elements – but it is not unjust if the ultimate result of them is not. Nor is it bad if the final result is not bad.

Take two approaches to the problem of drug abuse; quickly defining drug as a substance not naturally part of the body’s metabolism which alters it and abuse as the state in which the negatives outweigh the positives from a drug’s use over time. DARE was a program we had in school in which they told us all about different drugs (a policeman came and explained it to us) and their negative side effects, plus horror stories of abuse.

I was not terribly benefited from this program as I am disinterested and cautious about all drugs, even mild ones, and probably most kids by that time would have been predisposed towards or against drug use at that point regardless. For those who were predisposed towards, my collection of anecdotes suggests that DARE merely provided them information about drugs to use – particularly ones that were less immediately deadly – that they might not have had otherwise. I do not know the actual balance of those helped versus those harmed, but to my knowledge, the program did not necessarily acknowledge the mitigating factor in its help (that of informing interested kids in drugs to abuse) nor did it address the underlying issue of using drugs to deal with problems rather than other methods. (a complicated issue not easily dealt with by simple pedagogy.)

My impression is that DARE was not really a success, as drug culture has expanded a lot since I was a child, but it may be that it was a modest success in our county. I do not think anyone intended ill, nor do I think the warnings themselves were inaccurate or the act of warning wrong, but I do question the utility of the program (third domain.)

The second approach is a famous movie called A Requiem For a Dream. Merely the name (as opposed to DARE) has the capability to send a shiver down my spine – and although it has hedonic (sensational) content, the effect of it against drug abuse is immediate and visceral – especially the depiction of amphetamine abuse. It is not romantic (an error some writers entered into when depicting the affair of Lancelot and Guenevere, perhaps) and it is tragic. It in fact validates the tragic form in its purpose – to inspire pity and to teach lessons that would be dangerous to be learned by experience.

When using my hierarchy of judgments, there can be two ways to go about it. When we speak of Guilt, it is an is/is not; either it is a just or unjust action. We may not care about actions below a certain level of injustice (i.e. we care little for civil disobedience, which is an act of injustice at least on the level of the first domain) but if we are not apathetic or evil, we always care at least about actions which have reached the seventh level of injustice.

But in this, I am not interested in determining whether I would be at fault for harming someone with a work of art. According to the domains, a good act is itself not condemnable since the third level (is it an act contrary to nature?) would always come out “no”. A system in which the primary judgment of actions is guilt is bound to fall into pathological altruism: “but I gave the man money (a good and natural act), I’m guilty of no wrongdoing.” The issue of him abusing the money cannot be processed morally with any force.

It is obvious that most post-modern artists are guilty of harm, though they have gotten around this somewhat by defining art as self-expression and the creative act of ‘art’ as a natural and good one. This was not done legally, but with some intention over time through works of art – a survival mechanism gone wholly awry. Since it is a good act, whether it is harmful in the end or not no longer is a moral concern, since they are guilty of no wrongdoing. To finesse this, they have to create things like racism and sexism to redefine natural acts as unnatural so that those who do them to cause harm can be seen as unjust.

But we have no necessity to concern ourselves with guilt – consider that if what I do is in any way good, I am not guilty anyway. (Since the chain will stop at that domain.) Of course, I would rather be good than innocent – and being good is about all seven levels and not just the paucity of finding a loophole.

This is inherently what is meant in the scripture when we talk about those who do good fulfilling the law – since the law is about guilt and innocence. If I do (actual) good I will not be guilty anyway, but what does that mean? Also this explains why the law could not make men good – for they could only judge guilt or innocence, which would in the long run involve optimizing for innocence (passing only one level) over goodness.

Simply put, the analysis of the good differs slightly, but has the same basic formula. We judge based on ALL levels, and we assign value based not merely on whether it was negative, but also if it was positive.

  1. Was the act: obedient (+1), neither (0) or disobedient (-1)
  2. Was the act: benevolent (+1), neither (0) or malevolent (-1)
  3. Was the act: natural (+1), ambivalent (0) or unnatural (-1)
  4. Was the act: beneficial (+1). balanced (0) or harmful (-1)
  5. Was the act: ideal (+1), neither (0) or unlawful (-1)
  6. Was the act: beautiful (+1), ambivalent (0), or ugly (-1)
  7. Was the act: sacred (+1), secular (0) or profane (-1)

Clearly my values are arbitrary for each test, but the answer to Dante’s question is a complex one:

One – in terms of guilt, Dante cannot be guilty for someone who committed a murder due to something he wrote with good intentions.

Two – in terms of goodness, a final weighing of the actions would involve how many people were inspired by the work to do evil. It cannot be avoided. Let us say Dante knows they have committed this adultery inspired by his rendition of the tale of Arthur – but the judgment of his action of writing it does not lie only in their tragedy, even if their volition in doing evil is set aside (since their volition has no bearing on certain consequences that result from it) but on the whole effect of the work once it becomes art – once the arrow is released from the bow.

Thus what matters most is that the arrow is fired well and at the right time and place – the rest is faith.

We may therefore produce an answer to the question “Does the ends justify the means?” as a qualified yes – the means WILL be justified by their ends, but consider that in Dante’s case, the ends have not been reached, hundreds of years after his death. I am not a deontological moralist, but even I can see how trying to guess what the ends will be as a way of justifying a normally bad act could end very poorly. The ends will justify the means, or else condemn them, but only when they have been fulfilled.

Don’t count on it being any time soon.


But I can give thee more:

For I will raise her statue in pure gold;

That while Verona by that name is known,

There shall no figure at such rate be set

As that of true and faithful Juliet.

Author’s Note: Shakespeare provides the actual interpretation for the events in his play quite plainly and they follow easily from it, despite hundreds of years of analysis. Romeo and Juliet are tragic figures who make errors. Those errors result in their deaths. Something good comes from it, however, in that the two lords realize their children would not have died in their folly if they (their families) had not been feuding. They make amends and prevent further murders. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t anything to the misinterpretation of the play as a romance, which teaches us something about the subject of the above essay.



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