Good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

Virtually all our mass-culture narratives based on folklore have the same structure, Marina Benjamin argues — good guys battle bad guys for the moral future of society:

In Marvel comics, Thor has to be worthy of his hammer, and he proves his worth with moral qualities. But in ancient myth, Thor is a god with powers and motives beyond any such idea as ‘worthiness’.

In old folktales, no one fights for values. Individual stories might show the virtues of honesty or hospitality, but there’s no agreement among folktales about which actions are good or bad. When characters get their comeuppance for disobeying advice, for example, there is likely another similar story in which the protagonist survives only because he disobeys advice. Defending a consistent set of values is so central to the logic of newer plots that the stories themselves are often reshaped to create values for characters such as Thor and Loki — who in the 16th-century Icelandic Edda had personalities rather than consistent moral orientations.

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them, despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

The situation is more complex in epics such as The Iliad, which does have two ‘teams’, as well as characters who wrestle with moral meanings. But the teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide, nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolise anything but themselves and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight. The ostensibly moral face-off between good and evil is a recent invention that evolved in concert with modern nationalism — and, ultimately, it gives voice to a political vision not an ethical one.


  1. Isegoria says:

    Marina Benjamin overstates her case. Or, as T. Greer puts it, “This is so obviously false it is hard to know where to begin.”

  2. Harry Jones says:

    Before ethical monotheism, right and wrong were largely tribal. That’s why it made no sense to switch sides. Your tribe is your side, and it’s also your identity. Individual choice doesn’t operate here.

    A tribalist doesn’t ask himself whether his tribe is more deserving of contested land or resources than a competing tribe. It’s his tribe, and that’s reason enough to fight. Above the level of the superorganism, there is no right or wrong, only victory or defeat.

    A nation is simply a tribe on a larger scale. But good and evil are individual choices. That’s the difference.

    However, the notions of good and evil can be co-opted to buttress the mega-tribalism of the nation-state. How to undo this? Insist that a state must justify its existence, demonstrating its superiority somehow instead of merely asserting it as a given.

  3. Graham says:

    A pity. I’d rather we disassociate the moralism of good and evil from the tribalism of the nation too, but by more emphasis on ditching the former.

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