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September 22, 2012

Moral Foundations Theory and "Footnote"

Note: this discussion most definitely contains major spoilers of the film in question; though primarily from the first half of the film. Caveat lector.

I've spent a couple of days out of work this week sick and caught up with a few movies, one of them the recent Israeli film Footnote, written and directed by Joseph Cedar.

It concerns two professors, a father and son, the latter of which is joining the Israeli Academy of Arts and Letters at the beginning of the film, apparently a great honor. But the father is clearly not happy; it's an honor that he himself hasn't received, and he shows in small ways his disapproval, clapping least, rising last for the ovation, sitting first, even walking home afterwards rather than riding with the rest of the large family in the car. He is established as a sort of outsider, but also one whose approval the son seeks.

In a scene labeled "The Best Day of Professor Shkolnik's Life," this father learns that he has received the Israeli Prize in Talmud Studies, a prize he has been nominated for at least twenty times but has never won. It has left him with sour grapes about the value and selection process of the prize. But now he's overjoyed, and celebrates in various ways.

Only one problem: an error by an assistant led to a call being made to the wrong Professor Shkolnik. This was a prize destined to be awarded to the son. The son learns this in a meeting with the three judges and the various government officials involved.

The son is irate but tells them they have to follow through with it; his father must receive the prize or he'll never speak to the son again. The head of the jury refuses to award the prize to the father on the basis of it being dishonest and unfair; the son berates the head judge and even gives him a shove. Eventually he yields, however, with two conditions: the son must write the judges' considerations² that the jury will sign, and the son must never again be nominated for the prize.

This builds tension in the viewer between two clearly ethical viewpoints: the loyalty of the son for the father (which is sorely tested at spots), and the inherent issue of fairness in denying for all time the son a prize which he has already in fact won. The rest of the film spends its time putting further stress on those two positions in ways I won't describe, but it's fair to say that by the end the viewer's tension over these two competing moral issues is ratcheted up as high as the director can manage.

What makes all of this work, and why the film has stuck with me over the last few days is that it's descriptive rather than prescriptive. I won't go into how this tension is resolved in the film, but it's fair to say that the director is attempting to present us with a situation in which these two ideals conflict without making a clear statement either way about how we should live. We are manipulated³ into a position where we can see both sides and more or less asked how we feel about how that should be resolved. In telling a very, very specific story about two particular characters, Cedar is asking us to examine how we balance these two moral foundations in our own lives.

(Another fine example of this sort of moral balance is Incendies, a Brazilian film that I watched earlier this year. In that case, the questions sneak up on you and explode all at once, so in some ways it shocks rather than describes. It's quite an experience and another film I'd highly recommend.)

It's a really effective method and one that I'd love to see more in videogames, rather than the crude "good/evil" scales that we've traditionally seen4. I understand the impetus to such scales -- we give players means to judge themselves as "heroic" or "bad as I wanna be" -- but those scales are ultimately pretty hollow because they don't elicit as much from the player's own understanding of morality5. And one lens to consider in writing situations which balance varying ideals against one another is to consider Moral Foundations Theory, which was described by Jonathan Haidt; I first encountered Haidt in an article in the New York Times Magazine a few years back.

I think that creating situations in which various foundations are in conflict is a much better way of eliciting deeper ethical thought in the player than designers telling us which way is "correct" in a given situation. And while I can remember these sorts of moral questions in opposition to one another occurring in Ultima games, of course, as the questions that would help determine your initial character choice and as the many virtues one pursues in the various Quests of the Avatar, they didn't carry through to the situations in the games, which typically had only one resolution to given conflicts. I'd rather conflicts where multiple resolutions were possible, but left the distinction of whether that was the "right" solution as a question for the player's own moral sense.

To do so, we need to construct highly specific situations that are sympathetic to the moral foundations underlying each side of a choice, and to resist assigning numbers to the resolution of those choices.

¹A title which obviously speaks to me, considering the name and frequent use of footnotes in this very blog.

²An official document describing why the father was selected.

³And I don't mean this in a dismissive nor derogatory way; all film manipulates us in one way or another. The director leaves things in, takes things out, chooses camera shots, elicits performance, etc, all in the service of manipulating the viewer to achieve a specific aesthetic effect. Manipulation is at the core of the art of direction.
4There are good counter-examples and fine writing will generally win over crude "good points" and "bad points" but even as late as 2012 there are still games which use such a crude scale.

5Though I did discuss an example which worked for me way back when I first started this blog.

Posted by Brett Douville at September 22, 2012 08:09 AM