The Aesthetic Achievement and Cognitive Value of Empathy for Rough Heroes

Journal of Value Inquiry 56 (2) (2022)
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Modern television is awash in programs that focus on the rough hero, a protagonist that is explicitly depicted as immoral. In this paper I examine why audiences find these characters so compelling, focusing on archetypal rough heroes in two programs: The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. I argue that the ability of rough-hero programs to engender a certain degree of empathy for morally deviant characters despite viewers' resistance to empathizing with these characters' moral views is an aesthetic achievement. In addition, I argue that empathy for the rough hero has cognitive value in that it enables us to reflect on the nuances of the psychology underlying moral deviance. In defending these claims, I offer my view as an alternative to A.W. Eaton's robust immoralist view that the aesthetic value of rough-hero programs lies in their ability to make audiences empathize with immoral perspectives; my claim is that empathy for rough heroes does not extend to their moral outlooks. My view also provides an alternative to Matthew Kieran's cognitive immoralist view that a work's depiction of immorality has cognitive value insofar as it imparts a normative lesson; my claim is that rough-hero programs are cognitively valuable not because they teach us about the perils of acting immorally, but because they help us understand the moral psychology that underlies immoral behavior. I defend an interpretation of rough-hero programs that incorporates insights from Eaton's and Kieran's immoralist views but does not support immoralism.



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William Kidder
State University of New York, Albany (PhD)

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References found in this work

The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.Tamar Szabó Gendler - 2000 - Journal of Philosophy 97 (2):55.
Robust Immoralism.A. W. Eaton - 2012 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 70 (3):281-292.
Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality.Kendall L. Walton & Michael Tanner - 1994 - Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 68 (1):27-66.
Imaginative resistance and conversational implicature.Bence Nanay - 2010 - Philosophical Quarterly 60 (240):586-600.

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