Free Essay On How Important Is It That Satire Has A Moral Purpose?
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Satire has been part and parcel of human development since ancient times. It has always been cherished for its humorous and witty nature and despised for its offensive, harsh and touchy messages. It is such a thing that is generally conceived to talk for morals, but its own morality is often put under a question mark. Does satire has a place in a society and does it carry any importance? Such questions often attempt to dilute that crucial role that satire plays in any society and group.
However, despite all the hatred, satire has made its way with the humans from ancient times to the modern world. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that satire was one of the tools that helped humans reach into the modern world. Modernity owes some credit to satire. French revolution, freedom from slavery, monarchy and advent of democracy are all such events in human development in which satire has played an important role.
But satire is often questioned and rightly so for its fundamental objective, purpose and aims. Even though satire has played a role in morality’s uplifting in the past. However, does that mean that a satire without a moral purpose is not possible or adequate. It has been and could be argued that moral purpose could be one of the many purposes under which a satirical expression, audible or visual, is made. In other words, there could be many reasons and motives for satire. Morality may definitely be one of them, but not necessarily the only one. And, if morality is one of the many motives behind a satire, it may lose its worth and importance significantly from satires. However, under the traditional system, if morality is the motive and way to go about satire, it carries primary and fundamental importance. Such contrary view leading to contradictory conclusions lead to the question as to how important is it for a satire to have a moral purpose?
In this purpose, this question has been addressed. The paper begins by defining the satire and based on that it analyzes its nature and importance in a society. Once that has been established it moves on to analyzing the role of morality in satires. It takes two different and dominant ethical theories and perspectives to analyze the question and thus leads to its conclusion.
It is noted in the paper that a good satire is built around humor with an intent of improvement and reforms. A relativist view of ethics may propose the role of moral purpose to be subjective and hence, needless. However, morals are such that they play soul and body’s role in its relation with any activity. Therefore, morals remain intact to satire which means that satire cannot be done without morals. Thus, deontologist moral view further argues that universalizable morals must be the intent under which a satirist satires which leads to the conclusion that moral purposes and objectives carry grave and fundamental importance to satire.
Defining a satire is one of the most crucial aspects of the debate because this is where one gets to decide its relation to morality and moral objectives. Thrall et al. define satire as follows: “A literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man’s devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling” (436).
There are three things worth noting in this definition: the intent is to ‘improve,’ therefore correction is the base on which the house of satire is built. Then the walls of this house depend on humor and wit. Finally, what completes the house, the roof, is not under the idea of destruction, but sheltering the good and preventing it from bad by remodeling or reforming the existing institutions.
Thus, based on that, Harris argues that a good satire always has a corrective intent underneath (1). If the intent is to correct, the purpose already becomes moral. Similarly, Harris cites Swift writing that satirists work with the aim of amending the world (1). Satire aims to take out the evil and bring back the good in the society. A satirist attempts to point out the moral beleifs and practices that have been put aside by the society of institutions so to remind them of their wrongs and hope that they learn and fix their behaviors and policies. The apparent ridicule is not to insult, rather it uses humor to give a message that otherwise may sound unacceptable. Humor and wit allows for such words and expressions that generally have been ruled out of the societal norms. But through that wit, satirist attempts to reshape the thinking of individuals, the powerful ones and make the reevaluate their actions.
For example, Baxley examines the nature of satire in Oscar Wilde’s work. He argues that Wilde has not only made the criticism socially acceptable by putting it in the humorous disguise of satire, but also presented the commentary and the underlying message through it very clearly and comprehensibly (1). What is interesting about such path is that much of the audience might go unaffected and remain ignorant of the underlying moral message of the play. However, those who would be crossing the lines or would be on the edge of crossing, would quickly realize and the play might act as a reminder for them to take a step back and examine their lives (Baxley 1).
Satire not only has a moral purpose, but under morality it is also guided towards a particular audience and target. Traditionally, satire has been a weapon and voice of powerless members of the society against the powerful ones (Petri n.p). Therefore, the moral target of satire remains the power holders. As mentioned before, satire is done with corrective intent, therefore, power holders become the ultimate and direct target of that. The idea must be to express the flaws, errors and shortcomings of the people of power so that they may better themselves up. People of power do not live lives as individuals, they influence many others too. Therefore, the armor of power that they control is not just a luxury but an engineered tool of influencing the lives of hundreds and thousands of other people accordingly. Therefore, correcting the powerful means, correcting the general public. Thus, although the satire remains a voice of the weak, but it always targets the strong ones.
That is why a debate that arose of the recent Charlie Hebdo incident in which a satirist cartoonist was murdered by radicals for drawing pictures of Muslims’ Prophet, Mohammad. The question raised was that Muslims may be the incorrect of all in the modern world, but are they really the powerful ones? It was based on the idea that satire ought to target the powerful ones. In France and rest of the Europe too, Muslims are a small majority. More importantly, in France, they do not even get to enjoy their civic liberty to practice their beliefs openly especially burqa ban for Muslim women has made Muslims a vulnerable minority in the country (Petri n.p). Therefore, satire against a weak section of the society apparently was against all the traditional aims of satire. Molly Ivins said that “When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel – it’s vulgar” (Petri n.p). Therefore, under such belief regarding satire, targeting Muslims in France through satire was cruel as well as vulgar though that still does not justify the killing of the cartoonist which is why ‘Je Sui Charlie’ movement remained very strong and effective.
However, it is worth noting that the above discussion does not necessitate morality as the fundamental purpose of satire. It does emphasize that satire can be and has been useful in criticizing for the objective of betterment however, it does not necessarily mean that satire can only be for moral purposes. This is a question that still needs answer.
Relativism is one of the ethical perspectives that may create room for morality having no need of morality. Relativism preaches that there is no such thing as absolute truth; everything is subjective and relative. The values, beliefs of individuals and societies are always subjective and contextual; there is no objective nature of ethics. Context gives value to one thing as good and puts aside the other as bad. These become belief of the individuals and that is why different people in the world find different things to be right or wrong than others. And then such subjective value systems dictate the actions and perceptions of the individuals as well as the societies (Gowans n.p).
Applying relativism to the question under consideration would mean morality having no importance in satire. A satire would then have a subjective view and one may or may not satires for the purpose of uplifting morality. It could even be quite contrary to that. In short, relativism perspective would plea against restricting satire for moral purposes only.
Some believe that satire needs no moral objectives. Clark is one of the authors that have argued against satire being based on moral premises (498-505). The primary argument of Clark is based on the idea that satire is based on aggression and criticism therefore, it is innocent of morality (498-505). However, his argument seems incomplete. It could be noticed that even aggression and criticism requires objectives and purposes. These objectives and purposes have moral grounds and justifications. Whether one agrees with those morals is a separate debate, but nothing goes without taking a path of a particular ethical way. Harris explains that central objective of a critic is to point out those areas where a person or a thing falls short of the standard. It distinguishes good from bad and criticizes the bad for not being good (1). Distinguishing involves a preconceived notion of morality. Therefore, criticism goes hand in hand with morality and thus, satire’s primary objective also becomes grounded on morality.
Similarly, it could also be argued that moral purposes have no importance for satires as often a satirist targets something that cannot be changed, so the idea of criticizing for improvement would not fit in there. Many of the desires, tendencies and habits come very natural to human beings and are unchangeable (Harris). Jealousy, egotism and many other tendencies are such that humans cannot live independent of them. However, the problem with such argument is that it ignores the fact the job of satirist is to point out the shortcomings or undesirable things. It can be done irrespective of the fact that such habits can be changed or not. The point is that for an enlightened society, such tendencies are backward pulling and thus need to be avoided and get rid of.
That is why Harris argues that under such cases, the intent may still remain corrective, but the direction becomes to see such things as derogatory and despised. When a person despises such habits and goes against his or her natural tendency of being egoist and resists jealousy, that is when societies reach beyond their limitations of development. This is what a satirist might be eyeing at. Therefore, the aim is not always to change fundamentally, but sometimes to avoid and resist the tendency towards unchangeable.
Considering on Harris’ response to Clark, further analysis shows that morality has an objective nature. Morals could be different in different contexts and situations. However, no scenario and action is free of morals. Every person lives and every society is built on some moral values. These may not be perfect morals and many may disagree with such moral standards too.
However, this does not negate the fact that moral beliefs are always there. Even not believing in morality is a moral belief. Therefore, there is no life free of morality. Thus, this leads to the conclusion that even satire can never be free of morality. From Ivins belief that satire has to be against powerful and a satire against powerless is an act of cruelty to Clark who proposes satire needs no morals, each and every thinker has a preconceived notion of morality in his or her mind and preaching that same notion through his writing and backing that kind of satires.
It was noticed above in Harris’ point that a satirist criticizes and does so based on some fundamental moral values. These values are the standards that the satirist believes in and may wishes to reshape the society or the individual based on those standards. Thus the primary objective and purpose of satire becomes to target the area where there is standards are not being followed. Mack argues that satire proclaims the necessity and value of norms in a society (85). A satirist using recognizable codes and these codes help assert the importance of beliefs, values, norms, moralities and other important aspects for ameliorating or improving. Therefore, Harris concludes that satire has a strong connection with justice and morality.
An ethical viewpoint that may strongly propose and support the importance of moral purpose of satire is deontological ethics. Deontology believes in reasoning and proposes that reasoned principles must be strictly followed under all circumstances (Alexander et al. n.p). Kantian ethics are deontological. He argues that reasoning proposes that one must act under the influence of internal moral duty which requires a person to commit only universalizable actions. That means humans should do only such deeds that everyone else can do under the given circumstances. More importantly, Kant also proposes treating humans as ends in themselves with respect and not as means towards an end. (Alexander et al. n.p)
Application of Kantian deontological principles would mean that a satirist like everyone else has a moral duty to not only base his or her work on moral principles, but also aim to achieve similar objectives. In other words, a satirist is under a duty to be moral and his or her work should be a reflection of those morals. More importantly, these morals ought to be reasoned out in a way that they could be universalized and treat humans with respect as ends, not as means.
Harris’ view of corrective intent fully supports the idea presented here. An action is a combination of the intentions and the activity performed. A satirist without the intention of moral uplifting might be performing an empty deed which could not be universalized. However, the intent when combined with the activity, a humorous and witty criticism of lack of living up to the requirements or expectations, makes the action universalizable. More importantly, it treats humans with respect and as an end in themselves too because its sole aim is the moral uplifting of the individuals and the society. Therefore, a satirical work done with moral purpose also gets backed by one of the dominant ethical views, Kantian deontological ethics, as it sees moral purpose’s involvement in satire a duty of the satirist.
Therefore, it could be concluded that a satire is impossible with moral intents and even if done with a preconceived notion or amoral, it remains incomplete. The paper reviewed some literary ideas regarding the importance of moral purpose in satire. It began with taking a definition of satire in which three very crucial and important points were noticed; intent of correction, humor and targeting the powerful. Further, it was noticed that satire traditionally has been a weapon of powerless to express the incompetence of the powerful. It has been used as a tool to express the shortcomings of the people of power in a humors manner.
However, when the question of moral intent’s importance in satire was examined through moral and ethical theories, the issue opened up to its roots and a more comprehensive explanation came up. Although, relativism apparently backed the idea of satire having no need of moral purpose, but even that could not deny or counter the argument that even not believing in morals is a belief in a particular type of morals. Therefore, it established that nothing is free of morals. Thus, the question remained whether one should consciously and purposefully make morals part of the satirical deal.
Deontology helped examine and answer this question. It was noticed through Kantian ethics that actions need to be universalizable and must treat humans as ends not as means. That meant that it became a duty to intend moral when doing satire as otherwise it would not become universalizable or a respect holding component in treating humans.
Therefore, it is established that moral purpose and intent has a strong place and high importance in satire. The debate of morals and standards has also been touched and analyzed in this paper. However, it could and should go beyond for further analysis to a thorough look into what are human moral values and how they ought to kept alive and cherished in the society.
Alexander, Larry, and Michael Moore. "Deontological Ethics." Stanford University. Stanford University, 21 Nov. 2007. Web. 08 Apr. 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/>.
Baxley, Danielle N. "Satire and Wit in Oscar Wilde." USF - University of South Florida, 28 Mar. 2010. Web. 9 Apr. 2015. <http://legacy.usfsm.edu/academics/cas/capstone/2009-2010/literature/baxley%20-%20satire%20and%20wit%20in%20oscar%20wilde.pdf?from=404>.
Clark, John R. "Formal Straining: Recent Criticism of Satire." College English 32 (Jan. 1971): 498-505.
Gowans, Chris. "Moral Relativism." Stanford University. Stanford University, 19 Feb. 2004. Web. 08 Apr. 2015. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/moral-relativism/>.
Harris, Robert. "The purpose and method of satire." Virtual Salt (1990): 1-11.
Mack, Maynard. "The Muse of Satire." Yale Review 41 (1951): 85.
Petri, Alexandra. "What Is the Aim of Satire?" Washington Post. The Washington Post, 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 08 Apr. 2015. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2015/01/09/what-is-the-aim-of-satire/>.
Thrall, William, Addison Hibbard, and C. Hugh Holman, eds., A Handbook to Literature. New York: Odyssey Press, 1960.
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