The Expanding Moral Cinematic Universe
A subtheme for me this year has been grappling with how to reconcile different facets of my morality.
Part of this has to do with reconcile the virtues of “Protect yourself, maintain slack, be aligned with yourself and your community” and “But, maybe the world is metaphorically and/or literally on fire. How do you want to relate to that?”
Part of this has to do with “man, the story of the Expanding Circle of Concern may not be as nice as I thought, in ways that fundamentally challenge my conception of what ‘my particular morality’ even means, or whether it is coherent.” (This has gone hand-in-hand with me realizing my conception of ‘community’ may also not really be coherent, which has been challenging for my identity).
Along the way, I’ve watched some movies and shows that feel like they grapple with a particulate facet of the expanding circle of concern, and they’re accumulating into a private headcanon of the Expanding Moral Cinematic Universe. Stories in this cinematic universe featur characters in a harsh, bloody world… who inch their little corner of the universe forward as a place where friendship and cooperation can form. Less a sea of blood and violence and mindless replication.
Here are three vignettes, written over the course of the last year (originally on Facebook, later posted on shortform).
Part I: The Fox and the Hound
Originally posted January 24th on Facebook.
I watched Disney’s The Fox and The Hound a several months ago. I cried a bit.
While watching the movie, my girlfriend commented “so… they know that foxes are *also* predators, right?”
And, yes. Yes they do know that. This is not a movie that was supposed to be about predation, except it didn’t notice all the ramifications about its lesson. This movie just isn’t taking a stand about predation.
This is a movie about… kinda classic de-facto tribal morality. You have your family and your tribe and a few specific neighbors/travelers that you welcomed into your home. Those are your people, and the rest of the world… it’s not exactly that they aren’t *people*, but, they aren’t in your circle of concern. Maybe you eat them sometimes. That’s life.
Copper the hound dog’s ingroup isn’t even very nice to him. His owner, Amos, leaves him out in a crate on a rope. His older dog friend is sort of mean. Amos takes Copper out on a hunting trip and teaches him how to hunt, conveying his role in life. Copper enthusiastically learns. He’s a dog. He’s bred to love his owner and be part of the pack no matter what.
My dad once commented that this was a movie that… seemed remarkably realistic about what you can expect from animals. Unlike a lot of other Disney movies it didn’t require suspending disbelief much. A baby fox and hound might totally play together because they haven’t figured out yet that they’re supposed to be enemies. If that hound then went away for 6 months to learn to hunt, and came back, it might initially be hesitant to hunt down its fox friend, out of a vague/confused memory.
But interspecies friendship isn’t *that* strong, and doing-what-your-species/tribe does is often stronger, and yeah later on the hound is like “okay I guess we’re hunting this fox now. It’s what master wants. I do what master says, that’s who I am.”
...well, and then the hound gets attacked by a bear. And the fox comes back to save him. And on one hand, I bet 99.9+% of foxes would not do that.
But, having seen a bunch of youtubes of animals doing impressive things, I’m willing to buy that occasional hero foxes exist. I’m willing to believe a fox who is unusually brave, unusually long memories, and who remembers enough of his interspecies friend to intervene.
(This willingness to believe is weakly held. If someone who knew a lot more about foxes than me was like “nope, this is outside the space of what foxes do”, I’d believe them)
What gets me is… this is what my morality is built out of People who were mostly doing what nature or society incentived, who are still on the verge of eating their friends… but there’s little sparks of friendship/compassion/abstract-reasoning that build up along the way, combined with the abundance necessary for them to grow. And that’s where my* morality comes from.
Part II: Princess Mononoke
Originally posted February 13th on Facebook.
A few months late I rewatched Princess Mononoke, and… I’m finding that this is grounded in the same sort of morality as The Fox And The Hound, but dialed up in complexity a bunch.
The Fox and The Hound is about a moral landscape where you have your ingroup, your ingroup sometimes kills people in the outgroup, and that’s just how life is. But occasionally you can make friends with a stranger, and you kinda bring them into your tribe.
Welcoming someone into your home doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to take care of them forever, nor go to bat for them as if they were literally your family.
But in this ingroup-eat-outgroup world, there are occasional glimmers of heroism. People make friends across tribal barriers, and they try to make those friendships work despite the difficulties.
It is possible for a fox to remember his friendship with a hound, and decide that it’s worth fighting a bear to save his friend. This is a simple enough moral decision that it is just at the edge of a literal-fox’s ability to glimpse it, and decide to be a hero.
These little flickers of heroism slowly push the moral landscape from an ingroup-eat-outgroup world, to a world where people’s circle of concern is broader, and more complex relations between tribes can evolve.
Princess Mononoke is a world where tribes of humans and spirits are trying to make a home for themselves. Sometimes, other tribes (of humans, or spirits) want resources in your territory and try to fight you for it.
There is heroism within a tribe, as people struggle to survive and thrive. Circles of concern grow – Lady Eboshi makes the choice to rescue lepers and whores. She sees potential in them, and she forges them into Iron Town, aiming to make a better life for them than they had before.
But between groups lie zero-sum-games. To survive, they must cut down the forest, and go to war against the spirits.
The spirits are… perhaps “natural”, but their morality isn’t much different. They defend their tribe, they fight, they kill, they eat. They are at war with the humans and they are losing, but in a slightly different timeline they might have been winning, and they wouldn’t treat the humans any better than the humans are treating them.
Miyazaki intends there to be something special about the spirits that the humans aren’t respecting, which affects the ecosystem. But, fundamentally this is a moral landscape where no one has the slack or abundance to really think about ecosystems or how to negotiate towards peace.
And into this world comes Ashitaka the traveler, who walks among different tribes. Different people welcome him briefly into their homes, and he treats them with respect and they respect him, but he is not one of them. But he crosses between enough circles of concern to see...
...there is something really sad about this world where people wage war over limited resources, killing each other to better themselves.
In his heart, is a little glimpse of something better.
He’s smarter than Todd the Fox. Todd the fox seems a simple fight between his friend and a bear, and he saves his friend. Ashitaka sees a world of decades-long conflict and there is no simple solution, and he doesn’t really have a very good plan for fixing anything. He stumbles his way into different conflicts and sees people hurting and tries locally to help the people in front of him.
But soon he’s made friends with each of them. And as they are all locked in conflict, his efforts to help just shuffles the damage around.
With a bit of luck, by the skin of his teeth, his efforts lead to a world that is a bit better and more peaceful. For now.
His confused, bumbling heroism inches the world slightly towards a moral landscape where people can think longer term, consider (somewhat) the value of the ecosystem, form trading partnerships with more people, and build a better world.
It isn’t much. It’s still mostly an ingroup-eat-outgroup world. I think Lady Eboshi does more to improve the world than Ashitaka does – she’s a clever leader, she’s able to make actually good plans, she’s able to establish trade relations from a position of power. She doesn’t try to help everyone, she doesn’t overextend, she doesn’t bumble her way through conflict. She slowly builds an empire where she can take care of people. She employs the virtue of ruthlessness where it is necessary.
But, in little spurts of heroism, the intersection of people like Lady Eboshi, and people like Ashitaka, inches the world towards the sort of morality that I care about.
Part III: Gendy Tartakovsky’s Primal
Originally posted August 25th on Facebook
“Primal” is the third story that feels a part of the Expanding Moral Cinematic Universe.
I would put:
The Fox and the Hound
in roughly ascending order of “how much latent spirit of cooperation exists in the background for the protagonists.”
The Fox and the Hound each have a teeny ingroup of 2-3 people, and enough safety net that the characters can begin a friendship purely of play. There is death, predation, tribal conflict. The characters face an uphill battle to maintain their friendship and connection. But they are not alone. Their friendship is built on sedimentary layers of empathy, and trade. The protagonist’s allies warn them “foxes and hounds can’t be friends”, but notably, those allies know what friendship is and why it’s desirable.
Princess Mononoke’s world is one of medium-scale tribes, each of which has complex coordination going on within it, and many of whom have some ability to trade with other trades, a sense of honor and reputation.
Primal is about about cave man and a t-rex (named “Spear” and “Fang”) who become allies, and then friends.
The Primal world includes tribes who coordinate within each other, but they are remote pockets in a brutish, dino-eat-dino world. The protagonists climb out of a background-state of bloodshed, isolation, and meager survival.
The characters first become allies by necessity. They are bad at being allies. But they learn how to be good allies, and as they come to trust each other they learn to be friends.
Their friendship… isn’t completely built out of nothing. The cave man was raised among a small tribe, and in slightly different circumstances his story might have been more similar to the Fox and the Hound. He has some sense of what it can mean to have a safety net, and love, and companionship. But it is so precious little – teeny scraps and glimpses of what it can mean to have connection. The whispers of family-ship in this world are so close to being snuffed out at any given moment. Storms and quakes and human mistakes nearly douse the flame.
The show is very slow and meditative. There is not much going on. Sleep. Hunt. Spend hours walking to get places or watching silently as you prepare to strike, alone in the wilderness. There is only the next kill, and avoiding being someone’s next kill.
I’m only a few episodes in and not sure where this is going [fake edit: now 7 episodes in, and the show also clearly just wants to be a cool Pulp Action Adventure]. But I doubt that Spear and Fang will have much luxury of trusting or cooperating with almost anything else they meet. Their circle of concern only gets to grow by the tiniest inches to include each other.
But in my headcanon so far, in this world, two creatures reach across species lines, and kindle the beginnings of friendship in a world where such things barely exist at all.
Part IV: Fine Distinctions in “What counts as The Expanding Moral Cinematic Universe?”
When I posted Part 3 on facebook, several people suggested other works that might fit into the EMCU, and I began wondering about other works I’d seen. Movies that came up include The Land Before Time, How to Train Your Dragon, Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy, Mad Max and Smallfoot.
I’ve been looking at several people’s suggestions and thinking “hmm, that doesn’t feel right”, but then struggling awhile to articulate why. I’m noticing that there’s a lot of common movie tropes (“Romeo and Juliet”, “Boy + His Monster”, “Kids making friends from Across the Tracks”), which seem like they meet the basic criteria, and make this type of movie fairly common. But I feel some “naah” reaction to that.
I can tell that at least part of my reaction is, up until last week, I’d been thinking of this as a fairly rare precious thing I had discovered, so maybe I’m just embarrassed to realize “oh actually yeah this is super common.”
But, I do think there are also some important distinctions here that are worth tracking. I think in the platonic ideal of the trope I’m seeing includes...
1. The characters aren’t just expanding their own moral scope. They’re expanding the frontier of what morality even means in their world.
Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t really count, because while the characters develop morally, basically everyone else in the movie agrees those characters were loser assholes. Their character arcs are about getting “remedial morality”.
Meanwhile, Walking Dead is a similar genre, but it feels less about pushing moral frontiers forward, and more about people struggling to hold onto their existing morality as the existing social fabric crumbles and characters struggling to hang onto it. This is perhaps the same mental operation in some sense. It still involves realizing that the world has different moral constraints than you’d realized. And it still requires giving up things important to you to form a new morality, adapted to the times. From the perspective of the characters, I think it subjectively feels similar.
But it’s not bringing something new into the world that hadn’t existed before in earlier harsh times.
(I haven’t seen Mad Max but I suspect it’s similar?)
2. The movie engages with the fact that expanding the moral circle is hard. It looks like betrayal to the people around you. It requires giving up some things that were important to you.
2B. The cinematography, camera angles, music etc doesn’t treat it as a foregone conclusion that expanding the moral circle is the right thing to do. The “viewpoint morality” of the world is either “neutral”, or reflects the previous/current generation morality, not the new morality that the characters are adopting or 21st century morality.
How to Train Your Dragon doesn’t feel right here, although I think reasonable people can disagree, and I’m not sure it’s actually less true in Dragon than it is in Fox/Hound. I might have just been overly impressed with Fox/Hound because it was the first movie that gave me this vibe.
Honestly, most other Miyazaki movies fail here – I think Princess Mononoke is fairly unique in the degree to which it avoids spelling out who the heroes and villains are, and how you’re supposed to feel about the narrative.
The neutral point of view is important to me because, well, any other viewpoint is a lie. It presents the story as if morality was destined to be created one particular way. To be a true origin story of morality, it should come about by accident in a universe that didn’t intend it.
3. The movie feels “realistic” in the ways that matter. Realistic game theory, believable characters. And the movie feels like it’s sophisticated about that realism – it understands the interplay between the character’s motivations, character arcs, and brute facts of the surrounding environment.
It’s important to me in Fox and the Hound that Todd and Copper seem like an actually plausible fox and hound – Todd is a 99.9th percentile hero fox, but, seems to basically be a fox.
Princess Mononoke has all kinds of weird unrealistic spirit powers, but the game theory between the groups feels like reasonable game theory.
Of my original three, Primal is weakest here. Not the part where it takes place in a fantastical world where cavemen and T-rexes and weirder monsters lived side-by-side – that’s fine. And not the part where the T-rex feels Pretty Smart for a T-rex (I’m not sure how smart T-rexes are but I’m fine with Fang being a 99.9th percentile hero T-rex)
What’s wrong with Primal here is that the world is presented as bloody and dangerous, but in a very inconsistent way with unclear rules. How powerful Spear and Fang are depends on what kind of cool fight scene the writers wanted to portray. And the fight scenes and the moral-development aren’t separate magisteria – the whole point of their relationship is that the world is dangerous and it’s worth their effort to learn to be friends, so the world being inconsistently dangerous tarnishes the vibe for me.
4. The expanding moral circle feels like a primary theme in the movie.
I suspect Primal will also become weaker at this as I progress more in the series. (By episode 7 it’s becoming more clear the writers ALSO just really want to tell a cool adventure story, although I think it’s still a dominant theme so far)
Smallfoot is interesting here because it totally has all the right themes. It presents morality as being legitimately hard to change/expand. I think it’s sort of iffy on the neutral cinematography (I think it actively fails in the first half of the movie, but by the second half the camerawork seems to at least be acknowledging the situation is complex and it’s not clear what the right thing to do is. I think it does this more by flip-flopping on which viewpoint the cinematography represents rather than being neutral)
But Smallfoot also feels… like it’s more a movie about epistemics and curiosity than it is about ingroup expansion?
On the other hand, I think an interesting thing about Smallfoot is it showcasing ways morality has to grow/expand other than in-group expansion. The integration of epistemics and group cohesion is indeed an important part of moral development.
5. The piece feels “timeless and mythological”. I get a vibe watching it that the authors didn’t just tell a cool story, but presented something like a platonic origin story for a particular fragment of morality. The more unnecessary details and plotpoints dilute this a bit.
Primal looks to be veering away from this the more I watch of it.
(This is all “the particular thing Ray was getting out of Fox/Hound, Mononoke and Primal”, which is not to say it’s what everyone else should be trying to get. But, if you’re trying to download this particular aesthetic, these are some important points.)
Part V. “My” Morality?
I’ve been describing these as the origin story for “my” morality, and it seems important to distinguish that from “morality generally”, or even “morality for everyone reading this post.” I have major disagreements with several LessWrong contributors and people in the x-risk ecosystem (who in turn don’t all agree with each other. That’s okay. I love you and/or value your allyship anyway).
At a broad level, I divide my morality into two major buckets:
First, coordination morality, which I think has something close to an objectively correct answer (i.e. given a group of agents who value various things, and have varying power levels, and varying levels of information, there is some fact of the matter of what is the most utility they can gain. There isn’t a single right answer to how to coordinate, but some answers are clearly righter than others).
Second, there’s “I dunno, stuff I care about Just Because” morality. This includes helping powerless people I would never trade with, and (if I’m being honest, more commonly) includes cool art and cute narratives.
It also includes love, and friendship. And it includes deciding that those things matter for their own sake, even if they were originally some kind of instrumental accident of evolution.
What makes my heart flutter about these movies is the intersection of these two domains.
The character growth, and the civilizational growth present in Princess Mononoke is in some sense inevitable – the laws of physics and evolution dictate that groups are going to go to war, are going to expand, are going to bump into each other, and eventually figure out how to coordinate in higher order structures. Cooperation and negotiation allow for more resources. Aliens would develop coordination. Nonsentient robots would develop coordination.
But there’s something warm and special about the story of Friendship.
Friendship was born in stories like Primal. It matters that Spear and Fang are not just fair-weather-friends, but people who grow to care about each other deeply and work exhaustively to protect each other for their own sake. They fight and bleed for each other. They do so in a harsh world that demands it – without each other, they would die.
But millenia pass by. Small flickers of friendship are fostered alongside utilitarian coordination. And one day, maybe, a Fox and a Hound are born into a world that has Just. Barely. Reached the point where they can be friends for essentially no practical purpose at all.
Part 0. The Gift We Give To Tomorrow
The first story I read that really sets the stage for all of this, the Ur-Prequel, the genesis story of how this all began, is Eliezer’s The Gift We Give To Tomorrow.
If you haven’t ready it in full, I highly recommend it. I almost want to quote-block the entire thing. But, here is it’s ending, which is simultaneously the beginning and (I hope) the end of the story.
But come on… doesn’t it seem a little… amazing… that hundreds of millions of years worth of evolution’s death tournament could cough up mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, steadfast friends and honorable enemies, true altruists and guardians of causes, police officers and loyal defenders, even artists sacrificing themselves for their art, all practicing so many kinds of love? For so many things other than genes? Doing their part to make their world less ugly, something besides a sea of blood and violence and mindless replication?
Love has to begin somehow, it has to enter the universe somewhere. It is like asking how life itself begins—and though you were born of your father and mother, and they arose from their living parents in turn, if you go far and far and far away back, you will finally come to a replicator that arose by pure accident—the border between life and unlife. So too with love.
“A complex pattern must be explained by a cause which is not already that complex pattern. Not just the event must be explained, but the very shape and form. For love to first enter Time, it must come of something that is not love; if this were not possible, then love could not be.
“Even as life itself required that first replicator to come about by accident, parentless but still caused: far, far back in the causal chain that led to you: 3.85 billion years ago, in some little tidal pool.
“Perhaps your children’s children will ask how it is that they are capable of love.
“And their parents will say: Because we, who also love, created you to love.
“And your children’s children will ask: But how is it that you love?
“And their parents will reply: Because our own parents, who also loved, created us to love in turn.
“Then your children’s children will ask: But where did it all begin? Where does the recursion end?
“And their parents will say: Once upon a time, long ago and far away, ever so long ago, there were intelligent beings who were not themselves intelligently designed. Once upon a time, there were lovers created by something that did not love.
“Once upon a time, when all of civilization was a single galaxy and a single star: and a single planet, a place called Earth.
“Long ago, and far away, ever so long ago.”
Upon reflection, Eliezer’s The Gift We Give To Tomorrow is also a pretty key piece in this moral
Man this show is really into reminding you that it’s directed by Genndy Tartakovsky.
Incidentally, Smallfoot is an excellent Rationalist Children’s Movie. Independent of whether it fits in the EMCU, it’s got a lot of great themes and complex choices.
Copper is merely a 90th percentile hound. Todd does most of the heavy lifting IMO.
These sort of map onto two of Richard Ngo’s moral strategies at different capability levels. I haven’t finished thinking through the ramifications.
Or, perhaps, the middle of the story.
Tangent: people tend to want a lot of purity in their moral heroes. Impurities get brought up to dismiss past accomplishments and especially to dismiss people who are in the messy business of expanding the moral frontier. It’s been helpful to me to remember that MLK cheated on his wife, Gandhi did even more questionable stuff, and their progress was still real and good.
If we’re talking Mad Max: Fury Road, or even Beyond Thunderdome, this feels like the characters are reclaiming a moral boundary that had collapsed.
Though I also note they are quite a bit more focused on the community element: do they want to be a community together; can they, personally, deal with those requirements; can they find a place and resources to do it; etc.
Other communities exist, but are overpoweringly and explicitly ingroup-eats-outgroup or even ingroup-eats-ingroup in the sense of being exploitative.
Yeah, I think sufficiently advanced post-apocalypses are basically “The Before Times”. (And, even medium-advanced post-apocalypses certainly share structure with what the OP is talking about). But, for me there’s something particularly compelling about origin stories for how bits of morality first appeared in the world at all.
I agree they make for really good stories. I tell you what I would like to see more of in these stories is leaning into the moral dessert of it all.
Fox and Hound: make friends and gain the ability to survive bear attacks!
Mononoke: make not-enemies and not-die to spirit stampedes or cold iron!
Primal: make friends and you can eat anything!
Actually, the Primal example is so on the nose I feel like a better term is needed for coordination-related-morality. Moral dinner seems fitting. Be good, so you can eat.
I do think it’s kinda important that a major moral of the fox and the hound is “make friends because having friends is nice.” (or, to be more clear: “make friends so you have people to play and have fun with, who like you, who give you a feeling of lasting connection”. Notably, Todd doesn’t get saved by a bear. What’s he getting out of it?)
But yes getting literally saved from bears is a big part of the package.
I note a broken link in your first Facebook link that goes to a Content Not Found issue about the Fox and the Hound.
I think fixed now. (I made the post public, which I’d forgotten to do)
Zootopia next please.
I do like Zootopia on similar axes to this. I think it fails to meet my personal bar for inclusion on “doesn’t do neutral point of view” grounds.
I like that it tells a fairly complex story that engages with societal problems being fairly complex.
One of my favorite bits of Zootopia I look at through the lens of “epistemic horror.” The scene where Judy is trying to articulate her current epistemic state to the crowd of reporters, and then both she’s not very good at explaining / is-slightly-wrong, and they aren’t capable of hearing her nuance, and she’s realizing as she talks that she’s not able to say the right thing and her attempt to just report her thought process is getting distorted and hurting her friend and it’s not even clear what she should have done in the first place instead… felt like it was getting at something pretty important.
I do find it a bit lame (esp. in the context of this post) that they don’t engage at all with… what exactly do the predators eat these days? Is everyone in Zootopia vegan?