The morality of loving villains

The allure of evil on-screen

Humanity has always had a perverse curiosity about the evil, horrible and disgusting, particularly when it comes to the characters presented in art. In recent years there has been a surge in audiences’ love for villains, with popular TV series such as You, Hannibal and Killing Eve inviting audiences to be taken in by the charm of psychopaths and killers. But is this morally dangerous? Not necessarily, argues Dr Panos Paris as he delves into the ethics and aesthetics of our attraction to immoral characters and why it can be a good thing.


What if I told you I’m a murderer who carefully stages his crimes and then arranges his victims’ bodies in sculpture-like poses? Or that I’m a psychopathic hitman, happily employed killing strangers? Some of you may be scandalised, and send a letter of complaint to the editors. But many, I suspect, will eagerly read on. We seem to be curious and perversely fascinated by the evil, horrible, and disgusting, as philosophers since Plato have been aware of.

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This feature of our psychology is harnessed by artists to create characters and narratives that seem deeply immoral, but that we are invited to find attractive, root for, and even become enamoured with. Why is that? After all, if you met someone who told you they’d done such things in real life, you’d want to steer clear of them and would likely feel repulsed. And yet, if you’re anything like me, you look forward to getting home from work, sitting back, and tuning into series like Hannibal, Killing Eve, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, or The Wire.


The last few decades have seen a barrage of programmes featuring immoral characters ... to whom we’re expected to respond positively.


While the phenomenon of attraction to evil characters in art is not unique to our time––Milton’s Satan is nearly four hundred years old––the last few decades have seen a barrage of programmes featuring immoral characters, ranging from murderous drug dealers (Breaking Bad; The Sopranos; The Wire) and sexual predators (You), to psychopathic killers (Killing Eve) and cannibals (Hannibal), to whom we’re expected to respond positively. Unsurprisingly, it’s also far more common and pronounced when engaging with fictional characters, or, when not fictional, characters viewed through the lens of art, who are at least safely distanced from our actual lives.

The number of such programmes and the appetite with which they are devoured can seem alarming. Unsurprisingly, they’ve led to speculation that such works can morally corrupt us by romanticising and making attractive spectacles of evil and violence. In the words of one columnist, “The young and impressionable youth of today might find themselves empathizing with and falling for people who are actually dangerous.” Another goes further, claiming that “With the introduction of more humanized offenders, … [o]ur former wariness about psychopaths, it seems, has been replaced with fascination and even admiration.” Such claims would have us think that works featuring attractive evil characters are immoral; or worse, that they’re morally dangerous.

Yet, you might think, works of art are not subject to the kind of moral evaluation to which real ideologies or actions are. Even if they are, this seems separate from their value as art or entertainment, or both. It is on us to ensure that we are morally responsible individuals in our conduct, but how we entertain ourselves, what we like in art, and, indeed, what we fantasise about, are beyond scrutiny.

Neither of these views, I suggest, quite captures how we should think about the moral and artistic status of works featuring attractive evil characters. This, I think, is because they fail to take into account considerable differences both between the artworks concerned and their appreciation. Upon reflection, I argue, the picture turns out to be more nuanced than either of these positions would have us think. While some works do, indeed, seem to be immoral and criticisable on that count, for others, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, some such works, far from being immoral, can be morally educative.


The immorality of works of art concerns not so much their subject matter, but the perspective they adopt


What, then, makes a work of art (im)moral? I think that the immorality of works of art concerns not so much their subject matter, but the perspective they adopt vis-à-vis those things as well as the responses they seek to elicit from their audiences, and the end to which they put these.

Consider the many artworks in different media, and the ways through which they prescribe sympathy, admiration, or attraction towards characters, including immoral ones. The mellifluous arias that pour from opera’s most charming rapist and murderer, Don Giovanni; the palpable oratorial brilliance of the paedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita; the resourceful use of camera, lighting, and music, to make murder fascinating in Breaking Bad; and the charismatic and good-looking actors that portray psychopathic murderers in Hannibal or Killing Eve. It seems an easy jump from these to the conclusion that such works are ultimately seeking to elicit our attraction to the immoral, and in so doing themselves adopt immoral perspectives.

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This is too quick and monolithic a response to works featuring immoral but attractive characters that philosophers, following Hume, call ‘rough heroes’. This is because in many such works, what’s most salient is their moral ambiguity and also their power to show us how easily we can be seduced into liking characters whom, we suspect, we’d never like in real life. In doing so, they employ what philosopher Berys Gaut has called the “seduction strategy”. Discussing Nabokov’s Lolita, Gaut discusses how the novel draws us into imaginative landscapes we’d normally dare not tread, only to reveal to us the power of art to seduce us, together with our own suggestibility and readiness to be seduced. Such works thereby serve us warnings to be more cautious, critical, and resilient in our ethical interactions with art.


Far from being immoral or romanticising psychopaths––though they may humanise them and make us conscious of the possible co-presence of attraction and immorality––works employing the elenctic pattern seem to me to be morally educative


Of course, this does not alter the fact that works like Lolita, Breaking Bad, Killing Eve, Orange is the New Black, and others, still encourage attraction and sympathy for their vicious protagonists. But is this necessarily bad? After all, it’s far from clear that dehumanising people who commit crimes, no matter how awful, is the most ethically appropriate response.

Again, this depends. Many programmes that call for attraction to immoral characters display what I’ve called an elenctic pattern, named after the Socratic method of constant questioning, including self-questioning. Works displaying such structures are carefully designed to elicit certain positive responses to immoral characters and their immoral activities, while constantly making us question not only the characters’ morality, but also our own responses to them along with our susceptibility to respond positively to them. A great example of this is Breaking Bad’s Walter White, towards whom we’re invited to alternately feel attraction and aversion, ultimately finding him a repulsive, if all-too-human, character.

Far from being immoral or romanticising psychopaths––though they may humanise them and make us conscious of the possible co-presence of attraction and immorality––works employing the elenctic pattern seem to me to be morally educative and important in developing our ethical thinking and self-reflection.

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Not all works featuring rough heroes adopt this elenctic pattern, however. Many do seem to ultimately romanticise evil and thereby adopt perspectives whose immorality is criticisable, while there are others whose lack of sophistication seems open to the charge of negligence, or even self-indulgence, when it comes to how they deal with their morally sensitive subjects.

For instance, certain works, like You, lack the narrative sophistication and character complexity that furnishes the elenctic pattern. While the series presents its protagonist as immoral, its lack of sophistication results, I think, in a moral ambiguity and a combination of attraction and aversion that is not channeled properly towards ethical reflection and self-reflection, rendering it morally ambivalent at best, immorally self-indulgent at worst.


To what end are we invited to take up the relevant perspective? Are we led down an ethically reflective path or wallowing in the mire?


Such self-indulgence is even more conspicuous in works like Dahmer and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, which seem to exploit our curiosity in order to portray their respective protagonists, Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, as attractive, not just charismatic. Such works seem to me to offer hardly any rewards besides stimulating that psychological dimension of imperfect human beings––all of us, that is––for the sake of entertainment rather than moral enlightenment. Ditto for many works by artists like Tarantino, Gaspar Noë, and even Scorsese, whose violence, sexism, and racism, seems gratuitous and self-indulgent.

I realise all of this makes for a rather complicated picture of the moral landscape of artworks. Is there any way to simplify things? Not quite, I think, but, as I suggest here, there are certain questions we can ask ourselves to assess and appreciate a work’s handling of its subject matter. These include:

(i)    Are we invited to find the immoral characters and their immorality attractive, or are we simply fascinated by them and consequently find them attractive?
(ii)   If we are invited to be thus attracted, then: do the characters have adequate complexity and depth to accommodate the psychology involved in genuine immorality?
(iii)  Finally, how is the invitation to find immorality attractive handled? In other words, to what end are we invited to take up the relevant perspective? Are we led down an ethically reflective path or wallowing in the mire?

Depending on how we’ve answered the above, different verdicts will be given on a work’s moral outlook, and, I think, such verdicts should also inform our engagement with, and aesthetic appreciation of such works. Thus, I do not think that artworks should be quarantined from our moral concerns just because they are often fictional, or at least partly products of the artistic imagination. Yet, their artistic providence does give them license to tread where we ordinarily shouldn’t—provided the rewards we reap are worth the price we pay.

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