Thursday, May 25, 2017

Virtue Ethics in Twilight

via Rolf Brecher on Flickr
I liked learning about virtue ethics in my high school philosophy class—I connected it to Twilight by Stephenie Meyer right away.

If you’ve never encountered Nicomachean Ethics, here’s a quick overview. A person is moral because they are virtuous, cultivating excellence in certain qualities or behaviors, avoiding both deficiency or excess. Everyone always uses courage as an example. Courage is a virtue, but too little makes you a coward, and too much makes you reckless. That sort of thing. (If you’re still confused, Spark Notes does better than I did.)

Twilight and virtue ethics just mesh. I credit this to the way in which Meyer constructs her vampires. Some vampires are reborn with superpowers (Edward reads minds, Alice sees the future, etc.), but some are not. All vampires, however, seem to regenerate with a dominant personality trait. It’s interesting to consider a vampire’s behavior based on whether they keep that trait in balance or not. These are my estimates for the Cullen family:

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I admire the Cullens for their virtues. Carlisle is among my all-time favorite characters because of his compassion. And it might be a little creepy that Edward can read minds, but I’ve always appreciated that this school compliments a gentlemanly perceptiveness, and doesn’t use his skills to humiliate or hurt others (except maybe in the case of Jacob).

Still, both characters’ actions result in negligence and hurt, too. Carlisle’s compassion makes him feel and seek to resolve Edward’s loneliness. When Bella arrives, Carlisle is so pleased that he condones Edward and Bella’s relationship despite its problematic elements. In my opinion, Edward moves past his abusive behavior by the end of Breaking Dawn—but that doesn’t excuse any of Edward’s actions beforehand. I hold Carlisle culpable as a bystander. As an authority figure attuned to others’ pain, Carlisle could have gone a long way in encouraging Edward to approach his relationship as a person instead of a vampire. Instead, he prioritized Edward’s pain over Bella’s, and his willingness to excuse his son’s actions shows how Carlisle has an excess where his son is involved.

Edward is the reverse—I see him as deficient of perception. On the one hand, Edward stays ignorant of Bella’s thoughts and wishes, even when she states them out loud. His willful disregard enables him to underestimate her, assume that leaving her will cause no long-term damage, and dismiss her ideas. He approaches Bella in the wrong way… But he approaches himself the wrong way, too.

For all his faults, Edward knows Bella is good. She is determined, loyal, and intelligent, and Edward attributes Bella’s positive traits to her humanity. This is why he fears changing her. As a vampire, her determination, loyalty, and intelligence would serve her bloodlust, rather than her family or community. Edward is likewise ignorant of any goodness in himself: he sees his body, mind, and abilities as tools of destruction that he has merely repurposed. He cannot fathom that he, a vampire, could be good, no strings attached. I don’t know if this series could have ended without Bella becoming a vampire. Until Edward sees that Bella maintains her goodness, he cannot perceive his own goodness, either.

As a final side note, virtue ethics is a fun lens for Twilight because it shows how the vampire couples complete one another outright. Edward gets into people’s minds and Bella keeps people out of them. Rosalie’s inner strength matches Emmett’s outer strength. Jasper looks into what is, and Alice into what will be. And Carlisle and Esme are a bundle of love and forgiveness, man.

Virtue ethics doesn’t help me explain or understand the books better, per se, but it gives me a construct with which to build my thoughts. And I love talking about Twilight, so there’s that.

Have you read a book where virtue ethics might reveal something about the characters?


  1. That's such an interesting way to think of a book. I realy enjoyed this analysis. I think there's lots to say about virtue ethics in Cinder--the Lunars can lie with their illusions but Cinder is powerful because she can detect lies. I also think that Divergent has a lot of this going on but it is too simplistic for my tastes. Anyway, fun post!

    1. Glad you liked it. And that's true, the very makeup of the Lunars puts their ethical existence into question. And from what little I know of Divergent, I would probably agree with that assessment. Thanks for reading, Shanti!


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