Ethical Engagement with Movies

Response to Carl Plantinga's Screen Stories

in Projections
Cynthia Freeland University of Houston

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In Screen Stories, Carl Plantinga concedes that films have considerable power to manipulate our emotions, attitudes, and even action tendencies. Still, he believes that film viewers do consciously engage in various types of cognition and judgment, and thus he argues that they can resist films’ manipulations. The “engaged critic” he calls for can assist in assessing how films create and convey their moral messages. I raise some questions about the account Plantinga gives of how both character engagement and narrative structures contribute to filmic manipulation. First, I note that there is an unresolved active/passive tension in his picture of film viewers. Second, I suggest that his treatment of narrative paradigm scenarios does not offer a strong enough account of the specifically filmic aspects of screen stories and how they differ from literary stories. And finally, I raise some questions about his ideal of the ethically engaged film critic and the social role to be played by such a critic.

Contributor Notes

Cynthia Freeland is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at the University of Houston and a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics. She has published on topics in ancient philosophy, feminist philosophy, film theory, and aesthetics. Her books include Philosophy and Film, coedited with Thomas Wartenberg (Routledge, 1995), Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998), The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror (Westview Press, 1999), But Is It Art? (Oxford University Press, 2001), and Portraits and Persons (Oxford University Press, 2010). E-mail:

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The Journal for Movies and Mind

  • Carroll, Noël. 1990. “The Image of Women in Film: A Defense of a Paradigm.” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 48 (4): 349360.

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  • De Sousa, Ronald. 1987. The Rationality of Emotion. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Kivy, Peter. 1997. Philosophies of the Arts: An Essay in Differences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Plantinga, Carl. 2018. Screen Stories: Emotion and the Ethics of Estrangement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Worth, Sarah. 2017. In Defense of Reading. London: Rowman & Littlefield.


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