Ethical dimension

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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Ethical dimension


The axiological or ethical dimension of narrative (how a narrative conveys ethical values) have been studied by various authors such as J. Courtès, T. Hamon, and more recently J.-M. Adam and V. Jouve.

Histo-geographical placement


Type of story

Any narrative whatever its complexity, contains a system of values. However, some stories, like fables in which an explicit morale is included, are more easily analysed than others which are ambigious or ironic.

Parent Theories


Child Theories


Brief Description

The axiological or ethical dimension concerns the set of values that the author intends to convey to its audience. Indeed, most narratives embed an explicit or implicit judgement of what is good and what is bad. An ethical value can be seen as a pair of two opposite terms (honest/dishonest, collective/individual, generous/egoist, etc.) according to which characters' actions are evaluated. A continuous gradation between these two opposite terms constitutes an axis, which enables a more subtle evaluation. According to P. Hamon, a value involves a relation between actions. An action is evaluated according to another action, the norm. It is a transversal concept in narrative, related to the pragmatic approach, the narrative structure, the characters' psychology and the affective dimension.

The axiological dimension must be seen in a pragmatic view of narrative. A narrative is a device of communication from an author to an audience more precisely a device of persuasion and manipulation. According to M. Bakhtine, although monological in its form, a narrative is a dialogue with its audience. In that context, the axiological dimension is the raison d'être of a narrative, as an act of communication.

The system of values cannot be understood out of context. It is relative to the predominant system of values of the audience. Some narratives follow this predominant system, that is the author reinforces some values that are already acknowledged by most of its audience. Other narratives are more provocative, because they defend values that are not shared by its audience. In that case, the author must put more effort in the strategies for incorporating his/her judgement within the narrative. Because the system of values is relative, some work are more or less "readable", depending of a possible shift between the time/context of writing and the time/context of reading: An old story might not be correctly understood if the system of values in place when the story was written has changed.

The strategies for inserting an ideological point of view in narrative are diverse. For classification purpose, it is useful to use the classical story/discourse separation to distinguish between discourse-based strategies and story-based strategies.

At the discourse level, the ideological point of view can be explicitly contained in the text, at the boundary of the story itself: see the concluding or introducing moralistic sentence (written text or voice over). But in most cases, the axiological dimension is less explicit. As far as textual narrative is concerned, the author describes an element of a narrative (a character, an action, a place) with pejorative or meliorative terms. It is a common strategy for inserting authorial judgements within the narrative. For dramatic narrative (Theatre, Film, 3D Interactive Storytelling), specific effect can also be used, for example via the lighting (see the whole range of devices used in cinematography).

At the story level, the narrative construction itself conveys the system of values. Typically, the heros carries the positive values and succeeds over the villain, which carries the negative values. The heroes succeeds while the villain fails. At a less general level, possible actions available to the characters are ethically valued, and the narrative is often structured in such a way that a sucessful action but badly valued finally have negative consequence later in the story. Characters can be endowed with their own system of values, which is expressed both by their choices (goals and actions), their dialogs and thoughts. The author should then make it understood, more or less directly, which characters carry the author's values or not, by making them sympathetical or not. There exist plenty of strategies for that. For example, many filmic work would choose ugly faces for bad guys.

However, it should not be forgotten that many authors prefer being subtle in their treatment of values. In these stories, it is not clear which character is carrying the good values. These pieces are polyphonic (several opinions expressed), ambigious or ironic (voluntary propose a point of view contrary to their authentic values).

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Certainly because Artificial Intelligence has not paid much attention to the ethical dimension, few IS systems explicitely include the notion of ethical values. It is possible however to assign to narrative elements such as actions, goals, characters, etc. one or more ethical values, possibly with a numerical quantification. This enables the generation of an interactive narrative that exhibits the author's values, whatever the user performs.

Recent research on ethical agents (Guerini & Sotck, 2005) could open new perspectives in generating dialogs and actions based on ethical values, provided that the agents' perspective is then related to the global narrative (authorial) perspecive.

Systems/Tools using this theory

Two IS systems use the ethical dimension, Defacto and IDtension.

Based on the dramatic notion of conflict from Aristotle, Defacto explicitely implements a set of norms, that are used to compute the decision of narrative actions. For example, when implementing a ancient Greek tragedy, a norm is "divine worship".

IDtension, an Interactive Drama system, has implemented the notion of values. Tasks, which are concrete actions to reach goals, are attached to one or more values, with an intensity that depends on the degree to which the task violates the value. Characters are more or less attached to these values. The interest of each action can thus be computed, according to various strategies such as promoting an encouragement related to a conflictual action or blocking a non conflictual action.




  • Courtés, J. (1991). Analyse sémiotique du discours. De l'énoncé à l'énonciation., Paris: Hachette.
  • Guerini, M., & Stock, O. (2005). Toward ethical persuasive agents. Proceedings of the IJCAI Workshop on Computational Models of Natural. Edimburgh.
  • Hamon, P. (1984). Texte et idéologie. Paris: P.U.F.
  • Jouve, V. (2001). Poétique des valeurs. Paris: P.U.F.