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Moana: Wayfinding & Competing Moral Traditions

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

In Disney & the Moral Imagination, Sean Hadley explores Moana’s depiction of the moral tensions of lived communities, as morals are informed by one’s story, yet one’s culture may contain many competing narratives. Moana embodies a tension between physicalist and metaphysical moral perspectives, and Moana’s moral development depends on her understanding of the two traditions which pull at her—the past and the present. As Moana is concerned with questions of telos—of who one ought to understand oneself to be—her concern aligns well with a virtue-oriented perspective advanced by Alasdair MacIntyre. In contrast to other Disney films which oversimplify ethical choices, Moana explores complexity and conflict within characters who wrestle with moral conviction, cultural tradition, spiritual encounters, and subjective emotions. Wayfinding requires knowing where you’ve been and knowing who you are is intertwined with knowing your way forward.


"Just as chief Tui proclaims of the Heart of Te Fiti, “There is no heart! This is just a rock,” the audience can be assured that he is wrong. The rival moral traditions on display are tied to the culture they represent, but they embody the larger understanding of competing claims and the power of narratives to aid the imagination in ethical development.”

"Moana’s development depends on her growing understanding of both traditions which guide her: that of the past and that of the present. While Moana relishes in knowing her history, Maui actively tries to forget his own. When he does finally relent to Moana’s pestering, his story reveals that he, like [Chief] Tui, has forgotten the aspects of his past which make him who he ought to be. His actions are an intermingling of selfish desires and selfless actions, a conflict which results in the final overstep that set the movie’s plot in motion. Only by acknowledging this, does Maui begin to regain the divine powers granted to him by the gods, which simultaneously allows him to fulfill his calling alongside Moana. It is… the metaphysical reality bearing down on the physical, enabling virtuous action. As Maui explains to Moana, even sailing (“wayfinding”) consists of “knowing where you are by knowing where you’ve been.” Wayfinding, then, is more than mere navigation; it consists of a philosophy of action that depends upon understanding what lies behind, namely the past. This blending orients Moana towards courageous actions, which are finally mirrored in Maui’s own choices, particularly when he puts himself in harm’s way to protect the young girl."


This post is meant simply to offer a glimpse into our Disney & Apologetics project. Excerpts alone, however, cannot stand for an entire chapter, nor can they stand as representative for all the other ideas to be explored and arguments to be made in this 500-pp, two-volume work. There is much more to ponder within these pages! If you want to think more carefully about morality, about using the formative artifacts of pop-culture to approach Christian apologetics, and about the connections between imagination, aesthetics, and theology, buy this book! You can see what others say about it here and here.


Sean C. Hadley graduated from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2017) and Faulkner University's Great Books program (PhD, 2023). He has taught in the classical classroom for fifteen years and is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Classical Education Research Lab at the University of Arkansas.

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