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Narrative ethics

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

I'm onto the third of the books on my early reading list for the Practical Ethics course. It's The Methods of Bioethics: An Essay in Meta-Bioethics by John McMillan. It's both interesting and somewhat challenging. I think I'll need to read it a second time. Just as well it's not too long.


One thing has just sprung out: the concept of narrative ethics. He explains how literature can help to deepen our moral understanding. Apparently, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which I had cause to refer to the other day, is on bioethics reading lists. He also suggests the film Gattaca and Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale. I would consider too Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, which I read when I was a kid and again as an adult, when considering issues related to human enhancement. Indeed, series like Westworld and other 'robot' dramas might also help thinkers bring moral reasoning to bear on complex matters.


In terms of my literary reading, I'm more than halfway through the final book in Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Already I'm a little anxious about how I'll feel when I'm done. Her work is inspiring me both in terms of the story and the ideas.


Some examples: Cromwell is remarked upon for making a promise that it proved dangerous for him to keep (in this case that he would look after Katherine's daughter, Mary, the future 'Bloody Mary'). He thinks, but that's the point of a promise - it wouldn't mean anything if you knew precisely what it would cost when you made it. This is interesting. Of course you can't break a promise because it turned out that it was hard to live up to it! But we don't often hold that awareness of the commitment and the moral task it involves precisely in mind. If you said, 'I'll do all I can - so long as I feel like it and it doesn't put me out' then you are making a pledge very different to the pledge 'I will always help you'. It is perhaps a sign of the dilution of the concept of pledges that divorce is so easy. Mind you, Henry VIII was hardly a moral exemplar there.


On that, Cromwell has some insights into the 'different reality' that is the lot of a king rather than an ordinary man. The law must keep up with the king's desires. The past is reinterpreted to fit his will.


Despite the allowances he makes for Henry, Cromwell expresses a deep sense of commitment to duty and obedience when trying to bend the will of the intractable Mary. He tells her that people do not obey law and duty because they are weak, but because there is 'strength and tranquillity in obedience'. This aligns with Kant's view of duty.


He coaches his son on the wisdom of the Greeks. Much of it seems to be Stoical in nature, but not all. Moderation - nothing in excess; know yourself; know your opportunity; look ahead; don't try for the impossible and remember that most men are bad. He also recalls his former employer Wolsey's advice: work out what people really want, it may be easy to give it to them. But this form of persuasion - or manipulation - has little effect, Cromwell thinks, when people are deeply entrenched in a particular belief. In that case, coercion ends up being the only option. In Mantel's version, he seems to regret that.


When given the maxims that someone lives by - or attempts to live by, or believes they live by - one is better placed to judge them, it seems to me. This is why giving reasons for actions is so helpful in increasing the chances of understanding, communication, collaboration and co-operation.


Where people are acting based on feelings alone, even in a just cause, it is much harder to have a dialogue.


The procedures in thinking - bringing moral reasoning to bear - outlined by John McMillan in the bioethics book seek to help us tease out the reasons for our intuitions so that we can scrutinise them and see if they hold up, empirically and ethically. The way that narrative can play out some of these issues does seem a helpful, if occasional, tool in this process.



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