Yesterday, I posted a link to The Onion’s satire about fictionology. today, a perfect example of an intelligent person who chooses a value system that lets her choose fiction over fact because it helps her to feels better about herself. Check out this essay by Martha Montello, Novel Perspectives on Bioethics at the Chronicles of Higher Education. She argues that we ought to be learning our ethics from fiction, and base our moral decisions on fairy tales and science fiction.
It’s a basic structuralist, post-modern argument. She is, in part, reacting against some of the Christian right groups involved in public lobbying on a Bill before the Kansas Legislature, who are citing the Bible as an authoritative moral statement against cloning and stem-cell research. Her argument implies that she doesn’t accept the moral authority of the Bible and would prefer to treat it as one of many context-sensitive historical narratives.
Of course, many people do take their cultural and moral cues from books and movies, and people generally find fiction much more engaging, entertaining and convincing than science, philosophy, theology, political theory and economics, or even the news. Many people have nothing else to inform or ground them. Fictional narratives are basically imaginative, dramatic, emotional constructs which may present a moral argument in a dramatic way. In fact there is usually a moral assumption, if not a conscious metaphor within any fictional narrative. When a fiction writer plays out a scenario, moral and cultural values come into play. Philosophers and theologians commonly analyze dramatic works for moral content. For instance I just finished Michael Ignatieff’s book The Needs of Strangers, in which he uses King Lear to illustrate several points about real basic human needs. I don’t know if should expect a logical and reliable moral argument in every dramatic work. When we deconstruct drama for moral content, we can often quickly decode the author’s cultural and personal moral program.
The idea of reading fiction to explore the range of human emotions and inform decision on policy and law isn’t purely a post-modern idea, or a particularly bad idea. Bureaucratic policy making and legal reasoning tends present itself as rational, when it is more technocratic. Canadian writer http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ralston_Saul has been a forceful critic of this approach, and American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written extensively about the emotional content of ethics, law and policy, with at least one book arguing for the need to read literature to get emotional involvement in law and policy.
Are all narratives are created equally? Which ones merit reading to make a particular decsion. That is one of the problems of post-modernism. It elevates literary criticism into a secular theology.
This essay was looking at public hearings into legislation in Kansas, where everyone was being careful to claim status as a Bible-reading Christian. The question what people might think about the issues if they had read certain books is interesting – but I am pessimistic about basing policy decisions on favourite literature. I also think it was not helpful to talk about selected modern novels in a way that implies that they should be equally privileged with the Bible, the Koran, and the holy books of religions in public discourse.