Narrative Ethics

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These practices create a vocabulary and resources for moral deliberation that give us recognized and socially shared ways of deciding what is good or right to do. Since narrative approaches to ethics are not a singular, monolithic whole, the understandings and practices of what it might mean to engage in moral analysis narratively does indeed vary.

They can also serve as methods of clarification of confusing or contradictory moral reasoning when compared to each other. In trying to work through some particularly difficult moral dilemmas, narratives can help us to see where seemingly divergent viewpoints can possibly move closer together, when they cannot, and why, without resorting to ill-fated attempts to re order principles and re interpret laws. Thus, a narrativist account of moral problems, dilemmas, and general questions of moral judgment, takes seriously the multitudes of individual lives, and thus the multitudes of voices and interpretations of moral situations.

What matters, then, is not so much a reduction of moral positions to a commonly-held single perspective, but an opening up of a space for reasons and dialogues with equally morally worthy others, thereby expanding the possibility of a shared, rather than a unitary and monolithic, moral universe. It makes possible a way to engage in moral negotiations by reminding the participants to take into account how they got to the present point, what the present circumstances are, as well what they ought to do in the future.

At their best, narrative approaches to ethics welcome voices that, as Young noted, are differently situated, possessing quite radically divergent views of where they fit within the moral and sociopolitical discourses and debates. They remind us that different participants carry the burdens of different histories, epistemologies, and moralities. In the end, the narrative collaborative methodologies see stories as not merely ways to decide among competing principles, but as self-contained, and context-rich, reasons to revise moral understandings, to negotiate solutions, and to continue seeking the ever-elusive common ground Walker Given the narrative emphasis on multivocality, shared discourse, and the moral significance of individual voices, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that feminist philosophers have both employed and expanded the idea of narrative within feminist philosophy.

It is this desire to self-define as a protagonist of a largely coherent narrative that makes one as a moral agent Walker , Walker later expanded her views to include the narrative notions of collaboration and negotiation into moral work. To be accountable is, to some extent, to be viewed as accountable by others, and this means that our actions have to tell a coherent story at least to the extent that they are reasonably predictable by those who are affected by them in the sorts of situations that matter morally.

In the end, moral accountability is a narrative practice of making ourselves both internally and externally coherent, and in so becoming, weave ourselves into the fabric of a moral universe Walker Other feminist scholars have also turned to narrative as a way to engage with some of the central concerns within feminist ethical theory. For example, women whose moral agency is compromised because they choose childlessness against a more general pronatalist narrative can offer stories of womanhood as personhood without essentializing the women-as-mother. Because feminist theorists are generally concerned with addressing various kinds of oppressions—and especially the oppression of women—they have often construed personal stories as fruitful ways of theorizing morally dilemmatic situations.

Reading Stories for Ethical Awareness and Activism

These accounts serve a number of goals, including clarifying the harms of oppression, explaining the personal costs of cruel, myopic, or marginalizing moral reasoning, re-orienting the purely juridical and theoretical toward the non-ideal, and, among other things, motivating the development of moral thinking in ways that are inclusive of contextualities, situatedness, and burdened lives. Vivid, empathy-producing examples that tend to engage the moral imagination are often used by feminist scholars to focus on specific problems in order to show— and not to simply argue—that issues of sexism, oppression, gross power differentials, exclusion, and domination must be recognized and addressed both theoretically and practically.

For example, Sandra Bartky, as a part of her analysis of objectification, offers a story of harassment, catcalls and whistles, noting that her previously unremarkable walk was now a source of identity-threatening humiliation and brutal, othering objectification Bartky ; Moreover, Susan Brison, as a part of her examination of violence, identity, and the moral work of bearing witness, shares the very personal trauma of her brutal rape and assault.

Moreover, Susan Estrich employed her own story not just of rape, but of a right for her credibility as a reliable narrator of her experiences as a crime victim to police who did not take her claim to be a serious one Superson Through this reliance on a personal narrative of trauma and victimization, she addresses not only the broader challenge of confronting the presuppositions and prejudice inherent in American rape law, but also makes a case, through her personal narrative, for alternative, less abstract and rigid constructions of the notions of force and consent.

Turning to a different aspect of narrative—namely, fiction—the philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that the narrativity of literature provides a deep and necessary source of moral knowledge that not only more sharply attunes people to the various sources of morality, but also to themselves as sensing moral beings who enter into relationships of mutual responsibilities and obligations with each other Nussbaum We become who we are by learning to be a conversation partner in these narratives. Thus, the process of challenging, re-defining, and finally re-making moral theory and practice that is so central to the project of feminist ethics can, with the help of narrative methodologies, go far toward addressing women's oppressions, as well as the oppressions of numerous excluded others.

By telling their stories—by grounding moral theorizing in personal narratives rather than in purely idealized contexts and agents—feminists scholars are not only able to motivate a deeper understanding of ethical dilemmas, but also advocate for practical changes in the structures of marginalizing social practices by creating a more inclusive space of reasons within which to negotiate our moral understandings.

Principle-Based vs. Narrative-Based Ethics

Even though embraced by a not insignificant number of feminist ethicists, narrative approaches to ethics, whether feminist or otherwise, are not without their critics. Some concerns stem from a reliance on context, perspective, and circumstances of specific stories, which, for some, drift too close to relativism. Others worry about the dependence on testimony and storytelling as a basis of moral theory. A number of theorists also wonder about the theoretical and practical value of a narrative, contextualized approach for moral theory, broadly construed.

Second, Diana Tietjens Meyers, concerned about the reliability of testimony, suggests that narrative theory, instead of simply looking to storytelling as its sources of normativity, must prove its credibility as an account of morality by insisting on a particular skill set of the storyteller.


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Self-narratives are not all equally valid, revealing, and conducive to flourishing, but there is no property internal to self-narratives nor any interpersonal test that can rank them. Simply because a story is good or interesting, Meyers notes, it does not guarantee that it will be anything but an exercise in wishful fiction or a flight of fancy.

Without this kind of rigorous self-discipline, a narrative approach to morality seems at best less than fully credible, and at worst, a methodologically compromised enterprise that confuses the interesting and the exciting with the epistemically important and the morally compelling.

Narrative Ethics

Third, another kind of critique of narrative is offered by the philosopher and bioethicist Tom Tomlinson, focused on the worry about whether a narrative approach to ethics brings something distinct to moral theory that other, more traditional, approaches do not Tomlinson Instead, he argues that a focus on stories does not go far enough — or, indeed, any distance at all — toward enriching our moral epistemology.

If narrative sets itself against the overstructured and sterile methodology of juridical thinking, then, Tomlinson claims, we ought to expect to find something morally valuable that is unavailable to us through principles alone. And even if one were to set aside literary narrative and enter into a conversation with other people, the sort of particular knowledge one might derive through these interactions would not yield any moral knowledge that is generalizeable —that translates from one story, or from one storyteller, to another.

Indeed, Tomlinson sees no clear way to distinguish how a uniquely narrative approach helps with addressing ethical dilemmas from other methodologies. For example, in a case where one is torn between disclosing or withholding potentially devastating news, a narrative theorist might require a consideration of how much truth to tell, how to tell it, how one will hear what is said, who is doing the speaking, and so on.

And since these ideals can be whatever one desires them to be, the resulting coherence loses any meaningful normative force. He claims that not only does he not see himself or his life in narrative terms, but that he resents the idea of such a practice altogether. It can be said with some certainty that narrative approaches to ethics are not without considerable controversies and passionate critiques.

It also seems clear that there are significant and challenging insights offered by narrative ethicists—a number of which have been theorized, defended, and expanded upon by feminist ethicists. Indeed, it seems that feminist ethics and narrative approaches to normativity do indeed share a number of concerns, goals, and motivations that offer powerful counterstories to the largely principlist, abstract, and universalizing practices of traditional moral theory. But shared worries and a desire for a more multivocal and collaborative moral discourse do not presuppose, nor require, the same methodologies, and there are some clear and powerful points of disagreement both within feminist philosophy about the role of narrative in ethical theory, as well as among narrativists themselves about what kinds of narratives ought to count as properly normative and adequately action-guiding.

Literature and medicine: narrative ethics

Because there is not a single approach to feminist ethics, and certainly no single way of engaging in narrative analysis, it is quite difficult to make any tidy generalizations, either about the theories themselves, or about their complicated relationship. Yet perhaps this is exactly the point: theorizing that tends to move away from such generalization in its own methodologies unsurprisingly escapes any attempts at totalizing definitions, in the process changing and restructuring the spaces and scope of moral discourse. Anna Gotlib Email: AGotlib brooklyn. Feminist Ethics and Narrative Ethics A narrative approach to ethics focuses on how stories that are told, written, or otherwise expressed by individuals and groups help to define and structure our moral universe.

Introduction Even as a relatively new set of moral discourses and practices, narrative ethics has made its presence known. Narrative Theories and Methodologies Generally speaking, there is not a single theory of narrative ethics, nor is there a single correct way to engage in narrative analysis. McCarthy Thus, a narrativist account of moral problems, dilemmas, and general questions of moral judgment, takes seriously the multitudes of individual lives, and thus the multitudes of voices and interpretations of moral situations.

Feminist Ethics and Narrative Given the narrative emphasis on multivocality, shared discourse, and the moral significance of individual voices, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that feminist philosophers have both employed and expanded the idea of narrative within feminist philosophy. Some Criticisms of Narrative Approaches to Ethics Even though embraced by a not insignificant number of feminist ethicists, narrative approaches to ethics, whether feminist or otherwise, are not without their critics. Conclusion It can be said with some certainty that narrative approaches to ethics are not without considerable controversies and passionate critiques.

References and Further Reading Arras, J. L, Nelson ed. New York: Routledge, Bal, M. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative.


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