Ethics is like navigation... stories are like the sea.

Friday November 27, 2009

Tidal Cave

Next Tuesday I am going down to London to launch my philosophy book, at the London Review Bookshop; and although not yet officially launched, apparently the book is now available from (it may take a little longer to get hold of in the United States and elsewhere in the world), as a friend has just got in touch to let me know that his copy arrived a day or two ago.

The book is about ethics and storytelling (the big give-away is the subtitle – “Ethics, Experience and the Ocean of Stories”). This is something that interests me from two angles. As a fabricator of tales and writer of fictions, I’m interested in the ethics of what I do; and as a philosopher fascinated by ethics, I can’t help noticing how, when it comes to ethics, we find ourselves again and again having recourse to storytelling. So the book explores two propositions. The first derives from Aristotle, and could be put like this: ethics is like navigation. The second proposition is one that I first came across in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, although it has a fairly long history at least in the Indian tradition, and it goes like this: stories are like the sea.

The argument of the book (or the story that I’m attempting to tell) takes place between these propositions. This is territory that I have explored to some extent in a post that I wrote here some time ago, and of course I don’t want to tell you the whole story, because I’d rather like it if you rushed out to buy the book; but perhaps I can say a bit more about one thing that interests me when it comes to this connection, and about my approach to stories.

Here I am also the making good of an old and as yet unfulfilled promise. In the earlier article, I suggested that the ethical force of a story lies not in some moral appended to the end of the tale, but rather in what Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling calls the “shudder of thought”. At the time I admitted that this idea was rather cryptic and would require some further exploration. But somehow, back then, I never quite got round to going back to this subject. Consider this an attempt, then, to fill that gap.

It seems to me that the temptation when looking at the relationship between stories and ethics is to see stories as somehow illustrative of ethics. Once a storytelling friend and I told a story at a Buddhist event. When we had finished, there was a tangible sense of… well, I’m not sure what of, but there was a tangible sense of something in the air, that kind of curious breathlessness that descends after the telling of a good story. But then master of ceremonies of the event cleared his throat and said, “So, what that story tells us is that we ought to…” And whilst what he said was well-intentioned, you could feel that curious breathlessness evaporate almost immediately as the story collapsed into a snappy little ethical maxim. Now, there is nothing wrong with snappy little ethical maxims; but I could not help feeling that in appending this particular maxim to this particular story, something was lost. It seems to me that this temptation to tack a moral on to the end of our stories (as in certain translations of the Jataka tales) is one that often seems to kill stories dead. Stories are more than ways of encoding moral propositions or exhortations.

Philosophers, too, often tend to see stories as somehow subordinate to a more deliberative mode of thinking. Even Paul Ricoeur – who appreciated narrative more than most – says that narrative is a preparatory stage for ethics. It clears the way so that the real work can begin. This is why Kierkegaard is important. His “shudder of thought” reminds us that stories cannot be contained so easily. The idea of the shudder of thought is one that arises in the middle of his discussion of the story of Abraham and Isaac from the Book of Genesis. The story is well known: God grants Abraham a son, Isaac; and then when the boy has grown, he asks Abraham to make a human sacrifice of him. Abraham, obedient to the last, takes Isaac on a pilgrimage up to Mount Moriah, prepares a sacrificial altar, binds the boy and puts him on the altar, lifts his knife… and then at the last moment an angel stays his hand. Now, I confess that I am not particularly interested in the theological ramifications that Kierkegaard sees in the bizarre and brutal story of Abraham and Isaac. But I am interested in the force of Kierkegaard’s insights into the nature of storytelling itself. What I think Kierkegaard is trying to do is to return us from a view of stories in which they are merely illustrative of ethics to something much more fundamental. The story he has chosen is useful for him because it simply cannot reasonably be taken as a story with a simple moral. And so because of this, it leaves us with a kind of shuddering that we cannot do away with. When we have no snappy little ethical maxims that can do away with the force of the story, we are left confronting this uncomfortable, peculiar shudder.

This shudder is, I think, the heart and soul of storytelling; and it is also what gives stories their ethical force. Stories are not just propositions in coded form, but they affect us, they act upon us in ways that we don’t quite understand. They act upon us physically, as flesh and blood beings, and not as philosophers bobbing around in the stratosphere of pure and heady reasoning. And because of this, I think that in many ways, although it is often maintained that stories are for the simple-of-mind, whilst philosophy is for real grown-up thinkers, the ethical demands that stories put upon us are greater than the ethical demands of ethical philosophy. After all, it is a relatively simple thing to debate the finer propositions of ethics. It is not hard to enumerate the thirty seven senses of the word ‘good’ according to its position in the sentence; neither are there any difficulties in pondering the mysteries of the categorical imperative, applying it to everyday evils such as lying, masturbation and selling one’s hair to wig-makers (all of which Kant believed to be entirely unacceptable forms of behaviour – even if performed at different times). Philosophers may hate to admit it, but philosophy is relatively easy. Talking about the good is a simple thing. The real challenge is how we actually respond to the needs of others, out there in the world, when we have left our armchairs. And perhaps it is here that stories can help, as a way of weaning us off our certainties, as a way of reminding us that it is because we are flesh and blood beings, who shudder and tremble, or who crave comfort and security, that ethics matters at all.

Image: Section of ‘Guanyin of the Tidal-Cave’, from Wikimedia Commons

# · Jayarava

Nice one Will.

Story telling seems to be a universal human activity, doesn’t it. Through story telling we can relive the past, live vicariously what happened to someone else, or imagine something yet to happen to anyone. It isn’t quite like the real thing, but it does evoke the associated emotions – how marvellous it is when a story moves us to tears, laughter, anger, fear. And it is emotions which make us act! Hence the relevance to ethics – if you are emotionally moved, experiencing empathy, then nothing more needs to be said, you’ve got the message.

Ethics to me is about imagining myself in the place of the other who I am relating to, trying to see how my behaviour will affect them. It’s like telling myself a story from another point of view to see how I might feel about it.

Looking forward to reading your book!


# · Robert Ellis

I look forward to reading your book, Will.

However, for the moment I wonder about this:

“the ethical demands that stories put upon us are greater than the ethical demands of ethical philosophy”

You seem to be equating stories with action and philosophy with purely abstract theorising, but is it really that simple? True, stories are more accessible, and involve our emotions and even our bodies more than abstract theories usually do, but that doesn’t mean that stories can’t be sidelined just as easily as theories can at the crucial moment when the courage of our whole integrity is needed, or that philosophy cannot sometimes help us to access that integrity more effectively than stories can. In some cases stories could even be seen as compensatory fantasies for our failure to act morally, diverting our emotions elsewhere rather than summoning them to a moral need.

Let me give an example. I confess to being a Tolkien addict, and few stories are as closely graven onto my imagination as Lord of the Rings. But does that make it more likely that I would act like Frodo, in undertaking a hopeless quest to save the world against all the odds? No, actually, I don’t share Tolkien’s extreme romantic rejection of all forms of utilitarian thinking, and faced with a task with a very low probability of success I would probably avoid undertaking it. The Dark Lord of our times is probably climate change, but given the complexity of such an issue it is careful reasoning that is required to address it, not single-minded heroics. If stories seem to demand more of us, but what they demand is often too narrow and placed in too small a picture, then the real moral demand is to put the stories in a bigger rational context using integrative philosophy, whilst harnessing their emotional energy.

# · Will

Good to see you, Jayarava.

Robert – I’d never pictured you as Frodo Baggins! In quoting me, you miss out the “In many ways…” with which I start the sentence, a note of caution I’d like to keep in.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is an interesting one. It is a story I find somewhat unpalatable, and I’m not particularly enamoured with some of the things that Kierkegaard draws from it. But at the same time, the way that Kierkegaard deals with stories is interesting, I think. What he seems to me to be doing is trying to use the story to invite reflection, to invite philosophy, if you like, by virtue of the fact that it does unsettle and trouble us. Kierkegaard, of course, is all too aware of the tragedy of the temptation that we have to simply go for stories that are comforting or that let us off the hook – a danger you rightly flag up.

So I don’t see it as a matter of either/or here (no reference to Kierkegaard intended at this point…). In fact, I think that in approaching ethics, we need both a sensitivity to stories and a commitment to thinking things through (although with the proviso that often we don’t have time to think things through before we act because we’re hard pressed, short of time, etc.)

However, we need to be aware of the fact that our reasoning may also lead us astray. One of the reasons I like Levinas, who also features in the book, is that he sees clearly how reason so very often damps down the ethical responsiveness we have to others. Reason, too, can be a way of getting us off the hook.

In the end, I don’t see a hierarchy here between stories and philosophy. Nor do I see an absolute difference between the two – there are all kinds of tides and cross-currents and so on. My suspicion is that you might give philosophy the last word (although I may be putting words in your mouth here – if so, feel free to vigorously disavow them). For my part, I’m not sure that the two can be disentangled as much as we think, and I’m not sure that there is a last word to be had when it comes to ethics.

So, on the one hand, I’m afraid of the narrowness of some of that which passes for ethical philosophy (which, at worst, can so often be not so much about ethics, but about how not to be sued, or how to demonstrate rationally that what we’ve done is good…), and on the other I’m afraid of the narrowness of single stories.

Which brings me to the point with which I finish. The challenge is how we respond: and given the demands upon us, we need all the help – whether in the form of philosophy, or of stories, or of various kinds of levers and pulleys – we can get.

# · Nachiketa


nice write up… check out a foodie’s interpretation of the book, <a href=“”>Haroun n the Sea of Stories Inspires Vibha’s Hoopoe Lemon Cake</a>

<a href=“”>The Variable, Crazy Over Desserts – Nachiketa</a>
<a href=“”>Catch me on facebook @ Crazy Over Desserts</a>

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