Thieving Thursday: Ethics

>> Thursday, May 28, 2009

Relax Max had some ethics exercises based on real events on his post earlier this week.

Food for thought. And I like thinking.

I don't have real situations to quote, but I have thought about the kind of questions that he posed for my writing. I have to do that for my novels, and sometimes my characters, even the protagonists, make choices a reader might struggle with. I think it's healthy to do that with readers.

For instance, I have people in my Jenri novel (the Jenri) who kill many people. I am not a violent person myself and I'm inherently against killing people out of hand, nor do they. They kill only those that are actively attacking/endangering themselves or their loved ones. It's that second part, endangering, that makes it smokey for me and, likely, a few readers. Also, they attack quickly and kill the same way - in a world (sword and sorcery) where violence is a daily fare, leaving someone injured rather than dead is good way to get killed. Is it ethical? I'm not sure the world is black and white - I can't give you an answer. Can you safely save yourself with a clear conscience even if another loses his/her life? I don't have the answer.

That's kind of the point. Readers can decide for themselves how they feel about my characters, whether their actions are justified or whether they cross the line the readers have for themselves.

I have another character who stumbles across some slavers posing as gypsies and he kills them, freeing the slaves. A reader objected that it was disgusting, but it was who that character was. What's more (and this is true of all my protagonists), I was sympathetic with his position and his decision. I may not personally follow that path myself, but I can see it under the right circumstances. I also understand that not all readers would. But I want to be able to show his side well enough that some would.

I might add, as I've mentioned before, that it is a personal thing for me in all my work that rapists end up dead, often in ugly ways. Personally, I'm good with that, but many may not be.

Or, a more pointed example (one that bothered my husband so much I almost took it out and ended up changing it): under what circumstances could one understand a mother killing her own children? Impossible, right? What if she's an unwilling slave in a brutal man's harem and her children face the same fate (my novel)? What if she were in a concentration camp and the children face a slow death if she does nothing? What if your family faced starvation if you all lived?

What if the choice was saving your own child or other people's children? What would you choose?

It's easy to have clear cut answers in a world where the average family throws away enough food every year to feed several other families, when your children are safe asleep in their beds.

I'll be honest. I don't know what I'd do and I hope I never find out. But I think it's healthy to ask ourselves such questions if only to realize how lucky we are, to help us understand some of the horrible things that have happened in the past, to open our minds to situations we wouldn't empathize with otherwise.

One side note. Relax Max was dealing with shipwreck scenarios. One of the many things that bothered me about what happened on the Titanic (other than the number of third class women and children who perished) - and I've never heard anyone talk about this - is why they didn't take off some damn doors. Ever seen the actual footage from the Titanic: doors as far as the eye can see, hall after hall. Ten men with screwdrivers could have liberated dozens of doors. You could make a raft with a couple but even a single door could mean the difference between living and dying in that ice-cold water. I'm completely floored that no one on the ship, not one person, thought of this. It was the first thing that struck me watching Titanic.


  • Roy

    This was interesting, Steph. And it made me think how our particular culture affects how we view the scenarios you put forward. We in the west recoil in horror, but I wonder how someone in Darfur, or in Iraq, or in the hills of Afghanistan, or in Somalia, would react to the same situations? Or how someone in Europe in 600 CE, deep in the heart of the Dark Ages, would react? I suspect it would be a very different reaction indeed!

  • Stephanie B

    People like to play with well known historical bigotry or stereotypes of foreign/past cultures. What they don't do is often play with how that came about.

    If your whole family is starving (as has happened in many historical famines), does selling your daughter (or drowning her), encouraging a stranger to adopt your son, etc., are they as awful as they sound to us today, in a world of plenty?

    Most parents and many others believe (rightly or wrongly) that they'd die to save someone else or to fight for something they believed in. But what if the question isn't so clear cut? What if the choice is your child or someone else's? What if you have to condemn another family to save your own (and don't think that hasn't happened - think of hiding Jews in Nazi Germany).

    I think we get complacent thinking of those lines we wouldn't cross and the only challenge most offer is what we'd do for money. But life is full of little compromises and small choices that can add us up to crossing lines we'd never plan to cross if we're not diligent. And, if we're ever really tested, I'm not sure if we could predict our choices as well as we'd like to think.

  • Jude

    Unless you're tested you're right you have no clue what you might do in any given situation and people are so quick to condemn and proclaim how differently they would have acted, but unless you're faced with that same situation and mindset you don't really have a clue.

    When it comes to survival I think the thin veneer of being civilized and acting in a moral way could very possibly crack wide open and we might all be surprised at our true nature. I have no clue, but I could very possibly lie, cheat, steal and kill just to survive and protect the energy of those I love.

    When it comes right down to saying I would sacrifice my life for someone I love, it's so easy to say, but would I really do it? I don't know that I'm a hero and I believe I'm actually a coward so I'd probably be yelling "take them, take them" However I might surprise myself.

    I'm pretty sure I would try to save my child over someone elses.

  • Stephanie B

    I think it's important to think about choices like that. We're quick to condemn without looking at it from their eyes.

  • FishHawk

    Back during my wilder days, I was taught that anyone who was not worth killing wasn't worth fighting in the first place. For even you beat the snot out of them, if they have any grit to them at all you will have to fight them again every time you run into each other, or at least have to be much more on guard than usual, which can ruin a good time in a hurry.

  • khan


  • Davida

    Oh, man! I feel you, Stephanie. It's like in "Beloved" when the slave killed her children thinking they were getting ready to be taken away from her and face a life of brutality or in "Sophie's Choice" when the woman had to choose which of her 2 children would live. Tragic! You just don't know what you would do and hope you are never faced with it, but that is just the sort of horrific stuff that makes good stories. Those scenarios make you think not just be entertained. I'm so looking forward to reading your book!


  • Relax Max

    Not reading or knowing much about fiction, I was surprised to see you conflicted with characters or story line with regard to morality or as an extension of your own personal values. I don't know why, other than I have a huge ignorance of fiction, erroneously thinking it is mostly just fantasy, and that the author can do whatever he wants to do with his characters. I guess I still don't grasp why you would think readers would connect the actions of fictional characters to the author's actual personality or belief system. I must devote some time to fiction instead of wrapping myself in the world of encyclopedias, biographies, and history books. :) I promise to give that a lot more thought. Can't speak to it intelligently now, though.

    Doors on the Titanic? At least you are thinking outside the box. :) Doubtful - it was 30 degrees F. that night. The only reason the water wasn't frozen was because of the salt content. VERY cold. Cold enough to kill you almost on contact. Certainly cold enough to make you stiffen up and move in slow motion and begin to hallucinate for the few minutes before you died. Not at all like the girl in the movie who was saved floating on the debris; more like Jack. Dying was not all from drowning - many people were in the water floating with life vests on. And were still floating when they were finally scooped up a few days later by the Canadians. Not drowned. Exposure. Although a door is not going to work in such conditions since a door wouldn't keep you dry and out of the vicious frigid water. Water would slosh over the sides as the door wobbled, and you would be soaking in seconds. Again, survival depended on being out of the water entirely, not simply floating. But your point is well-taken because there must have been SOMETHING that would both float and protect from the water. One would think. Of course the real crime was in not having enough boats and not filling up the boats they did have (the half-empty boats didn't go back, with very few exceptions, because they used the excuse that those in the water would frantically capsize them.

    The Titanic disaster also happened in a time in our history where there was great class distinction - unbelievable in our modern world that someone rich should be saved first.

    The Titanic disaster has been a hobby of mine since I was a child, long before she was found again and long before the modern movies. So I was delighted to see the photograph of her in your post, tied up at Southampton just before she set out for France, nearly capsizing another smaller vessel in the process incidentally. Good post.

  • Stephanie B

    Davida, I thought about Sophie's Choice when I wrote this. What exactly would have been the "right" choice? How do you live with yourself either way?

    I'm not familiar with Beloved but the scenario you describe is very similar to the one for my character. She had been stolen and put forcefully into a harem of a magic user at the age of 16, raped and all that. He used his magic to paralyze her and was going to use the daughters she had with him the same way. There was more... Anyway, I originally just had her kill them, quietly, as they slept but Lee hated it--hated it. So I changed it...sort of. (You won't know HOW until you read it. Also, she outsmarts her "master").

  • Stephanie B

    I don't know if other writers do it my way or not. I don't like protagonists that I can't respect (even if I don't always agree with their choices). I'll be the first to tell you I'm odd. Or, if not the first, one of the people.

    As for the Titanic, I disagree and I'll explain why. I know the temperature was the key, but anyone who's designed water cooling systems vs. air cooling could tell you that you can vastly increase your chances for survival (i.e. time before succumbing to exposure). When the lifeboat came back some short time after the ship sank, there were almost no living people to pick up (1? 3? Not many). Just keeping the bulk of the body out of the water would likely increase the time before freezing to death (even if soaked in cold water) by at least a factor of three - but expect some frostbite.

    It all stems from a conversation I had with my in-laws. My MIL said she'd never leave, but my FIL, a practical man would have just knocked her out and stuck her on a boat. I could just see him turning to his two boys (one of which I married) and saying, OK, boys, let's go get something that floats. He wouldn't have even tried a boat - those were for women and children (yeah, he's that kind of guy).

  • The Mother

    I know from disaster drills that people don't always think clearly in a pinch. Let alone in a REAL disaster. So that might have something to do with the Titanic scenario.

    Ethics are fluid. They change with the era and the history and the science. We have done terrible things to people in the name of medicine, only to discover a century later that it wasn't such a grand idea. Now the very thought makes people shiver.

    Folks like to see their world in black and white. Isn't.

  • Stephanie B

    I remember reading Multiple Exposures: A Chronicle of the Radiation Age and feeling my hair curl as they used such practices as radiating kids until their hair fell out to treat ringworm and using radium in a feminine itching cream.

    And that was just last century.

  • Stephanie B

    Heck, barbarism is still performed today like female circumcision. In a hundred years we might look back on the herculean efforts we use to treat cancer as a form of barbarism.

    On the latter (and the medical practices you cite, though), at least we were trying.

  • Aron Sora

    Ethics is something I struggle with a lot. I have dyslexia so I get extended time on tests and can turn in projects late. But, I will avoid using extended time because it is not fair to my class mates who are going at about the same speed as me. I will accept points off if I turned in a project late. Very rarely I will have to use these if I push maximum effort into my work.

    But, this has a negative side effect. EVERYONE tells me that I work too hard. I rarely spend time with other people and all my relationship are unstable because of this. So, yes I can work harder to complete work without adjustments, but I cause other suffering when I do this. I just feel uncomfortable using adjustments when it is physically possible to do the work without adjustments.

  • Stephanie B

    I understand what you're saying, Sorah. I don't think there's anything wrong with taking advantage of the programs in place to help compensate for your own challenges. They are intended to level the playing field rather than give you an edge, but I respect you not using them as a crutch.

    I knew, as a woman in a field rather dominated by men, that I potentially had an unfair advantage. I couldn't see how to undo that, so I just make sure I'm worth every penny to whoever hires me.

  • Davida

    You know, that was quite the teaser. Sounds VERY interesting. I don't know if there's a right or wrong choice in those scenarios. Like you said, you won't be able to live with yourself afterward. Only the refuge of one's own death could bring peace after such a traumatic event. I hope your character still kills them just when they are looking her dead in the eye and are able to suffer a violent, slow death. Sorry--that dark side of me is coming out more and more these days while I write my own story. Looking forward to reading yours and finding out what really happens!


  • Stephanie B

    Davida, I'm rarely gentle with rapists and this one was a particularly unpleasant, dare I say, evil fellow.

    He will not be missed.

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