A Note about Narrative Style

A note about the use of narrative in this book: 

The reader is already aware that I am fond of telling stories.  Indeed you will discover as you go along that I use narrative form quite often, and in some cases (for instance Chapter 3) reference a fully developed story from my childhood (actually written for my grandchildren) to help explain the concept of “authorization” in social contract theory.  I hope this is not off putting.  My own conviction is that if one cannot reduce ideas to stories, one doesn’t actually understand the idea him/herself.

While working on this book I attended The John Locke Lectures put on by the Philosophy Department of Oxford University.  The Locke Lectures are arguably the most distinguished forum for philosophy in the world.  John Rawls, Robert Nozick, Christine Korsgaard and others of similar stature have delivered these lectures over the years.  This year’s Lock lecturer was T. M. Scanlon of Harvard University.  I have long admired Scanlon’s work.  His book What We Owe to Each Other (Belcamp Press, Harvard 1998), while intensely difficult reading, is a major contribution to the field of ethics.  But in his lectures this year at Oxford, Scanlon was so dense and so obtuse as to leave not just me (that would be too simple an achievement) but most of his highly sophisticated, erudite audience either asleep or befuddled or both.  Without metaphor, without narrative, almost (he once gave an example using a sharp knife to illustrate his point) without even the simplest of application, he read (without looking up) line by line by line from a written text.

Ethics is a branch of philosophy, of course, but it is also fundamentally emotive, human and personal in nature.  Ethics is about meaning and life and social engagement.  Now I understand Scanlon is not a “narrative ethicists,” (most would categorize him as a contractarian) but he is a human being who writes and lectures about ethics.   And I would argue, therefore owes (ala, the title of his great book on ethics) both himself and his audience some relief from abstraction, some grounding in the richness of human application.  For five weeks in May 2009 no such relief was forth coming.  And it was from this experience I decided to put some narrative foundation under this work of mine.  Seawell’s first law was framed: If you cannot make ethical theories into stories you most likely do not know what you are talking about yourself, but most assuredly nobody else will.

Not far from the lecture hall in Oxford where T. M Scanlon was reading his Locke lectures this month, is the site of Albert Einstein’s famous lecture on the General Theory of Relativity, delivered at Oxford in 1915.  Almost a century later, the General Theory is still difficult going for even the top physicists in the world, not to mention mathematically challenged persons like myself.  But Einstein’s genius was grounded in an intellectual humility, and he spent a lifetime explicating and providing metaphor for one of the most difficult concepts the human intellect has ever grappled with.  And by so doing changed our understanding of fundamental physical reality forever.   Surely we ethicists owe the human enterprise nothing less.

I love old un-loveable T. Hobbes because as brilliant as he was, he meticulously provided definitions for his basic concepts in clear simple English (or Latin!) and never minded stooping to metaphor and story to communicate the richness of his meaning. And he targeted his grandest works of political and ethical theory not at scholars but at society as a whole.  And so, following Hobbes, I will try to write simply, provide clear definitions and from time to time give narrative diversion into the muck and mire of quite human experiences, examples and narratives.  This happens to be how ethics has been done at its best for going on three thousand years, and I say if it was good enough for Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth, it’s good enough for me.  Enjoy.

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