Watch a three-year-old play. As she enacts Ariel and Barbie’s judo match over which will marry Prince, or trudges through the living room scolding a pink polka-dotted bunny in a stroller, or explains to you that four-foot-tall Dora is in time out because she’s been hitting the other kids with a hammer—well, you may be laughing, but chances are she’s not.
When you’re three, play is a serious, cathartic process aimed at sorting out and bringing under tenuous control the often overwhelming emotional cues thrown at you each day. Children tease out what scares them—say, jealousy, or blame, or violent anger—and nail it down in particular scenarios that allow them to follow a feeling to its natural conclusions without the ramifications of reality. This is how they develop skills like empathy and abstract thinking.
As we age, this process doesn’t change—it just becomes more complex, along with the world around us and our understanding of it. The questions get more daunting, the possibilities more exciting and frightening, and the path to the conclusions infinitely more convoluted. Working through all this becomes an interior progression of imagination, but can still feel serious and cathartic. This is nowhere more true than in bioethics, which is all about posing overwhelming questions and trying to imagine the particular scenarios that might play out, sometimes scaring ourselves silly or breaking our hearts over the result. Doing this can be both pleasurably satisfying and philosophically important. For an example of the latter, see this issue’s lead article, in which Alex John London and Kevin Zollman imagine what might unfold if we attempt to put the fair benefits approach to international research into practice. And for an example of the former (and perhaps a bit of the latter, too), see this issue’s essay set.
In the spirit of summer, and especially summer reading, we asked some of our favorite well-read writers for an essay on a book or books exploring bioethics issues through story. With no more guidance than that, the breadth of the books they chose—seven novels and one true story that is stranger than fiction—is not surprising. The earliest was first published in 1858; the most recent came out this year. The questions the stories pose are certainly overwhelming. What if I were grown only so my organs could be harvested, and I had to care for others whose organs are being taken, too, while I wait for my own death? What if doctors cut off a piece of the tumor that killed me and grew it in a lab for the next sixty years? What if scientists discovered a gene that would ensure my happiness no matter what life throws at me?
Wrestling with these kinds of questions from the safety of an armchair may be a vital part of the development of our societal debate on them, but the final essay’s author, Nancy Berlinger, makes a good point—that spending too long justifying a good story on its “issues” takes some of the pleasure out of it. There’s nothing like the feeling you get when you crack open a much-anticipated book and turn to page one. Worlds await—daunting, yes; frightening, perhaps; but beginning that journey is always exciting, no matter how old you are. Happy reading. [End Page 2]