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  • Eating One’s Friends: Fiction as Argument in Bioethics
  • Tod Chambers (bio)

We may have mated with them; we may have eaten them. There’s no way to know.

—Dale Clayton of the University of Utah on confirming that two species of early humans had had contact with each other, as quoted in the Washington Post

Go to the meatmarket of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds. Does not that sight take a tooth out of the cannibal’s jaw? Cannibals? Who is not a cannibal?

—Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Edibility is inversely related to humanity.

—Marshall Sahlins, “La Pensée Bourgeoise”

In this essay, I argue that literature has been profoundly misunderstood by scholars of bioethics.

Bioethicists in analyzing moral problems have often drawn upon literary texts as sources for “rich cases,” for they have long recognized that the traditional genre of the ethics case was limited in its portrayal of the complexity of the moral landscape of actual medical practice. This traditional utilization of literature in bioethics is critically examined by James Terry and Peter Williams in an essay published in Literature and Medicine: “Short stories and poems that are evocative, complex, and imaginatively challenging have been used to supplement or supplant the traditional case study as instruments for raising ethical issues. At best, these literary works more vividly present moral questions and [End Page 79] even raise some kinds of issues that case studies leave out.”1 The real purpose of Terry and Williams’s essay is to sound an alarm on this casual, unreflective use of literature: while literary works may at first appear to furnish desirable descriptions of moral problems, they caution, these texts and bioethics cases have distinct, and at times divergent, goals. In the description of these differing goals, one can discern a series of binary oppositions:

cases literary works
abstract concrete
analysis aesthetic pleasure
rationality sensitivity and empathy
clarity ambiguity
actions (external) feelings (internal)
abstract generalization emotional charge
rational irrational
practical impractical

In many points of their argument, Terry and Williams seem to view literary works—those entertaining, pretty objects—as distracting the bioethicists from the real, hard work of moral deliberation.

In what follows, I agree with Terry and Williams’s concerns about fiction but for quite different reasons, for I argue that literary works are not passive descriptions of complex situations but rather active arguments. Fiction does not simply reflect the world—or, as Terry and Williams suggest, reflect too much of the world—but, by engaging the reader in a particular presentation of the world, fiction argues for that particular view. As Ronald Sukenick remarks:

narrative as reflection of “reality” is still reflection in both senses. It is not merely that The Sun Also Rises advances an agenda as surely as does Pilgrim’s Progress, but that in doing so it raises issues, examines situations, meditates solutions, reflects on outcomes—that is to say, the story line is itself a form of reasoning. The question is only whether a story reflects thoughtfully, or robotically reflects the status quo with no illuminating angle of vision of its own.2

Fiction, because it is free of the truth restraints of non-fiction, can present an argument for a particular perspective on the world. Richard Walsh points out that “to ask what a fiction is about is to ask what it is doing: its argument is not what is written, but what is worked [End Page 80] through.”3 The argument worked through in novels and short stories resides in the self-conscious dialogic relationship between substance and form. This relationship becomes visible in two ways, the first by angling the presentation of differing values toward a particular resolution. In his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles, in one of his many metafictional moments, explains this process by comparing the work of fiction to a fixed fight in professional boxing. The writer positions “conflicting wants into the ring and then describes the fight, letting that want he himself favours win. And we judge writers of fiction both by the skill they show in fixing the fights (in...


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pp. 79-105
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