Good Fiction Is Like Case Law

James Walpole/ October 3, 2019

Good fiction is a lot like case law.

Stick with me here.

You’ve probably been in moral dilemmas before that are harder than some court cases. And you’ve had to play the judge.

Should you cover up a friend’s misdoing? Expose it and rat him out? Or expose it and take the blame?

Should you support a cause, business, or person that does right on 99% of things but goes terribly wrong on 1%? What degree of compromise is ok?

To what extent should you take responsibility for the wellbeing of someone else? When should you stop trying to “save” someone?

Our day to day lives don’t often train us for these decisions (until we’re actually in the decisions ourselves). Life drafts us into our roles as judges.

In the areas where legal advice isn’t relevant (quite a lot of things), good fiction is our best friend.

You probably have a lot of your virtues because of the children’s “moral lessons” shows you watched on TV as a kid. You learned that cheaters and liars never win. You looked at past “cases” and learned an important precedent. Judging on that one became a lot easier.

Well-written, deep fiction goes further. It can introduce you to all the hypothetical ethical scenarios you might ever face.

Depending on how many books we read – and how widely we read – you can see countless ways that people might solve the same ethical dilemmas that plague you. And you can virtually play out* the consequences of their decisions without any consequences to yourself.

The classics are especially good at this (Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoevsky come to mind), but any novelist who understands human psychology and characterization can be a great case law library.

(P.S. Hat-tip to this great Philosophy Bites interview with Kathleen Stock, which brought me “virtual ethical simulation” idea around fiction.)

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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