Kant may be Smart, But Dickens is a Better Moral Guide: Moral Stories over Moral Theories

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Most ethical theories will typically give us a formula that we are meant to use when making ethical and moral decisions. The question for me, however, is not how to decide between right and wrong. We all have our own peculiar ways of handling ethical and moral situations, and as far as I can tell, most of these theories have merit, but we can also find countless reasons to disregard them. Instead, I’d like to ask: How can we learn more about what is right and wrong, ethical and unethical, moral and immoral? How can we sharpen our vision and understanding of the various situations that we all
see differently?

As an adjunct instructor for the Ethics and Values course at UVU, one of the readings that we use is an article by Brad J. Kallenberg entitled, On Cultivating Moral Taste. His argument is essentially that how we approach ethics and morals is no different than how we approach and cultivate an eye for art, or, for that matter, a taste for food. We may
all have our particular preferences for what we like, but are there common elements
and characteristics that make certain pieces of art or food more preferable and helpful over others? Can we say that art, however different two pieces of art may appear to be from one another, still have common elements that good art has, therefore raising them above mere preference? The point that Kallenberg makes is that “the practice of moral reasoning, or ethics, requires the same sort of tutored struggle as one’s induction into the practice of art appreciation. All of us require our moral taste to be cultivated and our moral eyesight sharpened.”

Kallenberg is essentially suggesting that moral and ethical theories cannot be the thing to guide our decisions. It is difficult enough as to understand someone like Kant, and even if we do, we can challenge his theory on several points. What we need instead, Kal- lenberg suggests, are stories. Stories are what will help sharpen our “moral eyesight.” We can easily imagine someone who eats the same food everyday to have limited, or at least less reliable, knowledge about what food is good for you and for what occasions. But as this person’s experience with food and understanding of health expands, then so will his or her understanding of good food.

It is the same way with stories and how they can develop our moral understanding. When we learn about the moral struggles of others, our imagination can work in such a way that allows us to see the validity of these moral lessons in our own situations. Stories are also more accessible and can be more meaningful than any given theory. Stories can also come in many forms and be presented to a wide variety of audiences and levels of understanding. These stories can be presented through history, in a novel or the plays
of Shakespeare, the parables of Jesus or the teachings and stories of the Buddha and are more widely known and accepted than any of the moral philosophers. I wouldn’t argue that it is not worth studying what philosophers have to say about ethics and morality,
but we cannot rely on philosophers to teach us about how to become moral. A Charles Dickens story, on the other hand, can help us see much more directly the importance of generosity and the dangers of greed and self-importance.

Derek Bitter / Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Philosophy and Humanities, UVU