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Excerpt From:  “Ethical Engagements over Time: Reading and Rereading David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights,” Narrative XII.3 (October 2004): 281-305.


A story’s ethical vision is a particular configuration of rights and wrongs that it puts in motion within a represented human context. The ethical vision of a story operates in the same way that it does in our lives: it is foundational to our sense that we can live a flourishing life, or that we must live with danger, deprivation, discomfort, or injustice. The ethical vision of a story is its power to capture the valences of all those rights and wrongs that operate at the core of our everyday existence. The ethical vision of both persons and stories includes all of those actions, thoughts, motives, and attitudes which we feel that we and others ought to do or ought not to do, and it includes the ethical criteria by which we judge ourselves and others to be good or not good. The core of everyone’s everyday existence just is a set of ethical considerations.


This kind of ethical discourse seems not only embarrassing to some people (sounds like Sunday School talk?), but to many academics and professionals it also seems intellectually primitive. That’s because it is intellectually primitive. But that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Academic readers and professional critics to whom “intellectually primitive” is as noxious as road kill need to remember that the primal issues in human beings’ lives are always the most important issues—and are always unavoidable, in any event. Ethical considerations are primitive elements in our social life the same way that the medulla oblongata is a primitive part of the brain. We don’t use the medulla oblongata for doing calculus, but if it isn’t doing its job we have no breath or pulse to do calculus with. Ethical considerations have this kind of primal importance for us.


Ethical considerations infiltrate every human interaction not because we don’t try hard enough to filter them out but because there is no filtering them out. Depending on how we answer ethical questions about how others are treating us and how we should treat them, nothing less is at stake than the minute-by-minute, overall, everyday quality of our lives.