How much can reading or hearing stories about strangers or fictional characters help us learn to make wiser decisions in our own lives? That's a question I've had for many years. How many case studies or scenarios have been presented in classes and seminars I've taken in the past decades? Since I learned to read, how many fiction books have I finished in which characters have overcome challenges? Way too many to count. Have these stories helped me to improve skills, make better decisions, prevail over difficulties?I don't know. With any certainty, all I can say is many have been entertaining and have provoked some good discussions, even some rousing disagreements. Because I am unsure as to any other benefits, I was particularly intrigued by something I just read in Ethical Maturity in the Helping Professions. The authors are questioning the value of thought experiments with which many of us are familiar. They write:
...The history of ethics has become famous for what has been called 'trolleyology' (the ethical dilemma of what to do if a trolley is out of control and about to kill five people), where 'stylised scenarios' of a prepared ethical problem are presented and discussed. [Click for versions of the trolley problem.] Then more formal name given to this approach is 'quandary ethics' which typifies how we try to resolve and make decisions about situations from the lives of others , or situations thought up beforehand. ...
While this approach helps to sensitise people to ethical issues and to play with possible resolutions, the concern is that we can begin to see ethics as simply resolving a problem. From this place, problems are 'out-there' issues about which we can be dispassionate and rational. We are 'outside the problem' ... . The people involved are not known to us, do not have a relationship with us, and so we have to deal with what Appiah calls the 'umpire fantasy'—that we are searching for a judge
with the right answer. ... Kant was even more scathing in moving from examples to principles: 'We cannot do morality a worse service than by seeking to derive it from examples'. This is an 'ethics of strangers' ... . When one of us ... discussed the trolley problem with his 12-year-old foster daughter, her immediate response was, 'Do I know any of these five people? Who are the other people in the other tunnel?'. She surmised rightly, and intuitively felt, that being in relationship with someone should make a lot of difference when it came to making an ethical decision about their lives.
Most of us make ethical decisions that take relationships into consideration. It is precisely because we are in relationship with individuals, groups and organisations that we think and act the way we do. ...
Do stories have the same possible problems as trolleyology? Can stories about strangers give us real-life benefits? When we read a piece of fiction or a nonfiction book full of stories that are supposed to teach, or are presented with a scenario in a seminar, are we engaged in the 'out-there' world? Can we gain any lessons transferable to our lives?
I suspect the answer is that sometimes we learn from stories in ways that help with life's day-to-day challenges. If so, what kinds of stories? How are they delivered? What are their characteristics, ingredients, common denominators?
In short: If you wanted to create a story or scenario with a high probability that it passed on real-life, transferable lessons—was more than just feel-good or entertaining—what would you do?