Narratives are the discursive form in which issues in medical ethics are apprehended, and communicated. What stories do ‘is to narrate the life in time’ (Forster 1971), not just in novels, but also in fact. Narrative discourse – ‘someone telling someone else that something happened’ (Smith 1981) – is an archetypal means of relating and reporting what is going on, one which also patterns understanding of events.
Many stories turn on conflicts of value, clashes of principle and the promise of resolution. Literature, understood broadly to include novels, biography, memoirs and journalistic accounts, offers readers and professional ethicists alike, potentially rich representations of situations finely graduated by moral viewpoint, ambiguity and complexity (Widdershoven and Smits 1996, Widdershoven and Sohl 1999). Literature can also depict and explore moral doubts and reasoning, and subject argument, motive and character to the scrutiny of a wide readership. In these ways stories both embody and structure our encounters with notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ (MacIntyre 1981: 201, Guroian 1998).
Some narrative scholars argue that ‘the most interesting parts of the moral world have to be ‘read’, rendered, construed, glossed, elucidated, and not merely described’ (Walzer 1987) and find that novelists have more to teach them than philosophers about how to grapple with moral complexities (Booth 2002). Comprehending the moral content of stories involves making sense of feelings, thoughts and behaviour which engage narrative skills, knowledge of the fine grain of medical case histories and some fluency in philosophical analysis too (Levine 1998: 43).