Narrative ethics

Submission to The Social Lens: A Social Work Action Blog by Clive Baldwin, Professor, Canada Research Chair in Narrative Studies, St. Thomas University. Professor Baldwin is Principal Investigator of Narratives of Identity.

It is commonplace nowadays to refer to human beings as storytelling animals. We tell stories to make sense of experience, to build relationships, as evidence in arguments, for information, to construct and maintain our identities, to communicate with others, and for a whole host of other reasons. Not only that, but we swim in a sea of stories: stories that others tell about us; stories of our families, communities, regions, countries; stories of our profession (usually stories of social work as a benevolent and benign profession concerned with social justice); stories that become our companions, helping guide us through the flux of experience. Stories are, thus, not only representations of our world but actors in that world. The stories we choose, the stories we tell, have consequences.

If the above narrative-based view of the world is believable, then perhaps storytelling will help us decide on what is right and what is wrong. I am not advocating that we use stories to inform our ethical practice — though that is, of course, one way of using stories — but that we view storytelling itself as an ethical framework.

Storytelling, I believe, has multiple benefits as an ethical framework: it contextualizes ethical reasoning; it locates ethical reasoning in time; its scope is wider than human relations; it pays attention not only to the decision but to the decision-maker(s); it is multi-perspectival and polyphonous; and it is, or can be, imaginative. I am not suggesting that storytelling has a monopoly on these things — but I do think that storytelling can uniquely configure them.

When we tell a story, we configure people, places and events into a coherent and meaningful whole. The story emerges from a background, takes shape, and points towards a climax and denouement: the narrative arc. Narrative ethics is thus interested as much in how we got to where we are as in where we go to from here. Storytelling is also interested in who people are and who they may become. This is in contrast to some other ethical frameworks, such as Principlism, which are concerned predominantly with an a-historical present and atomistic, un-situated individuals. Narrative ethics understands the situation in which we currently find ourselves as part of an evolving story, a narrative trajectory, which both makes sense of the current situation and looks to the future, and in so doing can incorporate reparation for the past.

Stories also encapsulate values — the sorts of stories we tell reflect the values we want to realize, and because stories, once told, can have a life of the world, the stories we want to release into the world. Ken Plummer, in Telling sexual stories and more recently in Narrative power, explores different types of stories — stories that close down or open up new spaces for participation and for hearing new voices, stories that empower, stories that extend our horizons, and so on. Plummer also asks pertinent questions as to the consumption of stories — who has access to our stories, who needs to hear our stories, how is access opened up or restricted? These are all questions we need to ask ourselves when we tell our stories — stories of service users, of communities, or our own profession, and so on.

If stories are situated in time, are rooted in history, speak to the future, then it is understandable to extend the scope of storytelling to the non-human. Everything has a history and a future, even if that future is extinction. A storytelling ethics can shape our ethical reasoning not only about human affairs but our relationships with animals, the inanimate, the Earth. One of my favorite books is Finite and infinite games by James Carse. According to Carse, there are two types of games: finite games that are played for the purpose of winning, infinite games that are played for the purpose of continuing the play. A storytelling ethic can contribute to continuing the play — the ethical stance being the one that continues the play. For example, an environmental ethic that focuses on future play, future players, and the sustainability of the playing can be enfolded into stories of the Anthropocene.

Storytelling is also as much about the storyteller as the story. When we tell a story, we reveal something of ourselves — at the very least we reveal that we are the type of people who tell that type of story. This is important because storytelling has a cumulative effect on the storyteller. Just as Aristotle argued that the practice of the virtues leads a person to become virtuous through habituation, the telling of certain type of story — for example, stories that empower, include, give voice to others — habituates us to the telling of those types of story. Levinas suggests that to the degree we respond to the vulnerability of the Other (the Face) we become more human. I want to suggest that through telling stories that open up spaces for others, that empower and include, that give voice to others, we also become more human — because we are storytelling creatures.

Narrative care is not just about listening to the stories of others, offering them an appreciative ear, and the space to shape their stories how they wish. Narrative care is about the stories we tell. We need to be able to tell stories not only about care but stories that embody care. How we characterize others, the trajectories we set for our stories, the voices we incorporate into our storIes, the people we invite into our stories, all of these things are, or should be, acts of care. These stories will be around far longer than any of us and will find a life of their own — so we should care about the stories we tell, and the stories we tell should care.

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