Do Stories Teach Us Our Morals?

Flannery Wilson
5 min readMay 18, 2018
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When we read stories or watch movies, we understand what is going on by processing the information that is given to us.

Sometimes, however, parts of that information are misleading or vague and require us to rethink our previously held beliefs about characters and about events.

Sometimes narrators turn out to be unreliable and, as viewers, we may wonder how we were are so easily fooled — and further — why we enjoy it.

Narrative ethics explores morality, or lack thereof, in the context of a story. For the narartive ethicist, moral values are inherent to stories and storytelling because, according to James Phelan:

Narratives themselves implicitly or explicitly ask the question:

How should one think, judge, and act — as author, narrator, character, or audience — for the greater good?

Ethical storytelling, on the other hand, refers to the act of storytelling. The idea that authors write, or that narrators narrate, with good or not-so-good intentions depending on how much or how little the storyteller wishes to deceive their audience.

To summarize:

1) narrative ethics investigates the story itself and the morals or lack of morals that it contains, and

2) ethical storytelling investigates narrators to determine whether or not they are lying, misrepresenting, or omitting information.

It’s important not to confuse the two. Understanding the distinction helps explain why we enjoy being fooled by unreliable narrators.

The act of watching a murder through the eyes of a psychopath in a horror film is not equivalent to identifying with the psychopath.

Though this point may seem obvious, to believe it fully means separating morality from storytelling.

We are capable of watching a murderer commit a murder — of being in the shoes of that murderer during the crime — without allowing our own sense that the act is wrong to waver in the slightest.

Flannery Wilson

Flannery has a PhD in Comparative Literature. She teaches French, Italian, and visual media. Her book on Taiwanese cinema can be found on Amazon.