Ethical test-cases in literary form?
January 26, 2012 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Recommend good short stories for starting moral or ethical debates!

Asking for a friend who's preparing for a classroom-style exercise with late adolescents. He's looking for some short stories containing situations that (fairly) clearly raise some sort of moral, ethical or philosophical dilemma that could seve as a starting point for more general debate and analysis.

The story itself needn't necessarily take a morally neutral perspective on the question-- in fact, it might be good if it had a strong point of view, to give the students something to react against. But there definitely needs to be a relatively clear, and somewhat arguable, ethical question lying somewhere not too far from the surface.

Other ideal characteristics:
relatively short
not too challenging in literary terms
ethical question not too abstruse or complicated

Any ideas? Thanks!
posted by Bardolph to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

The Cold Equations
posted by RobotHero at 12:14 PM on January 26, 2012

A classic one is "The Ones Who Walk Way From Omelas", by Ursula K. LeGuin. It's about a utopian society that owes its existence to the keeping of a single child in abject misery. All citizens of the society are made aware of this fact when they come of age. Those who can live with this remain as citizens. Those who cannot are the ones who walk away. The basic question gets at the validity of utilitarian ethics.
posted by valkyryn at 12:14 PM on January 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

The Lottery?
posted by naturalog at 12:15 PM on January 26, 2012

Seconding The Lottery.
posted by General Malaise at 12:16 PM on January 26, 2012

Sounds like the reason I had to read Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant."
posted by rhizome at 12:19 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sartre, "The Wall"
posted by Beardman at 12:20 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Enormous Radio. Public versus private morality in a compelling sttory.
posted by bearwife at 12:21 PM on January 26, 2012

The basic question gets at the validity of utilitarian ethics.

When I read it, I took it as a comment on Christianity. It will definitely start conversation.
posted by gauche at 12:23 PM on January 26, 2012

If the subject matter (sex and sexuality in teenage girls) is OK for the discussion: "Lust" by Susan Minot kept my students (college kids mostly in their first two years) arguing about morals and ethics for days.
posted by scody at 12:29 PM on January 26, 2012

"The Mildenhall Treasure" or "The Boy Who Talked to Animals" by Roald Dahl (both in "The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More") might be great for this.
posted by argonauta at 12:36 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

"The Kittens" by Dean Koontz -- in Strange Highways, I believe -- has sparked more than one conversation among my friends.
posted by ThisKindNepenthe at 12:36 PM on January 26, 2012

If you can do an excerpt from comics: in The Dark Knight Strikes Again by Frank Miller (by no means a great book, mind you) the world has a mysterious source of completely free energy. It's later revealed that the source is the Flash, trapped and forced to run on a treadmill that generates electricity.
posted by griphus at 12:37 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is not a short story but a part of the history of Athens as narrated by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War. Melos was a neutral city and Athens attacked it demanding surrender and the payment of a tribute. The elders of Melos refused, the city was then razed and the inhabitants killed.

There have been all kinds of philosophical and ethical debates not only on the behavior of the Athenians in assaulting a neutral city, but also on the behavior of the elders who practically condemned to death or slavery the entire city.
posted by francesca too at 12:46 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

A bit cheesy, really, but the granddaddy of all these is "the lady or the tiger."
posted by Diablevert at 12:49 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Something that might be real interesting at that age is T. C. Boyle's "Back in the Eocene." These students have probably been steeped in anti-drug, DARE type messages for most of their lives, and some most likely have parents who were involved with drugs. I think that the question and answer between the father and daughter at the end of the story might trigger a good discussion about honesty, and the rest of the story can trigger discussion about how drugs--and anti-drug propaganda--are treated in America.
posted by dlugoczaj at 1:06 PM on January 26, 2012

William Carlos William's 'The Use of Force' is about the ethics of (medical) authority. It's a bit historical - doctors making home visits - but it's really short, 3 pages in my paper copy, and if you think you can expand the discussion away from the specifics of medical authority into generalities, it could work.
posted by cobaltnine at 1:31 PM on January 26, 2012

Raymond Carver's "So Much Water, So Close to Home" asks the ethical question about what we owe to the dead.

Three men discover a body in the river at the start of their annual remote camping trip. They do not report it until their weekend of fishing is over. This causes a fight with his wife. I think one of the first lines of dialogue is something like "Tell me what I did wrong and I'll listen."
posted by .kobayashi. at 1:36 PM on January 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell
posted by dizziest at 1:50 PM on January 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Bill's Little Girl still makes me cry. It's the story of a young widowed man raising his very young daughter on his own; he asks the neighbor woman how to cook things like oatmeal and takes Minna (his daughter) to and from school every day. But then he's diagnosed with a fatal disease and has to figure out what would be best for his daughter when he's gone...
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:54 PM on January 26, 2012

Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron.
posted by empath at 2:02 PM on January 26, 2012

I recently taught "Just Lather, That's All," by Hernando Tellez. It's about a barber faced with the task of shaving--with a straight razor--the captain in charge of the campaign to brutally suppress the barber's fellow villagers. He has the opportunity to slit the captain's throat. Should he do it?

It's well written and very engaging. Even the reticent students had plenty to say, and in fact it was was their favourite of all the short stories we read.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:21 PM on January 26, 2012

I have used "The Shawl," by Cynthia Ozick, and "Guests of the Nation," by Frank O'Connor, for similar assignments.
posted by TrarNoir at 2:57 PM on January 26, 2012

"Liking What You See: A Documentary" by Ted Chiang. The questions at issue are: (1) Do we discriminate unfairly on the basis of perceived attractiveness? (2) If we had the technological capability to reduce the impacts of that, would it be a good idea?
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 5:21 PM on January 26, 2012

Harrison Bergeron was great when I read it with the other coolest kids on campus in the Sci Fi Club in 7th grade.
posted by Aizkolari at 5:21 PM on January 26, 2012

The Parable of the Sadhu - this was just covered in my undergrad Corporate Social Responsibility class.
posted by kpht at 5:36 PM on January 26, 2012

Although it might not provoke the kind of ethical and moral debates you want, I always thought "The Most Dangerous Game" pretty interesting.
posted by lackadaisical at 6:58 PM on January 26, 2012

Not a piece of literature, but the multiple trolley car situations presented at the beginning of Harvard professor Michael Sandel's course Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? course are very easy to understand and relate to. Moral dilemmas presented include: is one life more valuable than multiple lives, would it be right in any situation to kill one person to save more than one person.
posted by tangaroo at 8:11 PM on January 30, 2012

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