Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics

By Rita Charon; Martha Montello | Go to book overview
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No moral theory can be adequate if it does not take into account the narrative character of our experience.

Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination

Is it possible that ethical action might depend less on analytical reasoning than on responding to a dilemma as we might respond to a story? “Thinking with stories” is a concept I borrow from sociologist Arthur W. Frank in The Wounded Storyteller. 1 By “thinking,” Frank means and I mean a process very different from the exclusive operation of reason. Thought clearly involves reasoning, in addition to various forms of cognitive activity from memory to meditation, but I want to emphasize that thinking also involves a crucial collaboration with feeling. In fact, the ancient Western binary habit that requires us to put reason and emotion into separate words and unconnected categories is, I contend, a neurological mistake, with crucial implications for ethics. We need a greatly revised understanding of reason and emotion—a revision consistent with recent discoveries in cognitive science—in order to escape the history of erroneous assumptions about thinking and about ethics, a history that I wish to challenge. The concept of thinking with stories is meant to oppose and modify (not replace) the institutionalized Western practice of thinking about stories. Thinking about stories conceives of narrative as an object. Thinker and object of thought are at least theoretically distinct. Thinking with stories is a process in which we as thinkers do not so much work on narrative as take the radical step back, almost a return to childhood experience, of allowing narrative to work on us.


Let me be clear. It makes no sense to challenge an erroneous split between reason and emotion by installing an ironclad, artificial division between thinking about stories and thinking with stories. Thinking with stories likely constitutes for some people a stage—possibly an indivisible stage—in a dynamic, dialectical, dialogical


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Stories Matter: The Role of Narrative in Medical Ethics
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