Philosophical Examples: The Stark and the Dense
by Vida Yao
In “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, and Ethics,” Bernard Williams draws a distinction between dense and stark fiction, and their use in moral-philosophical discussion and reflection. Sophocles is his exemplar of the latter; Dickens the former. Examples drawn from stark fictions are vivid, structurally simple and beautiful. In philosophy we tend to fixate on the stark: we seem to love the drama. There is high drama in Deianiera’s vulnerability to the lies of a beast, Nessus, who is not quite human but has a lust for human women, in how this lovesick woman comes to accidentally kill her beloved husband (who saved her from that beast), and her own eventual suicide in light of the horror of what she has done. There is high drama in the following deliberation: Should I shoot Pedro, even though I, Jim, adhere to an ideal that one ought not take even one innocent human life, under any circumstance?
Here, I want to reflect on the importance of dense fiction for moral philosophy and I’ll use, in particular, the ideal of personal integrity to focus my discussion. Williams argues that Jim’s integrity could be undermined at this one moment, and that no moral theory should make his decision easy for him. Yes, he may decide that he must look Pedro in the face (or maybe, out of weakness, at his shoes) and just shoot the poor man. But it may cost him his integrity as a man who, up until this tragic circumstance, wanted to live as a decent man who doesn’t murder innocent strangers no matter what happens. He may, for the rest of his life, look back to this fateful decision as the one that cost him nearly everything: as the one that he must make amends for in some way, as the one which jolts him awake at night.
Given who he was arguing against, and given what Miles Burnyeat once referred to as, “what the current events on the radio of the time were like!”, it makes sense that Williams, in his own writing, tended toward the stark. But current events have changed, or rather, our attention is now focused on much smaller, more mundane, every day ways in which our moral lives are at stake. These ways are less dramatic. Indeed, it can seem like nothing is happening at all, and yet one’s integrity is, day after day, being slowly and almost imperceptibly undermined. Rather than a bend and snap, a dissolution. Let me illustrate with a little piece of dense fiction.
Diane has been working as something like a secretary for a man who she, from a distance, respected, and who now up close is not a man she could ever respect. Actually, he seems to be something not quite human, but who nonetheless has a lust for human women. She hates the job, but the job has become a necessity for her: it allows her to escape from Calydon. She cannot go home to Calydon (Stipulate: if she goes back to Calydon, there is another beast, more dangerous, waiting for her there.) So, she must keep her job in order to live.
But every day Diane is faced with a barrage of practical dilemmas. Here is just one. With high regularity, this man has ordered her to either (1) throw away or (2) eat the lunch that he has brought with him. Either way, she must tell him exactly what the lunch contained. They are the most precious lunches that Diane has ever seen, prepared each day by the man’s devoted wife: each day, a very small sandwich on perfect bread with very fussy filling (one day pâté, another day very high-quality salami and hard cheese), always with a cup of soup in a thermos, always with something else salty and sour to balance everything out.
Once Diane forgot to each the lunch or throw it out, and the next day her boss was furious, shouting at her with a bear’s voice, telling her that this was just one new way in which she was failing in her duties. She learned from this episode that her boss cannot bring the lunch home because then there will be a question about why, exactly, he didn’t eat his lunch. Diane, in fact, doesn’t really know the answer, but she now knows that the question is unwanted, and has been unwanted for decades, long before she arrived on the scene. Maybe the question is not actually asked, out loud, any more.
Diane is not religious, but has the nascent sense that adultery is a sin (maybe she is just old-fashioned). But Diane has just taken a course on moral philosophy, and it seems that after all, over all, it would be best she just eat the lunch: meat is a costly and resource-heavy commodity, it saves her the money and energy of having to bring her own lunch (which these days she seems to have so little of). It seems like she isn’t exactly lying, even though it is true that she may be helping a lie, and even though she feels ashamed when the man’s wife comes by to say hello. And she remembers her mother teaching her to never waste food: for every grain of rice left in the bowl, a pimple.
But sometimes she stares at the sandwiches and feels sick to her stomach. But perhaps, her TA suggests about a similar case, this is just squeamishness. Should I (1)eat the sandwich, or should I (2) throw it away? She asks this question of herself until she finds she can no longer ask herself the question because the words, through repetition, have become meaningless.
I will finish with four claims.
- If Diane is to keep living, her integrity is undermined, no matter what she ends up doing. She has reached a moment where, as Kyla Ebels-Duggan has emphasized, Williams forces us to recognize that morally speaking, “it cannot matter any more what happens.”
- However, unlike most tragic dilemmas that draw our attention in moral philosophy, there is no one moment to fixate on. There is no particular sandwich that poses the problem – no particular sandwich that will be the one that jolts her awake at night. And yet, just as a heap will emerge from grains of sand, or disappear with the removal of each grain, she finds her integrity vanishing, seemingly imperceptibly, over time. Moreover, there is no particular way to make amends for this: no party (analogous to Pedro’s grieving friends and family) to try to respond to, and so no particular, stark way to alleviate her guilt and shame (surely irrational in some way, but as Williams would ask: what is the importance of that charge, at this point?)
- I would venture that most of the time, this is just the way in which a person’s integrity is actually undermined: not through high, stark drama and action, but through what seems to be mundane: what can seem like nothing at all. This face can only be fully captured, I think, by dense (Or simply, dense writing: why must the case be fiction?) This gives us reason, as moral philosophers, to read and use examples from dense fiction; to feel obliged to understand the examples that others draw from pieces of dense fiction; to be more stylistically open to “thought experiments” that are not as stark as deciding whether to harvest organs, or pull a lever, or shoot an innocent man. Indeed, my point above (1) would be better illustrated if the example were permitted to be denser: if more of Diane’s day-to-day life were described, if more of these dilemmas, all different in size and shape and colour, were laid out. But wouldn’t that be a novel, or at least, a novella? Would that still bephilosophy?
- Williams was right that stark tragedies seem to afford little light. Stark tragedies end with gnashing of teeth, and wailing, and suicide. Of course, dense tragedies can end in these ways, too. But the richness and open-endedness of dense fiction allows for something else. I think it can allow for the possibility of escaping the high drama, the stark symbolism, the patterned necessity, and the weeping and tearing of hair (at least for a moment). It allows us some pause, some more thick ethical concepts, some more improvisation through the richness of the vision that density affords.
And so, perhaps, in density there is the possibility of redemption (or re-integration) where it doesn’t seem, really, as though anything is happening at all. And so, I finish by echoing Williams’s claim that though tragedy, whether stark or dense, should not be responded to with moralism, it can be responded to, perhaps, with art and style. But art not simply as analgesic, as Williams discusses – art, somehow, as solution.
Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts”, Ethics Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988), pp. 255-277.
Kyla Ebels-Duggan, “The Right, the Good, and the Threat of Despair: (Kantian) Ethics and the Need for Hope in God” in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion: Volume 7(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Lynn McFall, “Integrity” Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Oct., 1987), pp. 5-20.
Sophocles, “The Women of Trachis” (trans: Patricia Easterling).
Samantha Vice, “How Do I Live in this Strange Place?”, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 41 No. 3, Fall 2010, 323–342.
Bernard Williams and JCC Smart, Utilitarianism: For and Against(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
Williams, “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, and Ethics” in The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy. Princeton University Press.pp. 49-59 (2009).
“Bernard Williams and the Ancients,” conference, organized by Nakul Krishna, September 19-20, 2016.
Much discussion with presenters and discussants at the “Rice Workshop for Humanistic Ethics”, organized by the author, in spring 2017 and 2019.