The case study protagonist as unreliable narrator.

Even though it seems like my semester just started, I'm already grading the first batch of case study responses from my "Ethics in Science" students. (Students, if you're reading this: I'm quite happy with how the class is doing! You'll get detailed feedback on your response by the end of the week.)

In case you're not familiar with case studies in the context of an ethics class, they usually consist of a brief description of a situation in which a protagonist is trying to make a decision about what to do. I ask my students to look at this description and identify who has a stake in what the protagonist does (or doesn't do); what consequences, good or bad, might flow from the various courses of action available to the protagonist; to whom the protagonist has obligations that will be satisfied or ignored by his or her action; and how the relevant obligations and interests pull the protagonist in different directions as he or she tries to make the best decision. On the basis of these details, I ask my students to choose a course of action for the protagonist and explain why it's an ethical course of action.

But here's something that makes the analysis difficult for the students: Often it's hard to pin down the fact of the case with certainty. The scenario is described from the protagonist's point of view. It seems to the protagonist that there's favoritism in the lab group, or that it's obvious why some of the measurement turned out the way they did, or that a colleague is going to react a particular way if a concern is brought to that colleague's attention. However, my students have been quick to notice in their discussions of the cases, what seems to be true to the protagonist might be false. For any number of reasons, the protagonist may have a skewed perspective on what's going on in other people's minds, on what the issues are with the experiment, even on his or her own competence.

The protagonist, in other words, could be an unreliable narrator.

Making a good ethical decision is easier when you can pin down all the relevant facts (including things like what future events would flow from the protagonist's various courses of action). But, as in real life, the case studies with which we ask our students to grapple have a lot of uncertainty built in. Postponing a decision about what to do until all the facts are in just isn't a practical option. Sometimes you do the best you can with knowledge you recognize is gappy.

Indeed, one of the big reasons I try to get my students to understand discussion as a valuable part of ethical decision-making is that, left to our own devices, each of us can be just as unreliable a narrator as the protagonist of the case study we're thinking through. The protagonist suspects favoritism. We suspect jealousy. Maybe the protagonist is wrong, but maybe the protagonist is right and we're wrong instead. Given the state of our knowledge in the world, we don't won't to lean on ethical decision-making strategies that require us to guess correctly about all of the unknowns.

The moral of the story is assuredly not the "there are no wrong answers" crap that humanities professors get from their naïve undergraduates. Instead, it's that taking account of other people's perspectives may be useful in helping us gain some critical distance on our own (and on the ways it might turn out to be wrong). Also, it's that an ethical course of action might require some active fact-finding to test whether one's perceptions in a situation are reliable before acting rashly on the assumption that they are.

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Related posts:

The value of (unrealistic) case studies in ethics education.

Some ethical decisions are not that hard: thoughts on Joe Paterno.

Question for the hivemind: workplace policies and MYOB.

Passion quilt: a meme for teachers.

2 responses so far

  • For any number of reasons, the protagonist may have a skewed perspective on what's going on in other people's minds, on what the issues are with the experiment, even on his or her own competence.

    Although though imply through the link to a post about "imposter syndrome" that the protagonist has an unduly pessimistic view of his or her own competence, it is equally possible that he or she has an unduly optimistic view. I forget the exact study, but some psychology researchers found that the less competent someone is at a task or skill, the more likely it is that they view themselves as highly competent.

  • iGrrrl says:

    CPP, it's known as the Dunning-Kruger effect:

    Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121. PMID 10626367

    But I agree that looking at the issue from as many sides as possible is important, and coming to the conclusion that one can be the unreliable narrator is particularly crucial. We are pattern-finding creatures, including discerning patterns where non actually exist. A conversation or three can point out other interpretations. Not to mention that most of us can think of several highly placed people we know who can spot someone else's ethical dilemmas with ease, but are blind to their own lapses because they can justify them to themselves.