In a blog I wrote on August 31, 2018, I posed the question, “What is Ethical Writing.” My cursory research on the subject suggested that you wrote ethically if you avoided plagiarism and resisted the impulse to make up facts. That was about 156 blogs ago. Since then, I’ve expanded the question to touch on truth, stealing, historical fiction, memoirs, tweeting, ethos, logos, pathos, thank you notes, science fiction, YA fiction, self-plagiarism, death, oxymorons, protests, politics, trigger words, pseudonyms, metaethics, cryptomnesia, literary tropes, and other ethical dilemmas.
Occasionally some wag questions my “authority” to write about something no university grants a degree in—ethics. Who am I to hold forth on such a convoluted topic, when even “real” philosophers find little to agree on when they hold forth on ethics? If not me, then who? Real philosophers, at acclaimed universities, are betwixt and between ethical definitions in their own field. Writers are as capable as anyone in reaching consensus about ethical writing.
Ethical writing and moral philosophy are kissing cousins. Both disciplines examine topics, people and issues that question what is morally good and bad and morally right and wrong. When we write about misconduct, or exemplary conduct we have time-honored benchmarks. Is our protagonist a good person? Is the antagonist a bad person? What are they doing that implies immorality? Will our readers cheer for one and sneer at the other? These emotions can be reached by pushing the reader one way or the other.
In Socrates’s time, the question frequently raised was whether ethics could be taught. After much debate and toga wrenching, a consensus was established that ethics can be taught. We are still arguing about the goals, models, and methods of ethics teaching. And as writers, there are many trains of thought about ethical norms. This blog is an example of a train moving at barely the speed of light rail.
Writers know the difference between morality and ethics—we build those distinctions in both fiction and nonfiction. A character without a moral compass may follows ethical codes and be in good standing with society. Or a core issue in the book may celebrate characters who routinely violate ethical imperatives because they believe something is morally right. The author’s job is to be transparent and trust the reader to know which is right and which should be shunned.
We think about large-scale ethics in literary terms, but there is also something called nanoethics winding its way through scientific circles. It will influence how we write in the future. Nanotechnology is found in in science fiction, movie scripts and front-page newspaper articles. It’s as real as the nonfiction we write. We should be watching the growing ranks of policy analysts, advocacy groups, social scientists, and futurists who worry with good reason. There are social and ethical implications of nanoscale science and technology. Some pose dangers to human health, the environment, and life in Washington, D.C. They are trying to midwife a new academic discipline called “nanoethics” to think through the societal, moral, and broader human implications of advances in nanotechnology. The “ethics of writing about ethics,” ought to be book-length, not a short blog. That said, we should never forget the core principle underlying ethical writing. By any measure, at any length, we should honor the implicit contract between author and reader. We have the right to write. The reader will assume we are the sole originator of the work. If we include text or borrowed ideas of others, we should follow well-established conventions about sourcing and citing. We pass ethical muster if our product is clear, honest, and fair. Our writing should mirror our honestly held beliefs.
 Adam Keiper, “Nanoethics as a Discipline?” The New Atlantis. Spring 2007. https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/nanoethics-as-a-discipline
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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