The Ethicist: Detectives, Spies, Zombies & Ethics

The world we find ourselves in today is often difficult, sometimes frightening and frequently disturbing. It’s hard to watch the evening news and then sleep well at night or even follow our Facebook newsfeeds without realizing that our friends have sharply divergent and incompatible political views which mirror the disagreements and hostilities flourishing in the political arena today. And we are the lucky ones: any of us writing for, or reading, things like The Cape Breton Spectator, are not sitting in a small boat packed with other refugees facing the possibility of death by drowning, suffering the effects of genocidal warfare or killing time in a detention center waiting to be deported.

Where does ethics fit in? What can ethics teach us about the world we inhabit today, and how we might live lives that are morally good when many of us feel powerless to make a difference? How might thinking in ethical terms guide us so that we can help create a world that is better than the one we are all too familiar with?



Ethics, surprisingly perhaps, is not primarily concerned with what is, but with what ought to be. When we think in ethical terms, we need to think not only about the world we live in—one in which brutal dictators flourish, children languish in refugee camps or are forced to become child soldiers, insulting one’s political opponents has become the order of the day and disputes often end in violence – but about the world we want to live in.

By Emil Doerstling (1859-1940) (Emil Doerstling) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kant and Friends at Table By Emil Doerstling (1859-1940) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ethics, then, requires us to use our imaginations. For example, we might ask ourselves: what might the world be like if no one were poor? Or hungry? Or a refugee? Or if—to use examples presented by the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant—we lived in a world in which no one told lies, broke promises or failed to develop their talents?

Ethics, that is to say, can help us articulate morally sound goals. Once we have the imaginary world we want to create clearly in mind—and once others share that vision with us—ethics can then help us to find ways to bring that imaginary world into being, and can guide us in devising methods for this task that are not, themselves, unethical: the ends will not justify the means.

Lest this sound too abstract and too idealistic, it is clearly the case that some of our greatest historical advances were achieved in exactly this way: some people looked at a world in which slavery was accepted, or in which women were not allowed to vote, and decided that it was not good enough: the world they actually lived in did not meet the requirements of the world they wanted to inhabit, and so they changed the former in light of their vision of the latter.



Published by Beadle and Adams. (Scan by Hoohahcomics) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Published by Beadle and Adams. (Scan by Hoohahcomics) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fictions, then—stories that are not factually true, but which may nonetheless be an important source of moral truths—can be helpful in imagining new possibilities, and in ensuring the idea of these imagined worlds is widely shared. I am a devotee of detective fiction and other genres of popular writing; believe our present ability to stream vast numbers of TV shows through the internet is a wonderful technological development; and enjoy going to the movies to watch the latest blockbuster along with hordes of pop-guzzling, popcorn-chomping fellow film buffs. I am sure that many of the readers of The Cape Breton Spectator enjoy spending at least some of their leisure time in similar ways.

Not only do these popular forms of entertainment provide us with a temporary escape from our cares and concerns, they are also, I believe, both philosophically interesting and ethically important: they hold a mirror up to us and to our society, and what we see reflected in it are nothing less than our deepest commitments, our most pressing problems and our most acute anxieties. What I want to explore in the next few columns is what we can learn about philosophy, ourselves and our society from popular fiction, movies and TV shows. How such works shape our understanding of the world even as we, in turn, have the power to shape the way these fictional stories develop and how, through this process, we have the power to imagine new worlds and to think about how they might be realized.

Genre fiction (fiction which follows a formula) whether presented in written or visual form, is often dismissed by literary and film critics as trivial entertainment rather than art. Moreover, spending time reading detective fiction or binge-watching The Walking Dead is sometimes understood (at least by some scholars working in universities and by critics writing for literary journals) as, at best, a harmless escape from our mundane worries; at worst, a waste of valuable time that could (and should) be spent reading great literature or watching serious films. In addition, some critics have argued that when we buy murder mysteries or fantasy novels, watch The Big Bang Theory or Bones, we are unwitting participants in a capitalist economic system that exists not to produce cultural artifacts but simply to make money.


Consuming interest?

Michael Schmidt, in an astonishingly long examination of the novel (1106 pages!) entitled The Novel: A Biography expresses this view forthrightly: genre writing, he argues, must be located squarely within the economic framework of the capitalist marketplace, in which writers and publishers work with one another to create a product that is sellable to the masses (though not, of course, to more discerning readers):

The genre novel collaborates with the publisher who interprets and projects a market’s demands onto the author… ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’

Since the publishers produce genre writing because it is easy to sell (unlike literary fiction, which appeals to a much smaller audience), readers of such fiction, Schmidt suggests, are quite literally consumers rather than readers: they buy and consume Harlequin romances and spy novels in just the same way they buy and consume alcohol, bread, cars, cell phones or donairs. Moreover, they buy these books precisely because they know what to expect: a murder mystery requires an unlawful killing, a detective, clues; a romance novel requires misunderstandings and a happy ending; a gothic thriller requires isolated mansions and stranded heroines who trust men they shouldn’t and distrust men they should believe; and a spy thriller requires exotic locations, advanced surveillance techniques, and damaged protagonists.

And all of these traits, of course, are also true of genre-based TV shows and movies: they are created because they will find large audiences (thereby generating substantial amounts of money), and their audiences know what to expect—whether it be Zombies biting the living and spreading the Zombie virus; space stations in galaxies far, far away; or cute, quirky friends who somehow don’t realize until the very end of the movie that they are romantically attracted to one another.

In short, in this view, the creation of genre-based entertainments, written or visual, is a capitalist enterprise designed to make money by giving consumers exactly the product they expected when they shelled out their money at the bookstore or signed up for Netflix.


Collaborative process

By Joel Friesen [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Group of zombies, shooting of the film Meat Market 3. (Photo by Joel Friesen, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

However, a case can be made—and this is a case with important ethical implications –that genre fiction, whether in written or visual form, is responsive to the shared things that worry us, or that we believe to be important, that we may not be consciously aware of, and that, therefore, an examination of these popular entertainments may reveal significant things to us that we might not otherwise notice.

Moreover, it can be argued that, far from being passive consumers who mindlessly buy what is cynically offered to us, those of us who enjoy these manifestations of popular culture are participants in the conceptual frameworks they construct. I will consider what we can learn from detective stories and Zombie narratives in the next few columns; what I want to do in this one is explore the way in which the readers and viewers of genre fictions actively shape the forms that they take, the imaginary worlds such fictions construct, the mirrors that they hold up to us and to society.

The interesting question, in short, is not why publishers and TV producers and movie studios create these works; the interesting question is why we want to read and watch them, and what we might learn about ourselves in and through them. Most importantly, genre fictions allow us to imagine ways in which the world we actually live in might be transformed into the world we want—and mistakes that we might make which could make our actual world worse than it already is.

Using detective novels as their primary focus, Manina Jones and Priscilla Walton argue in their book Detective Agency that readers and writers of genre fictions are engaged in a mutual and collaborative process in which they negotiate meanings, explore subversive social and political ideas and work together to critique institutions, challenge pernicious stereotypes and consider ways in which true justice might differ from what is legally required. In contrast to Schmidt’s dismissal of genre fiction as the place where writing and marketing meet and readers ought to be considered mere consumers, Walton and Jones argue that we, those who enjoy genre fiction, “are actively engaged in a social and economic process,” and an important part of this process is negotiating meaning. We choose to buy and read particular books, ensure that the latest Netflix show succeeds or fails, that one movie becomes a blockbuster and another a box office disappointment. What this means is that readers and viewers have moral agency and that we exercise that agency through our choices. As we choose, we become collaborators with the creators of the things we read and watch, and can push back at, for example, sexist portrayals of women, racist descriptions of refugees, or celebrations of capitalist greed at the expense of the environment.

So, the next time you buy a book, watch a television show (online or on your TV), or go to a movie, ask yourself: is this a project I want to collaborate with, help to make successful? Does it send a message about values that I approve of? Does the imaginary world it portrays offer any lessons, negative or positive, for the world we actually inhabit? If so, encourage others to participate as well, through their viewing and reading choices; if not, resolve to spend your money and your time differently.

Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. She is working on a book that explores the ethical dimensions of detective fiction.




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