The Ethicist: Murder Mysteries & Moral Imagination

In last month’s column, I argued, first, that ethics is concerned not with the world that we actually live in, but with the world that we ought to construct together–with, that is to say, the imaginary world that does not yet exist, but which we might yet create if we have a shared vision and are willing to work together to achieve it.

Second, I argued that popular fictions can help us to imaginatively visualize possible worlds and that, as readers and viewers of these stories, we have the collective power to determine which of those possible worlds grabs hold of our shared consciousness. The development of a shared conception of the kind of world we want to live in (whether we develop that conception as a result of the fictions we are exposed to or in other ways) is an important first step in bringing these imagined worlds into existence; indeed, it can be argued that the supporters and critics of Donald Trump’s policies in the United States are engaged in exactly this process – each side has a vision of the way it believes the world ought to be, and seeks to get others to share that vision, thereby increasing the likelihood that it will become reality.

New Mystery section, Barnes & Noble via Pinterest (

New Mystery section, Barnes & Noble (via Pinterest)


Moral imagination

In this month’s column, I want to focus on the role played by detective fiction (also known as murder mysteries) in educating what I will call our “moral imagination”: our ability to see the ethical structures that make it possible for us to create communities together, and to imagine what it might be like to be persons within those communities who are mistreated, socially marginalized or otherwise disadvantaged. If we lack a moral imagination, no rational argument will move us; I am inclined to think, as I read the news at the moment that Trump and his advisers lack precisely this attribute – they seem unable to imagine the effects that, for example, their policies on travel and immigration have on the lives and experiences of actual people.

Likewise, the different responses to reports of refugees and their desperate attempts to reach safety (sometimes losing their lives in the process) can be attributed to the possession, or the lack, of a moral imagination: if we have the capacity to imagine what it might be like to be a parent who risks the lives of her children by setting out to sea in a rickety little boat because that is better than staying put, we are likely to be supportive of efforts to bring refugees to Canada. If, however, we cannot imagine being in their shoes, we are likely to think that Canada should accept few if any of these people, because they might be dangerous, and are clearly going to cost money.

If we possess a moral imagination, in short, not only will we be moved by moral arguments, we will also be predisposed to recognize various forms of injustice in our own society, and will be inclined to want to see those injustices rectified. The difficult question, of course, is why some people possess a moral imagination while others lack it; while I do not know the answer to this question, I believe that an engagement with literature, both serious and popular, can play an important role in exposing us to the inner lives of people who are unlike us, people we might be inclined to dismiss or stereotype, and so books can be an important tool for developing the moral imagination. Murder mysteries, in particular, have much to teach us.


Hedons & Utiles

This might, on the face of it, seem a surprising or even ridiculous claim. While detective fiction forms one of the most popular genres of contemporary popular writing, it is often taken to offer nothing more than trivial entertainment, a way to fill in time when we have nothing better to do. I believe, however, that murder mysteries should be taken far more seriously than this and that, far from being mere entertainments, they provide a description of the moral life and why it is important that is largely unrivaled in moral philosophy as it is currently practiced, and largely unavailable in other parts of the culture. The working assumption that underpins much contemporary moral philosophy is that moral reasoning offers us a mechanism for identifying and justifying moral choice, and that the reasons for acting morally can either be assumed, or defended, on the ground of a kind of enlightened self-interest.

One of the most difficult challenges I face as a professor of philosophy specializing in ethics is that the theories which I teach to students seem to many of them to be both abstract and largely incomprehensible. What does Kant’s Categorical Imperative (even the name is intimidating!) teach us about how we should live our lives? How is the Principle of Utility, which asks us to think about counting imaginary units of happiness called hedons or utiles, relevant to the choices we make? What guidance can ethical theories really give us, when the advice they offer, and the mechanisms for decision-making they propose directly conflict with one another? And there is a still more fundamental problem: contemporary moral philosophy, which provides an account of how to act morally, has little to offer in response to the question “Why be moral?” – at least to those who ask it seriously. In short, contemporary moral philosophy often seems abstract, unclear, and unconvincing.

Partners & Crime, an independent New York bookstore devoted to mysteries. (Source:


Deep structure

I want to make the case in this column that I can’t make in the classroom that the ethical guidance we can find in good detective fiction is equal to, and sometimes even surpasses, the guidance offered by academic moral philosophy. While I love the pristine abstractions of moral theory, and the elegant arguments presented by the great moral theorists, I have to admit that my appreciation of the rarefied realms of thought it offers is an acquired taste — that is acquired by only a few.

However, for those who do not want to spend their time wading through the writings of Kant, Mill and Aristotle, murder mysteries offer a surprisingly good substitute. Indeed, I believe, far from offering trivial entertainments or titillating descriptions of violence, the best detective fiction offers a vision of a moral world in which our most mundane choices matter; where good and evil are concepts that must be taken seriously by the characters, the writers and the readers; and in which moral order is both visible to those who look, and important.

Detective fiction, as some critics have observed, has both a surface structure (the crime, the investigation by the detective, the genuine clues scattered among the red herrings, the discovery of the criminal, and the correct attribution of guilt and innocence) and a deep structure. The deep structure is composed of the moral foundation which gives the surface structure its larger meaning and purpose: the only reason why the investigation matters, why the detective persists against all odds and sometimes at a high personal cost, is that murder mysteries assume (and the readers of these mysteries must also accept, if they are to be able to fully enjoy the experience of reading them) that there is an underlying moral order that underpins society, that this moral order is disrupted by the crime of murder, and that it can be restored when the criminal is identified and brought to justice.


Hunger for justice

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, by John Doubleday. Located on Newland Street, Witham, England. (Photo by GeneralJohnsonJameson (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bronze statue of Dorothy L. Sayers, by John Doubleday. Located on Newland Street, Witham, England. (Photo by GeneralJohnsonJameson, own work, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Because the readers of detective fiction must accept the existence of this underlying moral foundation (at least, while they are reading a detective novel), this genre of

writing offers them a moral education: since they must accept the existence of an objective moral order that the detective is responding to if the story is to make sense, they are likely to start seeing the moral foundations of the world they actually inhabit as well, and to make the moral framework required by the fictional story their own.

As Dorothy L. Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh have aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey observe in Thrones, Dominations:

Detective stories keep alive a view of the world which ought to be true. Of course, people read them for fun, for diversion, as they do crossword puzzles. But underneath they feel a hunger for justice, and heaven help us if ordinary people cease to feel that.

And, he makes it clear, the deeper meaning concealed within the surface plot does important work in bringing that imagined moral order closer to reality: readers may think that they are simply being entertained by a good story, but the deep underlying structure of the murder mystery provides an education in ethics that rivals (and perhaps even surpasses) that offered by moral theory, because it engages our emotions and our imaginations as well as our intellects. As Lord Peter puts it:

If they [the readers] thought that you [the writer] were bent on improving their minds they would probably never pick up a book. But you offer to divert them, and you show them by stealth the orderly world in which we should all try to be living.

Paradoxically, then, through a particular kind of exploration of violence, rather than appealing to our baser instincts, detective fiction heightens our ethical sensibilities, and allows us to imagine a world in which ethical choices matter, good triumphs over evil, and justice prevails. For those readers of The Cape Breton Spectator who are already murder mystery devotees, the next time you pick up a book, think about the underlying moral structure that provides the genre with purpose and meaning, and if anyone makes fun of your reading choice or accuses you of wasting your time, tell them that you are having a lesson in ethical thought.

For readers of the Spectator who are not regular readers of this kind of fiction, consider giving it (another?) try: you might be surprised, once you start to notice it, about the clarity of the moral message it offers, and the way in which good examples of the genre, at least, both engage the moral intellect and inspire the moral imagination.


Featured image: New Mystery section at Barnes & Noble (via Pinterest)

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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