Thursday, April 07, 2011

What makes a murder?

I write science fiction and fantasy, but I have a background in philosophy. For me, the most obnoxious part of my philosophical training was my coursework in ethics. We had to discuss many hot-button topics, and a great deal of the conversation was compounded by an inability to agree on our terms. It's difficult to have effective discourse when people's different backgrounds have given common words very different connotations.

The hottest topic in ethics class was abortion. I think it's a topic that exemplarizes the fractured communications that come from word connotation.
  • For some, abortion means murder. It's killing a person, and that's it.
  • For some, abortion can't mean murder, because murder requires personhood, and some people don't feel as if unborn entities qualify as people. They tend to see abortion as a medical procedure, primarily affecting the mother.
  • For some, abortion can't mean murder, because murder requires malicious intent, and some feel that the choice to end a pregnancy isn't a malicious one--it comes from some kind of hope to prevent suffering. These people often see abortion as euthanasia.
With these three major differences in word usage, how can people talk clearly about the same subject?

When you're writing fiction and ethical situations come up, think deeply about word usage. The words you choose and the attitudes your character has about them will deeply color your reader's experience of the work.

When it comes to murder, your characters will use the term in fascinating ways. Here are some possibilities:

  • War involves killing, but depending your outlook, deaths in combat may or may not be murder. Someone who believes the battle is justified will not usually use the word "murder;" a peace advocate probably will.
  • Killing animals for food is typically not considered murder, but if you're writing a character who is an animal empath, you'll almost certainly use that term.
  • Assisted suicide might be called murder by someone with a set-fate religious belief, but a concerned grand-daughter who's spent time watching her grandma battle with cancer would probably use the term "euthanasia" or "assisted suicide."
  • If a horrible accident happens--say your character's new invention explodes and kills a young child--the devastated family members might use the word "murder" if the accident was the result of particularly stupid behavior or if they don't like your character.
It's not always easy for us to step outside of our own word connotations to explore morality, but as writers, it's critical, especially if you're digging into unfamiliar cultures. If you're creating your own new planet full of its own fascinating cultural mores, you'll be glad you slowed down and dug deep.

1 comment:

Miriam Forster said...

Oooo! What an interesting point. I shall have to ponder it. *ponders*