Welcome back to Member Monday. Today we feature a piece by Sharon St. George. Here’s a little more about Sharon.
Sharon Owen, writing as Sharon St. George, is the current program director of Writers Forum. She is also a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America. Visit Sharon at www.sharonstgeorge.com or on Facebook at Facebook.com/sharonstgeorge.
Who is Ethical Norm?
by Sharon St. George
Who is Ethical Norm?
Sorry, trick question. Ethical Norm is not the husky man from Cheers who sat at the corner of the
bar. Norm’s ethical boundaries might have been compromised by his appetite for beer, a
proclivity that, on more than one occasion, caused him to behave in an unethical manner.
Ethical norm is a term I first heard in a college fiction writing course. My professor assigned
Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, to be read by the class. During the discussion that
followed, the professor pointed out that the ethical norm of that community was an integral part
of the story setting. Without it, there would have been no story.
I recently refreshed my memory by searching out a definition of the term. I found that Webster
tells us norms are standards of proper or acceptable behavior; ethics are rules of behavior based
on ideas about what is morally good and bad. When these are combined, we have standards of
acceptable behavior, not necessarily mandated by law, but based on a particular society’s ideas of
what is morally good and bad. There is general agreement that as a society, we expect certain
behaviors from society at large, even when they do not fall under the purview of law.
Some of literature’s most memorable works have used the concept of a given society’s ethical
norm to startle readers’ minds into active thought about the behaviors they expect from
themselves and others who share not only their community, but their nation and their planet.
Another example, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, demonstrates what happens when a group
of young boys become castaways on a tropical island. Does their survival depend on establishing
an ethical norm different from what governed their behavior before they became shipwreck
This important element of setting reaches beyond fiction. A 2016 Academy Award-winning
documentary short subject film titled A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness is a stunning
example of the concept of how one society’s ethical norm differs from others. Set in Pakistan, it
sheds light on the practice of honor killings, and involves a 19-year-old woman who survives an
honor killing attempt by her father and uncle for marrying the man she loves. It brings to light
the statistic that approximately a thousand Pakistani women are murdered each year by male
relatives for dishonoring their families. The film has already prompted Pakistan’s prime minister
to address the need for a stronger law against honor killings in his country. In her Oscar
acceptance speech, courageous woman filmmaker Obaid-Chinoy stressed the “power of film” to
bring about social change.
So when we consider the setting for our novel, short story, or work of nonfiction, we’re not
looking merely at the time and place, but we also consider the ethical norm of that setting. We
know that it will affect the main characters, it will affect the other characters in the story, and it
will affect the reader’s reaction to the work. It is inspiring to realize that writers who expose
unacceptable ethical norms can do more than entertain and inform, they can make a better world
In Breach of Ethics, Sharon St. George’s third novel in the Aimee Machado Mystery series, a troubled surgeon faces an ethical dilemma while operating on a ten-year-old girl. His efforts to save the life of the child prodigy pianist result in ominous consequences involving Aimee and her band of intrepid crime solvers.
Breach of Ethics will be released by Camel Press on May 1, 2016. It is available now to preorder from Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and eBook format.
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Thanks for writing this Sharon – a nice reminder.
The ethical norm in Pakistan is to kill young women who dishonor their families either by immoral conduct or by marrying someone not acceptable to their families. Unless a moral absolute exists that forbids murder, who are we to disapprove another society’s norms? But such an absolute exists and is reflected in many of the moral and legal codes of the great civilizations. But if such an absolute exists, from whence does it come. Certainly not from Nature, “red in tooth and claw.” The only possible source for a law overriding human custom is the divine Lawgiver, God the Creator. This is the moral argument for the existence of God. I believe that it is irrefutable. What do you think?