Apollo and Daphne; Jan Boeckhorst (German, about 1604 – 1668); about 1640; Black chalk, pen and brown ink, watercolor, and white gouache heightening; 22.1 x 23.2 cm (8 11/16 x 9 1/8 in.); 2003.112

Philosophical Examples: The Stark and the Dense

by Vida Yao

In “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, and Ethics,” Bernard Williams draws a distinction between dense and stark fiction, and their use in moral-philosophical discussion and reflection. Sophocles is his exemplar of the latter; Dickens the former. Examples drawn from stark fictions are vivid, structurally simple and beautiful. In philosophy we tend to fixate on the stark: we seem to love the drama. There is high drama in Deianiera’s vulnerability to the lies of a beast, Nessus, who is not quite human but has a lust for human women, in how this lovesick woman comes to accidentally kill her beloved husband (who saved her from that beast), and her own eventual suicide in light of the horror of what she has done. There is high drama in the following deliberation: Should I shoot Pedro, even though I, Jim, adhere to an ideal that one ought not take even one innocent human life, under any circumstance?

Here, I want to reflect on the importance of dense fiction for moral philosophy and I’ll use, in particular, the ideal of personal integrity to focus my discussion. Williams argues that Jim’s integrity could be undermined at this one moment, and that no moral theory should make his decision easy for him. Yes, he may decide that he must look Pedro in the face (or maybe, out of weakness, at his shoes) and just shoot the poor man. But it may cost him his integrity as a man who, up until this tragic circumstance, wanted to live as a decent man who doesn’t murder innocent strangers no matter what happens. He may, for the rest of his life, look back to this fateful decision as the one that cost him nearly everything: as the one that he must make amends for in some way, as the one which jolts him awake at night.

Given who he was arguing against, and given what Miles Burnyeat once referred to as, “what the current events on the radio of the time were like!”, it makes sense that Williams, in his own writing, tended toward the stark. But current events have changed, or rather, our attention is now focused on much smaller, more mundane, every day ways in which our moral lives are at stake. These ways are less dramatic. Indeed, it can seem like nothing is happening at all, and yet one’s integrity is, day after day, being slowly and almost imperceptibly undermined. Rather than a bend and snap, a dissolution. Let me illustrate with a little piece of dense fiction.

Diane has been working as something like a secretary for a man who she, from a distance, respected, and who now up close is not a man she could ever respect. Actually, he seems to be something not quite human, but who nonetheless has a lust for human women. She hates the job, but the job has become a necessity for her: it allows her to escape from Calydon. She cannot go home to Calydon (Stipulate: if she goes back to Calydon, there is another beast, more dangerous, waiting for her there.) So, she must keep her job in order to live.

But every day Diane is faced with a barrage of practical dilemmas. Here is just one. With high regularity, this man has ordered her to either (1) throw away or (2) eat the lunch that he has brought with him. Either way, she must tell him exactly what the lunch contained. They are the most precious lunches that Diane has ever seen, prepared each day by the man’s devoted wife: each day, a very small sandwich on perfect bread with very fussy filling (one day pâté, another day very high-quality salami and hard cheese), always with a cup of soup in a thermos, always with something else salty and sour to balance everything out.

Once Diane forgot to each the lunch or throw it out, and the next day her boss was furious, shouting at her with a bear’s voice, telling her that this was just one new way in which she was failing in her duties. She learned from this episode that her boss cannot bring the lunch home because then there will be a question about why, exactly, he didn’t eat his lunch. Diane, in fact, doesn’t really know the answer, but she now knows that the question is unwanted, and has been unwanted for decades, long before she arrived on the scene. Maybe the question is not actually asked, out loud, any more.

Diane is not religious, but has the nascent sense that adultery is a sin (maybe she is just old-fashioned). But Diane has just taken a course on moral philosophy, and it seems that after all, over all, it would be best she just eat the lunch: meat is a costly and resource-heavy commodity, it saves her the money and energy of having to bring her own lunch (which these days she seems to have so little of). It seems like she isn’t exactly lying, even though it is true that she may be helping a lie, and even though she feels ashamed when the man’s wife comes by to say hello. And she remembers her mother teaching her to never waste food: for every grain of rice left in the bowl, a pimple.

But sometimes she stares at the sandwiches and feels sick to her stomach. But perhaps, her TA suggests about a similar case, this is just squeamishness. Should I (1)eat the sandwich, or should I (2) throw it away? She asks this question of herself until she finds she can no longer ask herself the question because the words, through repetition, have become meaningless.

I will finish with four claims.

  1. If Diane is to keep living, her integrity is undermined, no matter what she ends up doing. She has reached a moment where, as Kyla Ebels-Duggan has emphasized, Williams forces us to recognize that morally speaking, “it cannot matter any more what happens.”
  2. However, unlike most tragic dilemmas that draw our attention in moral philosophy, there is no one moment to fixate on. There is no particular sandwich that poses the problem – no particular sandwich that will be the one that jolts her awake at night. And yet, just as a heap will emerge from grains of sand, or disappear with the removal of each grain, she finds her integrity vanishing, seemingly imperceptibly, over time. Moreover, there is no particular way to make amends for this: no party (analogous to Pedro’s grieving friends and family) to try to respond to, and so no particular, stark way to alleviate her guilt and shame (surely irrational in some way, but as Williams would ask: what is the importance of that charge, at this point?)
  3. I would venture that most of the time, this is just the way in which a person’s integrity is actually undermined: not through high, stark drama and action, but through what seems to be mundane: what can seem like nothing at all. This face can only be fully captured, I think, by dense (Or simply, dense writing: why must the case be fiction?) This gives us reason, as moral philosophers, to read and use examples from dense fiction; to feel obliged to understand the examples that others draw from pieces of dense fiction; to be more stylistically open to “thought experiments” that are not as stark as deciding whether to harvest organs, or pull a lever, or shoot an innocent man. Indeed, my point above (1) would be better illustrated if the example were permitted to be denser: if more of Diane’s day-to-day life were described, if more of these dilemmas, all different in size and shape and colour, were laid out. But wouldn’t that be a novel, or at least, a novella? Would that still bephilosophy?
  4. Williams was right that stark tragedies seem to afford little light. Stark tragedies end with gnashing of teeth, and wailing, and suicide. Of course, dense tragedies can end in these ways, too. But the richness and open-endedness of dense fiction allows for something else. I think it can allow for the possibility of escaping the high drama, the stark symbolism, the patterned necessity, and the weeping and tearing of hair (at least for a moment). It allows us some pause, some more thick ethical concepts, some more improvisation through the richness of the vision that density affords.

And so, perhaps, in density there is the possibility of redemption (or re-integration) where it doesn’t seem, really, as though anything is happening at all. And so, I finish by echoing Williams’s claim that though tragedy, whether stark or dense, should not be responded to with moralism, it can be responded to, perhaps, with art and style. But art not simply as analgesic, as Williams discusses – art, somehow, as solution.


Relevant Work


Cora Diamond, “Losing Your Concepts”, Ethics Vol. 98, No. 2 (Jan., 1988), pp. 255-277.

Kyla Ebels-Duggan, “The Right, the Good, and the Threat of Despair: (Kantian) Ethics and the Need for Hope in God” in Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion: Volume 7(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Lynn McFall, “Integrity” Ethics, Vol. 98, No. 1 (Oct., 1987), pp. 5-20.

Sophocles, “The Women of Trachis” (trans: Patricia Easterling).

Samantha Vice, “How Do I Live in this Strange Place?”, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol. 41 No. 3, Fall 2010, 323–342.

Bernard Williams and JCC Smart, Utilitarianism: For and Against(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

Williams, “The Women of Trachis: Fictions, Pessimism, and Ethics” in The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy. Princeton University Press.pp. 49-59 (2009).

“Bernard Williams and the Ancients,” conference, organized by Nakul Krishna, September 19-20, 2016.

Much discussion with presenters and discussants at the “Rice Workshop for Humanistic Ethics”, organized by the author, in spring 2017 and 2019.

11 Replies to ““Philosophical Examples: The Stark and the Dense,” guest post by Vida Yao for Normative Ethics July.

  1. Beautifully conceived and written, Vida, thanks! A few remarks in defense of Williams. I take it that his Jim/Pedro case, stark as it is, was really meant to stick it to the utilitarians, who thrive on stark cases. Even if they do get the right answer in that case, they are wrong in thinking it an easy answer. So it’s a hoist with their own petard strategy, Williams himself was a lover of the dense: Shame and Necessity is dense upon dense, and there are rich and very complicated lessons to be learned as a result.

    Indeed, I’ve long disliked the stark in moral philosophy. I know the aim is to isolate variables and abstract away from the noise and complexity, but the noise and complexity is often what’s most *relevant* to moral life!

  2. Hi David. And yup you’re totally right. He was extremely skilled at knowing which examples would work for which opponents. A master of style.

  3. Though I will add: Shame and Necessity is dense, true, but again – only as dense as it needs to be given his opponents (Snell, etc.). I think plenty of classicists find some of his treatments of Ajax, etc. too stark if one wants a proper literary treatment of the texts.

  4. Hi Vida: Thanks for a very interesting post. I wanted to ask about something you allude to briefly in a parenthetical remark: dense non-fiction. It seems to me that real-life examples–say, memoirs or biographies or other accounts of people’s lives drawn from history–have many of the benefits of dense fiction that you nicely draw attention to. But the real-life examples seem to me to have at least this added benefit: they are *real*. And when it comes to moral thinking, the reality of case may drive home certain points in ways that fiction, however realistic, may not. One might find oneself confronted by the thought, not simply that this *could* happen here, but that it *did*. Someone really did endure this tragedy. I suspect this may be a salutary effect of cases drawn from real life. We can’t duck the gravity of the subject matter, can’t explain or imagine away the discomfort, can’t retreat into fiction, as it were.

    I suspect you’ve thought about this, and I wonder what you think.

  5. Thanks for such an interesting post! Is the stark/dense distinction meant to apply to presentation or to situations?

    One way that starkness might operate is that the event is one of “unmanageable chance” (Williams). Thus it is stark against the background of ordinary life. But another way of seeing starkness is that the possible ways life can go on from an event are very different from one another: condemnation or exoneration, say. (And I think this stark sort of example is the type of thing we often find in moral philosophy.) This lines up with your “2”.

    But that leaves open the texture of condemnation or exoneration: does one, after exoneration, go back to one’s life as before, does one become bitter, etc.? On the condemnation front: Ian McEwan’s “Atonement” turns around a mistaken accusation of a serious crime. Robbie goes to jail, and then we are presented with two storylines, one of which is a dense description of his possible life, involving finding love and fighting in the war. In the e.g. of Jim, there are certainly many ways he could respond to what he has done. e.g. there are various ways he might make amends: should he dedicate his life to stopping conflict (In the world? In that country? Between the villagers and the state?), to making amends to the villager’s family, to bringing war crimes cases against the state? My point is just that we could narrate these stark choices/events in much denser ways.

    So I wondered how far stark/dense (sparse/rich?) lines up with one big event vs. many little things chipping away at, say, integrity?

  6. Thanks, Ben and Jake. I spent all day ducking in and out of the forest fires raging in northern Arizona but hope to reply to both of you shortly.

  7. Hi Ben –

    Thanks very much for the question. You’re right: I’ve probably overthought about this, and don’t know that I have anything particularly bright to say.

    The benefit you mention of real-life examples is definitely a benefit, but whether or not one needs that particular benefit for an argument to go through may depend on exactly what argumentative point one is trying to make. So, one would likely have to think hard about one’s audience, and one’s argument, and whether it matters to the argument that for those people they be made to see that certain things just do happen – they are not figments of a person’s imagination, whether driven by ressentiment or some other kind of distorting force.

    The recent accounting provided by E. Jean Caroll of several of the “hideous men” in her life has a particular weight because it is so hard to believe that she is stating anything other than the truth, and because (at least for some readers) it may be difficult to fully accept that sometimes abused little boys will shove sticks and fabric up their little girl friend’s vaginas, or that adult men sometimes fight women and then force their penises inside them. (I don’t think that this is simply because of sexism, though I don’t mean to deny that that can be part of the explanation; I think that in some cases it can be certain virtues, or approximate virtues, which will make it impossible for a person to fully accept that certain things just do happen, or rather, that certain people will do certain things to other people. Male victims of this kind of abuse are also often not believed.)

    Now, what does this have to do with our intellectual duties as moral philosophers? I do think that we sometimes suffer from a particular kind of distortion, which is that we allow ourselves to become to wedded to particular theories, whether moral or moral-psychological, which can sometimes make it impossible for us to accept that certain morally significant things happen to people. At the Pacific APA this last spring, I made the point that a certain version of hedonism, which claims that pleasure is always and everywhere a good thing for the person who experiences that pleasure, must accept that a person who suffers sexual abuse, and who experienced pleasure while that abuse was happening, had something good happen to him or her. My moral point was that it should be allowed that the pleasure *itself*, in fact, can make the whole experience even more degrading. We can argue about that, but what I think would be a distortion is to claim that people never feel pleasure when they are being sexually abused. One is free to bite the bullet and claim that the pleasure is good for the person abused (just heavily outweighed, or whatever), but it is interesting to notice that some would rather deny the phenomena than bite that bullet. And that, I think, is to be blinded by theory. And as moral philosophers, we might think we have certain responsibilities to not be blind to certain aspects of reality. This is not a new point, but I thought I’d just put it out there.

    For other arguments, I’m not entirely sure that the benefit of history or reality should necessarily outweigh the benefits that fiction can sometimes provide. For example, if one is striving toward an ideal, it may not be an ideal that one has actually witnessed, because perhaps it hasn’t in fact been realized. Indeed, it may not be an ideal that can ever actually be realized. But a fictional account (say, of perfect courage or love) can give us something, even if it isn’t giving us the facts. This maybe is why I leave off with the cryptic (even to me, at this point) that art could provide solutions.

    Finally, I’ll just make a more general point. I’ll just speak for myself, though it is a point that Williams makes elsewhere as well. I always feel more at home in my moral-philosophical and psychological arguments if I know a little bit of history, and a little bit of literature. We can argue about the purity of certain branches of philosophy, but I think I’ve lost my ability to entertain the idea that moral philosophy and psychology in particular, could be “pure” in the ways that other parts of the discipline might strive to be.

    I’d be interested to hear more of what you think about this.

    Texas forever,

  8. Hi Jake,

    Thanks for the questions and the chance to clarify my own thoughts. I’m going to depart from trying to make sense of Williams on this. I think the stark/dense (or “sparse/rich”, which I have also thought would be a nicer name but oh well) distinction can be applied to both situations and presentations. Stark situations can be presented both starkly, and densely. So: Atonement presents a story that could be told very starkly, but we are given it in a dense form. One could rewrite all of Sophocles’ tragedies as novels (and I think still not totally lose the sense of unmanageable chance).

    What I wonder about is when the situation itself is dense (or rich) – so much so that perhaps the people involved may have no idea what is going on. For them, it may be like being in a fog. And nonetheless, morally significant things (like the loss of integrity or self-esteem or self-respect) are happening to the people involved. And it would hard to account for that or to notice it if we were limited to sparse or stark descriptions of the situation.

    I wonder if you picked Atonement on purpose given the concluding suggestion of my post, because (if I remember correctly), Briony is the one that needs atonement. Among other things she becomes a writer and writes out those alternatives for Robbie and Celia, since both in fact died during the war and so could not actually ever achieve the life that could have provided Briony with some peace for what she did to them. She claims that it is kindness at the end to have them united in her fictional account. I find this claim highly doubtful. Maybe it is a kindness for herself, or for us. Maybe somebody could convince me that in this kind of situation writing a novel, on its own, does anything other than provide the writer with some solace.

    I think that the stark solutions are easy for philosophers to lay out and discuss. I think there are these cases, though, like Briony’s, like Diana’s, where it is hard to see what the process of real atonement could involve without delving into the dense. Imagine that in the case of Diana, one person she feels that she has wronged – the wife – is dead, just like Robbie and Celia. Fundamentally, what if there is no one left to make sense to apologize to, or make recompense to? And what if one doesn’t believe in a personal God who could help one along? I think that there must be an answer here, but again, I don’t know how well it would be captured in stark terms.

    I hope that addresses your post – I’m curious to hear more.


  9. Thanks for the reply, Vida (and I’m sorry to hear about the fires, hope you’re out of harm’s way!)

    That’s very helpful, and I like the idea of seeing both situations and narratives as dense/stark. The idea of a fog is also helpful (and maybe there’s something more than the epistemic going on, too?—maybe some situations just are such that there’s no fact about what takes away one’s integrity, and even a well-constructed narrative can’t show us when things go awry because there is no point?), and I think you’re right that these situations are complicated and important (I’m interested to hear more!).

    On Briony: I share your scepticism about whether she does atone. There’s certainly something to be said about atoning through changing how we see somebody’s narrative (think Harry Potter calling his kid “Severus”), and that might help make amends–but Briony just seems to change the facts in her narrative. Darrin Strauss wrote a book (“Half a Life”) about accidentally killing somebody, though I haven’t read it, and I’m not sure if he goes for atonement in it though I can see how it would be cathartic

    I’m also interested in how we might make amends in cases such as where the wronged party is dead. I think you’re right that dense fiction would help us see this, but here’s an example from real life: becoming a road safety advocate after accidentally killing someone whilst driving. It seems to me that this might make amends in some way… a piece of dense fiction would certainly help make a more plausible case.

  10. Hi Vida,

    Thanks for this very thoughtful reply. You make some very good points here. I’m not sure I have much to add.

    But one thought does come to mind. While I think there are advantages (given the right dialectical situation) of using real-life examples, there is an attendant danger that needs to be kept in mind. Sometimes cases rooted in historical figures or events can be disseminated in warped ways, such that they become fictional in important respects–a person’s life is mischaracterized, their conduct is taken out of context, or so on. And this can be pernicious, among other reasons, because it allows what amounts to fiction to trade on the appearance of reality. A fictional case (often serving a particular agenda) can come to enjoy the (dialectical) benefits of a real-life case without earning them, so to speak.

    It’s a matter of some debate how much distortion is baked into the genre of history, in general. But I think this danger is especially important for philosophers to keep in mind, in part, because most of us aren’t trained historians. And this may mean that we’re especially prone to misrepresenting or de-contextualizing historical cases.

    I’m not sure what to do with this thought. I’m reticent to conclude that it means we should shy away from appealing to real-life cases. I think there are real advantages to doing so (at least in some contexts). Perhaps this just adds to the reasons why you are correct to think that historical understanding is important to doing good philosophy, especially in the fields of moral theory and moral psychology. But I wonder whether there is a persistent danger here and what to do about it. (Of course, fiction, too, can mischaracterize and de-contextualize. But if it’s not being passed off as true to history, then it doesn’t trade on its status as real-life in the same way. And you’ve made some interesting points about advantages fiction can bring to the table.)

    Anyway, Texas!

  11. Thanks for the book rec, Jake. And yes, I like the case you present – though it’s interesting whether this is a way to make amends with the person that you killed (maybe they didn’t give a damn about road safety.) I suspect that there is a public aspect that is more easily discussed, again, in stark terms. I think when the wrong is to a particular person who is no longer around or who it doesn’t make sense to apologize to (there are plenty of people who are still around who it would be only awful if I tried to apologize to them), it’s harder to know what to do, and the particularities of the parties involve seem to demand something richer/denser.

    All good points, Ben. It wouldn’t seem right that we have to be, ourselves, trained historians exactly (though there are plenty of good philosophers of science who do know the science pretty well). It seems that relying on other good historians here would really do a lot of the work – though it does make our work harder (who are those historians, why are they taken to be authoritative, etc. etc.) Of course there are always risks with letting in contingencies and “impurities” into our reflection, but I’ll repeat my skepticism about “purified” ethics. But have at the trolleys (and lazy susans), all of you, really. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

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