Ethical Dilemmas

Upcoming Book Discussion Series

Aristotle holding a copy of "Ethics"  - detail of painting by Raphael

Individuals, communities and nations face circumstances that can be defined broadly as “ethical” in nature. Whether an ethical code of conduct is honored or discarded in a given moment has a major impact on the person or group of persons who make the choice, as well as on those around them, even when the consequences are not immediately evident.


Sounds easy, doesn’t it? After all, we are taught how to differentiate “right” from “wrong” at an early age in most cultures, and those lessons stay with us. But it’s also a fact that what is “right” in some situations and in some cultures is “wrong” in others. Through most of “real life,” the black-and-white certainties of childhood smudge into “gray” areas that show us paths with destinations that are less than clear. Yet the decision in some instances must be made instantaneously, while in others there is the gift of time before a decision has to be made.

How comfortable are you with ethical dilemmas you’ve faced? Completely? Partly? Does the “rightness” of some decisions you made years ago haunt you still? In fact, do you have the same concepts of “right” and “wrong” that you had when you were in your teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, or have some weathered and changed as you’ve lived your life?

The upcoming book discussion series this fall and winter at the Cleveland Park Library, led by Phil Burnham, will take us through a tantalizing array of ethical dilemmas, all fictional, in different periods of history and locales.  Phil Burnham, who teaches at George Mason University, will once again be our discussion leader. We will meet each time from 7:00 PM-8:45 PM. We thank the Friends of Cleveland Park for their continuing generous financial support for the series.

September 13
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The setting is a village in Puritan New England for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, published in 1850. The main character is Hester Prynne, a young woman who falls in love and gives birth to an illegitimate child. She refuses to name the child’s father. As an adulterer, Hester is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” at all times and is ostracized and reviled by the community. If the community knew his identity and other significant truths, would its leaders be able—and willing—to cope with moral precepts turned upside down?

October 11
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A theocratic revolution has overturned society in this futuristic novel. Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, serving in the household of a Commander and his wife. Declining birthrates give young women their only value: Pregnancy will save Offred from being exiled to the dangerously polluted Colonies. She can remember a time before, when she had her own name and a husband and daughter, but now her life is tightly controlled and she risks death if she breaks the rules. Will she take that chance?

November 8
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo, tell the story. It is 1959. The family brings everything they think they’ll need in the Congo, but none of it, including their deeply felt religious beliefs, makes a lot of sense in their new environment.  How the family disintegrates and rebuilds itself over three decades in a country and continent that is also disintegrating and rebuilding itself as colonial rule fades away, meld history and fiction in this novel. When all of the “props” of normal living are finally removed, how do they each find the strength and will to survive?

December 6
The Winter of Our Discontent by John Steinbeck
Ethan Allen Hawley is a clerk in a grocery store that his family once owned. His wife urges him to be more ambitious, and his children don’t respect him because he can’t give them the material things they crave. One day, in a moment of crisis, Ethan takes a life-changing path. Where does it lead?

January 10
Waiting by Ha Jin
The central character of this tale is the physician Lin Kong, who is torn by his love for two women. One belongs to the New China, the Cultural Revolution, and the other to the traditions of his family’s village. Is it possible to work through the conflict between the individual and society in China, between the human heart and shifting politics, and retain one’s humanity?

February 7
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but 18 years later the past enslaves her. She relives memories of Sweet Home, the farm where unspeakable things happened. Further, Sethe’s house has been haunted by the angry ghost of her baby, who was never named, and whose tombstone is engraved with the word “Beloved.” Can a mother sacrifice a child to save it from unspeakable suffering?