Storytelling: Moral Survival System (part two)


“That’s me getting screwed, but really …we take turns because when I feel screwed I end up passing it on.”

Circle of Moral Concern: Whose Lives Matter?

For want of a better term, let’s refer to those you feel obligated to protect as being inside your circle of moral concern. No one can tell you how big this circle should be. And no one can monitor your circle of moral concern, except you. You may have never considered how big this circle is, but you have one. We all do. Some storytellers only seek to benefit the people they are paid to serve. When political stories demonize either “the left” or “the right” they reduce our ability to imagine and create mutual wins. Commercial storytellers tend to limit their circle to commercially relevant targets. These storytellers have a small circle of moral concern and are more likely to risk coercive storytelling that benefits their tribe, even when (or especially if) it might sacrifice the best interests of people outside their circle of concern.

By contrast, many literary storytellers seem to embrace all of us in their circles of moral concern. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn offers legitimate reasons for helping a friend when it means breaking an unjust law. Tolstoy’s story of Anna Karenina warns readers that a preoccupation over what is or is not fair might distract us from finding good practical ways to cope with unavoidably unfair situations. A storyteller with a very large circle of moral concern cannot ignore ambiguity and must constantly guess the impact the strategies in their stories might have on the wellbeing of strangers. The trade off is that a storyteller with a big circle of moral concern is more likely to see and narrate epic truths.

Storytelling, at its best, is a collaborative form of communication that accumulates wisdom and habits for social good as well as individual good. As Ursula Le Guin observed, “There are entire societies that have never used the wheel. But there are no societies that did not tell stories.”

Excerpt from The Story Factor 3rd ed. 2019 AUDIBLE VERSION HERE


2 thoughts on “Storytelling: Moral Survival System (part two)”

  1. Again, great insight!

    I’m struck by the concept of a circle of moral concern. Steven Covey talks about being proactive rather than reactive as one of the habits of highly effective people. Proactivity is the ability to work within your circle of influence while reactivity is trying to work outside your circle of influence, but in your circle of concern. Interesting connection there.

    But the timeless observation of Le Guin stuck me most. As I looked at the quote I wondered if she had it backward. It’s not that there are no societies without stories, but that it is stories that make societies. Hmmmm. I’ll have to ponder on that one a bit. Maybe societies don’t create stories, but people’s stories create society.

    1. I have been studying the circle of moral concern and just like you I went straight to the circle of influence/concern model. It is one that defined my work life. It’s consistent. The question it asks is how big is your circle of concern? Does it include the workers in China that commit suicide because of terrible working conditions? And if it does, then the model points me to what I personally can do in my circle of influence that might expand my circle to the point where I can help them. To your other point, Le Guin’s writings indicate that she knew it works both ways (a produce of writing science fiction is that you “invent” societies by inventing worlds for your books) I think she was calling attention so people who might think their version of a rational society isn’t based on a “bunch of stories” might see that they ALL are based on a bunch of stories. Thanks for your comment!

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