Questioning Morality: Teaching the Introduction to The Decameron

The first text we discuss in my Literature of Illness and Trauma class is the Introduction to The Decameron. I like to begin with this text because it touches, quite violently, upon issues of community and survival in the face of tragedy. I suppose, then, that I should say that this text assaults us with these issues. While this is a difficult piece of literature for many of my sophomore, non-English-major students to get through so early in the semester, I find that once I clarify language and syntax concerns, my students really respond to the text in an engaging and contemplative way.

The issue they find most intriguing and appalling is the abandonment of the ill, including husbands abandoning wives and parents abandoning children:

“. . .this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers.” (027)

Not surprisingly, my students’ rational understanding of such an action is coupled with an emotion-based lack of comprehension. They say that they could never do such a thing, but in the same breath confess that they really don’t know what they would do in such a situation. These cognitive and ethical tensions allow for early, full-on engagement with the ethical foundation of the course and help to establish the discussion-oriented learning environment I strive to achieve. More importantly, these cognitive and ethical tensions allow students to hold conversations that are meaningful, intellectually and personally relevant, and satisfyingly challenging. Such conversations give my students the experience of philosophical and moral grappling, which helps to place their voices and experiences within the course content, making the literature and our discussions of it personally relevant and valuable to their ethical development.

Group and class discussions of the above-quoted passage brought a couple of provocative questions to mind:
1. Can we moralize people’s means of survival? Can we/should we view them through a moral lens?
2. At what point do moral or immoral* actions cease to be such? At what point should an action be deemed amoral and why?
*The fact that “moral” and “immoral” are, to some extent, relative terms certainly complicates this question.

               How would you answer these questions? Please share your views!

~See more about this course at: http://illnesstraumalit.weebly.com

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