Troutian Ethics: an exploration

Andy Bissett


Science fiction writing has commonly been used as a vehicle to discuss alternative worlds, and to comment critically on the present one. It is also a natural genre in which to explore ethical dilemmas posed by scientific and technical developments, either proximate or imagined [Introna, 2003]. Of especial significance is that these popular ethical discourses often reach very large audiences.

Science fiction writing from its very inception has tended toward moral comments and ethical proposals. Arguably, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ is embryonic science fiction, and it certainly makes a moving commentary upon the human condition and scientific aspiration that grips readers with its power after almost two intervening centuries of scientific and technological progress [Volkman, 2001]. More recently, the first fictive yet systematic ethical proposals for a future technology were probably Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘Laws of Robotics’, set out in 1940 and subsequently explored in numerous short stories [Clarke, 1993].

The imaginative and humorous work of the American writer Kurt Vonnegut has often been categorised as science fiction, and indeed he himself presents the reader with an absurdist alter ego, the ‘old science fiction writer’ Kilgore Trout, who features prominently in Vonnegut’s fictive writings. Within these works, Trout functions as a kind of a holy fool, a repository, a sounding board, for bizarre ideas and improbable science fiction stories that Vonnegut appears not want directly attributed to himself. The eccentric and sociophobic Trout thus acts as a foil for the main course of a Vonnegut story, his picaresque and accident-strewn life and his writings illustrating and complementing, or at least providing a comic diversion from, Vonnegut’s ostensible plot. Trout is extremely prolific – his short story writing is a compulsion – and this device enables a continual stream of compressed and half-sketched ideas and storylines to decorate and counterpoint Vonnegut’s main story in a highly economical way.

Kurt Vonnegut’s fiction and non-fiction writing frequently comments on and criticises science and technology from an ethical standpoint. The issues that he addresses range from ecology, to mental health and the pharmaceutical industry, to computing, through to nuclear weapons and exotica such as space travel. The corpus of his work, across some sixteen novels and two memoirs, quizzically and critically touches upon death, illness, war, nationalism, creation, joke telling, kinship, and child rearing. The tone varies from forthright folksiness, reminiscent of Garrison Keillor (1987), to crazy and apparently haphazard fantasy. The overall effect is as if a being from another galaxy had observed the Earth for long enough to become partially socialised in the mores of the American mid-West, and sympathetic to the human plight. Yet whilst usually comic in tone, the effect is frequently serious in intent.

All of this would be so much literary criticism and entertainment were it not for the fact that, like Asimov or Shelley, Vonnegut’s writing is read and enjoyed by many millions of people. It is compelling therefore to explore what kinds of ethical ideas he obliquely and playfully introduces to the reader’s mind, throughout the body of his work.

For an example, a typical Troutian plot, outlined in ‘Timequake’ [1997], concerns the activities of Merlin, the magician at Camelot, the court of legendary King Arthur. Trout envisages that Merlin uses his magic to furnish the Knights of the Round Table with ‘Thompson submachine guns and drums of .45-caliber dumdums’. Beyond the strange and arresting image of knights in armour toting Capone-style firearms, there is a typically saturnine purpose at work in Trout’s (and Vonnegut’s) story. Sir Galahad, that most virtuous of all the knights, in acquainting himself with this new ‘virtue compelling technology’ holes the Holy Grail and ‘makes a Swiss cheese’ of Queen Guinevere [1997, xiii]. Behind the startlingly surreal yet logical premise is, of course, the Icarus legend, with its warning for humanity of the dangers of new technology.

Vonnegut explicitly addresses computer technology in the same novel. Whilst asserting that the mission of the artist is to ‘make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit’ [1997, 1], he obliquely comments on the sometimes uncreative results of computer technology by having his character Zoltan Pepper, a famous composer, remark of the music composing program ‘Wolfgang’ that, courtesy of micro-technology, people were now having their heads handed to them with tweezers instead of on platters. Elsewhere in the same book Vonnegut comments on the fatuous results that can be obtained from a program intended to do the work of a human architect.

Using his non-fiction writings, but more especially his fictional work, and that of Kilgore Trout, this paper explores the nature of the ethics that these works explicitly and implicitly convey, and attempts to identify common themes.


Clarke, R. (1993) Asimov’s laws of robotics, IEEE Computer, 12 (December 1993). 53-61, and 27, 1 (January 1994). 57-66.

Introna, L. (2003) The ‘measure of man’ and the ethics of machines, in F. Grodzinsky, R. Spinello, H. Tavani (eds) Proceedings Computer Ethics – Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE’03), Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Boston MA (USA), June 2003. 77-86.

Keillor, G. (1987) Lake Wobegon Days, London: Faber and Faber.

Volkman, R. (2001) Playing God: technological hubris in philosophy and literature, in T. Ward Bynum, H. Krawczyk, S. Rogerson, S. Szejko, B. Wiszniewski (eds) Proceedings ETHICOMP 2001, Technical University of Gdansk, June 2001. Vol. 1, ISBN 83-7278-141-4. 350-361.

Vonnegut, K. (1997) Timequake, London: Jonathan Cape.