Most human beings would like to believe that they are moral or ethical individuals, at least in their own terms, and most would like to prosper or, especially, succeed beyond their wildest dreams while retaining that morality. Most also have a definite idea on what constitutes moral/ethical behavior in life and in literature. The majority of F&SF novels comment on morality and ethics, either directly, indirectly, or by omission, because most books are, in the end, about some aspect of power, and what intelligent organisms do in response to or in pursuit of power reveals who they are in ethical terms.
But who the characters of a book are in moral or ethical terms is also defined by the ethical traits and background of the reader. I’ve seen this more than a few times in regard to characters in my own books, where one reader will declare that a character is morally weak or has no moral fiber whatsoever, and other reader will find the same character highly ethical. This is scarcely surprising, not when we see the same diversity in views among political pundits, politicians, civic leaders, and other public figures – and that’s just in the United States.
Obviously, a significant fraction of Islamic believers feel that any depiction of the prophet Mohammed is immoral, and a significant fraction of Western journalists and cartoonists see nothing immoral in presenting satiric images of the prophet.
At the same time, there are certain ethical issues that are universal. How much should one compromise one’s morals in order to survive? The moral extremists would opt for little or no compromise, but that raises another issue. One cannot be ethical or do good in the future if one is dead. Nor can one raise one’s children to be “good” people if one is dead. So if that moral compromise does not injure others and allows one to survive to do good in the future, is it that immoral? But then… one compromise can lead to another… and another… and may set a terrible example for others. Yet we’ve seen in life that that is not necessarily the case. There have always been those individuals living in despotic societies that were frankly immoral by any meaning of the term who professed allegiance to the regime in order to survive… and then helped others to survive and escape.
The conflict of values with survival and power have always interested me, and that’s why I write about them so often, and with different viewpoints in different situations, in a way, trying to show that matters often are not nearly so simple as they seem. Despite what has often been said, doing what is “right” is never as simple as it seems… and that usually makes a good book… and just as often that’s also why one reader finds a book good and another despises it, not because the book is necessarily badly written, although that’s often the justification given, but because what’s presented conflicts too much with the belief system of that reader.