This is a pretty tough one. The morality of things (whether it’s right or wrong to do something) has been debated for centuries. In fact, as long as humans have existed, this has been at issue. Is murder wrong? What about stealing? Cheating on a test? Is that ethical?
Although exploring moral issues in literature is challenging, it is certainly possible. And I’m not talking about a simple decision someone in the story makes and then the reader forgets about it: I’m talking about real, lasting impressions and themes and are clearly prevalent in your story.
Nothing gives your story depth like this will. And it doesn’t have to be deep, nerdy, or require the reader to have read Aristotle’s Ethics in order to understand. All it takes is a mature person to understand moral dilemmas. Not everyone will get it, but it will certainly make your story of higher quality.
Movie buffs (or Christopher Nolan fans) will recognize the above picture–It’s a shot from the film The Dark Knight. I totally recommend the film (to viewers aged 16 and up), because of the depth of storytelling, plot, and characters. It may not be a book, but it is nonetheless excellent entertainment.
(Discreet spoilers may follow) In this scene, a group of criminals and a group of civilians are on two different ferries. Unbeknownst to them, the Joker (the insane antagonist of the story) has implanted explosives in the hulls of both ferries, which he could ignite at any given time.
However, upon examination of the explosives, the denizens of both ferries are given a remote in a box. The remote on each ferry ignites the explosives in the other ferry. The Joker gives them one hour to, essentially, blow one of the others up and save themselves.
This is a very complicated situation. If you’re a father (or mother) on the civilian ferry, is it your responsibility to protect your children (or your elderly parents) and therefore trigger the criminals’ detonation before they can get at you? Furthermore, those criminals surely deserve death, so wouldn’t blowing them up be justice?
The criminals are more violent, so wouldn’t it be a given that they would blow the civilian ferry up first? If you assume that, do you have sufficient reason to stop the crime of murder before it happens–to you? Is this a matter of self-defense? Are you defending yourself when you blow the other boat up, regardless of your ferry?
This is also the ultimate ends-justify-the-means situation: it all depends on what you value. Which do you value more: your life, or the life of others? If the former is more important, you might find it justifiable to blow the other ferry up because the more important thing is saved. With the latter, vice versa.
See? This was staged very well. This is extremely thought-provoking and meaningful. It leaves room for debate and discussion: i.e., was X right to do Y? What were his reasons? Is he right or wrong? If not, then who is? The essence of this element is interest. The more thought-provoking it is, the more interesting it is, the more entertaining it is.
Another ethical problem: You stand by a track-switching lever. It goes to a trolley that, if not diverted, will kill five people who are tied down on the trolley track. The switch you are standing by will change the tracks of the trolley and divert it down a path where it will kill one person who is tied down. What do you do?
These dilemmas add dimension and depth to your story. The questions and thought-provoking comments these problems might create might astound even you. Of course you then need to provide a meaningful commentary, so ask these questions through your characters, plot, and narration.
Good luck, and happy writing!