Literature as an Ethics Laboratory

Sir Joshua Reynolds, "Samuel Johnson"

Sir Joshua Reynolds, “Samuel Johnson”

My friend Rachel Kranz alerted me to a Paula Moya article in The Boston Review about whether reading literature makes us more moral. I remembered the article when my Restorative Justice Faculty Reading Group was discussing Iris Young’s Responsibility for Justice, which tackles the daunting question of who is guilty and who is responsible when group crimes are committed. “Crimes” for Young include not only events like the Holocaust but also the continuing existence of poverty in a prosperous nation.

As this is not a philosophy blog, I won’t do a deep dive into the book here, but to give you a taste of Young’s approach, I note her interesting distinction between guilt and responsibility. The first, she says, looks backward, the second forward. While she of course believes that meting out justice to the guilty is important, Young notes that we must also find ways for those who have indirect responsibility—say, through voting or passively acquiescing or having benefited from the crime—to acknowledge their part in it (say, through apology and reparations). To do so is to move toward social healing.

As the group was discussing the book, I thought about the important role that literature can play in such a process. Moya shows us how literature helps bring us to moral clarity, although she does so only after first asserting that literature does not make us more moral. She begins her article with a description of a panel discussion she participated in devoted to the question:

The answer to the question was a definitive “no.” No, because, as Debra Satz admitted in her introductory remarks, “the Marquis de Sade read and wrote lots of novels.” No, because, as Joshua Landy, Professor of French at Stanford University, reminded the audience, tyrants and Nazis alike delighted in the works of Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Herman Hesse. And No, because, as I noted, there is a long tradition extending back to the first modern novel, Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quijote, that sees reading literature as profoundly corrupting. Its own conceit is that the inimitable Don “became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk ‘til dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.” Of course, reading literature is no more certain to drive us insane than it is guaranteed to make us more moral. As Landy quipped: “Results may vary.”

Moya goes on to probe what we mean by “moral,” which can vary between cultures and even between individuals. (I would add that we should also examine what is meant by “make, “ since I think there’s debate to be had about whether literature can make us doing anything.) She also explores why so many of us (me included) are interested in proving literature’s utility, as though a work is of worth only if we can prove it has some measurable payoff. While properly skeptical of a Gradgrindian view of literature, eventually Moya does make a case for literature’s ethical usefulness. Her argument is a variant of Shakespeare’s view that literature holds a mirror up to nature:

Regardless of use or morality, literature, I submit, is brilliantly suited to the exploration of what it means to be an ethical human being in a particular socio-historical situation. Works of literary fiction represent a creative and formal linguistic engagement—in the shape of an oral or written artifact—with the historically- and geographically-situated socio-political tensions found at the level of individual experience. It is a formal representation that mediates an author’s (and subsequently a reader’s) apprehension of her own “world of sense.” Because works of literary fiction engage our emotions and challenge our perceptions, they both reflect on and help shape what we consider to be moral in the first place. Importantly, this can be the case as much for the author as for the reader

Moya turns to Toni Morrison to help make her case. The choice makes sense since Morrison makes her home in vexed moral questions and talks frankly about her ethical agenda:

Elsewhere in that same interview [about the novel Sula], Morrison explains that she views writing as a way of testing out the moral fiber of her characters in order to see how they respond to difficult situations: “Well, I think my goal is to see really and truly of what these people are made, and I put them in situations of great duress and pain, you know, I ‘call their hand.’ And, then when I see them in life threatening circumstances or see their hands called, then I know who they are.” Moreover, because Morrison regards writing as a process of moral and epistemic investigation, she does not write about ordinary, everyday people or events. Instead, she plumbs the hard cases—the situations where “something really terrible happens.” She explains: “that’s the way I find out what is heroic. That’s the way I know why such people survive, who went under, who didn’t, what the civilization was, because…our existence here has been grotesque.” The process of writing a novel can be mode of inquiry in which the “answer” surprises even the author.

“Hard case” doesn’t even begin to do justice to questions raised in Beloved, which I was discussing Wednesday with a student. If an escaped slave kills her child to keep her owners from taking them and her back, then where do guilt and responsibility lie? Iris Young’s ethical questions seem much more urgent to us when we are emerging from a Morrison novel.

Moya’s concludes by arguing that literature functions as a kind of ethics laboratory:

How else are we to know where [ethical] lines are located in a given situation—unless we explore and probe? How better to conduct that exploration than through literature? In theory, we could round up actual people and run experiments; we could put them in “situations in which something really terrible happens” in order to find out “what’s heroic.” But this, of course, is not ethically or morally permissible in our society. For now, literature remains the most significant venue through which authors and readers alike can examine the myriad and complicated reasons that people—as inescapably situated beings—think and behave the way they do.

The philosopher Suzanne Langer has argued that literature (along with the other arts) is “virtual life.” Ethicists, Moya is saying, can take advantage of that virtuality.

So can the rest of us as we figure out how to respond to social injustice.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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