Gary Saul Morson: Can Reading Literature Make Us Moral?


Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird says:

    If reading literature can, in fact, make us moral… then I’m stuck wondering if reading other literature can, in fact, make us immoral.

    Easier to say “literature is a matter of taste!” and avoid the conversations about whether we, as a society, ought restrict access to The Bad Books.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      Literature is part of your culture. It is shaped by (and in turn shapes) culture, which also shapes what you consider moral and immoral.

      What’s the old saying? Nobody’s a villain in their own head?Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        It’s not true, that old saying. Some people know perfectly well that they’re the villain.
        (We’re talking the people who expose themselves to perfect strangers, not to get compliments, but to cause other people to shriek and run away).Report

      • Avatar J_A says:


        “Literature is part of your culture. It is shaped by (and in turn shapes) culture, which also shapes what you consider moral and immoral.”

        For instance, Anna Karenina (*)

        When it was written, were we supposed to see Anna as victim of the prejudices of Tolstoy’s time -which is how people see her now, or was the book supposed to be a cautionary tale of what happens to those that let their desires for personal self realization trump their duties towards family and society?

        (*) in full disclosure, I cannot empathize with Anna Karenina in any of the two versions about the moral of the story. She is either too weak to withstand her own desires, even when she’s aware that those desires will bring her down, or she is too weak to stand for herself and her self realization, and lets herself be destroyed by the other’s rejection.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Than you have to determine what is moral and immoral and what books are good and what are bad. No culture has really been able to resolve this despite numerous efforts. I don’t think literature is strictly a matter of taste or morality. Some people have been able to read some very dark sh*t and emerge unscathed but others went down the rabbit whole and got corrupted. Thing of all the people at least partially inspired by hate literature like the Turner Diaries. They might have inclinations in that direction but the literature drove them over the edge. If a person is of strong character and has a good grounding in ethics and morality than a person can probably encounter bad books, however defined, with little or no damage. This is most people. Others are no so lucky.Report

    • Avatar Aaron David says:

      I would say that reading increases morality. The more you read, the greater your moral understanding is.Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        I would put the arrows the other way: a curious and open-minded person is generally more willing to consider exciting new moral properties presented in good literary works. So it’s not so much that reading makes you more moral as that reading is a sign of being open the possibility of being more moral.

        Add: on the other hand, morality probably isn’t as hard as lots of us like to think it is. Principles like “be decent to one another” and “do no harm” and “do unto others” and “judge not lest ye be judged” cover lots of pretty solid moral ground and none of them require any highfalutin literary background to understand.Report

        • Avatar Morat20 says:

          Add: on the other hand, morality probably isn’t as hard as lots of us like to think it is. Principles like “be decent to one another” and “do no harm” and “do unto others” and “judge not lest ye be judged” cover lots of pretty solid moral ground and none of them require any highfalutin literary background to understand.

          Actually….that sort of thing requires the highest level of functional awareness, one not every adult routinely manages.

          It requires a great deal of empathy and the ability to model another person’s behavior somewhat accurately, to be able to “walk a mile in their shoes” rather than to project your own behavior onto them.

          There’s a reason you occasionally see someone burst out with “If we didn’t have laws against X, people would be doing X all over the place” where X is something like “rape” or “murder” — it’s not because they have such urges, but because the routinely operate on a level guided by “rules” and not by a more nebulous underlying morality, so removing the rule leaves that (to their instinctive understanding) action suddenly “okay”, even if they find it repugnant.

          Moral reasoning on that level is, well, difficult and many people simply do not function on that level. (it’s not even an intelligence thing so much — quite bright people are included.).Report

        • Avatar Aaron David says:

          I can agree with that, well put @stillwaterReport

  2. Avatar Murali says:

    The first comment in the original article is instructive: Left unsaid is the question of whether coming to understand other perspectives makes people more moral or whether it is itself a moral act. At first blush it might seem that exposure to other points of views plays some epistemic role, but the problem of persuasiveness can undercut this. Basically, the idea is that I could portray bad things in a good light or good things in a bad light and thus persuade people without actually giving you a reason for belief.Report

    • That’s roughly my view. And I think Morson’s argument is about something different from what he–and especially whoever wrote the title of the article–bills it as.

      Morson seems to be arguing that literature fosters empathy. Whether increasing empathy increases the degree to which one is moral is another question. I believe that higher empathy can lead one to be more moral, assuming we define moral as something like “treating other people as ends in themselves.” But it can also lead someone to be less moral even using that same definition. Someone with empathy can be manipulative toward the person(s) with whom he/she feels empathy.

      Overall, I like this piece a lot more than I expected to. Here’s the money quote for me:

      The more alien the culture, the more we are likely to encounter authors or protagonists who do not share our values. If we learn to empathize with them, and regard them as holding their views for motives no less sincere than our own, could we perhaps learn to do the same for people in our own culture, for example, who do not share our political party or social class? For partisans or for an educated class presuming its moral superiority, that may be an unsettling notion.


      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        I dunno, the sheer number of people who flipped out because the protaganist of Ancillary Justice used the female pronoun extensively* make me wonder how useful that’s going to be.

        *The character’s native language was gender neutral, her society didn’t really notice gender, gender signals varied from culture to culture across a galactic empire, and many characters she interacted with outside of her culture often found her struggles to use the correct pronoun in their language funny. The main character was also not human.

        Nonetheless, a surprising number of idiots flipped out.Report

        • I might have to check that book out from the library.Report

          • Avatar Morat20 says:

            It won all the awards.

            It won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, the Arthur C Clarke and the BFSA.

            There might be another single book that’s pulled down all of those awards, but I don’t think there’s two.

            Absolutely fantastic book. The rest of the trilogy was solid and well worth reading, but that first was just fantastic.Report

  3. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I think literature can make us more moral. The question is whose morality and what literature. I no longer believe in a universal morality. The left and right-wings of various countries have different moralities. But I have seen art including literature teach people moral lessons.Report

    • I think Morson would argue it’s a mistake to look upon literature as teaching “moral lessons.” His argument seems to me to be different: that we learn how to be moral by learning how to empathize and that literature helps us empathize. It’s less a “lesson” than an exercise that builds “moral muscle.”*

      One thing Morson doesn’t say, but that I think is implied in Murali’s and Jaybird’s and Lee’s (and perhaps your) comments above, is that this moral muscle can be used for bad as well as for good.

      *Strangely, Morson seems to give short shrift to “stream of consciousness” techniques and to first person techniques in general. But maybe I’m just reading too much into his examples and one sidelong sentence he writes in his article.Report

  4. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    “Tragedy, for example, was considered pernicious for at least two reasons. First, it contradicted the official optimism of Communist philosophy, which held that it was inevitable that people would reach universal happiness. Second, tragedy affirms that the human mind is inadequate to understand the strange universe, whereas Communist philosophy held that, guided by Marxism-Leninism, people could not only understand the laws of nature and society, but also change them at will.”

    I don’t know if this is true. Brecht was a Communist. Almost all of his plays are meant to be Communist agiprop and some of the best are tragedies like Mother Courage and Her Children and The Good Person of Sichuan.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      The difference was that Brecht did not right under an officially Communist regime for most of his life. Communist countries could easily be against tragedy for ideological reasons and disfavor it while Communist writers in liberal countries could use tragedy to show what they saw as the crimes of capitalism.Report

  5. Avatar dhex says:

    so our national moral compass is shaped by wizards, vampires, and books about doing it with the hugo award statue?

    that explains much.Report