Gary Saul Morson: Can Reading Literature Make Us Moral?
Literature has a way of lifting us out of points of view that we take for granted. When we read The Iliad, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, Genesis, Paradise Lost, or Crime and Punishment, we enter into perspectives that may differ markedly from those presumed by our own culture. To the extent that one regards such an exercise as enlightening, reading literature will seem like a way of acquiring wisdom; it gets us off our little island in time and place and shows us how our own values might appear to others. We no longer accept our own values as the only possible ones for a decent, intelligent person to hold.
Some view such broadening as potentially dangerous. The more one regards differing perspectives as necessarily evil or stupid, the less one wants others to practice seeing the world from such perspectives. In that case, literature will be regarded as morally dangerous. Educated people are generally aware that the Soviets banned genetics, psychoanalysis, and even some doctrines in chemistry as contrary to Marxism-Leninism, but they are often unaware that whole literary genres were also denounced as false. 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.
So the question of whether literature can teach us to be more moral raises a related question: Is it morally good or bad for people to adopt — even temporarily — unapproved points of view?