ethical criticism of literature

Wayne Booth (in The Company We Keep, 1998) observed that most people, including most sophisticated literary critics, evaluate literature ethically, asking whether particular stories are good for us to read and how we should react to them. Yet literary theory since the 1940s has usually been hostile to ethical evaluation. I’ve just come across an article by Noel Carroll from 2000 (“Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions for Research,” Ethics, 110, pp. 350-387) that begins with a similar observation: “Of course, despite the effective moratorium on ethical criticism in philosophical theories of art, the ethical evaluation of art flourished. … Indeed, with regard to topics like racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, it may even be the case today that the ethical discussion of art is the dominant approach on offer by most humanistic critics, both academics and literati alike.”

At the core of Carroll’s article are three theoretical objections to ethical criticism, and his response to each. I would paraphrase them as follows:

criticism #1: The value of art cannot be ethical, because some great art has little or no ethical purpose (consider purely abstract music); and some art is good even though its ethical meaning is on balance bad (e.g., Wagner).

response: Not all art has the same kind of value. Ethical evaluation of some genres is appropriate, but not of others. The ethical value of art is only one kind of value, but it is important.

criticism #2: The moral propositions implied by even the best works of art are usually unoriginal, and sometimes even trivial. For example, “Perhaps the moral of Emma is that people (such as Emma) should not treat persons (such as Harriet) simply as means.” But Kant was much clearer on that point. “If James’s Ambassadors shows the importance of acute perceptual discrimination for moral reflection, well, Aristotle already demonstrated that.”

response: One kind of knowledge is propositional–“knowledge that.” Art rarely provides such knowledge in sophisticated or original forms. But there is also “knowledge how” (i.e., skill). And there is “knowledge of what it is like,” or “knowledge of what it would be like.” Art provides these forms of knowledge much better than moral philosophy does. For instance, Aristotle said: Be perceptive of other people. James shows what moral perception is like, and gives us opportunities to practice it.

criticism #3: The moral consquences of art are unresearched and probably impossible to predict. Who knows whether reading James makes people finely perceptive of others’ inner states? Maybe it causes a backlash against such concerns. Who knows whether a racist novel creates racists or makes people angry about racism? Who even knows whether reading novels is good or bad for character?

response: For thousands of years, people have been interested in the ethical meaning or structure or purpose of particular works of art, quite apart from their effects on any particular audience. For instance, we can discuss Henry James’ ethical intentions in writing The Ambassadors . Or we can discuss the ethical meaning of the text (leaving James’ intentions aside). It is yet a third question whether The Ambassadors has, or could have, a positive effect on readers of any particular type.

If people misread a book, that can be because the author is insufficiently clear and persuasive (a fault in the text), or because the audience has been inattentive (their fault), or because the author holds bad values and the audience chooses to interpret him critically and subversively. In any case, the ethical function and the moral consequences of a story are different. Most readers are rightly concerned with the former, because our job in reading is to decide what a book means, not what most other people may think of it.

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