At least since Ovid (see EI.VI:1-54), some people have argued that reading fine literature improves us morally. In particular, fiction and poetry are supposed to enhance our empathy and make us more humane. This effect is a staple theme–perhaps even a cliche–of commencement addresses and English textbooks.
Judge Richard Posner has considered that case and found it lacking. “There is no evidence,” he writes, “that talking about ethical issues improves ethical performance. This is not the place to expound and test a theory of how people become moral. Genes, parental upbringing, interactions with peers, and religion must all play a role. That casuistic analysis stimulated by imaginative works of literature also plays a role is unproven and implausible. Moral philosophers, their students, literary critics, and English majors are no more moral in attitude or behavior than their peers in other fields.”
Since Posner wrote that passage, a tidbit of relevant evidence has emerged. A survey sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004 found that reading “literature” (defined as “any novels or short stories, plays, or poetry”) correlated with habits of volunteering and charity work when education, gender, income, and race were statistically controlled. This finding is consistent with the theory that stories and poems enhance human sympathies, but the data certainly do not prove causation. Much more social science would have to be conducted before we could assess the impact of various types of literature on various moral attitudes and behaviors, or compare literature to other forms of communication.
Besides, anyone who wants to claim that literature has morally good effects must explain cases in which the opposite is true. For example, I have argued (in an article and a book chapter) that Nabokov’s Lolita is a devastating portrait of selfishness, moral blindness, and rape. The four-foot-ten child whom Humbert Humbert calls “Lolita” is actually Dolores Haze (sad and bewildered). She is repulsed by her rapist but maintains a certain dignity despite him.
Unfortunately, many of Nabokov’s contemporaries reached the opposite conclusion. Lionel Trilling excused Humbert by claiming that Lolita, “perpetually the cruel mistress, lacked any emotions that could be violated.” Robertson Davies asserted that Nobokov’s theme was “not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child.” Soon the word “Lolita” entered the English language as a synonym for an adolescent temptress (not a pre-adolescent rape victim).* We might conclude that Nabokov’s masterpiece had bad effects; it reinforced an urge for selfish sexual “liberation” among leading (male) critics of the 1950s.
That would be true, yet the fault would lie with the critics and not with the text. While some of the early consequences of Lolita were harmful, the book is profoundly good, and one can justify that assessment with a close reading. Even if most literature has negative effects on most people (which is surely too pessimistic), our first duty is still to use it for our own moral growth and improvement.
In short, I believe that literature is morally justified, but not because of its consequences. One might ask what is so great about stories if even the morally best ones can have bad effects. I would answer: if you read it correctly, a good narrative contains moral truth–which is available nowhere else. In my current work, I’m trying to explain what makes a morally good narrative and a morally good reading.
*One of the search terms that often brings people to this website is “Lolita.” I don’t think they are looking for articles about Nabokov’s ethics, but I hope this entry will make them pause. The word “Lolita” derives from a book about a lecherous middle-aged man who rapes a child and then tries to justify his behavior in hundreds of pages of brilliantly insidious rhetoric. Despite Humbert’s best efforts to dominate and control his readers, Dolores’ perspective emerges between the lines. Abused but unbroken, she is Nabokov’s greatest heroine.