Ethics, Stories and Reading


If we could readily agree with Martha Nussbaum that “certain novels are, irreplaceably, works of moral philosophy” (148), then we might already have an answer to the question of whether or not literature matters. It would matter to us to the exact extent that it might help to make our lives richer, better and fuller. Nussbaum, though, refers only to “certain novels” and not to literature in general. She readily admits that not all novels will suit her interests (45). For every novel that is a major work of moral philosophy, there may be more that are morally indifferent or even reprehensible and damaging. The works that matter to us may be merely the ones that support – or at best help us to formulate – our existing views about life and morality. So perhaps literature does not really matter after all, if we attend to it only insofar as it confirms what we already believe. I would risk the suggestion that, more often than not, ethical criticism has proved to be ethically unchallenging.

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