In this paper I want to explore the connection between ethics and literature. I follow the tradition of philosophers who claim that there is a connection between literature and morality, however I want to examine in closer detail how this connection works. I will start by sketching Martha Nussbaum’s account on how, according to her, books can lead us to become better people. She gives examples of what certain works of literature can cultivate within us, what they can teach us and how valuable is learning to follow the examples they provide. Nussbaum emphasizes the role of imaginative empathy one learns while being led by the literary work.
A contrasting position to Nussbaum’s can be seen in Mitchell Green’s portrayal of empathy as something ambivalent. Green agrees that literature can lead us to empathize with others, yet that is for him also the source of its ambivalence as it can make us to empathize with good, but also bad people. Green than worries that literature could lead us to approve of wrongdoings.
Yet, upon closer inspection, one notices that their positions are not as different as it might seem, in both cases we are left with the same conclusion; it is only some books that can makes us better. What I find problematic is the preestablished conception of what actually counts as an example worth following (and what doesn’t). Seen this way there is not much room left for literature to make an impact on morality when what is good is already decided beforehand and the narrative then serves only as a stage set where it is demonstrated.
I would like to propose another approach to how literary works can change us morally, drawing on Cora Diamond’s philosophy I want to emphasize the capacity of literature to describe others to us not necessarily to make us feel what they do but to see them differently. To come to attend to others by being aware of their humanity, the humanity we all share together, not only the good characters, but also the weak, deceitful, and evil ones. Another strength of her approach is that she also offers a way of perceiving the non-humans by emphasizing their difference and our inability of us not being able to feel what they feel then doesn’t hinder our feelings of compassion towards them.