File this under the category of “no duh!” A while back Jon Cogburn mentioned that he has a long running debate with a colleague as to whether reading literature cultivates ethics. His friend denies that it does, both Jon and I hold that reading literature does indeed enhance our ethical abilities. I could see his friend’s point if the question were whether literature always teaches us positive moral lessons. Often the characters in novels are absolutely horrible and there’s little to admire in them ethically. Think, for example of Mersault in The Stranger or Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or even Joseph K. in The Trial.
I think, however, that this is an extremely superficial way of looking at the question. The issue isn’t whether novels spell out ethical truths. Often they don’t. The issue is one of how novels cultivate ethical imagination. Prior to any moral rules or principles, ethical behavior requires ethical imagination. If we are to be compassionate and loving to others, we must be able to imagine the lives and universes of others. Our first person experience of the world makes it difficult to imagine the worlds of others because we always do so through analogy to our own universe. The wonderful thing about literature is that it allows us to enter the universes of others, encountering something like what it’s like to experience the world with these health problems, in these economic contexts, in these historical circumstances (war, the Inquisition, etc), with these religious beliefs, with this gender, as this ethnicity, etc. In this way our ethical imagination of enlarged and we are better able to conceive the circumstances of others. Reading literature is not just good for you, but it seems to contribute to making you a good person.