Already by the common idiomatic expression “the moral of the story,” we are led to the heart of several philosophical questions concerning the interrelations of fiction and ethics. Does the story have a moral as in a possessive genitive (a story’s moral) or as in an composite genitive (a moral story). In the possessive case the story take precedence and morality belongs to it, while in the latter case the story is primarily an expression of morality. The composite case is easy to grasp and is not controversial in the least. We are all familiar with the fable, a short story constructed to illuminate some moral precept. Nothing strange with that. But if we change into the possessive case we have lot of explanatory work to do and the relation between ethics and literature becomes philosophically interesting. How can it be that literature possesses moral qualities in and by itself?
Nussbaum (1990, pp. 125-167) argues at length that stories, to be precise novels, is in a form and style that makes them uniquely fit for moral reflection. They have a sense for the incommensurability of conflicting values and the capriciousness of life’s disparity. Novels also develop complex narratives where people and their variegated social relations can be portrayed over extended periods of time. This, Nussbaum maintains, is much closer to home for ethical reflection, than is the thought experiments and syllogisms of philosophy, which abstract from reality rather than getting down and dirty in the messiness of social life. An even deeper conceptual connection between ethics and aesthetics is suggested by Eaton (2001, pp. 127-9) who maintain that there are properties that are ethical because of aesthetical qualities and aesthetical because of ethical qualities. Eaton tries to demonstrate this interdependence by observing how the attribution of the adjective “sentimental” requires evaluations of both kinds. If we in a narrative meets a character we find sentimental, our perception of this sentimentality is derived from aesthetical qualities in the work of fiction, i.e. how the character is portrayed by literary devices. At the same time these same qualities generate an ethical evaluation of the character as being “sentimental” in an ethically pertinent way. If Eaton is right, as she might well be, then the roots of ethics and aesthetics draw water from the same ground.
There are however as many weaknesses as there are strengths in the proposed marriage between ethics and fiction. To begin with we should scrutinize some of the arguments advanced in favor of literature as a form of moral philosophy. Both Nussbaum (1990, p. 23) and Eaton (2001, p. 141) are well aware that far from all works of fiction are fitting material for moral reflection. Some literary works are downright bad art and lack the very complexities of narrative and style that is supposed to place literary studies on par with traditional moral philosophy. Thus we must be fastidious and selective readers that devise our reading list with the same care and attention to detail as the conscientious analytic philosopher when constructing a formal argument. This raises the question of on what formal criterion references to literature are selected in ethical arguments; that is, if they are intended to do other work than simply providing cultured ornamentation, in otherwise formal expositions. Here Nussbaum (1990, pp. 54-105) relies on an Aristotelian account of ethics and worthy fiction as both being oriented towards salient features of human life and being able to represent these truthfully. Eaton (2001, pp. 211-221), while sympathetic to Nussbaum, would add that works of fiction (or art generally) will align with ethics, if the simultaneously aesthetically and ethically relevant features are such that they reward sustained attention.
While I find Nussbaum’s suggestion pleasing, since it offer a holistic view of the moral and aesthetic aspirations of mankind, I nevertheless feel forced to doubt the veracity of her portrayal of fiction as being true to the ethical reflections of everyday woman and men. Unlike Nussbaum I find the characters of James’s The Golden Bowl having implausibly refined psychological traits and being overly conscientious in their ethical reflections that bear the resemblance to well worked out moral tracts rather than the mundane thoughts of human beings. Thus literature will encounter the same objection as formal philosophical exposition of being removed from reality. Neither of them will embody a true depiction of the moral agent and give a faithful portrayal of how moral reasoning operates in real life. There might however be other ways in which the qualities of the novel can come to bear on ethics. Ways that in no way relate to similitude and authenticity between the narrative and real life but taps its lifeblood from a deeper vein. Nussbaum (1990, pp. 92-93) hints at this possibility when she entertains the thought that ethical reflection is its own reward and thus, in an Aristotelian sense, an end in itself. Eaton (2001, pp. 171, 197-209) is even more explicit and states that storytelling is a way to create narratives of personhood and community which provides us with individual and shared identity. In this role fiction and aesthetics becomes tools of existential significance rather than useful gizmos to crack ethical nuts. Likewise, ethics itself is freed from the confines of the value calculus of philosophers and placed as a center of gravity around which the inner life of humans revolve.
The relation between aesthetics and ethics, in this latter sense, have been dwelt upon by continental thinkers. For example Heidegger, who in his analysis of Antigone identifies here struggle not with honor and kinship but with Being itself. (Huges, 1998, p. 109) For Heidegger the fundamental meaning of ethics is that through language articulate one’s own Being. Through language we make visible for our minds eye what we truly are and aspire to be. In ethics we transform the raw stuff of existence and brings to it form and structure, that is, we go from undefined Being to being human. We make a home for ourselves in this world and establish our place in relation to the world and the Beings it harbors. (Huges, 1998, pp. 99-100) Levinas has identified this becoming human with us founding a bridgehead to alterity, thus escaping solipsism. (Huges, 1998, p. 119) Levinas rendering of Heidegger’s existential take on ethics is consequently focused on the undeniable social character of moral thinking. It is not just (or perhaps even primarily?) a question of me becoming something in this world, but me becoming something in relation to another. In Lacan’s (Huges, 1998, pp. 46-47, 60) thinking art aids in the process of becoming by offering created images that draw our attention to the illusive das Ding, which lies beyond the reach of language and conscious thought. Art becomes an object of transferal onto which we can project our inarticulate desire and, if good art, it will help us establish a healthy relation with those subconscious desires that yearn for the ethical dimension of human existence. However, if one, like myself, is of a analytic bend then the continental approach stops short of an answer because it, self-consciously, refuse to articulate the inarticulate. When language is stretched to its limits we are left with images that beckon to a dark pre-lingual void. Art and ethics may join forces in the articulation of human-hood at this borderland between the self-conscious and subconscious; between pure Being and being human, between solipsism and community. Nevertheless, neither aesthetics nor ethics are made graspable in ways other than those offered to us in these metaphors. This makes one wonder if there be still another, less mysterious, way to talk and think about the ethical and aesthetical.
Inspired by Hume, Railton (1998, pp. 59-105) has developed an account of ethical and aesthetical judgments based on the discerning competence of an expert judge. The role of the expert judge, like the professional wine taster, is to appreciate qualities that eludes the one with less trained sensibilities. The expert judge is not an expert because he can appreciate qualities than no one else can but because he, statistically, is more likely than the man on the street to appreciate qualities delectable to those with well-developed sensibilities. This account presupposes that there is a shared sensibility across the population, be this gustatory, olfactory, aesthetical or ethical. If humans, at least on average, tend to be susceptible to the same qualities then there is a role for the expert judge to fill. A functional description such as this, allow us to understand aesthetical and ethical judgments as relying on a shared infrastructure of sensibilities across an entire population. An alien aesthetics or ethics (if such there is) will probably be beyond our grasp but we could still understand aesthetical and ethical judgments made by an alien in analogy with our own, though conforming to other sets of sensibilities for beauty and goodness. Railton’s Humean account cannot make sense of a free floating standard beyond that (those) embodied in humans (and aliens) but it can make sense of the practice of making judgments that aspire to some degree of objectivity in these matters. Our ethical deliberations are thus, in less mysterious terms than those advanced by Heidegger, a way to make ourselves homely with our own sensible nature. Nussbaum (1990, pp. 92-93) called this activity an end in itself while Eaton (2001, p. 171) identified it with acceding to a personal and communal identity. Cohen (1998, p. 116) has suggested that it is not logic or analytic morality that derives our inquisitive minds to explore this domain and search for consistency within it. Rather it is a self-generated human need that testifies to our humanity.
It is at the junction of being human and coming to self-realization (i.e. acceding to human-hood) that I see a clear connection between aesthetics and ethics. Novels, and art in general, explores the variegated nuances of human existence in a way similar to how a wine taster observes, smells and regurgitates the wine to bring out all its nuances. Art explores the crocked timber of mankind in an never-ending self-searching process. The ethical life is the human life, yes it is a human ethics but what else could it be? Still, the exuberance of our sympathies, the consequences of our choices and the capriciousness of life are such that the life of Homo Ethicus can’t be delineated in any definite terms and forever fixed rules. In the process of discovering ourselves the good judgment of people with well-developed sensibilities can aid us tremendously in picking out and attending to salient features of our own life as well as the life of others. Philosophical tracts are not suited for this type of learning dialogue between text and reader but novels with their artistic freedom enables us to project our own ethical sensibilities onto previously unknown vistas.
Cohen, T. (1998). On consistency in one’s personal aesthetics. In J. Levinson, Aesthetics and Ethics Essays at the Intersection (pp. 106-125). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eaton, M. (2001). Merit, Aesthetic and Ethical. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Huges, R. (1998). Ethics, Aestethics, and the Beyond of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Nussbaum, M. C. (1990). Love’s Knowledge Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Railton, P. (1998). Aesthetic value, moral value, and the ambitions of naturalism. In J. Levinson, Aesthetics and Ethics Essays at the Intersection (pp. 59-105). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.