EGMT 1540: Does Reading Literature Make Us More Ethical? Really?


Does reading literature increase empathy for others, and, if so, are there limits to empathy? Does it provide models for human flourishing? Make us inhabit modes of life different from our own? If so, does that lead to different action in the world? And how durable are its effects? From antiquity onwards it has often been claimed that literature can have an ethical effect upon the reader; in short, that literary works can change us for the better, influence our sense of our obligations to others, even alter our behaviors and be a powerful driver of social change. We’ll explore the historical and cultural conditions that comprise our individual moral particularity and ask to what extent that particularity is malleable. And we’ll consider arguments about how literary works afford explorations of our obligations to others in ways that non-literary modes cannot, looking at how diverse thinkers have argued for – and against – links between ethics and literature and reading literature as a public good.

In this class we’ll be exploring these questions in depth in the context of the current global refugee crisis, examining a diverse set of ethical commitments both within literary works and in arguments about them, and considering these arguments in their potential application to an urgent contemporary issue. We will ask what kinds of ethical commitments those might be, and whether and how they may transfer from the page to the life beyond it. To do so, we will be running the class as a lab space for a collaborative investigation into the possible uses – and, perhaps, limits – of literature for humanitarian advocacy. The culmination of the course will be the collaborative creation of materials for the United Nations with recommendations for the incorporation of literature into UNOCHA’s refugee advocacy campaign and a student-created portfolio of suggested reading materials with accompanying critical tools and apparatus.