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

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, but also, perhaps, for the worse. In this class we’ll explore those claims in depth, examining a diverse set of ethical commitments both within literary works and in arguments about them from the ancient world to the present. We will ask what kinds of ethical commitments those might be: truths or useful lies, imaginative leaps, models for life?

Does reading literature increase empathy for others? Make us inhabit modes of life different from our own? Conversely, can it corrupt us or produce problematic desires? If so, does that lead to different action in the world? What is the distinction between ‘real experience’ and knowledge gained from the page? We will consider arguments about how literary works afford explorations of ethics in ways that non-literary modes cannot, and how thinkers have characterized the relation between ethics and literature in differing historical and cultural contexts, from Plato and Aristotle through to contemporary arguments about animal rights, violence, and reading literature as a public good. We’ll also look at historical instances where literature has been seen as having a direct effect upon social change and attitudes in, for example, the abolition of slavery, and we’ll explore contemporary case studies, such as the extension of certain rights and obligations to animals, asking, for example, whether a story or poem can turn you into a vegetarian. Finally, we will ask whether certain types of imaginative writing alone possess the potential to generate ethical change. Does reading literature, in the media-rich world of today, still retain distinct or unique ethical power?