35. Literature & Moral Improvement

The legitimacy of an ethical consideration of art has always been highly contested. Traditionally, there have been two prominent positions taken with respect to this legitimacy: those of moralism and autonomism. The moralist perspective on art holds that its aesthetic value should be determined by its moral value. The autonomist proposes that moral categories cannot, and should not be applied to art, and that aesthetic standards alone are of relevance to its description. In recent work, however, the debate over ethical considerations of art is not as much focused on how we should treat art — morally or aesthetically — but rather, what one can gain from art, and whether these two facets can be separated.

Martha Nussbaum (born 1947), a pioneer of the view that art is a means of moral improvement, posits that central to ethical considerations of art is the epistemological distinction between knowledge and know-how, and their respective importance. Know-how, Nussbaum argues, is in most cases both more significant and harder to acquire. The importance of art, it follows, is to enable us to acquire this know-how. Nussbaum counters the extremely pervasive view that fiction contains explicitly formulated messages to tell us something about the world. Instead, she asserts that if literature’s only aim is to transmit beliefs, then it is in itself not necessary; she thus proposes that art is of value primarily for its contributions to our moral know-how, that its informative or aesthetic experience is secondary to what we retain unconsciously from the experience.

Working under the assumption of a universal (yet not innate) morality, Nussbaum highlights literature’s unique ability to foster our imagination. However, by imagination she does not refer to the clichéd conception we have of it. In the Nussbaumian sense of the word, it is an imaginative act to bestow upon certain elements of art particular attention. This imaginative act, that we are compelled to do when interacting with art, develops our awareness and perception of particulars, virtues which Nussbaum asserts to develop our moral ability. This honing of our capacity for morality in itself does not guarantee our moral improvement; it indicates our capacity for empathy and attentiveness, factors which Nussbaum considers to be the root of all immorality.

Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination.

– Martha C. Nussbaum


7 thoughts on “35. Literature & Moral Improvement

  1. Empathy is difficult because it must be developed. And to be developed it must be practiced not just once in a while, but over and over again: this requires a strong motivation that hardly anyone has. To make “a serious good faith attempt” on occasion is certainly not enough. I think Nussbaum either overlooks this point or overestimates our innate (i.e., undeveloped, untrained) ability for empathy towards others. This is all fine, but what in the world does it have anything to do with art, really? Do you find it natural or sensible to impose on art, to impose on artistic expression, moral and ethical standards based upon culture and thus predominantly or even wholly subjective and time-dependent?


    1. Either I didn’t explain myself, or you didn’t understand. Moral and ethical standards are not imposed on art at all; it is impossible to classify art as moral or immoral. Rather, the article is about how art can have moral value due to its ability to be harnessed for moral improvement.


      1. In the first paragraph are presented two opposing views on how art should be considered: either aesthetic value is determined by moral value (moralism) or these have nothing to do with one another (autonomism). At the end of the paragraph is introduced a different perspective, that of what can be gained from art. The second paragraph introduces Nussbaum and her notion that art is of value primarily for its contribution to our morality. The third paragraph further develops Nussbaum’s position and clarifies that she believes the interaction with art leads (or should lead?) to increasing our ability for empathy and attentiveness, which although not guaranteed to “improve” morality (whatever that means), are nonetheless necessary for it (are you sure that you wanted to write that empathy and attentiveness are “at the root of all immorality”?). And the last paragraph is a citation from Nussbaum in which she claims that the disgust we may have towards other humans is based on “moral obtuseness”, and this can only be overcome by the “exercise of imagination” to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and thereby foster empathy, a passage that has strictly speaking nothing to do art and everything to do with the notion of empathy. Now, you tell me how clear it is that the message is about “how art can have moral value due to its ability to be harnessed for moral improvement”?

        To be clear on my end, the basis of my comment, drawing on the fact that the main elements of this article come across as being the perception and value of art in relation to morals and ethics, and empathy as foundational for morality, is this: 1) empathy is very hard to develop, and Nussbaum’s idea of a good-faith attempt to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes to not feel disgust but empathy instead is childish and weak as an argument; and 2) art is expression of whatever the artist wishes to express in whatever way they wish to express it, and for this reason, it should not be framed in a context of morals and ethics which are cultural constructs that vary according to time and place. This is not to say that artists (painters, musicians, writers) cannot express their moral and ethical beliefs through their art; they most certainly often do. It’s just that I don’t think it is necessarily sensible to regard art as something related to ethics and morals even if it potentially can in some cases and in some circumstances “be harnessed for moral improvement”.


    2. Well, after one year I think I can finally approach your comment with a little more maturity. I agree that it’s senseless to impose upon art an ethical dimension of any kind (in fact, you may remember that my final TOK presentation revolved around this issue, and I concluded exactly this: that art should not be associated firstly, with the moral or immoral actions of their creator, and further that it should not necessarily be associated with the ‘potential’ that it has to have any moral effect on those who experience the art).

      In light of this, I disagree with Nussbaum’s argument that art should be evaluated primarily by this potential, and that art that cannot serve as a means of developing moral know-how is therefore useless. Although art does indeed function primarily as a means of expressing beliefs about the nature of reality, it is not a necessary aim of art that these beliefs be recognised or transferred to those who experience it — art can equally serve as a purely introspective instrument which is not meant to show anything to anyone else, for example.

      Either way, Nussbaum’s consideration of art is decidedly narrow. She fails to consider purposes of art exterior to that of transmitting beliefs or developing moral know-how. Despite this, I do believe that there is some value to her argument. As a virtue ethicist, she believes that the highest good is essentially to reach a state of ‘eudaimonia’ or flourishing. To this end, one must develop oneself, strive for self-improvement and acquire moral and practical know-how that make one virtuous. For Aristotle (who developed the commonly held Ancient Greek belief in the primacy of virtue), virtue is simply doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason, to the right people, et cetera. In essence, virtue is possessing the qualities that enable one to act rightly in every situation.

      Now, back to Nussbaum. Leaving her considerations of art aside, I do believe that there is possibly some truth in her argument. Especially when reading typical fictional literature — if one does so properly, that is to say, in an engrossed manner — one is always on edge, experiencing almost every situation, empathising, to a degree, with the characters in the story. In this environment, one is thus always forced (subconsciously or otherwise) to consider what one would do if placed in the position of a character; the ability to do this is the very definition of empathy. Thus, by reading literature and undergoing again and again this forced empathetic consideration of a myriad of different situations, one could be developing the know-how to do this in real life. From the virtue ethicist’s perspective, thus, one would be honing their moral skills and becoming more virtuous: more capable to act rightly in a broader range of real situations.

      Whether or not developing empathy is the root of our capacity for moral action is up for debate, but I believe my development of Nussbaum’s primary argument, as well as my contextualisation of her thought within the school of Virtue Ethics may help make the viewing art from an ethical perspective seem more rational and less arbitrary.

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      1. Beautiful analysis! It was worth the wait. I think, in regards to the last point, there is a lot more to investigate, because what I have seen and experienced throughout my life is that different people respond sometimes radically differently to the same film, say: one person will be so moved by the display of the suffering of others, that they will not be able to hold back the flow of tears, while others will simply not even understand why we are crying like a baby. The best example I have is from my brother and I, who were indeed in this situation quite often. This leads me to hypothesize that this ability for or sensitivity towards empathy in individuals is distributed on a continuous spectrum. The question is, why is that, and then, where does the effect of teaching or developing empathy come in if we have some kind of inherent capacity for empathy? And if that’s the case, where does it come from?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely agree that there seems to be a broad range of different innate capacities for empathy, or at least ones developed from an early age — it seems that some people are struck by different situations much more than others, either because they are simply more sensitive, or they have experienced a similar situation, or are in a better position to empathise based on elements of their own life. Either way, this is undoubtedly a complex process which seems to have many influences. This leads me to think that even though Aristotle may have been right in his definition of the virtuous person, there is definitely the added complexity of individuality to the development of this virtue. If this is the case, perhaps each person will have a different optimal way of acquiring virtue, and attaining it through literature and art may be just one of several methods. We may never know…

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