Literature and Ethics
Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, 2nd Edition, Forthcoming
16 Pages Posted: 24 Jun 2009
Date Written: June 24, 2009
There are a variety of ways in which canonical literature may influence our understanding and application of ethics. It may be read on a regular basis to promote and condition an ethical sensibility. It may provide vicarious experience that tests and develops ethical understanding. It can drive public opinion towards ethical changes in social circumstances. Such literature has been responsible for inspiring and strategizing ethical decisions made by individuals or groups. It has also shaped the way humans reflect about themselves (for example as ethical beings in possession of a conscience that needs regular exercise if they are to flourish). Such literature, however, may also have a normative role in shaping the development of ethical principles that in time may emerge as laws.
The great ethical task of literature then, as William Faulkner said, is to move attentive readers as those they influence from knowing nothing, past knowing but not caring, towards knowing, caring and acting; towards proving the ethical thesis that humanity is indestructible because of its simple will to overcome all obstacles to individual freedom.
Canonical literature’s most fundamental ethical purpose, as James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus put it, is to encourage us to keep striving truthfully to find out what happens after the universe and why it matters.
Keywords: Ethics, Literature, Normative, Virtue Ethics, Legal Theory, Conscience
JEL Classification: D64, D63, I18, I31, K10
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation