Stanford scholars debate the moral merits of reading fiction

Does reading literature make you more moral? Scholars speaking at a Center for Ethics in Society event say the answer depends on who's reading.

Ethics in Society

The Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society tackled the question of whether literature imparts morality.

The last time you finished a novel or short story, your emotions might have been stirred, your intellect exercised, or your curiosity disappointed. But were your morals improved?

The relationship between literature and morality – and the proper role of both – has long engaged philosophers, critics and writers. But at a recent event hosted by the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford humanities scholars said that while literature is capable of providing new perspectives and challenging our assumptions, imparting morality might not be one of its strong suits.

"The best we can say about literature is that its effects are not reliable," said panelist Joshua Landy, a professor of French and of comparative literature and co-director of Stanford's Initiative in Literature and Philosophy. "As they say in the medical profession: results may vary."

Organized as part of the Center's 25th anniversary celebrations, "Does Reading Literature Make You More Moral?" aimed to explore "literature and its contribution to ethical reasoning," said Center director Debra Satz.

A philosopher and senior associate dean of the humanities at Stanford, Satz said most people read literature to be educated, entertained or to experience beauty and to find their way into the lives of others, rather than for moral reasons. However, she said, these very aims could also "serve moral purposes."

"Literary fiction helps us develop additional schemas, other ways of seeing the world different from our own," said panelist Paula Moya, professor of English and director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford.  

Literature, Moya added, is "brilliantly suited to the exploration of what it means to be an ethical human being in a particular sociohistorical situation," referring to the complicated friendships depicted in Toni Morrison's Sula as a compelling example.

Fiction plays on our emotions

An empirical approach to the question was taken by David Kidd, a PhD candidate in cognitive, social and developmental psychology at  New York's New School for Social Research, whose work explores the relationship between fiction and empathy.    

He cited five experiments he conducted with his adviser, psychology Professor Emanuele Castano. Participants read various selections of fiction and were asked immediately afterward to respond to images of facial expressions as a means of assessing the participants' "theory of mind," a concept from developmental psychology.

"Theory of Mind, or ToM, is the capacity to infer the thoughts and emotions of others," Kidd said. A highly developed ToM corresponds to a strong sense of empathy. The results of the experiments were consistent: reading literary fiction improves ToM.

A highly developed ToM, however, does not always translate to kindness or make one more moral. In fact, the opposite is often the case. "Bullies have a very developed ToM," Kidd said. "Which makes sense. If you want to manipulate or harass someone effectively, that requires a heightened sense of how their thoughts and emotions work."

So while the experiments didn't show that literature makes someone more moral, "the one thing we can say for sure is that literary fiction makes everything more complex," Kidd concluded.

Literature as corrupter

And in fact, Moya noted, since the earliest days of the novel, literature has been seen by many as "profoundly corrupting."

According to Landy, literature plays on our emotions instead of giving us rational reasons to adopt new beliefs, so we can easily be manipulated by it. Getting people to change their beliefs based on emotions is not an unambiguously positive thing: "When I do it, it's called persuasion. When you do it, it's called rhetoric. When they do it, it's called propaganda."

Landy added that morality is not necessarily good for literature. "One of my pet peeves is the idea that literature is either morally improving or useless," he said. "There are all kinds of other things – hugely important things – that literature can do for us," like enchanting or consoling us, training us mentally, offering models of self-fashioning, or simply renewing our contact with the world.

Instead, Landy suggested a better approach to literature would be to teach people to be cautious and selective about everything they read. "Let the truth do its work. And if people aren't yet capable of discerning truth from lies, help them. Cultivate their ability to separate good from bad arguments."

Morality will also be the focus of the next McCoy Center event when scholars will discuss "Does Teaching Ethics Do Any Good?" on May 1.

Justin Tackett is a doctoral candidate in English at Stanford. For more news about the humanities at Stanford, visit the Human Experience.

Corrie Goldman, director of humanities communication: (650) 724-8156,