Literature, Empathy and the Landscape of Quandary


I have only recently become aware of the writer and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. If you aren’t aware of her thoughts on the moral importance of stories, art and literature, you can start by listening to her speak on some older episodes of ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone. As it happens, Nussbaum ranges over a wide swathe of philosophy, though frequently comes back to an orbit around ethics and the idea of cosmopolitan or global morality: that is, how to be moral with regard to everyone, not just within your own tribe, country, religion, friends, family or even species.

Although we have psychological studies that have indicated that reading fiction increases people’s capacity for empathy, Nussbaum (in various writings) applies a philosophical discussion to the same idea, and has been doing so for some time prior to said psychological investigations, as near as I can tell. At the heart of Nussbaum’s ideas around this, is the notion that there are some moral quandaries that are too complex to be posed in a simple set of questions. The subtle temporal landscape of the moral quandary needs to be understood for us to be able to discuss it, and the only easy way for people to comprehend very complex moral discussions is through a narrative. After all, narratives allow us to see the multiple causal events leading up to a moral question through different perspectives. We are given the point of view of various players. We get to see the imagined consequences of taking one turn or another in the garden-path-tangle of ethics.

This is perhaps no great surprise. Ponderings upon mortality and stories go hand-in-hand. Mythical or legendary stories that are not preoccupied with questions of creation and origin, tend instead to veer towards a moral bent. Aesop’s Fables are fundamentally thought experiments in morality, as are many of the better Han Christian Anderson stories, as are the stories of other national fable-tellers, Ivan Krilov in Russia for example.

I suppose this isn’t a surprise to anyone, but I wonder if it should be? Or rather, I wonder if I would feel happier if some of the writers of fiction I read were surprised by these ‘revelations’. It does seem that there is a tendency to shirk responsibility when it comes to considering questions of global good in storytelling. I’m in no way arguing for a return to the prettified, saccharine syrup of moralising Victoria era works, but I am wondering if sometimes writers do go too far down the path of either obsessive self-indulgent examination of the self (in more literary works) or mindless self-indulgent entertainment (in more genre works) at the expense of consideration about whether a story might leave the world a better place when someone is done with it. Of course, the world can be improved in diverse ways: pure ecstatic entertainment may seem shallow, but sometimes it’s what a person needs to struggle through a bad day, or week or year. Self-examination can lead to revelations that change a person’s behaviour for the better. And to be very clear again, I’m not arguing for heavy handed moralising above pure escapism or self-discovery… both are valuable and have their own moral importances too… but perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that writers do reflect on what sort of mark their work will leave on the brain machinery of those who read it? Stories, after all, are a sort of soft ‘brain hack’, if you will. A story is a way to change the thinking of someone else, even if just for the time that person is reading the story. That is actually a pretty hefty responsibility. Ought we not consider the nature of the afterglow that words of the story leave behind? Ought we not consider how words can mark a person for the better, or for the worse? It does not seem such a very large thing to ask, all considered.

Artwork: El Tres de Mayo, by Francisco de Goya

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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  1. ‘perhaps it isn’t too much to ask that writers do reflect on what sort of mark their work will leave on the brain machinery of those who read it?’ Perhaps. I found this really interesting, as both a writer and publisher. The ‘themes’ of a work are always something I spend a lot of time considering, and I guess I do lean towards works (as a reader) that I perceive to have a core that is genuine, good, not offensive, damaging… Morals are subjective though, too! Anyway, thanks for this. I enjoyed it.

  2. Christopher Johnstone

    Thanks. I think this goes back to having seen an interview with Jim Henson where he said something along the lines that all he really wanted was that his work didn’t leave the world a worse place to live. It’s a simple, striking thought. Though also, complex too.

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