Agents and Lives
Moral thinking in literature
By S. L. Goldberg
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print Publication Year: 1993
Online Publication Date:January 2010
Chapter DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511627422.004
My basic contention is that imaginative literature has traditionally been, and still is, a distinctive and irreplaceable form of moral thinking. Compared with philosophy in its various branches, or history, or psychology, or biography, or any combination of the ‘moral sciences’, it has a unique capacity to look at human experience with, as it were, stereoscopic moral vision. Literature does not necessarily have to do so, perhaps, but on the whole it has, and in many literary modes and genres and forms, not just those that might be called ‘realistic’. But by ‘stereoscopic moral vision’ (to repeat the point once again), I do not mean seeing or trying to see human experience, or ‘criticizing life’, by the light of two different codes of morality (for example, Adam's action is wrong/Adam's action is right), but rather combining, so long as it is not confusing, two different but equally needed ways of thinking about human experience and evaluating it (for example, Adam's action is wrong/Adam's action shows him to be (among other things) loving, and noble in his loving).
To put it baldly, I think that the moral thinking characteristic of imaginative literature can proceed, if a work is to do anything more than unquestioningly reiterate and exemplify accepted moral attitudes and ideals, only by walking (to borrow a metaphor of A. E. Housman's) with both the legs on which our moral conceptions stand.