Literature and Moral Theory 9781501305368, 9781501305399, 9781501305382

Literature and Moral Theory investigates how literature, in the past 30 years, has been used as a means for transforming

242 124 4MB

English Pages [256] Year 2016

Report DMCA / Copyright


Polecaj historie

Literature and Moral Theory
 9781501305368, 9781501305399, 9781501305382

Table of contents :
I The beginning
II Among revivals of ethical reading
III Analytic ethics and the continental tradition
IV The structure of the book
V Where is this heading?
1. A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework
1.1 The literary turn in moral philosophy
1.2 Features of the discussion
1.2.1 Moral perception
1.2.2 Moral imagination
1.2.3 Particularity
1.2.4 Practical judgment
1.2.5 Morality as growth
1.2.6 The role of the emotions
1.2.7 The incommensurability of good things
1.2.8 The broad conception of moral philosophy
1.2.9 The reality of the moral realm
1.3 The literary turn and the Aristotelian revival
2. Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-Theory
2.1 The moral particularisms and narrative literature
2.1.1 Meta-ethical particularism
2.1.2 Post-Wittgensteinian particularism
2.1.3 Neo-Aristotelian particularism
2.1.4 Particularity and narrative
2.2 Ethical anti-theory and narrative
2.3 What is moral theory?
3. Generality in Literature
3.1 Ethical generality in literature
3.2 A thick medium of ethical insight (the how?)
3.3 Ideas and perspectives (the how?)
3.4 In dialogue with the implied author (the who?)
3.5 Moral types: Type characters (the what?)
3.6 Moral genres (the what?)
3.6.1 The parable
3.6.2 The formation story
4. Between Literature and Theory: Nussbaum and Murdoch
4.1 The interdependence of the general and the particular
4.2 Nussbaum—literature, Aristotle, and social justice
4.2.1 Nussbaum and the nature of moral philosophy (Nussbaum and Baier)
4.2.2 Literature, theory, and an Aristotelian style
4.3 Murdoch—an ethics of the substantial self
4.3.1 A metaphysics of imagery
4.3.2 Philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s perspective
4.4 Nussbaum, Murdoch, and the nature of moral theory
5. Literature as Critique of Moral Theory
5.1 A range of reconsiderations
5.2 Two approaches to ethics in alliance with literature
5.2.1 Nussbaum and the post-Wittgensteinian vertigo
5.2.2 Measuring the two approaches as enabling positions
5.3 The third way—enabling more
5.3.1 The inclusive approach to moral philosophy
5.3.2 Commitments of the inclusive approach
5.4 Preserving the absolute
5.4.1 The absolute in the immediacy of moral response (Winch)
5.4.2 The absolute respect for persons (Eldridge)
5.4.3 The absolute good—Murdoch’s Platonic ascendance

Citation preview

Literature and Moral Theory

Literature and Moral Theory Nora Hämäläinen

Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc

N E W YO R K • LO N D O N • OX F O R D • N E W D E L H I • SY DN EY

Bloomsbury Academic An imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Inc

1385 Broadway New York NY 10018 USA

50 Bedford Square London WC1B 3DP UK BLOOMSBURY and the Diana logo are trademarks of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc First published 2016 Paperback edition first published 2017 © Nora Hämäläinen, 2016 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publishers. No responsibility for loss caused to any individual or organization acting on or refraining from action as a result of the material in this publication can be accepted by Bloomsbury or the author. Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-Publication Data Hämäläinen, Nora. Literature and moral theory / Nora Hämäläinen. pages cm Summary: “A comprehensive overview of the role of narrative literature in late 20th-century Anglo-American ethics, as part of a reconsideration of the roles of generalization and theory in moral philosophy”—Provided by publisher. Includes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-1-5013-0536-8 (hardback) 1. Literature and morals. 2. Narration (Rhetoric)—-Moral and ethical aspects. 3. American fiction—History and criticism. 4. English fiction—History and criticism. I. Title. PN49.H322135 2015 809ʹ.93353--dc23 2015011004

ISBN: HB: 978-1-5013-0536-8 PB: 978-1-5013-3318-7 ePub: 978-1-5013-0537-5 ePDF: 978-1-5013-0538-2 Typeset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk

For Niklas without whom not

Contents Acknowledgments


Introduction I The beginning II Among revivals of ethical reading III Analytic ethics and the continental tradition IV The structure of the book V Where is this heading?




1 4 7 10 12

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework 1.1 The literary turn in moral philosophy 1.2 Features of the discussion 1.2.1 Moral perception 1.2.2 Moral imagination 1.2.3 Particularity 1.2.4 Practical judgment 1.2.5 Morality as growth 1.2.6 The role of the emotions 1.2.7 The incommensurability of good things 1.2.8 The broad conception of moral philosophy 1.2.9 The reality of the moral realm 1.3 The literary turn and the Aristotelian revival


Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory 2.1 The moral particularisms and narrative literature 2.1.1 Meta-­ethical particularism 2.1.2 Post-Wittgensteinian particularism 2.1.3 Neo-Aristotelian particularism 2.1.4 Particularity and narrative 2.2 Ethical anti-­theory and narrative 2.3 What is moral theory?


17 24 25 28 30 31 33 34 36 39 41 45

55 57 64 73 76 78 86






Generality in Literature 3.1 Ethical generality in literature 3.2 A thick medium of ethical insight (the how?) 3.3 Ideas and perspectives (the how?) 3.4 In dialogue with the implied author (the who?) 3.5 Moral types: Type characters (the what?) 3.6 Moral genres (the what?) 3.6.1 The parable 3.6.2 The formation story

99 99 102 108 113 120 126 126 129

Between Literature and Theory: Nussbaum and Murdoch 4.1 The interdependence of the general and the particular 4.2 Nussbaum—literature, Aristotle, and social justice 4.2.1 Nussbaum and the nature of moral philosophy (Nussbaum and Baier) 4.2.2 Literature, theory, and an Aristotelian style 4.3 Murdoch—an ethics of the substantial self 4.3.1 A metaphysics of imagery 4.3.2 Philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s perspective 4.4 Nussbaum, Murdoch, and the nature of moral theory


Literature as Critique of Moral Theory 5.1 A range of reconsiderations 5.2 Two approaches to ethics in alliance with literature 5.2.1 Nussbaum and the post-Wittgensteinian vertigo 5.2.2 Measuring the two approaches as enabling positions 5.3 The third way—enabling more 5.3.1 The inclusive approach to moral philosophy 5.3.2 Commitments of the inclusive approach 5.4 Preserving the absolute 5.4.1 The absolute in the immediacy of moral response (Winch) 5.4.2 The absolute respect for persons (Eldridge) 5.4.3 The absolute good—Murdoch’s Platonic ascendance


Notes References Index

133 135 146 150 152 159 168 175

185 187 192 200 203 205 210 212 214 217 219 223 231 239

Acknowledgments This book could not have been completed without the support of many people. My greatest thanks go to Niklas Forsberg, my closest colleague and companion, and to Bernt Österman who as my teacher and supervisor saw me through the most part of the research that eventually went into this book. Others I want to thank, in no particular order, include Anne-Marie Søndergaard Christensen, Alice Crary, Olli Lagerspetz, Thomas Wallgren, and Kristian Klockars, as well as my colleagues and friends in social and moral philosophy and theoretical philosophy at the University of Helsinki. Special thanks also to Jani Ahtiainen for invaluable editorial assistance.

Introduction I  The beginning Analytic philosophy has staunchly persisted in preserving its peculiar ahistorical nature, in spite of the overwhelming historical awareness of contemporary humanities. It has a strong belief in the possibility of—quite humbly but with precision—putting down how things really are. Moral theory, in this context, is largely concerned with freezing time and articulating fundamental, atemporal moral structures, beyond the contingent languages, beliefs, and ways of living, even when it only sets out to talk about contingent moral language. But how do analytic moral theorists understand the claims of theory: its claims to objectivity, impartiality, truth? How do they relate to the suspicion (for indeed there must be a suspicion) that the phenomenon they attempt to see from the point of view of eternity (for indeed they do), is a local phenomenon; that the articulation of a normative moral theory is nothing but the systematic presentation of a particular worldview? These were my questions in 2004 when I began my doctoral studies with a plan for a dissertation which was supposed to investigate the claims to objectivity of normative moral theories in contemporary Anglo-American ethics. More specifically, I wanted to examine the possibility of pursuing systematic moral theory in an intellectual atmosphere where thoughts about the historicity and contextuality of moral conceptions and moral concepts have become a commonplace. A context where, if one looks at a broader intellectual community, historical contingency of any conceptual framework or any worldview is shouted out from every direction. Having received my introduction to academic philosophy through Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the late 90s, I thought that there must be a tension between the ahistoricity of analytic ethics, and the historical sensitivity of the times. But I had no idea what kind of signs of tension I was looking for. Quite soon a different topic captured my attention. Martha Nussbaum’s book Love’s Knowledge had introduced me (like many others) to the subject of reading


Literature and Moral Theory

narrative literature for the purposes of moral philosophy when I was still an undergraduate, and I now found its tone and the range of concerns it exposed very promising. I also saw this new topic as a good excuse to pursue my interest in literature in its own right and read novels as part of my work. I saw that literature was doing something to moral thought which, from my perspective, and from what I considered to be the perspective of moral theory, was quite radical. Literature was not only mined for examples or illustrations, but also, or rather, treated as an independent vehicle of thought, and as such a vehicle it seemed to transform the subject matter of ethics right in front of my eyes. Indeed, these transformations often seem more radical than they are, and the radicalism of the ethical perspectives opened up by narrative literature may, from a different perspective, seem like things that anyone but a philosopher, confused by abstract reasoning, would know. I believe that the truth lies somewhere in between: the ethical readings of narrative literature in contemporary moral philosophy provide both radically new openings and confirmations of prior convictions, both morally and philosophically. It took me a few years to realize that I was actually still engaged in my first project. I had just renamed it and redirected it, to get around the mountain of theory books that was piling up in front of me. Or perhaps more precisely, I was still working on the question which was behind my first topic: the question of what moral philosophers are doing when they do moral philosophy, and further, what they believe they are doing. In this book I investigate the role of narrative literature in late twentieth century and contemporary Anglo-American or analytic moral philosophy. I aim to show the trend of reading narrative literature for the purposes of moral philosophy—from the 1970s and early 80s to the present day—as part of a larger movement in moral philosophical thought and to present a view of its significance for moral philosophy overall. I will present literature as doing for moral philosophy what it did for me; as transforming the philosophical landscape which was dominated by certain ways of  “doing theory.” The aim is to illuminate 1) the unity of the overall agenda of the ethics/literature discussion in Anglo-American moral philosophy, 2) the different strands discernible in the discussion, and 3) the relationship of the ethics/literature discussion to other (complexly overlapping) trends in late twentieth century Anglo-American moral philosophy: neo-Aristotelianism, post-Wittgensteinian ethics, particularism, and anti-theory. I will argue that the ethics/literature discussion is a vital part of a period of change involving several trends of moral thought which evolved and gained



adherence during the same period. This is the main contribution of this book: describing the trend of reading narrative literature in ethics as one path among others to a fundamental change of perspective within analytic moral philosophy. The central feature of this change is a reconsideration of the roles of theory and generalization in ethics. A radical form of the reconsideration has led some post-Wittgensteinian scholars to break completely with mainstream analytic moral philosophy and form a semi-closed community of discussion, with a new paradigm of agreement, where systematic theory is rejected and the legitimate role of moral philosophical generalization is limited. My strategy here is to emphasize commonalities and look for uniting features between different strands of the overall reconsideration, as I believe that contemporary philosophy suffers from nearsightedness, often in the disguise of professionalism, which creates fundamental gaps of incomprehension between directions of thought that have much in common. Nearsightedness is a particular danger for the critical trends I discuss in this book, as the challenges they pose to core analytic ethics are still in many quarters considered to be negligible. The ethics/literature discussion is easily classified as one more specialized topic among others, without any particular implications for how moral philosophy overall is pursued. Only if we understand the trend in a broader context of criticisms can we understand its full significance. Martha Nussbaum’s writings were my starting point, and she appears in two slightly different roles in this book. On the one hand she has been a central figure in bringing the moral philosophical use of narrative to the mainstream of moral philosophy, and she has presented a comprehensive view of the ethical functions of narrative literature, which is echoed throughout later writings on ethics and literature, often without being given full credit. A prolific writer, Nussbaum has produced books of different degrees of significance, but her early works, The Fragility of Goodness and Love’s Knowledge, are still among the most important and influential contributions to the ethics/literature discussion of late twentieth century and recent Anglo-American ethics. On the other hand, she occupies an interesting position in the contemporary reconsideration of the nature of moral philosophy and the role of theory within it. Whereas many central contributions to the discussion on the ethical significance of literature turn their backs on standard moral theory, Nussbaum has placed herself in marked opposition to the anti-theoretical tendencies of contemporary ethics. Whereas some of her writings on the ethical roles of literature are among the very best texts that have been written on the subject


Literature and Moral Theory

of narrative literature in late twentieth century Anglo-American ethics, her role as the anti-anti-theorist reveals a more polemical side to her work, which is interesting when mapping positions within the turn toward narrative literature, but does not reveal the sensitive thinker who is shown in her very best writings on literature. Nussbaum will make frequent appearances in both of these roles—as the writer on ethics and literature, and the defender of moral theory—throughout this book, and her work provides an important set of coordinates for orientation in these discussions. But I want to stress that I will here neither walk with her through the subject nor present a comprehensive criticism of her work on this issue.

II  Among revivals of ethical reading In the early 1980s, when Martha Nussbaum was in the midst of her work on Greek tragedy,1 she turned in an essay2 to discuss the ethical role of modern fictional prose as a way of doing philosophy. The reception, however, was mixed. In the case of Ancient tragedy her overarching argument was found inspiring— tragedies were indeed a central vehicle of complex and abstract moral thought in the culture of pre-Aristotelian Athens. Thus it could be said, without too violent anachronism, that tragedies were a kind of moral philosophy of that period. In relation to modern literature the analogous claim seems to have been considered more problematic. In the contemporary context, the academic article or book is considered to be philosophy proper, lending some of its virtues, such as explicitness and clarity of argument, to our idea of what philosophy ought to be. But how does literature fit into this picture? The issue of New Literary History dedicated to the relationship between moral philosophy and literature, where Nussbaum’s first contribution to this topic is published, stands out as an event in the discussion on narrative literature within analytic moral philosophy. Although narrative literature has been discussed in relation to ethics by e.g. Iris Murdoch (1997),3 Peter Winch (1972) and Gilbert Ryle (1971) during the third quarter of the twentieth century, it is not until the mid-80s that it surfaces as an appropriate topic in the mainstream of AngloAmerican moral philosophy. In the 1980s and 90s a number of works were published presenting the general argument that narrative literature ought to be taken seriously as a mode



of moral thought. Among these we find Richard Eldridge’s On Moral Personhood (1989), Martha Nussbaum’s Love’s Knowledge (1990), Colin McGinn’s Ethics, Evil and Fiction (1997) and also Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992). At the same time a number of philosophers contributed to the effort of establishing a role for literature in contemporary moral philosophy in the form of articles or as parts of books mainly dedicated to other purposes. Cora Diamond (1991) made literature a natural part of her argument against theoryand argument-centered views of moral philosophy, in a way closely reminiscent of the direction of post-Wittgensteinian thought pioneered by Peter Winch, whose initiative has produced interesting work on the topic since the 1970s. In ethical thought veering toward social and political philosophy Richard Rorty (1989) and Michael Walzer (1987, 1988) contributed with their uses of literature. In contrast to the ethics/literature discussion, more narrowly conceived, these two seemed to have little interest in proving the legitimacy of the use of literature in a context of philosophical discussion, and saw its ethical and political aspects as rather unproblematically present for the reader. Simultaneously, the field of literary theory and criticism experienced a revival concerning the explicit role of moral questions in literary criticism, with Wayne Booth’s The Company We Keep (1988), Samuel Goldberg’s Agents and Lives (1993), David Parker’s Ethics, Theory and the Novel (1994) and Adam Newton’s Narrative Ethics (1995). Against the background of the rise of feminist criticism, postcolonial criticism and neo-Marxist criticism Booth (1988) notes that ethical issues, although under other names, are commonplace in literary criticism, and that the rejection of ethical criticism is misguided in its understanding of such criticism as a narrow moralistic pursuit. The law and literature movement started in the early 1970s with James Boyd White (1973) among others, and spread throughout the 80s and 90s. Discussing “law as literature” as well as “law in literature” it invited readers to turn to literature for illumination about central legal and moral concepts such as justice, and moral concepts such as compassion. Though independent as a movement from the turns in literary theory and ethics, it joined the purposes of these movements on some issues, and received proponents (Martha Nussbaum) as well as critics (e.g. Richard Posner) who in their contributions stand with one foot in the ethics/literature discussion.4 By the end of the millennium the case for the significance of literature for morality and moral philosophy seems to have been made, in spite of controversies over how this relationship ought to be conceived. It is by now broadly recognized


Literature and Moral Theory

among philosophers as well as academic critics that narrative literature can be, is, and always has been written, read, written about and discussed for the purposes of ethical thought, and that this may have some relevance for the work of academic moral philosophers. In the quilt of partly overlapping discussions on ethics and literature, two different turns are sometimes distinguished. In moral philosophy a “literary turn” (Antonaccio 2001: 311) has been discerned among philosophers who turn to literature for guidance in matters of moral philosophy, while the trend of paying attention, once more, to the ethical aspects of literature has been labeled an “ethical turn” (e.g. Davis and Womack 2001).5 The labels are fairly useful because they help to keep separate two directions of attention among the different contributions to the new interest in the intersection of ethics and literature: one primarily concerned with the nature of narrative literature (the ethical turn) and the other concerned with how literature can improve philosophical practices in moral philosophy (the literary turn). The project of this book belongs to the realm of the literary turn in moral philosophy. I will suggest an interpretation of the role of narrative literature in analytic moral philosophy from the 1970s to the present day, and draw a picture of the prospective significance of this connection. To situate the project at hand more firmly I shall briefly relate it to the broader ethics/literature discussion in which all the aforementioned discussions participate. The broad ethics/literature discussion does not constitute a unitary context of interchange, but rather a patchwork of different discussions and commentaries. But in spite of the discontinuity between the different discussions, the broad discussion has some thoroughgoing features which bring its distinct parts closer together. In both ethics and literary theory the turns toward the topic of ethics and literature have followed a period of specialization and theoretical emphasis within the respective fields. In the context of literary theory the text-focus of “New Critics” and structuralists has given way to theoretical frameworks which relate the text to the outside world: reader-response criticism and the ethicopolitical criticisms with Marxist, post colonial and feminist emphases. In the context of analytic moral philosophy, the utilitarian and deontological theories are beginning to be seriously challenged by virtue ethics, feminist ethics, and a range of particularisms. Much of the criticism of modern moral theories has found an inspiration in Ancient Greek philosophy, where both structure and texture of ethical theories is less monistic and less straightforwardly actionguiding than what has been seen as the ideal in analytic moral philosophy. The



broad ethics/literature discussion emerges as part of a renewed openness to things beyond the main target of the discipline—in the case of literary theory toward the world outside the text and in the case of moral philosophy toward things that may not be expressible in terms of systematic moral theory. There are further important similarities between what contemporary literary scholars and moral philosophers have to say about the ethical significance of narrative literature. First, they find the moral significance of literature in its abilities to express the particular rather than generalizations. Second, they believe that literature can contribute something to ethical inquiry that is not sufficiently provided by theoretical texts. And third, they see the ethical significance of literature as complexly intertwined with the aesthetic features of the work and with the author’s skill of accurate depiction (e.g. Eldridge 1989; Goldberg 1993; Newton 1995; Nussbaum 1990; Rorty 1989). On the other hand, there are important differences between the motivations of moral philosophers and literary scholars in discussing the ethical aspects of literature. What pulls moral philosophers towards literature is not the same thing that attracts literary scholars towards ethics. The literary turn springs from pressures that are, as we will see, in important respects internal to Anglo-American moral philosophy. The special interest which moral philosophers take in explicitly moral aspects of literature has frequently provoked the charge from literary scholars that moral philosophers (and those engaged in ethical criticism) reduce literary works to their moral properties (conceived in a simplistic and moralistic way), producing distorted, simplifying and aesthetically misguided readings (Goldberg 1993; Landy 2008; Posner 1997, 1998; Vogler 2007).6 I hope to show that the nature of the need of literature in contemporary moral philosophy is such that simplistic and moralistic readings are actually counterproductive for the aims of those moral philosophers who use narrative literature. What moral philosophy needs for its current purposes are sensitive discussions of literature, which pay due attention to literature as art.

III  Analytic ethics and the continental tradition The need to rediscover literature is, in the context of late twentieth century and recent philosophy, a peculiarly analytic or Anglo-American feature. In the so-called “continental tradition” narrative literature has been important in recent


Literature and Moral Theory

history and many of the discoveries made in the analytic ethics/literature discussion concerning the philosophical potential of literature may seem like old news to those who have been educated in continental philosophy. Some may also miss central names in the continental tradition, like Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Derrida, in my discussion. Thus a few words need to be said here about the interrelation of these traditions and the reasons for delimiting the inquiry to the analytic context. A note on terminology is needed before I proceed. I will mostly talk interchangeably about analytic moral philosophy and Anglo-American moral philosophy, by which I mean contemporary moral philosophy born out of analytic philosophy, predominantly in an Anglo-American context. Both labels have their particular problems. Anglo-American philosophy today is much more than analytic or post-analytic philosophy and much of contemporary “continental philosophy” is being done in the US. Analytic philosophy again can be considered too narrow a label, excluding or marginalizing much of the more interesting work done in the Anglo-American tradition, including post-Wittgensteinian discussions, neo-pragmatism and the ethics/literature discussion among other things. I will use both of the labels in a broad and approximate way, to distinguish a context of moral philosophical interchange which is born out of analytic philosophy more narrowly conceived. A special case here is a strand of post-Wittgensteinian philosophy (e.g. Winch, Cavell, Diamond, Phillips), which I will discuss and which breaks so severely with analytic philosophy in assumptions concerning philosophical methodology, aims, epistemology, and style of writing, that it is often considered as a separate school or species of philosophy. For the purpose of my discussion in this work I find it more useful to consider these philosophers as part of the Anglo-American tradition and an outgrowth of analytic philosophy, than placing them outside. This broad notion of Anglo-American moral philosophy will sometimes be contrasted with core analytic moral philosophy, by which I mean moral philosophy that conforms to the typical implicit requirements of well-defined concepts, systematicity, explicitness, and theoretical comprehensiveness of analytic philosophy more narrowly conceived. Although a collapse of the borderline between analytic and continental philosophy has been advertised over the last few decades, a number of differences concerning central philosophical questions, methods and emphases are as clear as ever in contemporary philosophy. As James Conant puts it,



the Anglo-American tradition prefers to conceive of philosophy as a series of problems (and sometimes even puzzles), each in search of (something which, for lack of a better word, you might call) a “solution”; whereas the continental tradition prefers to conceive of philosophy as a series of texts, each in search of (something which, for lack of a better word, you might call) a “reading”. Conant 1991: 6177

The continental tradition has a special interest in the history of philosophy, textual exegesis, the historicity of philosophical ideas, and the philosophical potential of narrative literature, whereas analytic philosophy has been, and still is, predominantly problem-centered and ahistorical, and is intellectually more closely affiliated with science. The ethics/literature discussion which I am concerned with here is a peculiar fruit of the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophers from the 1970s and 80s on have found a need to complement argumentative philosophy with narrative literature, but there is simultaneously a certain resistance, due to the very conception of philosophy in this tradition, towards considering literature as a way of voicing philosophical thought in its own right. Again, in Conant’s words, It is true that philosophers of an Anglo-Saxon temperament have not generally been prepared to find philosophical instruction in a work of literature. This is tied to their commitment to a particular paradigm of philosophical rigor—one in which the role of argument is accorded pride of place. It will be readily conceded by them that Shakespeare’s corpus can serve as a fertile repository of wisdom, brimming with psychological insights, excruciating moral dilemmas, and wellturned phrases. However, the specific form of (fully rational) conviction, which it is the work of philosophy to elicit, will have to await the subjection of these (raw) materials to the discipline of reason. Ibid.: 619

This passage gives a good picture of an obstacle that a serious philosophical consideration of narrative literature faces in the analytic context. Literature, as it stands, seems to need a transformation into something more “philosophical” in order to count. There are several responses to this challenge in the ethics/ literature discussion, many of which—as I will argue—imply a reconsideration of what philosophy is or ought to be. This brings us to another issue, which has to do with the notion of moral philosophy used in this work. The entrance of narrative literature—along with neo-Aristotelian and post-Wittgensteinian trends—on the scene of analytic


Literature and Moral Theory

moral philosophy has posed a challenge to analytic philosophers to reconsider their conception of moral philosophy. The notion of moral philosophy is currently, due to these trends, in a process of change and expansion in scope. For example, Bernard Williams (1985) opted for the use of the terms morality and ethics to indicate two different approaches to the subject matter. In his discussion, morality is the domain of overt action and norms for action, whereas ethics is the broader domain of the “Socratic question”: “How ought one to live?” Although this maneuver plays an important role for Williams, I do not see a parallel possibility of making a distinction here. As I will argue in Chapter 1.2.8, the literary turn, along with neo-Aristotelian ethics, is tied to a broader conception of the scope of moral philosophy than what is standard in the analytic context. But this is to be seen as more of a tendency than a definite rule and there are great differences between individual philosophers concerning the degree to which the concept is molded and stretched. Nussbaum, for example, has a significantly broader conception of moral philosophy (or ethics) than what is standard in contemporary analytic metaethics or utilitarian and deontological discussions in normative ethics, but her conception is (arguably) more conservative and more in accordance with the assumptions of core analytic moral philosophy than the conception presented for example by some Wittgensteinians, like Cora Diamond (1991), or literary scholars with an interest in the philosophical ethics/literature discussion, like Samuel Goldberg (1993). This mobility (or indeterminacy) of the conception of moral philosophy in current Anglo-American discussions is thus purposively left visible throughout my discussion.

IV  The structure of the book In this book I attempt to talk about an area of contemporary moral philosophy which by now is both large and various. This poses a special challenge when trying to do justice to different individual contributors to the discussion. One way of proceeding would be to pick a selection of philosophers, discuss their respective individual views, and let the overall picture emerge from these. But as my aim is to talk about the overall picture, I will mostly talk about it directly by means of thematic labels—neo-Aristotelianism, particularism, generalization in



literature, etc.—and let the contributions of individual philosophers step in to substantiate my argument. Only Nussbaum and Murdoch receive extensive individual treatment. In Chapter 1 I give an outline of how narrative literature is considered in contemporary analytic or Anglo-American moral philosophy, and connect this use to the broad trend of neo-Aristotelian ethics in this context. In Chapter 2 I connect the use of literature to a specific philosophical feature, the idea of the non-generalizability of moral perception and judgment, which is discernible in the neo-Aristotelian trend, as well as in the range of moral particularisms and anti-theoretical positions of late twentieth century and contemporary ethics. The joint task of these two chapters is to situate the trend of reading narrative literature for the purposes of moral philosophy in the present context of moral philosophy. Whereas proponents of different theoretical persuasions are often more interested in underlining the distinctiveness of their positions, my general line of argument is here to emphasize the commonality of the aims and procedures of the ethics/literature discussion, the neo-Aristotelian approaches and the particularisms that are current in Anglo-American moral philosophy today. In the following two chapters I move on from the particularizing power of narrative literature, which is emphasized by neo-Aristotelians and particularists alike, to a broader understanding of the intellectual potential of narrative literature. Although literature is useful for illustrating particular instances of moral thought and action, it should not be regarded as essentially particularizing. In Chapter 3 I argue that narrative has its own forms of generalization which, if properly understood, are enriching for our understanding of the workings of ethical generalizations within philosophy. In Chapter 4 I discuss two ways of combining ethical generality and particularity in a philosophical framework where both systematic moral theory and narrative literature are taken seriously. The philosophers discussed here are Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum; the former is a pioneer of my target discussion and the latter is at its very center. In the last chapter (5) I anchor the significance of narrative literature in contemporary analytic moral philosophy to the question of how the role of moral theory, in this context, should be understood. I here discuss the controversy between contemporary anti-theoretical conceptions of ethics and Nussbaum’s refutation of these, heeding both the anti-theorists’ cautions against theory and Nussbaum’s criticism of their position. The tension between theoretical and


Literature and Moral Theory

anti-theoretical formulations of the moral philosophers’ agenda provides a good place for opening up moral philosophy in a new way, a way which makes narrative literature indispensable for moral understanding without discarding moral theory. I will finally in this last chapter present my own positive suggestions concerning the way in which moral philosophy in the wake of the ethics/ literature discussion can be understood, in order to overcome the respective limitations of Nussbaum’s theory-centered, equilibrium-seeking perspective and the anti-theorists’ repudiation of theory.

V  Where is this heading? When I first sketched out this project I believed that a broad descriptive account of the ethics/literature discussion in contemporary moral philosophy would best serve my purposes. Most books on the subject of ethics and literature, or philosophy and literature, include the authors’ own, more or less extensive readings of literary works in a philosophical/ethical light. Over the past few years, when people have asked me what I work on, they have wanted to know which literary authors I discuss. I have been obliged to tell them, unfortunately, that my topic is something as dry as meta-level issues. “I’m discussing what other philosophers do with literature.” Why, then, would I not add some readings of my own at the end? It was from the very beginning clear to me that no actual “ethical readings” could be part of this book. The main reason, a valid one still, I believe, was that I did not want to be more implicated in the movement I study than I already am. I wanted a clearer view, for me and my prospective reader, not another exemplar of, or argument for, this kind of philosophy. Yet in the course of my work something of a synthesis forced itself upon me. This synthesis could be described as a vision for how, ideally, the literary turn in ethics could overcome its internal animosities and offer an alternative path for contemporary moral philosophy, more alive to the complexities of our moral lives and intellectual traditions. I have located the more extensive discussion of this view in the last chapter. This is partly because my substantive views, as presented here, are a natural outgrowth of my reading of the texts of the literary turn and not quite understandable without an insight into how I interpret these texts and their



philosophical context. It is also because I still believe that my description of the field of discussion should, as far as possible, be unmediated by my particular vision for an ideal study of moral philosophy. But as my more particular view of an ideal ethics is of course an important part of this book’s organizing principle, indeed in some sense its implicit raison d’être, I will say a few words here about where I am heading. The texts of the literary turn acquainted me with a way of doing moral philosophy which seemed to me, above all, free from the shackles of ethical theory. Here was a way, or indeed a broad range of ways, of attending to all those aspects of our moral lives that were left out in standard accounts of the tasks and methods and interests of academic (analytic) moral philosophy. I still tend to think of it in those terms, as a liberation, a license to address questions—for example, of particularity, identity, the texture of everyday life, the variety of ways that humans can be bad, stupid, blind, smug, and obnoxious, or the contrary, the ways in which we develop as moral beings and the ways in which the moral sensibilities of whole societies change over time. Here was a way to be enriched by moral philosophy, in much the same way that novel readers are enriched by reading good novels. It was more pleasurable, but it also seemed intellectually called upon, in a culture of moral philosophy focused on argument from a quite limited range of overt or covert premises: that morality is a matter of action, that fact and value are easily distinguishable, that issues in meta-ethics are by and large value-neutral, that reason in ethics implies universality, that we seek solutions on a high level of abstraction, that moral situations are easy to describe, that historical and cultural insights have little place in systematic ethics, that systematic argument is the privileged route to moral philosophical clarity, and, not least, that other paths of inquiring into morality are inferior, lacking in clarity. The past decades of philosophy and literature, virtue ethics, moral history, etc. have done a tremendous job to break this rather widespread mid- and latetwentieth century analytic consensus concerning the nature of morality and moral philosophy, but there is more work to be done. The current culture of academic specialization (and journal publishing) easily normalizes critical trends and turns them into additional academic specializations. I would like to see the literary turn, not as the birth of another specialization, but as an opportunity to rethink the craft of academic moral philosophy. Not just so that literature, with its various concerns, is included—rather so that moral philosophers would feel free (and capable) to follow something more like Ian


Literature and Moral Theory

Hacking’s eclectic spirit, when he states that: “I help myself to whatever I can, from everywhere” (2002: 17). Thus, my description of the ethics literature discussion follows the following trajectory: from my initial sense of liberation described in this introduction, I move on to describe 1) the views and concerns that the authors of the literary turn have in common, and 2) the rift in the middle of the discussion. In the last chapter I present a model of reconciliation between those who want to think of literature as a companion to theory and those who think that literature can show us something about why moral theory, as we know it, must be discarded. I call this “the inclusive approach” and I use it to preserve, or perhaps save, the sense of liberation I experienced in my first encounters with Martha Nussbaum’s and Iris Murdoch’s writings. I will do this by arguing that the very conflict must be contained in a meta-level view of the discussion, in order to preserve what is important in both of the conflicting parties. This position can be seen as a piece of the kind of makeshift theory that can be useful as one goes along, but is not perhaps to be preserved in the annals of “philosophical positions” as a view separable from the considerations that give rise to it in this book. Some readers might hope for a more distinct position on my part and thus a few words need to be said concerning why it is essential that these wishes are not fulfilled here. I offer my views and positions on a variety of issues within this book, but considering the nature of my concluding position I must stand back. Why? Because it is exactly by issuing too specific recommendations to further philosophical work that I believe authors of the literary turn are making the turn less attractive, less promising, and less liberating. What I describe in this book are issues that recent philosophy has found in the intersection between philosophy and literature, but there is no limit to what future philosophy can do when turning to literature, or to other texts outside the narrow circuit of academic philosophical ethics. It is all too easy to put forward opinions with a light garnish of argument. I persist in the belief that my overall vision of the actuality and potentialities of the literary turn are more useful in the current discussion than statements concerning what I want from future moral philosophers. Yet, I might perhaps—without compromising this aim—dwell on one central thing that I believe is gained through this opening gesture. Analytic moral philosophy and perhaps academic moral philosophy overall, has through the past decades had far too little room for the individual thinking person, the philosopher, as a being with a complex idiosyncratic intellect and, above all,



a life. Pursued from a common platform of philosophical, theoretical and professional presuppositions (and institutional requirements), philosophy easily becomes aloof and wooden; loses contact with the beliefs, the curiosity, and the moral quandaries which initially brought the philosophers to their subject matters and which, often covertly, keeps them interested. It seems to me that philosophers, in relation to literature, gain a greater freedom to consult their plural and various knowledge, sensibilities, and intellects, and thus produce a kind of philosophy which has a greater chance of making a difference for the people who read it. I would like to picture the individual moral philosopher in a free and open relationship to a vast tradition, not only of philosophy, but, more generally, of thought, texts and various human practices that can tell us something about ourselves as valuing beings. Here I stand very close to Iris Murdoch, who has a large role in this book, and also (in the broadly analytic tradition) to Charles Taylor and Ian Hacking, who do not have a place here.


A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework In this chapter I give an outline of the discussion on the role of literature in analytic moral philosophy from around 1980 to the present, and situate the discussion in a framework of recent developments within the field. In 1.1 I give an outline of the literary turn in Anglo-American ethics. In 1.2 I present a taxonomy of features which are typical of contemporary moral philosophical use of literature within the Anglo-American tradition. In 1.3 I discuss the neo-Aristotelian aspect of this taxonomy of features.

1.1  The literary turn in moral philosophy One notable feature of the contemporary philosophical discussion on ethics and literature is the great agreement—among philosophers in the discussion— concerning two things. First, there is an agreement concerning the way literature is relevant for moral philosophy and second, an agreement, by and large, concerning the general features of moral philosophy which make literature a welcome companion. I will treat the first point of agreement in this section and the second point more at length in 1.2. Beginning with the first, literature is currently viewed as something other and more than a provider of extended philosophical examples, or something to be mined for illustrations of philosophical argument. It is seen as containing philosophical perspectives and developments of thought in its own right, in ways which are relevant for the philosopher but not necessarily fully translatable into an argumentative, academic philosophical form. Some literary works are seen as different but self-standing and equally important contributions to a common quest for moral understanding (and/or moral philosophical understanding), giving insights which are not directly available through theoretical discourse. As Martha Nussbaum claims, for some ethically relevant views on human life “. . . a


Literature and Moral Theory

literary narrative of a certain sort is the only type of text that can state them fully and fittingly, without contradiction” (Nussbaum 1990: 7). This attitude towards literature marks a difference in relation to a more stereotypical, theory-bound style of analytic philosophy, which clearly privileges theoretical texts as vehicles of philosophical thought. The difference is central for the overarching argument of this book. A serious consideration (on a larger scale) of the independent ethical significance of the contents and form of narrative literature seems, in the context of contemporary analytic moral philosophy, to go no further back in time than to the early 1980s. R. W. Beardsmore (1984: 59) states that “It is by no means unusual in works of philosophy for writers to make use of examples from literature or (like e.g. Peter Winch and Eugene Kamenka) to bemoan the lack of literary examples in the work of other philosophers.” But, he claims, “what is extremely unusual is any direct discussion of the philosophical issues involved, that is to say any discussion of what philosophers are doing when they appeal in their writings to works of literature” (ibid.). The statement is telling as it reveals the extent to which this situation has changed since he wrote. On the one hand, there is no longer a lack of such “direct discussion,” as an extensive number of books and articles during the past thirty years have treated precisely this. Further, the view which, at the time, he considers most commonly held on this matter, that literary examples work just like non-literary examples, is rather rare among those who have a serious interest in the role of literature in moral philosophy today. Typically, philosophers employ examples customized to the theoretical discussion to serve a theoretical purpose, while literary examples have an identity and integrity of their own, resonating in the interpretive space of the literary work.1 On the other hand, his talk of literary examples as the primary mode of using literature in ethics, or the interpretation of such use as “giving examples” seems slightly outdated, as many of the writers on ethics and literature since his day consider the literary pieces which are used as definitely something more, or something else, than examples. Daniel Brudney approximates a description of what I would call mere examples in the following way: “An example of this kind tends to function as a pro- or counterexample for some fairly general principle and it can be reworded as the requirements of the argument dictate. One is not stuck with any particular formulation. The point is simply to make sure that it is an instance of the principle one wishes to illustrate” (1998: 275). This is the way non-literary examples are

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


most frequently used, as parts of the argument for (or criticism of) a general principle or a theory, and literary works are often invoked to provide material for such examples. As Brudney (1990: 417) notes, to be of use as a philosophical example of this kind a literary narrative needs to be given a sufficiently unambiguous interpretation to serve the purpose envisaged for it in a philosophical argument. But “to take a literary text as an extended philosophical example has thus generally meant bypassing what makes the text a text: not a summary of the situation but a specific set of words” (ibid.: 418). In contrast to such an approach, which reduces the literary piece to a paraphraseable, unambiguous summary of a situation, the contemporary proponents of literature in moral philosophy tend to insist that the very form of the text matters for its moral significance. Nussbaum emphasizes that the form itself can be seen as making certain evaluative claims (e.g. 1990: 3), while Brudney sees the specific contribution of a literary text in our way of treating the wording as significant, as having authority in its own right (1998: 276). The emphasis on the moral and philosophical significance of the exact wording goes hand in hand with the idea that literature is a form of moral thought in its own right, independent of the pursuits of moral philosophers. In this view literary works are not necessarily in need of a translation into the language of philosophy to count as contributions to moral philosophy, although elucidating philosophical discussions are welcomed. Along this line of thought the exact moral contents or moral contribution of a literary work often cannot be adequately paraphrased, neither in theoretical text nor in a different rendering of the same storyline. Thus the literary text contains, in itself, as it stands, a moral content which can be interpreted and discussed in other forms, but not be replaced entirely without something of moral interest being lost. As Nussbaum expresses the case in relation to Shakespeare: To make any contribution worth caring about, a philosopher’s study of Shakespeare should do three things. First and most centrally, it should really do philosophy, and not just allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions. It should pursue tough questions and come up with something interesting and subtle—rather than just connecting Shakespeare to this or that idea from Philosophy 101. A philosopher reading Shakespeare should wonder, and ponder, in a genuinely philosophical way. Second, it should illuminate the world of the plays, attending closely enough to language and to texture that the interpretation changes the way we see the work, rather than just uses the work as grist for some


Literature and Moral Theory argumentative mill. And finally, such a study should offer some account of why philosophical thinking needs to turn to Shakespeare’s plays, or to works like them. Why must the philosopher care about these plays? Do they supply to thought something that a straightforward piece of philosophical prose cannot supply, and if so, what? Nussbaum 2008

The ideal is that a philosophical reading should actively do philosophy when confronting a literary text, rather than just connect the text to philosophy by, for example, detecting habitually philosophical positions in it. It should bring out what is distinctive to the literary text and attend to its particular interplay of form and content, rather than try to prove that the text is philosophical. It should turn to a literary work as an autonomous center of insight. It should further tell us something about why we should, as philosophers, turn to literature for illumination. The question of whether the independent moral content in literary works is to be considered as philosophical thought is thus far left open. But the spirit of the contemporary discussion is that the question of whether or not some literary works are to be considered as “philosophy” in their own right is not crucial. The seminal discussion in New Literary History (1983) on the role of literature in moral philosophy—involving Nussbaum, Richard Wollheim, D. D. Raphael, Hilary Putnam, Patrick Gardiner, and Cora Diamond among others—turns on the question of whether literature can count as moral philosophy, but part of the importance of this discussion, as I see it, is how it points at the futility of trying to answer the question in this definitory manner. It shows how easily the question becomes one of how one ought to define moral philosophy, rather than a question of how literature can contribute to elucidating the kinds of questions that moral philosophers deal with. What is truly interesting is how this discussion opens up new ways of understanding the task of the moral philosopher, especially through the contributions of Nussbaum and Diamond. What is of importance is whether literature contains patterns of moral thought which may, or should, change or broaden the way philosophers, at least certain kinds of academic moral philosophers, think about morality. The different ways of using literature—as mere examples or as self-standing vehicles of philosophical or moral thought—are not always easy to identify and keep separate. In some cases it remains unclear in which mode literature is used, but some guidelines can be given for detecting the relevant differences. When literature is considered by a philosopher as an independent vehicle of thought,

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


it is frequently considered in the light of the pursuit of an author or an implied author to pin down a moral perspective or a perspective on human life (e.g. by Diamond 1991; Nussbaum 1990; Rooksby 2005; Rorty 1989). The philosopher attempts to be faithful to the spirit of the work he uses. As in literary criticism, there is room for many interpretations, but some interpretations can be ruled out as too far-fetched in relation to the work to be interesting. The philosophical reflection is allowed to resonate in the complexities of the literary work in a way which makes it natural to pick up the literary work for further guidance. Although many writers have understood their task as a (in a broad sense) moral one, this need not be the case to make a literary work a self-standing vehicle of moral or moral philosophical thought. There are two major strategies in relation to authorial intent for the philosopher who considers the ethical contribution of a literary work. One is to discuss it as a more or less intentionally philosophical work, where the writer pursues an ethical subject and lays out an argument which is brought to life through the actions and thoughts of characters. In this case the literary work can be considered more or less as an explicitly philosophical contribution, as an intervention in a philosophical discussion, although the exact content of this contribution may need some interpretation and clarification. In this kind of case authorial introductions, or other critical or essayistic writings by the author, may be useful in explicating authorial intention. The other strategy is to use a work as moral philosophical thought disregarding the presence or absence of moral or moral philosophical intentions. In this case the interest for moral philosophy may lie in the ethical nature and development of characters, a certain point of view on the world, the possible conflicts arising from human life, etc. Indeed, most narrative pieces do contain ethically relevant developments or viewpoints of these types, regardless of any explicit authorial intention. This second strategy may seem to come close to a use of literature as a mere provider of examples, as we do not have here an explicit philosophical agency on the part of the author (or implied author). But there is reason to distinguish between a use of literature which illustrates a philosophical argument or provides a counterexample, and ethical points of view which are substantially developed in literature in a way which cannot be treated completely in the philosophical commentary. When treated as a mere example the literary work or piece is used to clarify or vivify the content which is already in the philosophical argument. When used as an independent medium of thought it can be seen as substantially informing and challenging the philosophical discussion.


Literature and Moral Theory

In practice philosophers may—and do—opt for a mixed strategy where they rely both on the assumed, explicit or implicit, aim of the author and on their own reading which is disconnected from authorial intention, often using one of these strategies as the point of departure and the other as a means for strengthening the argument. This is Nussbaum’s strategy, for example, in her discussions of Henry James’ The Golden Bowl (1990), where she backs up her own reading with commentary from the author’s critical introductions to his own work (James 1960). Another case of a mixed strategy is Rorty’s discussion of Nabokov (1989) where his ethical reading of Nabokov’s novels is partly in agreement with and partly against the grain of his presentation of Nabokov’s intention. This creates an interesting triangle with the philosopher engaging with both the writer in the work and the writer as critic of his own work. I will return to these examples in Chapter 4. A similar double strategy is also discernible in most contemporary ethical readings of Iris Murdoch’s novels, building on the assumption that her novels are an integral part of her philosophical oeuvre. Overall, there is in the current discussion of Anglo-American ethics a certain bias toward texts which are, on the one hand, classics of the Anglo-American or European canon and, on the other hand, purposively moral. Among these the works of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens have a natural place. The first bias seems to be motivated by the fact that many of the discussions presuppose, for full understanding of the argument, that the reader is acquainted with the literary work (or can get his hands on it if needed). Thus classics in English, or European classics like Dostoevsky or Proust, fulfill this function most suitably by still being read by many. Concerning the second bias, one may suspect that philosophers are sometimes led to certain literary works by the presupposition that these do contain ethically significant material. But what at first draws the philosopher’s attention may not be what he ultimately needs or wants from literature. There is another bias in the contemporary moral philosopher’s interest in literature towards the very subtle and particular points which are often as much present in non-philosophical and (overtly) non-ethical narratives as in more overtly philosophical or ethical ones. In some cases explicit or semi-explicit moral philosophical argument in a narrative work reveals, in the very way it is pursued, the more subtle or more particularistic points which are of special interest for contemporary moral philosophical discussion. Thus the virtue-ethical perspective of, say, Pride and Prejudice together with a persuasive development of characters reveals, in the

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


contemporary reading, the nature of moral perceptiveness. It is also the case that interesting authors—from Dostoevsky to Margaret Atwood—who pursue ethical argument at the surface level of the narrative, such as through characters representing theoretical, symbolic, or stereotypical positions, are often sensitive moralists on the level of human detail and aware of the multiplicity of fine shades of human good and evil. Such works exhibit ethical interest and engagement in more than one way and are thus of use for many different ethical endeavors. The presence of old-fashioned moral lessons in narratives does little to disturb, but is also in practice of relatively little interest for the current discussion. Our (or Tolstoy’s) assessment of Anna Karenina’s character is of less interest than the book’s ability to make vivid for us the characters and their social settings and let ourselves be engaged in their destinies. Too high a degree of moralism or theoretical argument, though, may spoil the ethical career of a book in the current context. Philosophers mainly look for what they consider high quality, aesthetically high standard and psychologically accurate works. But there are exceptions to this tendency, especially in the case of related discussions on film narratives. We also find illuminating discussions on popular fiction, for example in the work of Wayne Booth (1988) and Stanley Cavell (2004). Drawing his material from the golden age of Hollywood films, Cavell shows with some success that a narrative work does not need a canonized status as intellectually advanced fiction to be interesting in terms of moral philosophy. The points of moral growth and perfectionism he makes in relation to these films are very much in line with the insights drawn by others from canonized written narratives. What is more, even these narratives receive in his treatment a position of independent moral thought rather than mere example, and his discussion of genres of films (e.g. “remarriage comedy”) indicates that a genre itself may be seen as a carrier of certain lines of moral thought. Finally, the vocabularies of philosophers vary on the matter of how they label their literary material. Some talk about examples while treating the material as philosophical thought in its own right, while others treat their literary material as a mere example without calling it so. Of course this difference, where it occurs, is not merely terminological, as an example is always an example of something, often for or against something. But the use of literary works as examples does not necessarily mean a reductive approach to literary works. The common ground in the overall discussion is an idea of intentionality and perspective in the narrative works, which is—as we will see in greater detail in Chapter 4—not reducible to philosophical argument. Thus, although the


Literature and Moral Theory

philosophers’ “discourse,” in Samuel Goldberg’s words, to some extent, “inevitably gives priority—logical and evaluative priority—to its own kind of conceptual terms and argument,” it does not, as Goldberg fears, treat literature as “simply exemplifying and instantiating them” (Goldberg 1993: 285).

1.2  Features of the discussion I will now proceed to the second type of agreement among contemporary moral philosophers who exhibit a serious interest in narrative literature as a part of moral philosophy. There is, in the contemporary ethics/literature discussion, substantial agreement concerning what kinds of insights literature helps to put forward, and what kinds of moral philosophy literature is a suitable adjunct to. This in spite of the fact that the philosophers involved in contemporary discussions on the topic represent a variety of theoretical positions, Martha Nussbaum being an Aristotelian, Richard Eldridge a form of Kantian, Stanley Cavell pursuing Emersonian moral perfectionism, Winch and Diamond being, in this context, Wittgensteinian ethical “anti-theorists,” and many of the contemporary voices being most appropriately characterized as Wittgensteinians or (predominantly Aristotelian) virtue ethicists. I will investigate this underlying view of moral philosophy through a thematic review of features which have become prominent in contemporary discussion in moral philosophy, particularly among those philosophers who are sympathetic to the use of narrative literature as a complement to philosophical thought. My taxonomy of features contains nine items: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9.

Moral perception Moral imagination Particularity The Aristotelian conception of phronesis or practical judgment Morality as a process of personal growth The ethical role of the emotions Incommensurability of good things A broad conception of ethics The reality of the moral realm

There are many interconnections between these features, as will be clarified through my discussion. Some of the individual points of emphasis may not be

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


shared by all contemporary proponents of narrative literature in ethics and there are different stances to be taken in relation to distinct points. In spite of variation they are, though, representative of a view which is prominent in the contemporary discussion. Together they paint a picture of a certain general perspective on morality, which differs significantly from the common picture of analytic moral philosophy which was dominant in the 1960s and 70s, and which has dominated the public face of analytic moral philosophy as well as many areas of actual philosophical work since then.

1.2.1  Moral perception One of the principal points of agreement among the proponents of literature in moral philosophy is that literature is needed to develop and articulate a moral skill or faculty which is labeled perception (Nussbaum 1990), attention (Murdoch 1970/2001), or attentiveness (Brudney 2003). The metaphor of moral vision is at times also used by Nussbaum as well as Murdoch as a metaphorical clarification or approximation of the perceptive attitude to a human situation which according to these thinkers is required for moral understanding and conduct. Although the different terms indicate some differences in conceptual scope and implication, they cluster around the very same ideas and are often used interchangeably. While the idea of moral perception was more or less unheard of in much of twentieth century ethics, it has had a remarkable career in the moral philosophy of the turn of the millennium, turning up in contexts of ethics/literature, virtue ethics and moral particularism. Moral perception is a capacity or skill ascribed to the morally competent person. It is the capacity to attend to and perceive the relevant features of a human situation in order to assess its moral significance. Moral perception has at times been treated as a unitary phenomenon or skill, even by its central defenders like Nussbaum (1990), Charles Larmore (1987) and Murdoch (1970/2001). One reason why this has been the case may be that moral perception has above all been considered as an adjunct to moral principles (with the clear exception of Murdoch, who emphasizes the moral nature and the independent moral value of perceptiveness overall (e.g. ibid.: 16–22). Thus it is natural that the focus has been on the relationship between “perception” and “principle” rather than on the nature and structure of the kind of sensitivity that is discussed. The problem with not analyzing it further is that this skill easily takes on an unduly mysterious or esoteric role, which hides much of our actual, moral and theoretical


Literature and Moral Theory

abilities to make distinctions within the province of what is called moral perception. A further reason for a more substantial analysis is that one may need to distinguish a moral outlook centering on moral perception from Moorean moral intuitionism. The relationship between moral perception and intuitionism is not a simple one, but there appears to be a fundamental difference at least in the contexts where ethical perception is seen as part of an Aristotelian framework. Here the ability of moral perception is explicitly seen as a practical skill achieved through habituation in a social and moral human environment. This takes away some of the potential mysticism of an intuitionist position.2 I suggest here an approximate analysis of the idea of moral perception, as it is used in contemporary ethics, to elucidate its relationship to the other features of the literary discussion described in this chapter. Lawrence Blum (1994) has provided a useful analysis of moral perception, from which I borrow the first two points here. First, what we would call moral perception requires an adequate recognition of the features of a situation, thus, the reconstruction of a “situation” out of perceived material. Second, it requires the selective ability of recognizing which of the perceivable details may have moral relevance (see ibid.: 42–5). Thus it requires a conception of morality, goodness, or relevant value in the situation, although it does not require that we have a strict definition of morality which would predetermine what can be morally relevant. Third, moral perception implies a willingness to perceive and act on the perceived, a responsiveness to the situation; a willingness not only to know, but, if appropriate, to engage in the life of other people. The third aspect is in Blum’s more fine-grained analysis considered as a part of “agency engagement” (ibid.: 58–9) and placed within the province of judgment rather than perception. As I find this responsive quality of perceiving an integral part of most uses of the concept of moral perception, I prefer to include it as an aspect of the description of perception. Point three deals with the how rather than the what of the perception; its manner rather than its content. In relation to the last point, the willingness, an interesting difference between Nussbaum’s use of moral perception and Murdoch’s use of attention appears. In the case of the former, perception is conceived more as an active effort of the perceptive individual to improve herself, to become better, more apt and more perceptive. Thus, even though perception is directed at happenings outside the self, much of the effort is directed at recreating a better, more virtuous self. The concept carries with it one of the pitfalls of virtue ethics, its potential solipsism;

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


the idea of morality as a quest, above all, of self-improvement. In Murdoch’s (1970/2001) version, the moral attention is firmly tied to a moral ideal of unselfing, which has slightly different connotations. The self is not primarily treated as an object of improvement, but rather a vessel which loses its significance, a vessel of other-directed goodness opening up towards the world. From this perspective “the fat, relentless ego” (ibid.: 51), which is Murdoch’s greatest moral enemy, can very well be the prime mover of the seemingly virtuous person who is developing her skills of appropriate perception and action. Murdoch’s use of the concept of attention involves a constant critique of this tendency inherent in the ideal. Another axis of discrimination concerns the objects of perception. A person may be perfectly perceptive and responsive on most matters but have central blind spots. An example of this could be the blindness of some people to the mental suffering of family members or of loved ones. While dealing optimally with the mental agony of friends or strangers and likewise with the physical suffering of everyone, some people seem to be unable to deal with the mental suffering of people who are nearest to them, to the extent that they do not even perceive a problem when it occurs. Though psychologically understandable as a way of protecting the self from suffering, this kind of partial perceptiveness could stand out as an anomaly in the individual’s moral performance if moral perception is considered a unitary skill. But Blum (1994: 46–47) argues that blind spots and special sensitivities are standard in our ability to perceive morally salient aspects of the situations we encounter. People have different practical and psychological obstacles to their perception. Thus, moral perception, with all its aspects, is not something you either have or have not, but something that can be had partially, and improved when the nature of the personal limits is revealed. This is why Blum (ibid.: 46) finds problematic the way, for example, Nussbaum occasionally refers to moral perception as a faculty, a choice of wording which presents the idea of moral perception as something unanalyzable, as a single phenomenon. In contemporary discussion about the moral significance of literature, the idea of moral perception figures on three different levels that are discussed, for example, by Nussbaum (1990). First, it is seen to be at work in the lives of characters, in how they conceive their situations and their fellows and how their perceptions change in the course of the events of the literary work. Fictional characters, and their fictional lives, exemplify the possibilities of moral perception


Literature and Moral Theory

as well as its shortcomings. This aspect is exhibited by Nussbaum’s treatment of Maggie Verver in “The Golden Bowl” (ibid.: 125–47) and Hyacinth Robinson in “The Princess Casamassima” (ibid.: 195–217). Second, it is at work in the act of reading. The reader, engaging with the world of the fictional work along with its characters, displays and practices moral perception in this act, not only by following the perception of the characters, but by assessing their lives and their needs and responding appropriately (e.g. ibid.: 143). Third, moral perception is a central part of the creative work of the author, in creating credible, interesting and lively characters which can engage the reader (e.g. ibid.: 148). Nussbaum (1990) firmly believes that narrative literature does engage our ability to respond morally and builds this assumption into her conception of the moral significance of literature. But this ability to engage does not seem to be necessary to make literature morally relevant. We should further not assume that moral perception in relation to literature is a perfect mirror image of moral perception in real life. Our emotional and motivational responses to moral issues in narratives differ necessarily from our responses to real-life moral issues. The fictional stabbing of an independent bypasser does not evoke the same reactions in us as the same event in real life would. But even when we are not moved by our detailed perception of a fictional character’s situation, this “mere” perception may be relevant for real-life needs of “full” moral perception.

1.2.2  Moral imagination The conception of moral imagination is frequently found as an adjunct to discussions about moral perception, seen as a capacity needed for the proper working of that perception. Understanding what we perceive in others, and what it means, often requires that we can take, at least temporarily, the point of view of another person. This does not necessarily mean that we need to walk in his shoes (for that we will rarely do), but rather that we need to be able to pick up aspects of his view of the world—his values, fears, and interests—to know what things mean to him. Imagination is one of the skills required for such understanding and for thus extending our grasp of human moral possibilities. The imaginative person is able to reconstruct situations from the point of view of another person (or a future self) and see features as possibly morally salient for someone else, though he (himself) would be unaffected in similar circumstances. The morally imaginative person is open to human differences and to surprising perspectives on everyday phenomena.

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


In contemporary ethical discussions on literature, a person with narrow imaginative capacities is pictured as morally limited, capable only of acting according to rules and according to the limited perceptions which are possible due to the limits of the creative imagination. One example of this is Karen Stohr’s (2006) discussion of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, where the virtues of three characters, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, and Mrs. Jennings, are assessed in terms of their use of the imagination. Here Mrs. Jennings is presented as failing to act well because of her characteristic lack of imagination, which makes her unable to understand how others experience her rude but well-meant and selfless doings and sayings (ibid.: 389). But Marianne, who has a rich capacity for imagination, is also presented as morally lacking in a twofold way. On the one hand, the working of her greater sensitivity for social nuance, which in combination with good judgment would work out fine, is compromised by her belief that moral attitudes, such as moral disgust, ought to be strongly expressed. On the other hand, this flamboyant manner of moral conduct is an impediment to her sensitive imagination. Her “selfabsorption, when combined with her strong opinions, prevents her from stepping out of her quite constricted conception of the moral universe” (ibid.: 389). To emphasize the moral weight—but also the moral hazards—of our ability to imagine, Murdoch introduces the distinction between fantasy and imagination (Murdoch 1997: 255, 1970/2001: 84–8).3 Fantasy is the self-assuring flight of the ego, which weaves the self into a comforting net of fairy tales. Imagination again is directed at and opens towards the reality of the other person. It is the creative movement of the mind which makes us able to understand each other’s experiences and a range of human possibilities. The key to this distinction is Murdoch’s specific conception of reality, which is a fundamentally moral notion: the realistic is also generous and just and good (Murdoch 1970/2001: 57–8). The distinction between fantasy and imagination is important in pointing out the direction of the moral imagination. Moral imagination, in Murdoch’s perspective, is not about inventing and expressing a better self and a better world, but about transcending the self. In line with this, Marianne’s shortcomings could be understood as a case of fantasy, or more generously, of imagination flirting with fantasy, with the imaginative capacity going astray. Narrative literature—especially fiction, along with other kinds of art which give us an opportunity to use our imaginative capacities—is considered as an important way of practicing the moral imagination. As in the case of perception, moral imagination is found to be at work in fictional characters (making sense of their worlds), readers (making sense of fictional characters and worlds, and


Literature and Moral Theory

their own worlds through these) and writers (making sense of the world to be able to create “true” and enlightening images of human life), alike.

1.2.3  Particularity One idea, omnipresent in contemporary ethical discussions on literature, is that the particular features of a human situation are decisive in moral deliberation, over and above the general moral principles that bear on the situation. Every human situation is unique (or has some unique features which cannot be disregarded) in relation to others in a way which may make the idea of binding normative generalizations untenable. To the extent that normative moral generalizations are endorsed, in the form of moral principles or theories that generate principles, they must, in this view, be accompanied by a more substantial account of their relation to situation-bound demands, than what has been offered in much of modern moral philosophy. This emphasis on particularity has been influential in several branches of contemporary moral philosophy and there are several varieties of claims concerning the proper role of particular, situationbound features in moral deliberation. Among these we find the positions of the meta-ethical particularism/generalism discussion, the post-Wittgensteinian particularists following Peter Winch and the broad neo-Aristotelian movement. I will not go into these here as I will treat the particularist trends in contemporary ethics at length in Chapter 2.1. What can be noted at this juncture is that giving priority to the particular, in this broad sense, is (as I will show in Chapter 4, in relation to Nussbaum and Murdoch) not incompatible with the possibility of formulating general moral principles and normative moral theories. In contemporary ethical discussions on literature, a certain emphasis on particularity is ubiquitous. Literature is brought into the philosophical discussion to illustrate the particularity of moral situations. A large part of contemporary writing on ethics and literature is found within the neo-Aristotelian or the postWittgensteinian families of thought. Martha Nussbaum lists (in her discussion of Aristotle’s argument against general rules as sufficient for guiding moral choice) three categories of “things that general principles, fixed in advance of the particular case omit” (1990: 38). These are new and unanticipated features of a situation, the context-embeddedness of relevant features and the ethical relevance of particular persons and relationships. Late twentieth century Kantian scholars like Barbara Herman (1993) and Nancy Sherman (1997) have argued that a principle-oriented theory need not

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


neglect these aspects of morality, but there is a certain uneasiness—in contemporary moral philosophy—in the relationship between the particularity and moral opacity of the human world, highlighted by discussions on literature, and generalizing or universalizing moral principles in, for example, Kantian moral theory. Narrative literature is considered, by Nussbaum as well as others, to be a place where we can turn the particularities of human life into common objects of attention. Thus, in the quest for understanding the particular, literature proves a helpful adjunct to philosophical texts. And the other way around—no matter what our ethical concerns and commitments look like—when engaging ethically with literature we will need to consider the particularities of specific situations described in literary works. As expressed by Colin McGinn (1997: 175): “The universally quantified ethical prescription will not be the standard form here (not that I object to it in its proper place). We will need to mingle the general and the specific in ways that are not typical of the orthodox ethical treatise.” Literature is interpreted, above all, as a vehicle of thought concerning the particular and as a means for negotiating the relationship between particularities and generalities, but this is by no means a necessary connection. Literature, as well as philosophy, is a product of highly processed thought, and it contains (as will be more thoroughly discussed in Chapter 4) morally relevant generalizations at many levels. That it depicts particular fictive events, and characters with particular features, does not commit it to being the vehicle of strictly particularist moral thought. What is specific for the contemporary discussion is that literature is above all used as a vehicle for particularizing insight. It is imported into the context of moral philosophical thought to complement philosophical discourse, which is seen as overly prone to abstract generalization, forgetting the lived particularity of human existence (Eldridge 1989; Goldberg 1993; Nussbaum 1990; Winch 1972).

1.2.4  Practical judgment Along with the neo-Aristotelian trend in moral philosophy, the notion of phronesis, or practical judgment, has from the 1980s on received new attention in analytic moral philosophy (Blum 1994; Herman 1993; Larmore 1987; Nussbaum 1990). Contrary to the closely related notions of perception and particularity, practical judgment plays a central role in any principle-centered moral theory. In spite of this, a closer examination of judgment is often found


Literature and Moral Theory

less central in such theories and has received a more central place in discussions concerned with virtues and perception. Practical judgment is often understood as the ability required for applying rules or principles adequately to particular situations. This application can be seen as consisting of two distinct deliberations: first, which principles to apply to a certain situation and second, what kind of action is warranted by the principle in the situation (Blum 1994: 59). A consequence of the general form of moral principles is that few of the actions required by a principle can be directly read off from the principle itself. Different principles also present different degrees of difficulty of application (ibid.: 39). Using Kantian terminology, so-called perfect duties, prohibition against lying for instance, seem to require less judgment than the imperfect duties, such as the imperative of being kind. As a third aspect, practical judgment is also needed for arbitrating between different principles which make conflicting claims on the individual. Sometimes the claims of truthfulness can seem to conflict with the claims of kindness and in spite of having worked out what action each of these requires separately, we may be at a loss as to what they require together. A fourth aspect of practical judgment, also noted by Blum (1994: 40–1), is the ability to discern which features of a given situation have moral relevance, a figuring out of the moral nature of the situation. This is in one sense antecedent to judging which principle to apply, although we should note that our conception of moral relevance is partly guided by the set of moral principles which we have come to adopt. Practical judgment is about arbitrating and fitting, or sorting out between elements which are, so to speak, already given. It thus differs from what is meant by moral perception, which is prior to judgment and which provides the judging mind with its material. In spite of differences these are sometimes used interchangeably, meaning more generally the discernment of morally salient features in situations. When drawing the line between what belongs to judgment and what belongs to perception, we are likely to get more than one plausible alternative. This is naturally due to the proximity of the concepts and, on a closer look, to their complex nature. As practical judgment is precisely practical and situation-bound, its nature is hard to pin down in the generalizing, abstract form of theory. As in the case of perception, instances of practical judgment can be made into common objects of attention through the use of narrative literature. Many literary discussions treating moral perception also deal with judgment. Through the use of literature,

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


the idea of practical judgment is also more intimately linked to a perceptionoriented moral outlook, as literary examples frequently show a moral landscape where accurate judgment is needed to describe the alternatives at hand correctly, rather than to arbitrate between ready-made alternatives.

1.2.5  Morality as growth Many moral philosophical texts concerning literary works deal with the moral change of central characters. More often than not, this change is considered as development or growth. Nussbaum’s discussion of James’ The Golden Bowl (1990: 125–47) portrays Maggie Verver’s process of growth from daddy’s girl to her husband’s wife as a change in her moral landscape from an ideal of absolute black-and-white simplicity and purity to the responsible and responsive, entangled, shades-of-grey nature of adult morality. Eldridge (1989) for his part discusses the achievement of autonomy in Conrad’s character Marlow in Lord Jim. He argues that a central moral theme of this work concerns “the possibility of our autonomy in the world” (ibid.: 68). Further “the principal action of the novel is centered in Marlow’s consciousness, in the developments of his evolving understanding of Jim and himself ” (ibid.: 76). This development of his understanding touches the Kantian principle of human autonomy, pointing at general or universal ideas and values through a deepening grasp of two particular individuals. Stanley Cavell’s (2004) discussions on films from Hollywood’s golden age present a specific kind of moral development where protagonists (frequently female) come to a new understanding of life through a confrontation with the right counterpart who, often without intending it, is able to meet their developmental needs. Alternatively, couples come to a new understanding through confronting each other. This coming to a new understanding—seeing life in different terms, not necessarily more moral in a limited sense, but rather fuller or richer—is presented by Cavell as an important moral change. Common to all of these examples, and typical for the genre, is that the changes occur more centrally at the level of perception, understanding, particular judgment, etc., than at the level of consciously adopted principle or outward action. Moral growth is presented as a change of consciousness and of “the texture of being” of a human individual. Now we may ask: why literature? This kind of moral development (or individual development with moral implications) is a central theme in the novel as a genre


Literature and Moral Theory

and thus a natural theme to take up by any reader who approaches literature with moral concerns. Moral growth is also one of the themes which can be considered difficult to treat satisfactorily, without illustration, in argumentative philosophical form, because it requires a substantial understanding of how a person may change. The possibility of following an individual character over time makes narrative here a natural and perhaps even necessary companion for moral thought.

1.2.6  The role of the emotions The late years of the twentieth century saw a broad revival in picturing the emotions as a central part of morality. In analytic ethics this occurred through the broad revival of ancient moral philosophy, especially in its neo-Aristotelian form. Where modern moral philosophy had focused on the Kantian rational will and tended to disregard the moral significance of inclination, the general virtue ethical stance, developed in Anglo-American moral philosophy since the 1970s, holds that the emotional responses of a person are a central part of his moral make-up and that lack of emotional response can on some occasions be a central moral fault. Where emotions have in much of the post-Enlightenment tradition been regarded as the irrational other side of human life, the contemporary rethinking of the moral role of emotions has revolved around an idea of emotions as a constitutive part of how we see the world, how it appears to us, and thus as an indispensable part of our cognitive make-up. Narrative literature works here as a way of bringing the moral importance of emotions into view, by describing human situations and developments where we see that the emotional responses of characters do make a moral difference, for better or worse. For Nussbaum, the rationality of emotions has been a central issue throughout her work. “Emotions,” she claims, “are not just the fuel that powers the psychological mechanism of a reasoning creature, they are parts, highly complex and messy parts, of this creature’s reasoning itself ” (Nussbaum 2001: 3). How we see things and make sense of things around us has much to do with our emotions: our attachments, fears, longings, etc. In this view, the human world is not a collection of facts which are available to us through detached contemplation. Detached contemplation is at worst a fiction and at best an approximate ideal; emotions are an indispensable part of how the world appears to us. The idea that emotions are parts of our rational nature is one of those concepts which are difficult to argue without illustration. Nussbaum brings life to this

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


point with an example from Proust, to whom she even ascribes a theoretical commitment, akin to her own, to the cognitive role of the emotions. This example (ibid.: 458–9) describes the change which occurs within Marcel when, at the time of saying goodbye after an outing, Albertine makes a hint about a relationship of hers which he interprets as lesbian. The emotional surge, due to this awakening suspicion, seems to take a decisive role in how his life and his perception of the world develop. What is peculiar for Nussbaum’s stance is that she is very insistent on the point that emotions are a part of our specifically rational nature rather than merely of our moral nature in general. She calls her position concerning the ethical role of emotions a “cognitive/evaluative view” (ibid.: 5). On page 4 we read: This view holds that emotions are appraisals or value judgments, which ascribe to things and persons outside the person’s own control great importance for that person’s own flourishing. It thus contains three salient ideas: the idea of cognitive appraisal or evaluation; the idea of one’s own flourishing or one’s important goals and projects; and the idea of the salience of external objects as elements in one’s own scheme of goals.

This insistence on the rationality of emotions has a double nature. On the one hand it aims at showing that emotions must be taken seriously in moral thought, as essential parts of evaluation rather than just a motivational adjunct, and that we need a more elaborate understanding of their role in relation to reason. On the other hand, it can also be seen as directed against any attempt to give the emotions (or other experiences outside the rational/irrational dichotomy) too much independent space. Emotions find their place, in her conception of morality, as parts of reason and as guided by reason. Nussbaum’s emphasis on reason and rationality is especially poignant in her severe criticism (1999, 2000a) of the anti-theoretical trend in recent moral philosophy, a trend which in her view is anti-rational and traditionalist in a way which allows reason in moral thought to be neglected. I will return to this in Chapter 2.2. In contemporary ethics, overall the emotions enter in many different ways. The appropriate emotions as a necessary part of virtuous conduct, central in contemporary virtue ethics, is one aspect. The formation of emotions as a part of moral development is another (Cavell 2004; Nussbaum 1990, 2001; Singleton 2006). The emotional landscape of a person as a central part of his moral outlook is a third (Eldridge 1989; Goldberg 1993; Nussbaum 2001). The moral significance of caring, affectionate and close relations is a fourth one, put forward especially


Literature and Moral Theory

in feminist ethics (Carol Gilligan 1982; Virginia Held 2006; Nel Noddings 1984; Michael Slote 2007; for discussion see also Wolf 1992). Taken together the recent discussions have provided room for emotions in discussions on normative and meta-ethical questions as well as moral psychology, but their role, especially in the first two, is anything but straightforward.

1.2.7  The incommensurability of good things One of the central themes in Martha Nussbaum’s writings on Greek tragedy (1986) is how the genre of tragedy puts forth the possibility of tragic conflict between different sets of values, which make equally valid claims on moral action. This is a moral possibility which modern moral philosophy has downplayed, hosting the belief or hope that some rational procedure will once and for all rid us of such conflict, perhaps not freeing us from tragic loss but freeing us of the moral burden connected to making apparently irresolvable decisions. The idea that there must be a highest principle or an order of principles which will guide us past the possibility of unavoidable guilt is one of the forces behind the two great moral theories of modernity: deontology and consequentialism. The monistic form of these types of theories, the attempt to formulate a theoretical hierarchy with one highest principle or value, can be seen as a way of safeguarding the rationality of moral deliberation. As Ruth Barcan Marcus rhetorically puts it, “Quite apart from the unreasonableness of the belief that we can arrive ultimately at a single moral principle, such proposed single principles have played a major role in moral philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative and various versions of the principle of utility being primary examples” (1980: 125). In late twentieth century moral philosophy the idea that different values or norms or different aspects of a concrete situation pose distinct, irreducible demands has gained new attention. The claim is that the variety of moral demands or moral values cannot and need not be organized under a master principle. Among the defenders of the incommensurability of morally central values we find—beside Nussbaum and Marcus—for example, Bernard Williams (1981, 1985) and Michael Stocker (1990). Nussbaum notes that what she calls the “non-commensurability” of values involves two different issues: “. . . one of qualitative distinctness and one of separateness. The Aristotelian Agent understands work and love to be both of intrinsic value, and distinct in quality. But she also thinks of her children— however much like one another they may be in quality (let’s suppose that they

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


are identical twins)—as each a separate life demanding separate care” (1999: 183). Conflicts of value can occur between qualitatively different goods because they are different while equally valuable, as well as between distinct people or distinct goods of the same kind because they are each as valuable as the other. This is important to note as a reminder of the consideration (also noted by Marcus 1980: 125) that conflicts of value and moral dilemmas do not require a pluralism of binding or ultimate values, as, for example, two equally binding promises may come into conflict due to unhappy circumstances. We may consider such a case as one of incommensurability, due to separateness, as there is not necessarily any straightforward way of weighing the respective claims against each other. I would further like to distinguish between two varieties of incommensurability, which we may here call clean incommensurability and tragic incommensurability. Clean incommensurability is the position that there can be several distinct values or valuable things which may, in a concrete situation, make equal claims on our actions, but that such conflict of values is, from a moral point of view, practically resolvable through the proper use of judgment. In this view it is possible to walk out of such a situation with a clear conscience although the conflict is irresolvable with reference to a higher value or a hierarchy of values. The cleanness can be understood as a consequence of the necessity of the decision. If ought implies can, then two mutually exclusive alternatives cannot be simultaneously compulsory. There are situations where all demands cannot be met, but this does not automatically make meeting some demands rather than others morally problematic. Not being able to meet all demands may be lamentable as such but it is not a moral fault. When a right or good decision is made there is no reason for moral accusations or guilt. Rightness thus both makes for good and is purifying. This alternative acknowledges the possibility of distinct, incommensurable values and distinct, incommensurable things (or persons) that are carriers of value, but understands the incommensurability as a practical challenge to moral judgment and agency rather than as a profound problem at the foundations of morality. Tragic incommensurability again is the position that there are such conflicts which are not resolvable, or which may be practically resolved, but leave a residue of moral guilt and responsibility. Nussbaum’s discussions on tragedy as well as her discussions on the novel suggest moral incommensurability of the tragic kind. Moral purity is impossible in the human world. This is the message of her discussion of The Golden Bowl, where Maggie Verver’s moral development takes


Literature and Moral Theory

a significant turn through her insight that the efforts to be morally pure and innocent have led her to irresponsible and irresponsive behavior toward the people who are closest to her: . . . this novel works out a secular analogue of the idea of original sin by showing a human being’s relation to value in the world to be, fundamentally and of contingent necessity, one of imperfect fidelity and therefore of guilt; by showing us ourselves as precious, valuing beings who, under the strains imposed by the intertwining of our routes to value in the world, become cracked and flawed. Guilt toward value is here, if not literally a priori, still a feature of our humanness which attaches to us as a structural feature of our situation in nature and in the family, prior to the specific choices and failures that we enter upon in a particular life. Nussbaum 1990: 133

Accepting this scenario of “original sin,” of the unavoidability of guilt in human interactions, is presented here as morally superior to the effort to remain morally pure. Purity, according to this perspective, is only cosmetic, naïve, or dishonest. In Murdochian terms the acceptance of guilt is a result of the exercise of moral imagination and attention, of seeing the reality of the other human being who suffers by your unavoidable actions, while the wish for purity is a self-preserving fantasy. With guilt comes responsibility and the need to compensate, if that is possible, and to repent if it is not. One way of facing incommensurability, as a moral challenge, is to think of the shortcoming in relation to some value as leaving a moral remnant of responsibility which is normative in the sense that it is expected to have some effect on one’s later action, attitudes, and sentiments. This is what in contemporary discussions on moral dilemmas is referred to as a moral “residue” (Marcus 1980: 121) or a case of “dirty hands” (Walzer 1973). The ideas of residues and dirty hands help to articulate the idea that a person may be morally obliged to compensate for or acknowledge suffering due to the consequences of his actions, even when he has made the morally better choice. In narrative literature, situations of moral choice or judgment are often presented within the perspective of an individual character over time, which makes the ideas of appropriate compensation and repentance more vivid than they often are in theoretical prose. It is notable in this context that several of the seminal contributions to current discussion on moral dilemmas (Greenspan 1983; Marcus 1980; Nussbaum 1986; and Walzer 1973) make extensive use of narrative literature to argue their cases. It could be suggested that, of the two

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


varieties of incommensurability discussed, tragic incommensurability is more dependent on the use of narrative literature, as it may be found more uncomfortable, from the point of view of moral theory, than the clean variety. Moral philosophy aims at ways of solving moral conflicts whereas literature is often content with describing possibilities, tensions, and difficulties. Thus an insoluble moral dilemma is more comfortably and helpfully treated by a literary work and by a philosophical discussion that makes use of literature. The theoretical mode of moral philosophy, treating moral situations as recurring self-enclosed events, makes it less suited than narrative literature for discussing the proper role of such events in a life. But it is precisely in the perspective of a life that moral guilt and regret, and the situation of standing before a choice between incommensurable alternatives, makes sense. The theoretical idea of a “moral residue,” left by a failure to meet one of two conflicting demands, is rhetorically much weaker than a literary treatment of approximately the same idea, where the personal significance of a moral dilemma and a subsequent moral failure are brought to the fore. Where academic moral philosophy as a genre searches for purity and lucidity, the novel—which need not pursue clear-cut philosophical points—has, arguably, more resources to deal with complexity, impurity, and guilt.

1.2.8  The broad conception of moral philosophy A central concern in late twentieth century moral philosophy has been the narrow scope of analytic moral philosophy. Modern moral philosophy has, above all, been concerned with different procedures for finding the right principles for moral action. An active broadening of this scope has taken place within a few decades, through explicit criticism of the narrowness perceived, as well as through constructive work with a broader outlook. Among the proponents of a broader conception of moral philosophy we find, from the 1950s on, Iris Murdoch, Elisabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Peter Winch. In the 1980s a broader conception of moral philosophy becomes a mainstream option, with works like Bernard William’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1984), Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self (1989), and Martha Nussbaum’s Fragility of Goodness (1986) and Love’s Knowledge (1990). The broadening is taking place at several levels. First, there has been dissatisfaction with a narrow focus on moral principles and action, and philosophers have argued for the importance of neglected aspects of morality such as character and the virtues, moral perception, judgment, and emotions.


Literature and Moral Theory

Second, there has been dissatisfaction with moral philosophy’s nearly exclusive concern with interpersonal conduct and attempts have been made to extend the scope of morality to include questions that have been considered to belong to philosophy of life rather than moral philosophy, such as “what is a good life?” or “how ought one to live?” Two distinct but complementary movements can be discerned behind this development. On the one hand the appearance of virtue ethics, emphasizing an all-round development of character, has blurred the line between virtues or aspects of virtues which are strictly moral in a modern sense and those which add to some other kind of human excellence. The recent emphasis on the moral significance of some less obviously moral virtues, such as perceptiveness, shows that a person may need to develop a broad range of human abilities in order to achieve moral excellence. On the other hand, it has been argued—for example, by MacIntyre (1984) and Taylor (1989)—that the demands of morality, narrowly conceived, are incomprehensible if not placed in a context of our tradition, our ways of living, who we are, and what we find profound and fundamentally important. The modern procedural approach to morality, the emphasis on the right above the good, has aimed at a morality which it is possible to embrace regardless of what fundamental evaluative commitments one happens to have, but it has at the same time done away with the framework of human life which makes moral commitments comprehensible. The common way of speaking about consequentialism as focused on the good and deontology as focused on the right tends to cover the fact that both types of theory aim at providing a moral procedure which requires as little as possible a substantial conception of the human good. In this sense both are concerned with the right and aim at being maximally neutral to different substantial pictures of a good human life. Discussions on the nature of the good life, which, for example in Aristotle’s work is a central topic, have been marginalized. Third, the dominant mode of moral philosophical argument and writing has been criticized as being too limited. Although philosophical argument is perfectly fine for many purposes, the argument goes, there are some tasks of moral philosophy which require the assistance of other forms of expression. It has been suggested throughout the ethics/literature discussion, most prominently by Nussbaum (1990) and Diamond (1991),4 that, rather than being the only or primary mode of expressing philosophically interesting thought on morality, the argumentative mode of academic moral philosophy should be seen as one mode among others, along with narrative literature.

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


A central part of the argument for a broadening of the scope of moral philosophy is the idea that morality is not a separate system of human functioning and that it is rendered incomprehensible, and ultimately either useless or harmful, when cut off from a broader context of human evaluations, goals, and orientations. The moral good is not disconnected from good in general and good in general is not disconnected from who and what we are and what we believe ourselves to be. The use of narrative literature in ethical discussions tends to blur the line between strictly moral concerns and questions concerning the philosophy of life. When reading literature we are invited to live with fictional characters, with their experiences, contexts, and outlooks. We interpret and assess the characters by their outlooks as well as their overt actions, and by their general values as well as their other-regarding attitudes. These features, among others, make narrative literature a natural companion to a broad conception of ethics.

1.2.9  The reality of the moral realm Although the ethics/literature discussion has, along with the neo-Aristotelian and particularist tendencies to which it is closely related, occasionally been seen as an opening for skeptic, anti-realist or non-cognitivist tendencies (e.g. Putnam 1983), there is reason to refute this picture at the outset. Although ethical discussions on literature often do not end in straightforward expressions of normative claims, but rather, and most importantly, in a novel description of the presented ethical scenario, this should not be interpreted as a refutation of normative knowledge or the reality of the moral realm. Rather, the contrary seems to be the case. The ethics/literature discussion shares a background assumption of contemporary particularism (as stated by McKeever and Ridge 2006: 14) “that nontrivial moral knowledge is possible and indeed that we have quite a bit of it,” which is visible also in the particularist pioneer John McDowell’s labeling of his work as “anti-anti-realist” (1998: viii). One of the leading ideas behind discussing narratives for the purpose of moral philosophy is that part of our moral understanding is not straightforwardly propositional. Even if there is a moral reality, its nature is not necessarily expressible in a series of true propositions (we may for example lack suitable words), but may sometimes be more accurately conveyed to us indirectly. It cannot be argued, but needs to be shown or pointed out, for example through


Literature and Moral Theory

narratives or examples. Moral knowledge and understanding are ascribed to persons who are at home in the moral realm and who are able to make morally relevant distinctions. Morality is, in this view, an existential space where we know our way about, in word and action. Whereas contemporary meta-ethical discussion is fashioning moral truth and moral knowledge on an analogy with non-moral truth and knowledge, the ethics/literature discussion seems to be more inclined toward a conception where the standard assumptions in analytic philosophy concerning truth and knowledge attribution are challenged (e.g. Crary 2007; Lovibond 1983; and Murdoch 1997). Morality is rendered a realm of knowledge, like other areas of life, through challenging our way of picturing knowledge in supposedly purely “factual” areas. Although philosophers who have contributed to the ethics/literature discussion do not share a specific position concerning questions of moral realism, noncognitivism, relativism, etc., they exhibit a significant agreement concerning the cognitive function of the moral and moral philosophical insights derived from reading and reflecting upon narrative literature. There is a kind of implicit reliance here on the reality of the phenomena reached at through moral philosophical thought. The ideas of moral vision or moral perception and of showing through the use of literature what cannot be spoken in argumentative prose—which are central for the ethics/literature discussion—assume a moral realm which is in some sense independent of the moral agent, that is, independently there to be seen. Murdoch, who is a central inspiration in the current ethics/literature discussion, underlines throughout her work that what is moral is an essential part of human reality, although her realism differs in significant ways from the realist discussion of current analytic meta-ethics (e.g. Shafer-Landau 2005), through its notion of human reality as essentially moral and normative in itself.5 Nussbaum follows Murdoch’s path, focusing on morality as a field of knowledge and reason. Although her early writings on both Greek tragedy and modern literature (1986, 1990) emphasize the moral significance of situationbound and personal considerations, she exhibits, throughout her work, a firm belief in a communal moral framework, which is based on knowledge of a real, shared human condition. The moral value and integrity of the individual person, the significance of perceptiveness and a sympathetic way of viewing people, pathos for social justice, etc., establish a liberal moral perspective which is not presented as optional, culturally specific and contingent, but rather as necessarily called for by our recognition of our common humanity.

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


Peter Winch’s (1972, 1987) discussions on narratives, though placed in his framework of moral philosophy which is both anti-theoretical and particularist, show an equally firm reliance on the reality of the moral realm. In a discussion about Melville’s Billy Budd (1972: 151–70) he focuses on the question of the universalizability of moral judgment. Here Captain Vere has to choose whether to convict the foretopman Billy Budd according to military law or to let him go with reference to the unhappy circumstances that led to his crime. Billy—a young man of “angelic character”—has been bullied aboard the ship and is finally falsely accused by his persecutor, the master-at-arms Claggart, for inciting the crew to mutiny. In a fit of distress and frustration, Budd strikes Claggart, who falls, hits his head and dies. Vere eventually “charges Budd before a summary court martial with the capital offence of striking his superior officer” (ibid.: 156), but he accompanies his charge with a speech which explicates his difficulty. Here he emphasizes that both his allegiance to military law and his compassion for Budd in this case are accompanied by genuine moral feeling, making the moral difficulty of his decision clear to his interlocutors. Winch argues that there is no universally valid solution to the captain’s situation. It is not merely a conflict between military law and morality, but a genuine moral dilemma. Vere’s solution to this dilemma must be his very own and be made according to his conscience, based on the values that he, on careful consideration, comes to regard as overriding. Further, his seriousness concerning alternative considerations shows a moral character and an exemplary judgment which deserve fundamental respect quite independently of how we would have judged in his place. Here the way the anti-universalist conclusion is reached is even more interesting than the conclusion itself. Winch and Melville establish, through the perspective of Vere, a communal moral space where a plurality of different considerations—duty, compassion, pity, “private conscience,” etc.—play their respective roles. The argument which leads up to Vere’s decision passes through a stage where the communal space of moral reasoning is enlarged, the different reasons for or against are made communally available and, above all, a communal realm of non-subjective morality is affirmed. Thus, rather than arguing a relativist position, Winch is moving around in, and strengthening, something that could be regarded as an objective moral reality, though one which allows for individual decisions. Not only in minor questions, but also—and perhaps especially—in fundamental questions of life and death, insofar as allegiance to fundamental


Literature and Moral Theory

values and a moral seriousness are displayed in the process that leads to the decision.6 Richard Rorty’s discussions on literature (1989) are interesting here, as he may be seen as giving ambiguous signals concerning the reality of the moral realm and the status of morality as an object of knowledge. On the one hand, he invites a relativist and anti-realist understanding of morality, through his emphasis on the contingency of language, society, and the social practices on which we base our beliefs about the world. On the other hand, when he comes to discuss literary works—Nabokov’s Lolita and Orwell’s 1984, books that are “about the ways in which particular sorts of people are cruel to other particular sorts of people” (ibid.: 141) and “which dramatize the conflict between duties to self and duties to others” (ibid.)—he finds a tone which is not at all far from equivalent discussions in a realist framework. Comparing Rorty’s and Nussbaum’s discussions reveals the same basic liberal worldview, the same emphasis on perceptiveness, an equal trust in our rational abilities to function and develop our moral capacities in this framework, and an equal trust in our ability to say things that are non-subjectively valid and meaningful in the moral realm. The anti-realist emphases of Rorty’s perspective are pushed to the background and interfere little with his orientation in the moral reality which is created inside the liberal framework. The question that is partly left open here is whether his considerations really have validity only within this framework, or whether they resonate, as Nussbaum (2000b) argues concerning her own liberal program, with a more widely applicable idea of our common humanity. In contemporary discussions on the ethical significance of literature, the modern reflectiveness, which in Bernard Williams’ (1985) account has destructive consequences for the possibility of moral knowledge, has only a partial effect on the philosopher’s ability to have faith in a shared, objective, knowable realm of moral reality. By reflectiveness, Williams means the tendency to put in question and try to go behind the very fundamental beliefs and practices that make our daily existence manageable; questioning truth, knowledge, and language alike. The reflectiveness of the ethics/literature discussion gives on the one hand more room for situational considerations and thus creates a space of individual resonance in morality. It also furthers a skepticism concerning the possibility of establishing some kind of extra-moral foundations for morality (e.g. Rorty’s relativism, and Nussbaum’s coherentist reflective equilibrium, which I will return to in Chapter 4.1). On the other hand, the reflectiveness which is at work in the ethics/literature

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


discussion does not seem here to affect the basic assumption of a non-subjective, reality-oriented moral philosophical inquiry that is pursued in a multitude of ways (e.g. in dialogue with narrative literature).

1.3  The literary turn and the Aristotelian revival If we examine the above taxonomy of features, describing the conception of ethics which is current in recent and contemporary discussions on ethics and literature, we find few features which are not central to or compatible with an Aristotelian or a neo-Aristotelian conception of ethics. In the light of such a description, the literary turn could be considered as a part of the broad neo-Aristotelian movement. This statement no doubt needs qualifying, but it is nevertheless worthy of closer examination. First we must take a glance at the conception of neo-Aristotelianism used here. Many philosophers in the analytic tradition have over the last three decades declared themselves Aristotelian or deeply sympathetic to his moral philosophy. In spite of this it must be noted that this neo-Aristotelianism is not strictly Aristotelian. Some of the points made in the name of neo-Aristotelianism are simply “Ancient” in general rather than specifically Aristotelian. The term neo-Greek has been used (e.g. Nussbaum 1999: 164) for these kinds of contributions. The endorsement of a broad conception of ethics and the criticism of the modern, narrower conception are prime examples of neo-Greek features. On the other hand, the term neo-Aristotelian has become something of a habitual label for those neo-Greek features which have been used in the late twentieth century criticism of Kantian and utilitarian positions. The term neo-Aristotelian has also been given narrower definitions, often with a polemical aim or to underline a distance to some features of another variety of neo-Aristotelianism. Nussbaum (1999: 169) excludes such thinkers as Bernard Williams and Philippa Foot from her category of neo-Aristotelians on the grounds that they do not give as strong a position to explicit theory and reason as an Aristotelian would, or, on Nussbaum’s reading of Aristotle, ought to. Christine Swanton (2003) again considers her pluralist version of virtue ethics as non-Aristotelian, although clearly continuous with the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethical discussion and explicitly inspired by Aristotle, whereas the virtue ethical theory of Rosalind Hursthouse (1999) is considered as Aristotelian due to the central role of eudaimonia in her virtue ethical position.


Literature and Moral Theory

These specifications are attempts to describe the map of philosophical positions with more precision. But, furthermore, they are also attempts to create a narrower definition of neo-Aristotelianism than what has become customary. Few modern thinkers, involved in contemporary questions of moral philosophy, are strictly Aristotelian. The concept of neo-Aristotelianism again has long since outgrown Aristotle and has many features of its own, most obviously the rejection of Aristotle’s misogyny and acceptance of slavery. What is commonly referred to as neo-Aristotelianism in contemporary moral philosophy is a broad range of positions which take Aristotle’s moral philosophy (both what is specifically his and what is his as well as more generally Ancient Greek) as a central inspiration, bringing forward virtues, perception, and judgment, issues concerning the good life and concerning moral development in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Anglo-American ethics. Without discarding the more selective ambitions of, for example, Swanton and Nussbaum above, I will here opt for this common broad usage. I do not wish to take part in the discussion of what is more properly Aristotelian and which uses of his work are natural developments of central aspects of it and which are not. Neo-Aristotelianism is thus used as an overarching label for a number of distinct but related views, tied together by family resemblance rather than by a common essence. On the whole, current neo-Aristotelianism includes a broad range of efforts to adapt ideas found in the work of Aristotle to a modern context. Naturally, the adaptation will bring many modern assumptions to bear on the original ideas. But it is also worth noting that the Aristotelian revival has substantially managed to change or remove, in certain contexts, some predominantly modern ideas of what moral philosophy can and ought to be. To illustrate this point, and how the development of neo-Aristotelianism in recent decades could have been different, we can consider a note on virtues by G. H. von Wright, published in 1963, well before the virtue ethical movement and the neo-Aristotelian revival had seriously got started. What von Wright here finds problematic is that the broad conception of virtue in Aristotle’s work seems unsuitable for a modern context of moral philosophy: When, however, we call courage, temperance, generosity, or justice virtues, we are using the word ‘virtue’ very differently from the meaning of arete, which refers to excellence of its kind. To see this clearly is, I think, of some importance. Aristotle, I would suggest, did not see quite clearly at this point. He was misled by the peculiarities of the Greek language into thinking that those features of human character, which are called virtues, are more closely similar than they

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


actually are to abilities and skills, in which a man can possess that which I have previously called technical goodness. von Wright 1963: 137

The distinction between virtues and “technical goodness” is, according to von Wright, that a virtue lacks a specific tie to a specific activity. “We attribute technical goodness or excellence to a man on the ground that he is good at some activity. But there is no specific activity at which, say, the courageous man must be good” (ibid.: 139). Through his differentiation of virtues proper from skills that relate to specific activities, von Wright is tacitly emphasizing a distinction which will support a narrow understanding of the virtues which corresponds to and preserves a modern narrow conception of morality. The distinction between a broad and a narrow conception of morality has been described in a variety of ways—for example, by Mackie (1977), Williams (1985), and Taylor (1989)—and the modern dominance of a narrow conception is implied in the broadening gesture of the ethics/literature discussion. Although the distinction that von Wright’s analysis upholds does not limit morality to action-guidance or to otherregarding considerations (as narrow conceptions frequently do), it does invite an interpretation of virtues which attempts to distinguish a narrow category of moral goodness (virtues) from a broad category of non-moral excellence. That Aristotle “did not see quite clearly” may just have to do with how he simply did not have a need to give special weight to a distinction that would support a separation of a narrow realm of moral excellence from other realms of excellence. Von Wright’s effort to provide grounding for the narrower conception of virtue proper could well have provided a starting point for a different modernization of virtue ethics than the one we have seen. Instead, the virtue ethical movement took off from the work of Philippa Foot (among others), who in an article in Virtues and Vices (2002) discusses von Wright’s attempt in a critical tone. She finds questionable almost every “break with the past” exhibited by von Wright’s standpoint, among these his way of making a distinction between virtues and skills. The major point of disagreement is von Wright’s overall intent: “By far the most radical break that von Wright makes with the past appears, however, not in his criticism of traditional theories but in his idea that a new definition of virtue is needed, and in an offering of a definition that excludes so many of the traditional virtues” (ibid.: 111).


Literature and Moral Theory

Foot’s own project has been to pioneer a return to a virtue ethical perspective which, though in many ways exhibiting breaks with Aristotle’s views, does not radically modernize the concept of virtue or the conception of ethics inherent in Aristotle’s moral philosophy. The demand for Aristotle’s philosophy in the twentieth century context has at least to some extent been a demand for an ethics which can deal with a broader range of questions about human life than the standard procedure of modern moral philosophy would allow. The contemporary readings of narrative literature for ethical purposes enter a context where virtue ethics has not followed the line of modernization suggested by von Wright, with his attempt to create a new definition for the concept of virtue. Instead it has been part of a broadening and rethinking of the scope of morals, which tends to leave the borders of the moral open towards other areas of life and language. In this context the blurry and suggestive borders between the moral and the non-moral, which is typical for literary narratives, need not be artificially accentuated in the ethical discussions on narrative. One could say that the narrative perspective strengthens Foot’s case against a modernization of virtue ethics by a narrowing of scope, as literature brings to the fore the ways in which characters’ narrowly moral excellences or failures are intimately related to their overall personalities, temperaments, interests, sensitivities and blind spots; a network of relations which may be overlooked if the starting point is a narrow, modern conception of morality.7 I will now briefly look at the alleged Aristotelianism of the features discussed in Chapter 2.2. The first four features, perception, moral imagination, particularity, and practical judgment, are all features which have been put forward in contemporary moral philosophy, above all by neo-Aristotelian philosophers. The importance of emotions in ethics (both as part of our moral make-up and as part of our moral ideal) and the idea of morality as a process of personal growth are in contemporary moral philosophy specifically noted by the virtue ethical movement. Cultivating the self, concerning goals, desires, and emotional reactions, is the central task of the virtues. Virtues are needed, especially for checking bad impulses or exaggerated impulses, but also for developing an appropriate love for what is good and beneficial for overall flourishing and happiness. A person who behaves perfectly virtuously but without the accompaniment of appropriate emotions is found morally lacking or odd from the virtue ethical perspective. Although the question of moral judgment is strongly represented even in non-Aristotelian (e.g. Kantian) philosophy, it acquires a specific flavor in the

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


neo-Aristotelian discussion through its close affiliation with moral perception and non-principled moral judgment. “Discernment rests with perception” is Nussbaum’s (1990: 66) central Aristotelian slogan. Through the particularity of perception we find that judgment is no general matter and that emphasis on the concrete instances of practical judgment will push us toward some degree of particularism. The incommensurability of values stands here as something of a special case. It is clear that Aristotle in The Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter NE) stresses the variety of the good things and how their goodness is not reducible to one kind (NE: I. 6). But although Aristotle could be seen as endorsing an incommensurability of the kind which is prominent in the modern discussion, there is still, in his conception, an overarching value which can perform the task of arbitrator between values. The concept of eudaimonia, translated as “happiness” or “flourishing,” which is the goal of human existence (NE: X. 6), can be regarded as a unifying principle, barring the way at least to tragic incommensurability. In the contemporary neo-Aristotelian discussion there is a certain divergence concerning how the plurality and the possible incommensurability of values is treated. Nussbaum (1990: 36; 1999: 198) and Williams (e.g. 1981: 71–82) make the incommensurability of values and ends into a central aspect of their neo-Aristotelian approaches, while others, like Foot, Baier, and MacIntyre, are accused by Nussbaum (1999: 198) of showing “little interest in the issue of plural ends” and, in the case of MacIntyre, of presenting conflicting views on this issue. Where Christine Swanton (2003) labels her pluralist account of the virtues non-Aristotelian, Rosalind Hursthouse’s (1999) eudaimonistic virtue ethics can be considered particularly Aristotelian. In spite of varying emphasis, a conception of ethical plurality of both ends and means is thoroughgoing in neo-Aristotelian moral philosophy and, arguably, a central reason for some philosophers today to adopt a neo-Aristotelian approach rather than a Kantian or utilitarian one. For Aristotle, the realm of the moral is a realm of rationality, but it is this in a way which aims at doing justice to what is specific to ethical thought. Besides being a return to a pluralist, multifaceted approach to morals, the neo-Aristotelian movement also approximates a return to an ethical outlook which lets the object determine what kind of investigation is suitable and which kind of knowledge is possible. Aristotle reminds us that the manner and precision of measurement ought to be matched to the thing that is measured, and uses here the metaphor of the leaden rule, used by the builders of Lesbos, which bends to the shape of the object it measures (NE: v. 10); an image used also by Nussbaum (1990: 70).


Literature and Moral Theory

All things are not equally measurable. But the adequate measurement which does not force the limits of the thing that is measured gives a proper ground for reliance. Now, turning to the relationship between neo-Aristotelianism and literature, there are a few further connections to establish. One way of making sense of the convergence between neo-Aristotelian features in contemporary moral philosophy and features of the ethics/literature discussion, is by noting that they are both reactions counter to the way moral philosophy has come to be pursued in the Anglo-American tradition during the twentieth century. Both exhibit a reaction against a specific kind of technicality and narrowness of philosophical discourse, and attempt to make moral philosophy more alive to real-life moral questions. Again, it is Martha Nussbaum who makes most explicitly the connection between narrative literature and Aristotelian moral philosophy. In Love’s Knowledge (1990) she argues that some of Henry James’ late novels provide an irreplaceable account of a moral perspective which is fundamentally Aristotelian. Among the central features uniting Aristotle and James, she mentions the non-commensurability of valuable things, the priority of perception, the ethical value of emotions, and the ethical relevance of uncontrolled happenings (ibid.: 35–44). Although the Aristotelian features of her readings of James are thoroughgoing, the exclusive connection she invites us to make has not passed without criticism. Jane Singleton (2006: 61–2)—while not questioning the moral relevance of James—finds Nussbaum’s claims concerning the alliance between Aristotle and James questionable on the grounds that his novels can (quite obviously) equally well be read as presenting ethical points which are non-Aristotelian. She argues this point by making a connection similar to Nussbaum’s between James’ novels and a Kantian moral outlook. The core of this argument is that a central moral contribution of the novels is to show examples of particular moral judgment. This view is in agreement with Nussbaum’s position. But moral judgment (though neglected by much of modern philosophy) is, as Singleton reminds us, not the exclusive property of the Aristotelian approach, but a central part of any rule-based moral outlook as well. General rules must be matched to the real-life situations in which they are called for, and thus particular moral judgment is needed. This, she notes, is well acknowledged by Kant himself. “. . . far from precluding our observation of the features of the particular case there is an in-eliminable element of judgment that is required for the application of the theory to the particular case” (ibid.: 71).

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


The question whether Kant has a substantial conception of practical judgment of a kind that would satisfy the neo-Aristotelians has been debated for as long as the neo-Aristotelians have been a force to reckon with in contemporary moral philosophy (for discussion see Blum 1994; Hursthouse 1999; Larmore 1987). What seems to be agreed upon is that Kant’s account leaves room for readings which gives considerable space for the practical judgment to function in a way which is not straightforwardly given by moral principles. Singleton (2006: 72–6) further argues that the connections established by Nussbaum between James and Aristotle as unique allies in putting forward the significance of imagination and the emotions in moral philosophy fail. First, because both imagination and emotions are equally central in a Kantian outlook and second, because literature, though certainly helpful for both Aristotelian and Kantian perspectives in putting forward these aspects of morality, is not necessary for either. There are a few points to be made in relation to Singleton’s criticism here. The first, which I will suggest without further argument, is that Nussbaum’s vision of an exclusive, intrinsic connection between Henry James and Aristotle is, indeed, rhetorically exaggerated and that a slightly different reading of either James or Aristotle, or a slightly different reading of, for example, Kant than what has been customary in much of modern moral philosophy, will make James as good an ally of the latter philosopher as of the former. Postulating an exclusive relationship between a philosopher and a writer (or a genre of writing), in the way Nussbaum does, is provocative if it suggests a kind of interpretive monopoly over the writer. But it may be useful to keep in mind the very strong rhetorical edge of her writings overall and see how this “exclusive” connection gives her discussion a clear outline and a provocative flavor, which have not failed to elicit interest. In fact there seems to be a great degree of agreement between Singleton and Nussbaum concerning what literature is supposed to do in moral philosophy. More specifically, Singleton agrees with Nussbaum on one of the central aspects of the role of literature in moral philosophy: to show particular cases of moral deliberation, character development, and judgment and to enlarge our moral imagination. The disagreement is thus not as much about the role of literature in moral philosophy as about how this role is understood in relation to the current theoretical frameworks of contemporary moral philosophy, and further, how these frameworks are understood. If the significance of particular judgment in a Kantian framework is emphasized, then narrative literature will perform there the very same task of alerting us to the complexity and importance of real-life


Literature and Moral Theory

moral perception and judgment. What ought on the other hand to be noticed is that Nussbaum (1990) is—contrary to what Singleton suggests—not arguing against a Kantian perspective (broadly conceived) and not arguing for a particularist stance. Singleton argues only with the Nussbaum of Love’s Knowledge and emphasizes the alleged exclusiveness of the pact between James and Aristotle, disregarding both Nussbaum’s sympathy for Kantian moral philosophy in Love’s Knowledge (e.g. 1990: 148–67)8 and her later emphasis on the affinity of Aristotelian and Kantian concerns in contemporary ethics (e.g. Nussbaum 1999). As has been noted in recent discussions on Kant, he does pay attention to virtues and moral judgment more than has been acknowledged in the context of twentieth century analytic moral philosophy, where Kant has often been exhibited as the master deontologist.9 It is beneficial to point out that practical judgment is an important issue even in rule-governed moral philosophical approaches, as it reminds us of the fact that virtues and practical judgment are not the private property of any specific theoretical standpoint. As Nussbaum (1999) emphasizes, there is a difference between virtue ethics and virtue theory, and many of those ethical theories which are not examples of virtue ethics do have a virtue theory—that is a theory of the nature and role of virtues in our moral lives. Singleton is basically right in her claim “. . . that both Kant and Aristotle can make use of works of narrative art but neither is dependent on these allies in the sense that both theories can be set out without narrative artworks” (2006: 66). There is no strict interdependence between either of the theoretical frameworks and narrative literature. But what this emphasis disregards is that there may be some kind of looser connection between Aristotelianism and narrative literature which is specifically interesting for the current context of moral philosophy. If we agree that the features in Chapter 1.2 are central for the neo-Aristotelian revival as well as for the ethics/literature discussion, while they are considerably less central in, for example, Kantian and consequentialist discussions, or discussions centered on rights, we already have good reason to ask why. Is this due to an inherent connection between the neo-Aristotelian outlook and the ethical implications of modern narrative literature, or have the contemporary discussions on these topics come up with similar points by chance, perhaps inspired to look in this direction by Nussbaum herself, among others? My view, as presented in this book, is that there is a special connection between the broad neo-Aristotelian outlook and the contemporary way of

A Literary Turn in a Neo-Aristotelian Framework


reading literature for moral philosophical purposes. This does not imply any claim on behalf of narrative literature overall or its use during earlier periods, as literature is and has been used in many ways and for multiple practical and theoretical purposes. Viewing the connection as exclusive is problematic in two ways: first because, as Singleton notes, it is quite possible to make interesting Kantian use of literary works (even in the contemporary context)10 and second, because the particularist tendency of the ethics/literature discussion has connotations which reach beyond the neo-Aristotelian framework. I will turn to the latter—in the form of particularist and anti-theoretical tendencies—in the following chapter.


Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory This chapter is dedicated to some implications of the literary turn which in different ways reach beyond the boundaries of the neo-Aristotelian movement discussed in Chapter 1. First I will discuss the contemporary moral particularism which is a central strand of the ethics/literature discussion. Second, I discuss the trend of anti-­ theory in late twentieth century and recent ethics which is aided by an ethical use of literature. Third, I discuss a question which was raised by the anti-­theoretical trend and which is contained in the challenge posed by the contemporary ethics/literature discussion to moral philosophy: what is theory supposed to be in Anglo-American moral philosophy?

2.1  The moral particularisms and narrative literature It is hardly surprising that many contemporary moral particularists find an intellectual companion in narrative fiction, as literature is, in the philosophical discussion overall, valued as a way of throwing light on moral judgment and the moral demands of particular situations. The term moral particularism has become the label for a range of late twentieth century criticisms of the role of generalization in moral philosophy.1 Moral particularists, in the broadest sense, are those who emphasize the moral significance of particular features of human situations over the significance of general moral rules or principles. This loose characterization of moral particularism has in later years been found insufficiently specific to mark a difference between particularist and non-­particularist perspectives in analytic moral philosophy and it has thus become standard in contemporary discussion to identify particularism with some more specific theoretical position. Jonathan Dancy’s particularism, based on what he calls a “holism of reasons,” offers this kind of framework, which is also technically specific enough to satisfy the


Literature and Moral Theory

theoretical requirements of analytic moral philosophy. But an important part of the particularist texts referred to in the particularism/generalism discussion does not exhibit these kinds of technical underpinnings, either because these texts have contributed to the discussion before it had reached the current level of technical specificity (e.g. McNaughton 1988), or because they follow a different ideal of how philosophical discussion should be pursued (e.g. Diamond 1991). This causes problems when one tries to describe the range of particularist positions available. It is widely agreed that particularism stands for many different things, but it is difficult to provide a fair categorization of the range of varieties. McKeever and Ridge (2006: 14–21) present a clarifying taxonomy of a range of particularisms within the Anglo-American discussion, but it is rather a taxonomy of what particularists might mean than a grouping of particularists according to what they do mean. The underlying charge is that many particularists should have been more concerned about a certain kind of philosophical detail than some of them hitherto have been. Although much of McKeever and Ridge’s discussion has application on a broader range of particularism than the names explicitly mentioned (e.g. John McDowell, Jonathan Dancy, Richard Holton, David McNaughton), it is worth noting that the discussions they address only cover a narrow slice of a broader turn to particularity in ethics, which reaches beyond the boundaries of the kind of analytic contributions they describe. Giving room for the suspicion that here, for once, the devil is not in the detail, but somewhere else, I will suggest a rougher taxonomy on a larger scale. Although it is certainly important that the philosophical grounds of different varieties of moral particularism are investigated, to make clear what kind of challenge particularism poses for the standard generalist assumptions of moral philosophy, I believe that the crucial battle here is between different attempts to define the bird’s-­eye view rather than between different ways of putting down the details. The central difference between generalists and particularists, overall, lies in their respective commitments to approach the questions of morality from the perspective of either generalizations or particularities. Considering the issue from this point of view it is only to be expected that, on the level of technical detail, some more moderate particularists seem to end up very close to some more moderate generalists. Coming from different directions they end up in the same area. Margaret Little (2000) is one of those who have formulated a conciliatory approach which attempts to accommodate the central insights of both sides. But the particularism/generalism distinction does not lie idle in this

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


borderline area.Although there may be great agreement concerning philosophical details between moderate particularists and generalists, the choice of being a “particularist” rather than a “generalist” signals a more fundamental uneasiness with the current theoretical culture in ethics, which is not shared by those making room for the particularity of situation and judgment within a generalist scheme. The rise of moral particularism has run parallel to the ethics/literature discussion, in time as well as in terms of central commitments. Both trends have been concerned with sketching out limits to the generalizability of morals and many philosophers have contributed to both movements. But in contemporary discussion, moral particularism comes in several varieties of which not all have the same need for, or make an equal use of, narrative literature. I will here distinguish three branches of (broadly) particularist discussion. First, there is the particularism/generalism discussion in contemporary analytic meta-­ethics, which covers the range of particularist positions explicitly treated by McKeever and Ridge. Second, there is a post-Wittgensteinian variety of particularism, following the work of Peter Winch, which is also prominent in the work of defenders of what has been called “the New Wittgenstein,”2 like Cora Diamond. Third, there is the particularist aspect in a range of contemporary neo-Aristotelian and virtue-­ethical work. All of these are interlinked, partly through their philosophical predecessors and partly through some philosophers who quite neatly fit in to more than one of the categories. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive taxonomy with each category clearly excluding the others, where each philosopher with particularist sympathies can be easily and unambiguously placed. The aim is a somewhat rougher categorization which above all serves to expose the interrelation of contemporary particularism and the ethics/literature discussion.

2.1.1  Meta-­ethical particularism Although all contemporary versions of moral particularism are indebted to the work of Aristotle and Wittgenstein, currently the most central discussion, which I here call meta-­ethical particularism, is one which has a life of its own, moving away from the overall concerns of its progenitors, to argue the specific case, roughly, that we should not consider general moral principles as part of the foundation of morals. Moral goodness and rightness do not depend on general principles or rules, but rather on a variety of situation-­bound considerations. As


Literature and Moral Theory

the initiators of this discussion we find above all John McDowell and Jonathan Dancy. However different they are from each other in their work, both of them admit the central influence of David Wiggins. A note on the label “meta-­ethical particularism” may be warranted to avoid misunderstandings. All forms of moral particularism have both meta-­ethical and normative implications. My category of meta-­ethical particularism is set apart from other varieties of particularism by its attempt to discuss the particularity of moral judgment as an explicit, theory-­oriented meta-­ethical subject. John McDowell’s articulation of a particularist position is explicitly indebted to Aristotle’s conception of morality and Wittgenstein’s discussion on rule-­ following.3 According to the procedure which is today more familiar due to the neo-Aristotelian trend, he sets out to question the idea that “the primary topic of ethics is the concept of right conduct, and the nature and justification of principles of behaviour” (1998: 50). Instead of these principles he sets out to sketch an outline of an ethics which starts from the conception of the virtuous person and, if needed, derives the idea of right action from there. The virtuous person is the one who has “a reliable sensitivity to a certain sort of requirements that situations impose on behaviour” (ibid.: 51). A kind person, for example, acts kindly when that is what the situation requires. The insights produced by this sensitivity are instances of knowledge, while the sensitivity itself “is, we might say, a sort of perceptual capacity” (ibid.: 51). According to a Socratic picture of the unity of the virtues, McDowell sees the particular virtues as aspects of a single sensitivity to situationally specific requirements. In this view “we use the concepts of the particular virtues to mark similarities and dissimilarities among the manifestations of a single sensitivity, which is what virtue, in general, is: an ability to recognize requirements that situations impose on one’s behaviour” (ibid.: 53). One of the problems this perspective encounters is a common conception of rationality in ethics, which requires that moral action, to be rational, must rely on more than an assumed perceptive skill or sensitivity. If we claim that virtue is knowledge, those who have this conception of rationality will want to know what the propositional content of this knowledge is. They will want to know the universal rule under which the virtuous person is doing the same thing each time he acts according to situation-­bound perception (ibid.: 57–8). This conception of rationality is, according to McDowell, no more than a prejudice. In the Aristotelian scheme even the best generalization concerning

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


how one should act only holds for the most part (ibid.: 58). There will always be situations where following the explicitly formulated rules that supposedly articulate one’s conception of virtue would strike one as wrong, “not necessarily because one had changed one’s mind; rather, one’s mind on the matter was not susceptible of capture in any universal formula” (ibid.). The prejudice is that for an action to be rational it “must be explicable in terms of being guided by a formulable universal principle” (ibid.). This prejudice is what Wittgenstein, in McDowell’s account, goes against in his discussion on following a rule (ibid.: 58–60). There is, in this view, no underlying mechanism to following a rule, no psychological mechanism which would guarantee a certain path, which would objectively count as “doing the same.” There is only human practice, what we collectively count as following the given rule or going astray. Those who insist on explicit rules in ethics claim to have something that the virtue ethicists lack: a rational grounding for their pattern of behavior. But the practice of following a rule is, just like the practices of virtuous sensitivity to requirements, dependent on a communality of human behavior, judgment and action, our practical ability to agree upon judgments of similarity and the like. The rationality of these practices cannot be anchored outside the human realm. This insight produces a kind of vertigo, but it is a vertigo we need to learn to deal with. We recoil from this vertigo into the idea that we are kept on the rails by our grasp of rules. This idea has a pair of twin components: first, the idea . . . that grasp of the rules is a psychological mechanism that (apart from mechanical failure, which is how we picture mistakes and so forth) guarantees that we stay in the straight and the narrow; and, second, the idea that the rails—what we engage our mental wheels with when we come to grasp the rules—are objectively there, in a way that transcends the “mere” sharing of forms of life (hence, for instance, Platonism about numbers). This composite is not the perception of a truth, but a consoling myth, elicited from us by our inability to endure the vertigo. McDowell 1998: 61

Rules and universal principles cannot give us any kind of guarantee; they cannot keep us “on the rails.” According to this highly Wittgensteinian picture, rules are not beyond our practices, guaranteeing their rationality. Rather, rule-­ following is one practice among others. McDowell attempts to show that the practices carrying sensitivity to situational requirements are no less rational or objective than those carrying rule-­following. Picturing them in that way is a


Literature and Moral Theory

misrepresentation springing from a peculiar conception of rationality. We should not be looking for something that is beyond our practices. “The cure for the vertigo, then, is to give up the idea that philosophical thought, about the sorts of practice in question, should be undertaken at some external standpoint, outside our immersion in our familiar forms of life” (ibid.: 63). Although still sketchy at this stage, McDowell offers a picture where particularism (although he does not use the term here) is not a haphazard anything-­goes morality, but one where the situation-­specific moral judgment is carried by complex human practices or forms of life. They may seem fragile indeed, but they are, it is argued, the only ground we have. I have placed McDowell here under the heading of meta-­ethical particularism because, especially here, in the meta-­ethical discussion, he is considered to be one of the initiators of the current particularist discussion. But due to his proximity to both Aristotle and Wittgenstein he is equally closely associable with both the Wittgensteinian particularism which I have discussed and the particularist aspect of contemporary neo-Aristotelianism. Jonathan Dancy, again, sets the tone and agenda for how particularism today is discussed in the meta-­ethical context. In the 1980s he wrote articles (e.g. Dancy 1981, 1983) that “to a considerable extent contain a more explicit statement, and to some extent a development, of McDowell’s work” (Kihlbom 2002: 8). In his later developments of his position, Dancy (1993, 2004) presents a more technical and systematic version of moral particularism; a variety most clearly adapted to the argumentative requirements of contemporary analytic meta-­ethics. In addition to making him the most frequently discussed particularist, the relative completeness of his position gives him a certain independence from the philosophical predecessors of contemporary particularist ethics. In his major statement Ethics Without Principles (2004), explicit reliance on Aristotle and Wittgenstein is nearly completely effaced. Although broadly criticized, Dancy’s account is currently considered one of the most central formulations (if not the most central formulation) of moral particularism.4 In Dancy’s version, moral particularism rests on what he calls a “holism in the theory of reasons” (1993: 60, 2004: 73). A “reason” here is a reason for (or against) action, a feature of the world which works as a pro or contra to a given action in a given situation. That a certain action would be a case of lying is a feature which is normally considered a reason not to perform the action. That the agent has blue shoelaces is usually regarded as neutral in this respect, providing neither a pro nor a contra, while the case that an action helps a friend

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


normally counts as a reason for this action. Thus different features of a situation can be good-­making, bad-­making or neutral. Dancy claims that features which provide reasons for or against action work holistically, which means that it is the combination of features present in a particular case which determines the moral valences (pro or contra) of each one of the features present. This means, in principle, that the blue shoelaces may in a concrete situation receive moral significance and telling a lie may gain positive valence or be neutral. Although such reversals of common moral valence of a certain feature may not be very frequent, it is central for Dancy’s position that we grant the possibility of such occurrences. This particularist stance is contrasted by Dancy (e.g. 1981, 2004) with the generalism of the twentieth century moral philosopher W. D. Ross. In this generalist model (Ross 1930) the moral goodness of a specific action is, just like in the particularist account, dependent on the specific circumstances of the action. In Ross’ account we have several “prima facie duties” or “conditional duties” (ibid.: 19) which may make conflicting claims on us in concrete situations and the individual duties may be overridden, all things considered, when we think about which course of action to take. We may for example have a duty not to lie, which in a specific situation is overridden by a duty to save someone’s life. Thus, roughly translated to a simple language of pros and cons, although there may be a constant moral minus attached to lying, this minus may in a real-­life situation be overridden by the greater plus of saving a life. But according to Ross’ picture, distinct features of a situation do (in Dancyan language) have a constant valence, working consequently as pluses or minuses, and always adding to or subtracting from the moral value of an action in the same way. Lying is always a wrong-­making feature, but a course of action which includes lying might in some situations be the right action, all things considered. In Dancy’s version of the particularist account, the right judgment and right action is truly particularistically determined. No calculation of general valences is possible as the valence of each feature is to be determined in the situation. Dancy does grant some room for general principles to work as rules of thumb, or features of situations to possess “default valences,” but these are not to be considered as fundamentally binding (Dancy 2004: 191). The advantage of Dancy’s position is that it sheds some light on the ground between particularism and generalism, for according to Dancy’s description of the position at least some particularists may turn out to be Rossian generalists.


Literature and Moral Theory

Some who claim to consider moral rightness as situation-­dependent and could thus be classified as particularists, do still have some idea of the constant moral valence of actions such as lying, killing, etc. The comparison between Ross and Dancy also shows how the distance between a generalist and a particularist position need not be very far. It may indeed depend on the tiny question of whether we think that the moral valence of any feature of a human situation, in principle, can be reversible or not. Dancy’s argumentative style and concerns are typical of contemporary analytic philosophy. More clearly than most particularists he argues against the generalist paradigm of analytic philosophy on its own terms. This creates a particularist/generalist dialogue within analytic meta-­ethics, where voices which do not fit this paradigm of discourse are easily ignored and where the resonance of the particularist ideas in a wider context of moral philosophy is neglected. But approaching particularism from this point of view may be problematic if one wants to obtain the most accurate possible view of the nature of moral particularism, or the philosophical differences between those who consider themselves either particularists or generalists. Formulating a theory of reasons to account for particularism is already a step which will seem odd to many of those who find interest in the particularism/generalism issue. Equating the difference between generalism and particularism with a difference concerning the reversibility of the moral valence of features which work as reasons may hide the initial difference between the positions. As I suggested at the outset, this initial difference is a difference of approach rather than a difference of detail, and even when technical detail may help to arbitrate between different approaches the technical differences cannot replace the original differences on a larger scale. Dancy’s writings on particularism have made way for a lively anti-­generalist discussion in analytic moral philosophy, but they have done so by steering the discussion in a direction where the broader resonance of McDowell’s contribution is to some extent effaced. One way of making our way back from the technical interests of current analytic particularism is by asking where narrative literature enters into all this. Arguably there is an important connection, although it may not be immediately apparent. Both McDowell and Dancy seem to be quite able to formulate their particularist conceptions of morality without any use of narrative. This has to do with what could be called the minimal nature of the meta-­ethical particularist discussion. It merely attempts to argue that accurate moral judgment is situation-­ bound in a way which resists valid normative generalization. The substantial

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


normative question of how to proceed to act morally is left open (although McDowell’s virtue ethical stance can be read as suggesting something like a normative view). This minimal nature of the program is fully acknowledged by Dancy and a remedy is suggested in the introduction to Ethics Without Principles (2004). Dancy here makes a reference to another way of going about the business of particularism. The one which he has not opted for is to “try to show that no suggested principles are anything like flexible enough to cover the ground and do the job we require of them” (ibid.: 2). This would be a case-­by-case project where particular instances of human moral deliberation would be considered to show the particularist nature of moral judgment. Such an inquiry would, he claims, show that principles play no role in adequate judgment: The book I have not written would really be an investigation of the subtleties of our moral thought and the actual complexities of life. The book I have written is about how to understand the way in which reasons work, and deals largely with theories about reasons rather than with life. As you can see I would like to have been able to write the other book, the one about life, but this one is all I could manage. Ibid.: 2

Although he does not state it explicitly it is clear that the first—and neglected— strategy is the one which would have use for narrative literature, portraying individual situations where principles do not cover the ground. But the use he envisages for this other strategy is basically the same as the one he makes for his theory of reasons: to show that moral principles are inadequate for accounting for the complexities of moral life. He appears here to consider its outcome as more or less identical to that of the more theoretical inquiry. But this does not do full justice to the difference. The other strategy has a great deal of potential for substantial and detailed normative considerations which are not touched upon by the theory-­of-reasons strategy. When it comes to the normative side of the particularist moral philosopher’s task, Dancy does grant, as an outcome of both inquiries, a possible alteration in our real-­life moral deliberation. “. . . if you come to be persuaded of the truth of particularism, and even if you only recognize some strength in particularist arguments of the sort I will be putting forward, you will come to make your own moral decisions in rather different ways from the ones you have used in the past” (ibid.: 2).


Literature and Moral Theory

There is a normative edge to his particularism, but it is one which leaves much unsaid, precisely because his discussion remains within the domain of analytic meta-­ethical theory. In the next branch of particularism I will discuss, the case-­ by-case method and the normative aspect of particularism come together in a way which shows that the particularist need not be silent about the normative substance of our moral judgments.

2.1.2  Post-Wittgensteinian particularism The second branch of moral particularists which I will discuss here is an explicitly post-Wittgensteinian one pioneered by Peter Winch and carried further by, among others, Raimond Gaita, H. O. Mounce, Ilham Dilman, D. Z. Phillips, and Cora Diamond.5 These all share the skeptical attitude of the meta-­ethical particularists toward moral theories which aim at codifying right and wrong, but their skepticism is wider in scope as they also eschew systematic theorizing at the meta-­ethical level. Creating a holistic theory of moral reasons like Jonathan Dancy’s is as foreign to these philosophers as creating a utilitarian theory of right and wrong. Diamond (1991: 373) leans on the much-­quoted passage from Iris Murdoch which warns against the normative implications of any delimitation of the scope of ethics: Here it is especially important to attend to the initial delineation of the field of study, observing where and in what way moral judgments may be involved, and then to consider the relations between the selected phenomena and the philosophical technique used to describe them. A narrow or partial selection of phenomena may suggest certain particular techniques which will in turn seem to lend support to that particular selection; and then a circle is formed out of which it may be hard to break. Murdoch 1997: 766

In Murdoch’s discussion this point is made in the first place to point out the importance of a frequent return to “an initial survey of ‘the moral’,” thus, of not letting the fruit of the theoretical discussion become more real than the original subject matter, as any theoretical discussion is colored by the interests, conceptions, and attitudes of its initial proponents. In Diamond’s reading the caution against theoretical attempts to delimit the subject matter grows even stronger. We ought to abandon the ideal of trying to achieve even a rough general conception of ethics, because “no one knows what the subject is; most widely agreed accounts of it depend on suppositions that are

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


not obvious and that reflect particular evaluations and views of the world, of human nature, and of what it is to speak, think, write or read about the world” (Diamond 1991: 380). Moral philosophers should not deal with comprehensive generalizations, neither normative nor meta-­ethical. Indeed, Diamond would have further cautions against the very idea of separating a normative and a meta-­ethical level of moral philosophical inquiry, as these two “levels” of inquiry are so fundamentally intertwined. Although I sympathize with this insight, I do find the labels “meta-­ethical” and “normative” useful for pointing at different aspects of moral philosophical inquiry, also in the Wittgensteinian philosophers’ perspective. I will thus use them here, without assuming that they constitute strictly separable domains. Among the post-Wittgensteinians, Diamond is not alone in having the view here described. Cautious of making substantial theoretical claims, these philosophers find the proper role for the moral philosopher in the investigation of particular examples. “All we can do, I am arguing, is to look at particular examples and see what we do want to say about them; there are no general rules which can determine in advance what we must say about them” (Winch 1972: 182). These particular examples are frequently stories of different kinds; stories invented for the current purpose, parts of lived experience or literary examples. Winch discusses biblical examples like the parable of the Good Samaritan and literary works like Billy Budd. Diamond discusses novels by James, Dickens, Coetzee, and others, as well as poems by Ted Hughes among others. Raimond Gaita for his part, in addition to his use of literature, makes use of his experience of living with animals, including cats, dogs, and birds, in his book The Philosopher’s Dog (2003), to argue (among other things) for a specific approach to animals, particularly focusing on what respecting their dignity means. While the meta-­ethical discussion on particularism, discussed above, moves safely in the sphere of meta-­ethics, it becomes clearer in the Wittgensteinian discussions that moral particularism has normative as well as meta-­ethical motivations and implications. The point of moral philosophical inquiry is not to pin down morality as such, but to say, within morality, what we can and will and should say about good and bad or right and wrong in a variety of particular human situations. Thus, arguably, the typical Wittgensteinian ethical inquiry moves squarely in the normative field. This kind of inquiry opens up questions like: What ought this individual do here? How could and ought this person think about this situation? These are


Literature and Moral Theory

questions in the normative domain, posed by people who want guidance or who need to think more clearly, to gain practical moral understanding. Of course, normativity here has little to do with explicit general or universal norms or principles. The normative level is the level of moral philosophical judgment and evaluation. What is important to note, though, is that the normative ethical discussions of particularists are, in a sense, as distinct from real-­life moral judgment and evaluation as are the general moral theories of consequentialists and deontologists. They are philosophical discussions that move at a certain distance from real-­life situations and deliberations. Someone—for example, a novelist—has told a story and someone else—for example, a philosopher—has brought it up in an essay or a conversation. We can use it to mirror our lives, but it is not a slice of real life.7 Now, what I say about the normativity of the Wittgensteinian discussion may seem controversial if one heeds, for example, Peter Winch’s emphasis that philosophy cannot tell us what to do: “. . . philosophy can no more show a man what he should attach importance to than geometry can show a man where he should stand” (Winch 1972: 191). This note can be read as part of a rebuttal of normativity in moral philosophy. This is also the line taken by D. Z. Phillips (1999: 131–55), who criticizes Martha Nussbaum (among others) for the way that she, in spite of laudable particularizing efforts in her early work, attempts to elicit normative conclusions from her discussions on literature. He considers the normative aspect of Nussbaum’s discussions as compromising the openness of her moral philosophical inquiry and suggests instead a contemplative philosophy which does not take normative stands.8 But normative inquiry in moral philosophy is not about compiling a manual for right conduct. It need not aim at authoritative action guidance and it need not be moralistic in the sense that Phillips eschews. Normative ethics investigates good, bad, and evil in human life and action to improve our understanding of it. This understanding can in turn be considered beneficial and even necessary for our ability to lead a moral life. Only some varieties of normative ethics attempt to produce an authoritative decision procedure.9 The normative work of the Wittgensteinian particularists is clearly not of this kind, but aims rather at being open-­ended, providing guidance by means of narratives and situation-­bound considerations in relation to particular cases, around which we can develop our moral reflection, as well as our moral action. It proceeds as a form of casuistry, but, like any casuistry, it relies on parallels we can draw between different cases.

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


The proponents of the Wittgensteinian variety of particularism may, from the point of view of analytic philosophy, seem to simplify some of the issues involved in the meta-­ethical particularist discussion. They do not, for instance, believe that the particularist stance needs to be established by a detailed theoretical grounding of its claims and thus need not try to offer such grounding for their own account. But it is important to note that they are taking the particularist stance more as an overall perspective than as a question to be settled through detailed theoretical scrutiny of the fundamental structure of morality. Indeed, such scrutiny is in this view ruled out as idle and misguided, heeding the roughly Wittgensteinian view that we should not be looking behind our practices, but at them, for philosophical guidance. The Wittgensteinian perspective, thus, produces a great deal of scrutiny in its own right, but it is a scrutiny of a different kind, paying attention to situational considerations, undue generalizations and exceptions to commonly-­held views. The evidence for its fruitfulness in moral philosophy is above all found through case studies which discuss the moral implication of narrated examples. Partly due to the normative nature of the Wittgensteinian particularists’ effort, they gain a specific kind of depth when discussing examples. The priority of the particular is not something which is to be argued by showing the incoherence of generalizing theoretical positions but by showing the particular moral complexity of specific cases. This is where the Wittgensteinian particularists are at their strongest. The absence of a need to come up with literary readings which support a certain general theoretical commitment opens up a scope for an interesting plurality in the outcome. This is moral philosophy unmediated, although surely not untouched, by normative theoretical commitment. Though the discussions frequently contain a generalizable edge they do not present it as part of a theory, but rather as a remark against some general standpoint found in moral philosophy. As examples of this we find Diamond’s brief but lively discussion of how Dickens very picturesquely represents the perspective of a child, as in the following scene from Great Expectations: “I remember Mr. Hubble as a tough and high-­shouldered old man, of a sawdusty fragrance, with his legs extraordinarily wide apart: so that in my short days I always saw some miles of open country between them when I met him coming up the lane” (Dickens, quoted in Diamond 1991: 299). This passage is used by Diamond to argue for the legitimacy of non-­ argumentative persuasion in moral philosophy, for example through the showing


Literature and Moral Theory

of a new perspective. The perspective of the child, as imagined by Dickens, which is thus shown to us in a glimpse, will suggest some legitimate moral claims on us which could not be plainly argued. Dickens’ work gives a picture of how the claims of a child can be neglected, but the moral purpose of these kinds of passages is not exhausted by how they picture such obvious moral claims. Diamond suggests that “. . . such passages in Dickens show us what it is to attend to a child so; Dickens, that is, provides paradigms of a sort of attention” (ibid.: 299). Another way of proceeding, open to the Wittgensteinian philosopher, is the use of what Phillips calls “interventions in ethics,” a kind of commentary which aims at criticizing and dissolving the generalizing tendencies in ethical thought. Discussions on narratives can sometimes work as kinds of interventions, but narratives are not necessary for this purpose. Interventions are, according to Phillips (1992: viii), “often needed because of our deep rooted tendency to theorize in ethics.” Thus among Phillips’ targets of philosophical criticism we find, in addition to avowed theorists, even his post-Wittgensteinian colleagues Peter Winch, Cora Diamond, and Ilham Dilman, and to some extent even Phillips himself is guilty of this charge, as none of us is free from the pernicious tendency to theorize and generalize. Moral philosophy, for Phillips, is thus a constant fight against generalization at every level of thought. Rather than making generalizations, philosophers should be “struggling with conceptual puzzlement and, attempting to provide conceptual clarification and elucidation” (ibid.: xiv). Generalizing theory will, in this account, add to rather than alleviate puzzlement. Not surprisingly, the Wittgensteinan particularists’ toolkit reveals a potential weakness in relation to theoretical commitments. The repudiation of normative generalization as the central aim of moral philosophy—both in the form of principle and in the form of theory—is helpful to the extent that ethical thought can sometimes be better pursued without appeal to generalization. What is clear from the Wittgensteinian discussions on narrative literature is that many substantial and interesting things about good and bad or right and wrong in human situations can be said without explicit appeal to generality or universality. Indeed it is important, when doing philosophy, to be constantly aware of the obtuseness and simplification that often enter with generalization. But when it comes to meta-­ethical issues, Phillips’ global repudiation of generality (which is often copied in post-Wittgensteinian discussions on ethics) opens up a more problematic perspective. It is difficult to see how any coherent

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


philosophical approach to morality could avoid theoretical or systematically generalizing commitments at a meta-­ethical level. As argued, these particularists accept a number of more or less specific ideas about the nature of moral thought and moral philosophy which delimit the field of inquiry and give directions for further inquiry. They share, in spite of differences, a picture of moral philosophy which clearly sets them apart from most other contemporary philosophers. Although they are not theory-­builders, their common corpus of shared commitments concerning the nature of morality and moral language adds up to something highly reminiscent of a meta-­ethical theory. Sympathetic as they are to abandoning the distinction between normative ethics and meta-­ethics, their “theoretical” commitments leak inevitably into the treatment of normative questions. Let us now take a closer look at these commitments. First, according to the Wittgensteinians, moral judgment must be considered as situation-­bound. Thus far they agree with the meta-­ethical particularists. Second, moral judgment is person-­bound; a claim which can be considered as an aspect of the former, but which is fleshed out by the Wittgensteinian particularists in discussions where the identity of the agent is decisive for the rightness of a specific decision. We find a good example of this in Winch’s discussion of Melville’s Billy Budd (briefly discussed in Chapter  1.2.9), where Captain Vere is facing the moral dilemma of whether to judge Billy Budd’s offence according to military code or according to private conscience. Vere convicts him according to military code, as guilty, but: “. . . some-­body else in such a situation, considering those very same arguments, might conclude that the moral possibilities were different for him without necessarily making any further judgment about what the corresponding possibilities were for Vere or for anybody else and without being committed to any such further judgment” (Winch 1972: 169). Agreement with (Dancyan) meta-­ethical particularists ought also to be reached here, as Vere’s identity is a variable among others which may alter the moral valences of other reasons. Third, narratives and discussions about narratives are good, if not indispensable, ways of dealing with moral questions. Fourth, the subject matter of ethics ought not to be defined (as argued above). To avoid the impact of distorting normative generalizations on our conception of the field of ethics we should be cautious with generalizing definitions. The subject matter is revealed through situation-­bound discussions. Fifth, moral generalizations, especially theoretical ones, are likely to be an obstacle to the sound working of moral perception and judgment.


Literature and Moral Theory

This is again a point which is likely to be shared by at least some meta-­ethical colleagues. A sixth common feature is the Wittgensteinian idea, roughly, that philosophy above all wrestles with language.10 Here even Phillips—the most emphatically anti-­generalist member of the group—admits room for a general commitment: “What is general in ethics is struggling with conceptual puzzlement, and attempting to provide conceptual clarification and elucidation. This concern is general insofar as it is not personal. These puzzles may occur for anyone, since they arise from characteristic ways in which people speak of moral considerations” (Phillips 1992: xiv). How should this family of views concerning a field of philosophical investigation be considered? One possibility would be to describe their common views as an approach rather than a theoretical position (or series of positions). But the pieces of this approach are put quite firmly in place and related to each other in a way reminiscent of the description of a theory. They further quite explicitly argue the superiority of this approach, with all that belongs to it, in comparison to other approaches. It is not merely like approaching the matter from a certain direction. Behind the approach to ethics which is approved of by these Wittgensteinian philosophers there is a very specific meta-­ethical and meta-­philosophical structure, which to some extent does what, for example, Phillips thinks ought not to be done, namely specifying the field and the manner of legitimate and interesting moral philosophical inquiry. I want to point this out to highlight the problems one is likely to encounter if one is tempted to think that this path to moral philosophy is a path out of moral and meta-­ethical preconceptions and out of “theory” in a broad sense. Any philosophical inquiry carries with it a range of general conceptions and preconceptions concerning the object of inquiry. The best philosophical work is often done in a sensitive and creative dialogue with its own preconceptions. Phillips’ global refusal of generality at any level of ethical inquiry is more than anything bound to hide this necessary presence in his philosophical work, and particularist philosophy done in his spirit is likely to be found obtuse and dogmatic, rather than illuminating by others who do not share his paradigm. Now, much of what there is to say about the problems of refusing and denying generality applies to a very high degree to Phillips, with some qualifications to Winch and with cautions to Diamond. This is important to point out because a somewhat dogmatic anti-­generalism often, misleadingly, dominates the public face of post-Wittgensteinian ethics. Although the features listed as common to

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


these philosophers above do all apply to Diamond’s work, her writings, if carefully read, do not necessarily invite the kinds of rough, principled dismissal of more theoretical kinds of work, that for example Martha Nussbaum (2003) has considered her to propose.11 Whatever it is that these types of Wittgensteinians as a group are doing, Diamond is doing it with great awareness of the perpetual riskiness of philosophy. She does not deal in universal recommendations to repudiate theory, but scrutinizes the arguments of her philosophical opponents in a personal tone, ranging from mockery in “Anything but Argument” (1991) to something almost solemn in “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” (2008). She often manages to point at large and important areas of the question at hand that seem to be squarely neglected by the philosopher she comments on: she often truly transforms the discussions she participates in. This is, I believe, the central reason why her actually rather slim body of published work on ethics and literature is so much read and admired by many, not only in her native Wittgensteinian context, but also in the broader ethics/literature discussion. I will take a brief closer look here at her discussion about J. M. Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures, partly to show how this approach to philosophy works, but also because her way of using literature here can be seen as something of an ideal paradigm of how literature is put to work in contemporary moral philosophy. Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures tell the story about a fictive writer, Elisabeth Costello, who comes to the fictional Appleton College to give two invited lectures on the subject of our relationship to animals. Costello’s lectures are, then, embedded in Coetzee’s lectures. In the small volume The Lives of Animals (Coetzee 2001) these lectures are published with commentaries by Amy Gutmann, Peter Singer, Wendy Doniger, Barbara Smuts, and Marjorie Garber. Diamond comments on the volume in the article “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy” which again is republished in the volume Philosophy and Animal Life, with commentaries to it by Stanley Cavell, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolfe. There is a lot to be said about this chain of texts, but I will keep to essentials here and point out a few prominent aspects of Diamond’s disagreement with the reception of the lectures. First, Diamond notes that not one of the commentators to Coetzee’s text makes anything much of the fact that it is a story about a woman, Costello, who is deeply troubled. The story is plainly seen as a vehicle of argument and the


Literature and Moral Theory

arguments are more or less taken to be the ones explicitly presented in Costello’s lecture. Second, attending to Costello’s experience and her existential anguish will give a much better view of the difficulties of the questions at hand than any philosophical argument into which Costello might translate her trouble. (The commentators indeed have not quite perceived that Costello does not fully engage in argument; she cannot do that, the differences between her and her opponents are too fundamental.) Third, what thus set Costello apart from her audience are not her opinions or convictions concerning the moral aspects of killing and eating animals. It is rather the rawness of her exposure to what happens to animals, how their fate hits her as a fellow mortal, as another animal. It is not merely about pity and moral outrage, but rather horror at the fact. Fourth, we should be able to ponder this atypical and yet well conceivable perspective as morally and philosophically important in its own right, as deeply relevant for how we conceptualize the question of what we owe to animals. This is the point of looking at a literary text like Coetzee’s: that our preconceptions of what the question is about may need to be reorganized. The literary form does not here provide us with a quasi argument for or against a pre-­given position, but rather a chance to revise our understanding of what is at stake. Fifth, Costello’s specific anguish concerning what we do to animals points further to a larger phenomenon, beyond moral philosophy: that something about reality—the loss of a person, the slaughtering of animals, the beauty of a bird singing—can escape our comprehension, my comprehension, in a very individual way: “This cannot be. This is too much.” All the while another person may be quite unmoved by the very same thing. This, for Diamond, is “the difficulty of reality.” Sixth, any philosophical argument, no matter how useful, is likely to distort such fundamental experiences of impossibility. This, for Diamond, is “the difficulty of philosophy”: the fact that philosophy always involves a deflection (a term borrowed from Stanley Cavell), a transformation, of urgent, humanely significant issues into philosophical arguments. What Diamond highlights here is how Coetzee is taking us to places where most philosophers seem unable to follow. She points at the potential of narrative to go beyond belief and argument to a human predicament which makes argumentation quite insufficient, or even impossible, or meaningless. The horror

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


and incomprehension of Costello are not emotional adjuncts to opinion but something more fundamental. What is paradigmatic about this movement, regarding the ethics/literature discussion overall, is how literature is utilized as an independent vehicle of thought, putting forward a point of view, an insight, which is persistently out of reach, at least in full, from the perspective of the more traditionally philosophical realm of claims, arguments, and theories. What is fundamental about Costello is not what she could argue, but rather what it means, what it can be, to see things her way. We get to look at something that is not philosophy but that will, or should, transform the way we place our words and formulate our disagreements within philosophy. We see this something in Costello, and we see also, through Coetzee’s and Diamond’s efforts, “a paradigm of a sort of attention” (Diamond 1991: 299), of looking—as philosophers and human beings—beyond argument.

2.1.3  Neo-Aristotelian particularism As argued in Chapter  1, the neo-Aristotelian movement of the late twentieth century has played an important role in putting forward the significance of particular features of morally relevant situations and is complexly intertwined with the ethics/literature discussion in recent moral philosophy. Whether this makes neo-Aristotelians overall a part of the current particularist trend depends on the point of view from which one sets out to consider the question. If particularism is conceived as broadly as I present it above in 2.1, the answer is yes. On the other hand, this requires some qualification, as moral particularism is frequently presented as a narrower doctrine, excluding all kinds of generalization in the normative domain. The proper role and legitimacy of general principles in ethics is one of the issues which divide contemporary neo-Aristotelians. Some neo-Aristotelians, most prominently McDowell, are considered as defenders of an explicitly particularist position. Some neo-Aristotelians, like Nussbaum, defend a position which gives a strong role to both generalizing theory and general principles, while simultaneously underlining the importance of particular situations. Others again, who present an elaborate virtue ethical account, may find the label of moral particularism to be beside the point of what they are doing. Generality is found in the virtues and their application. That the application requires sensitivity toward the concrete situation in which a virtue comes to apply is


Literature and Moral Theory

evident. Whether we call this particularism is to some extent a matter of taste, though likely to give misleading associations. The question of generalism versus particularism of moral principles does not arise in a virtue-­centered approach quite in the same way as in the case of rule-­ oriented theories, as moral principles for action are not as central a part of the make-­up of human morality from the point of view of virtue ethics. From a strongly virtue- (or character-) centered perspective, the whole question of particularism versus generalism is biased toward a rule- and action-­centered picture of morality. Because of this it is reasonable for neo-Aristotelian or virtue-­ oriented philosophers not to engage in the controversy between particularist and generalist conceptions of moral thought. In discussions on particularism, again, virtue-­ethics is grouped as compatible with particularism (Kihlbom 2002: 133) and, at least in some varieties, is incompatible with generalism (McKeever and Ridge 2006: 10–11). Thus, the meta/ethical issue of particularism versus generalism plays no prominent role in contemporary virtue ethics, while those engaged in particularist discussion acknowledge affinities between the particularists’ and the virtue-­ethicists’ perspectives on morality. The question about the proper role of particularity in neo-Aristotelian moral philosophy can be framed in two ways. It can either be seen as a question about the proper role of particularity in Aristotle’s moral philosophy12 or as a question of the proper role of particularity in a neo-Aristotelian outlook. Although the former is of exegetical interest it is not my concern here. A proper understanding of the role of particularity in Aristotle’s work is of interest for the contemporary issue only to the extent that it can work as an exemplar of understanding the relationship between particularity and generality. Thus it is the latter issue—the proper role of particularity in contemporary neo-Aristotelianism—which is here at stake. As the neo-Aristotelian movement is currently very broad and diverse, it covers many different ways of placing particularity of moral judgment in the overall picture. One feature shared by all of those who form part of the broad neo-Aristotelian revival is an interest in the inner life of the moral subject: in his moral character as it is revealed not only in his actions but also in his thoughts and attitudes. A moral theory or outlook which gives priority to character and virtues over action and rules is bound to have a slightly different picture of the latter than that with the reverse priorities. Taking moral character and the virtues as the central components of the moral life gives a less determinate role to rules for action. Being a generous person, for instance, does not mean being a person who follows

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


a specific rule, but is rather a matter of determining in every case what the situation requires, considering an ideal character. It is a balancing of the impulse of giving and sharing with the impulse of keeping and saving for oneself. The generous person does not pour his goods over others indiscriminately but shares them according to what is good and appropriate, all things considered. In this sense the judgment of how to act and think in a concrete situation is always particularistically determined in a virtue-­ethical framework. A right pattern of action and attitude, and a righteous life, cannot be read off from the virtue (as it sometimes has been thought to be read off from a set of rules), but is a sum of the virtuous person’s particular perceptions and deliberations in concrete situations. In this context a note on moral judgment in action- and rule-­centered approaches is required, as moral judgment is, also in these approaches, bound to concrete situations and determined by the particular features of the situation. There is a difference between how judgment works in virtue- versus rule-­ centered approaches, which makes the former ones more “particularist” than the latter. Rules must be applied in the world and this requires a complex appreciation of the concrete situation where one is to act. Virtue ethicists deal with features of character which provide means for moral orientation. But virtues are not to be applied, or matched to the circumstances, in the way that rule-­oriented judgment is about picking a suitable rule and matching it to the current situation. The latter is often, by philosophers, conceived of as a fairly straightforward and impersonal process, once we know which set of rules or principles to accept, and why. The virtue ethical picture of moral judgment is significantly more similar to the particularist picture of moral judgment than either one is to the norm-­centered picture of moral judgment, in how they both engage the whole person’s responsiveness to a morally demanding situation. The rich framework of virtues which is essential for the neo-Aristotelian philosopher provides a normative structure which is not equally available for the Wittgensteinian particularists. Such a structure provides systematic tools for normative generalizations, although these generalizations are not what are intended in the particularist/generalist controversy. It thus provides a substantial way of doing normative ethics, distinct from action- and rule-­oriented frameworks. In this sense a virtue ethical or neo-Aristotelian approach (that is, the ethical approach which gives priority to virtues over action) does not necessarily have any need for the label of moral particularism; the nature of such an approach is not clarified by this labeling.


Literature and Moral Theory

In spite of the fact that neo-Aristotelian philosophy has relatively little need for the label, I have included it here as a third form of particularism for two reasons: first, because the particularist aspect of neo-Aristotelianism is important if we attempt to understand the particularisms and neo-Aristotelianism as different but related parts of a critical frontier against rule- and principle-­ oriented, generalist moral theory. And second, because it helps to show how the fairly pure particularisms of Dancy and the Wittgensteinian group are part of a broader interest for the particularity of moral understanding and judgment in contemporary moral philosophy.

2.1.4  Particularity and narrative Having been a fashionable term, mostly used for critical purposes of questioning the generalist assumptions of modern moral philosophy, the label of “moral particularism” has in recent years lost some of its appeal. One of the reasons for this is that it is found to be inexact, as it is used for a number of different approaches which among themselves differ radically concerning other aspects of their views on moral philosophy. Another reason may be that the general approach to ethics has become more open to the view that the particular features of a situation ought to matter morally, which makes a fierce defense of particularity in ethics somewhat redundant. The relative success of the particularists’ insights has made the polemic role of particularism less necessary. This change, it must be underlined, is not a particular achievement of moral particularists, who are relatively few in number. It seems rather to be the case that the whole field has moved in this direction, perhaps due to the joint efforts of virtue ethics, particularism, and the discussion on narratives in ethics. Another way of seeing it would be to claim that a common, underlying movement toward considering the non-­generalizable aspects of morality is finding its range of explicit articulations in these trends. The energies of the analytic particularism/generalism discussion are partly being canalized into constructive reconsiderations of the role of generality in moral thought (e.g. in Little 2000; McKeever and Ridge 2006). Moral particularism, in its different forms, has offered a way of criticizing the specific project of modern moral philosophy to provide theoretical grounds for normative generalizations. Practical moral thought, according to the particularists, ought to be pursued in a case-­by-case manner, by looking at situations of human life and determining, all things considered, what we really

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


can say about them. This is supposed to be a methodology that is more true to the real, mature functioning of adult moral capacities than any way of acting on generalizing rules. Here, generalist normative theories, especially those with monistic aspirations, are found to be of limited use and in many ways problematic. As has been argued thus far, moral particularism involves important normative commitments. A particularist is above all morally committed to a certain kind of responsiveness to the distinct and unique features of any human situation and to understanding moral action as action in accordance with situation-­bound moral demands. The difficulty which the particularist moral philosopher is faced with is that the standard way of pursuing philosophical argument is adapted to a relatively high degree of generalization and is thus unsuitable for talking substantially about particular situations. So, how ought one to pursue a discussion about normative ethical issues, given these anti-­ generalist assumptions? Here, narrative fiction has been helpful for the Wittgensteinian particularists and neo-Aristotelians, as well as others sharing this emphasis on the priority of the particular, by providing fictive situations which can be used as common objects of attention when discussing different kinds of situation-­bound moral possibilities. Although fiction is not identical with real life, it can provide a ground for talking about real life and thus throw light on the normative implications of a particularist moral position. On the normative level, narrative fiction fills a function which cannot be filled by theoretical texts. Discussions on literature can work either as complements to, or as replacements of, theoretical discussions. Nussbaum (1983: 204) emphasizes the complementary roles of theory and narrative: I am not proposing (as some recent attackers of traditional philosophy might) that we replace the works of Plato, Kant, Mill and Sidgwick, in our ethics curricula, by works of Henry James and Proust. . . . I am only modestly suggesting that we might add the study of certain great novels to these other studies in order to be sure that we are fair to all the alternative conceptions of goodness.

More than this, Nussbaum thinks that our philosophical understanding of morality will be lacking if it does not incorporate both theories and narratives. Narratives are thus an important vehicle of moral thought, but “they make their contribution in conjunction with a style that is itself more explanatory, more Aristotelian” (1990: 49). In Nussbaum’s readings of literature the “Aristotelian” style is frequently used to bring the narratives closer to frameworks of theory and


Literature and Moral Theory

systematization. The Wittgensteinian philosophers on their side would picture the philosophical commentary, the making sense of the moral content of a narrative, as non-­theoretical, not aiming at generalization and not implying generalization. One unavoidable feature of the methodology of using literary pieces to represent particular situations is that new forms of generalization creep in through the back door. A literary example is not a slice of real life, nor is a slice of real life truly so anymore when it has been represented through narration and discussed in a philosophical context. Nor is a literary example always picked up for philosophical discussion because of its particularity; more probably it is often chosen because it shows something representative of a more generalizable idea. The chosen particular already carries a suggestion of how it can be generalized. When the particularist ethical reading of a literary work is combined with (and motivated by) an explicit criticism of all kinds of ethical generalization, or with a philosophical method—particularly Phillips’—to hunt down generality whenever it turns up in moral thought, the general implications of a narrative should be dealt with explicitly. But not only here is a treatment of this question of interest. In addition to being necessary for the credibility of a particularist outlook, the role and nature of generalization in literature is a central epistemological issue which needs to be addressed (though perhaps not given a conclusive solution) by any ethical discussion which draws on narrative literature in order to make moral philosophical points. It can basically be dealt with in two ways. First, it can be done in a case-­bound manner where the general implications or presumptions of a specific reading are brought to the fore. Second, it can be done more generally, asking what kinds of general ethical claims narrative literature overall (or specific genres of literature) may be related to (as is done by Nussbaum 1990: 35–44), and how they work in producing generalizations. My strategy in Chapter  3 will be to pick up some types of literary generalization (as features of literary works, genres, and particular readings) that are used in the ethics/literature discussion, to exemplify the modes of balancing particularity and generality in literature, which differ from the corresponding balance in philosophical texts.

2.2  Ethical anti-­theory and narrative Anti-­theory in ethics is roughly the view that moral theory ought not to be pursued, because there can be no such thing as an adequate theory in ethics or

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


because even the best theory will put distorting restrictions on our understanding of morality. In moral philosophy theory should, according to anti-­theorists, be replaced for example by a kind of inquiry which tries to get a grasp of different varieties of moral practice and conceptions of morality. The recent history of anti-­theory in analytic moral philosophy is closely related to the births of neo-Aristotelianism and moral particularism. Among those who have been pointed out as anti-­theorists we find primarily neo-Aristotelians and Wittgensteinians—for example, Bernard Williams, Cora Diamond, Peter Winch, and D. Z. Phillips—along with an odd Humean like Annette Baier. All notable recent anti-­theoretical moral philosophers in the Anglo-American context seem to be particularists but not all particularists are anti-­theorists.13 The current label of “anti-­theory” in analytic moral philosophy goes back to the 1980s when the aforementioned philosophers, among others, formulated perspectives on moral philosophy which were critical of the way moral philosophy was pursued in the Anglo-American context. As a negative definition it does not serve very well to describe the substantial claims that these “anti-­theorists” put forward, but it is useful for describing the reactive character of the trend and for bringing together philosophers who in other respects may seem to have little in common. For these purposes I will use it here. The philosophical formulations that have gone under the label of anti-­theory represent the most extreme form of the late twentieth century reconsideration of the nature of moral philosophy (within analytic philosophy), of which the trends of neo-Aristotelianism, particularism, and ethical discussions on literature are parts. The (often overlooked) benefit of anti-­theoretical formulations for the broader context of criticism is that they, more emphatically than other critical articulations, urge us to reconsider and reformulate the nature and task of moral philosophy by putting in question its primary, and for many philosophers most natural, form. A radical reconsideration is also beneficial for ethical readings of narrative works, as it opens up ways of interpreting the ethical contents of literature which are less affected by theoretical ways of conceptualizing morality, and thus, potentially, add more to the variety of investigatory strategies in moral philosophy. But not everyone agrees on the benefits of the anti-­theoretical gesture, and different conceptions of the proper role of theory in ethics create a split right through the ethics/literature discussion in Anglo-American moral philosophy, between those who combine their ethical readings of literature with a dismissal of theory and those who see the relationship between theory and literature in


Literature and Moral Theory

moral philosophy as a cooperative one. To introduce this topic I will, in what remains of this chapter, discuss the debate over anti-­theory and the question of what theory is or can be in moral philosophy. In the concluding Chapter 5 I will return to this debate to mediate between anti-­theorists and Nussbaum’s theoretical perspective. It is not obvious what the anti-­theorists are opposed to as a group. It is not even clear that there is any one thing which the anti-­theorists are collectively opposed to. Typically anti-­theoretical thinkers are not only opposed to moral theory in at least some of its most common forms, but also skeptical toward the roles given to moral principles as well as to moral generalization overall, in contemporary moral philosophy. Martha Nussbaum, as one who has come to defend theory in this context of contemporary philosophy, finds this recurrent lack of specification disturbing. She points out that there are three entities at stake rather than two; not theories versus concrete ethical practice, but theories, rules, and concrete ethical practice (Nussbaum 2000a: 236). The central point here is to argue that theories and rules are not one thing and do not even necessarily hang together in any important way. Nussbaum argues (with Seneca!) that no ethical theory is a system of rules. Religion and custom provide us with systems of rules, but this is not the role of ethical theory. Quite the contrary, “. . . it was systems of rules that ethical theory came on the scene to displace” (ibid.). Rules merely state what one ought to do. Moral theories address our capabilities of independent rational thought. First, they give us reasons for adopting certain principles. Second, they place the moral principles in a context of motives and character and “undertake to specify the state of mind and emotion in which a suitably performed action counts as right and virtuous” (ibid.: 238). Third, they make sense of exceptions to rules by making clear the point and function of the rules, thus providing a means to see where following a certain rule would be misguided. Fourth, they proceed through argument and clarification of concepts, making every step of the reasoning visible and open to criticism. Putting briefly the theorist’s case (ibid.: 241): The ethical theorist claims that an ethical theory gives important guidelines for ethical practice and a set of guidelines for the proper use of rules, by sorting out the material of conduct in a more explicit and perspicuous way, giving the point and purpose of maxims of various types, and providing an account of human psychology that will both direct programmes of moral education and show when basically appropriate conduct is or is not fully virtuous.

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


The sorting out seems here to be what is central. Rules tell us what to do. Theories sort out how the pieces of our moral understanding can be put together and offer us arguments for putting them together in one way or another. Elucidation is at least as important as convincing the reader of a set of normative commitments. In this way our understanding can be improved even by those theories which we do not accept.14 Once this is pointed out it seems, at least in its descriptive outline, so obvious that it is hard to believe that theories and rules could be confused by moral philosophers. But indeed some imprecision on this point has been widespread in late twentieth century moral philosophy, especially in the criticism directed at the assumptions of central theories. The most important reason for this lack of clarity is a widespread philosophical picture of moral theories as systems which generate rules for action. Moral theories have been associated with the idea of creating a “calculus of action” (Winch 1972: 153); an image which establishes an intimate connection between theory and moral rules. Generating the right set of rules has been a central goal for the leading normative moral theories of modernity, utilitarianism, and deontology, at least in their mid- to late twentieth century interpretations, and they have established this as a dominant ideal in normative moral theory. This rather narrow understanding of normative moral theory has to some extent produced the confusion addressed by Nussbaum. The criticism properly directed at rule-­generating theories is, at times, extended to all kinds of normative theories indiscriminately, as it is forgotten that other kinds are possible. This applies especially to the 1980s’ formulations of anti-­theory (Baier 1985; Winch 1987, and to some extent Williams 1985), which were reactions against a scene of moral philosophy where the neo-Aristotelian and virtue ethical alternatives had not quite gained the strong foothold they have today. But while giving a reasonable and needed account of the difference between rules and theories, Nussbaum seems here to make a straw man of her imagined anti-­theoretical opponent. Hardly anyone confuses theories with rules. Some, like the Wittgensteinian philosophers discussed, are cautious concerning generalization in ethics overall, in moral rules as well as theory. For their purposes they have sometimes made a straw man of their own: that of the dogmatic utilitarian who tries to build a morality machine. From the Wittgensteinian point of view, the straw man utilitarian is redundant, as their position in no way depends on the silliness of generalist accounts and could be argued with more credibility from a point of view which attempts to interpret


Literature and Moral Theory

the nature of contemporary moral theory more generously. In Nussbaum’s case, her straw man anti-­theorist is equally unnecessary, since her reminder of the distinction between rules and theories, and her points concerning the need for theory (which I will discuss later), could easily be made without it. The problem with the straw men is the same for both: they block communication and bar the way for an accurate estimation of the opponent’s position and for what could be learned from a fair consideration. That Nussbaum would reject the Wittgensteinian approach is evident, but her equal criticism of her less straightforwardly theory-­oriented neo-Aristotelian peers demands some explanation. Rejecting virtue ethics as a misleading category in contemporary ethics, she detects among the contemporary neo-Aristotelians (or neo-Greek moral philosophers, as she prefers to call them) a divide between two distinct strands separated by their respective understandings of the proper role of reason in ethics (Nussbaum 1999). On the one hand there are those who are primarily anti-­utilitarians, who want to “enlarge the place of reason in ethics” (ibid.: 163).15 They question several features of utilitarianism, for example “its neglect of the plurality of goods; its narrowly technical conception of reason . . . and the non-­cognitive conception of emotion which has frequently been taken for granted in Utilitarian thought . . .” (ibid.: 168). These philosophers are “likely to be universalist and anti-­relativist” (ibid.: 169), and their reading of Aristotle is focused on his theoretical and systematizing efforts. This category is largely designed according to Nussbaum’s own concerns in moral philosophy, but among her companions she mentions John McDowell, Iris Murdoch, Nancy Sherman, and David Wiggins (to name a few). On the other hand, there are those who are primarily anti-Kantian, who “question the dominant role Kant gives to reason in human affairs, and the type of Kantian rationalism that they judge to be dominant in contemporary ethical theory,” and further “question Kantian universalism, together with Kant’s idea that practical judgment should be based on principles that abstract from particular local features of the agent’s situation” (ibid.: 169). The anti-Kantians are critical of the reason-­centered enlightenment ideal of moral philosophy and want to give a larger role to sentiments, habits, and tradition. Among these Nussbaum finds Annette Baier, Simon Blackburn, Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Bernard Williams.16 Nussbaum grants that all of these philosophers (of both categories) have many things in common, namely the belief that moral philosophy ought to be concerned with the agent as well as with action, and with the whole of moral life

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


rather than isolated acts of choice. However, she considers these concerns to be equally central ingredients in a Kantian inquiry and a neo-Greek one. As Nussbaum rightly notes, these concerns are present in the work of Kant himself as well as in late twentieth century Kantian discussions (Korsgaard, Sherman, and Herman). These features are not sufficiently unique for the neo-Greek philosophers to establish a fundamental divide between the neo-Greeks and others. Thus she finds the dividing line between anti-­utilitarians and antiKantians more important to illuminate the current moral philosophical context than the distinction between Kantian/utilitarian action-­centered accounts and neo-Greek virtue-­centered ones. Only the proponents of the first category, the anti-­utilitarians, are in Nussbaum’s view suitable bearers of the label of neo-Aristotelians, while the second category receives the label of neo-Humeans, due to the role they give in morality to what they consider non-­rational aspects of the human mind, namely passions and desires.17 What becomes the defining feature for a neo-Aristotelian position is in Nussbaum’s view a specific conception of the roles of reason and theory in ethics. It is not entirely clear whether Nussbaum’s anti-Kantian (1999) category is identical or co-­extensive with her anti-­theoretical (2000a) category, but the central names holding criticized positions are the same (Williams, MacIntyre, Baier), and the basic reasons for her criticisms are identical; a wish to make clear the distance between her own position and some of those “neoAristotelian” positions with which it has earlier been associated, in spite of their differing conception of the role of reason, generalization, and theory in moral philosophy. While Nussbaum’s distinction clarifies her own position and offers an interesting way of reading the neo-Greek/neo-Aristotelian revival, it still contains, in its depiction of her philosophical opponents, a rhetorical edge which does not necessarily do justice to the targets of her criticism. The anti-­theoretical and “anti-Kantian” positions, with their less confident attitude toward the fruit of generalizing reason, are depicted as covertly conservative and anti-­rational, leaning on tradition on the one hand and sentimental impulse on the other. Quite contrary to this, Nussbaum’s central targets (Baier, Williams, McIntyre, etc.) proceed through a reasoned skepticism toward the presumptions of theory and call for a heightened sensitivity to distinctions which may make theoretical solutions unattractive. How far this skepticism is taken and how far it is seen as affecting the possibility of theorizing in ethics varies.


Literature and Moral Theory

Indeed, there are real intellectual risks in a global rejection of overt, general theorizing. It is likely, when rejected, to be replaced by something else and a non-­ reflective conservatism is here a serious candidate. But there is on the other hand no immediate tie between the critique of the role of reason, or theory, or generalization in ethics and a glorification of non-­reason or non-­rationality. This is proved by Nussbaum’s own position which substantially reconsiders the nature of human reason, broadening its scope to include the emotions. The rejection of some kinds of theoretical reason, and the reconsiderations of the nature of reason and theory, are equally natural outgrowths of the Enlightenment project which Nussbaum is keen to join. We cannot just walk through rooms and turn on the lights. Sometimes we need to go back and see that rather little was enlightened. The late twentieth century and contemporary rejection of moral theory, in its different forms, is not based on a confusion of theory and principle. Neither are the most central statements of this rejection based on a glorification of non-­ reason or on conservatism. To the extent that they are based on confusion it is a confusion which could more properly be called puzzlement, which is rife in contemporary moral philosophy. There is currently no widely-­shared understanding in Anglo-American moral philosophy about what a moral theory ought to look like. Nussbaum (1999, 2000a) stresses the importance of a systematic theoretical account of morality for the purpose of fighting dogma and prejudice. But her version (2000a: 232–6) of what a moral theory ought to contain is much too detailed to match any common understanding of what is needed for ethical criticism of prejudice and contains several assumptions which would be considered prejudices in their own right by her anti-­theoretical opponent; the requirement of universalizability (ibid.: 235) being the most obvious one. Nor is there a shared understanding of the respective roles of critical reason, common moral intuition, and tradition in moral philosophical thought. The contemporary context of rethinking moral theory consists of a web of positions, which have adopted varying aspects of the broad neo-Aristotelian and particularist critiques of the moral philosophical canon of modernity in general and of the 1950s to 1970s in particular. The critical trends have much in common, but it is unclear whether they can share any substantial general picture of the nature of moral philosophy. But perhaps the matter can be approached sideways. There is a note of aggression in the anti-­theorist rejection of theory as well as in Nussbaum’s

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


rejection of anti-­theory, between positions which from some other corner of analytic philosophy may appear to be intellectually quite close to each other. Concerning the practical, substantial use of narrative literature in contemporary moral philosophy, it does not seem to matter much whether the philosopher is a post-Wittgensteinian, an anti-­theorist Aristotelian, or a pro-­theorist Aristotelian; or indeed a Kantian of some kind, like Richard Eldridge. Proponents of each approach would pinpoint the significance of the particular situation, the specific people involved, the significance of thought and feeling as well as overt action, the importance of accurate perception, the preliminary and unfinished nature of practical human morality, and the impossibility of finding a moral code which would remove the individual and situational considerations that make moral conduct a thoroughly uncertain business. The dispute regarding the role of theory does not seem to affect to any important degree the moral significance these philosophers find in narratives.18 There are differences between the more general claims which philosophers writing about literary works are prepared to attach to narratives. In Eldridge’s case a Kantian respect for persons, in Nussbaum’s a certain version of neo-Aristotelianism, in Winch’s case, among other things, the showing of the limits of universalizability. But a certain kind of praxis of reading for ethical insight is shared, paying attention to the details and idiosyncrasies as morally significant, calling upon the philosophers’ attention in their own right, rather than as checks for more general commitments. This creates a common space of resonance within the discussion, where the features discussed in Chapter  1.2 appear in varying constellations. Even more than being dictated by a specific vision of ethics, this manner of reading is determined by a common vision of narrative literature. The novel depicts the experiential reality of human existence and interaction, and is evaluated according to its success to catch the essential features of this experiential realm. Similarly, the philosophical reader is expected to respond to the fine-­ tuned insights in the good novel, offering a reading which enriches the experience of the novel. In cases where the target novel is found crude and prejudiced, the philosopher is expected to note this in due course and provide an ethical reading against the spirit of the work, more finely tuned to the perceived reality beyond the novel. The ethical criticism thus provided is in a sense more like literary criticism than moral philosophy, although it is a criticism with special concerns, such as character development, changes of vision and subtle notes of good and evil.


Literature and Moral Theory

2.3  What is moral theory? One notable feature about the ethics/literature trend is that narrative literature in moral philosophy—when considered at length, with a serious interest in what the literary work has to say in its own right—goes hand in hand with some form of reconsideration of what moral theory is or ought to be. A reconsideration of moral theory—a criticism against certain images or ideals of theoretical work in moral philosophy—is visible in conjunction with literature in neo-Aristotelian, particularist, and anti-­theoretical contributions alike. But, what is at stake in these reconsiderations of ethical theory in AngloAmerican moral philosophy? What is theory? What, for instance, differentiates a book presenting a moral theory from a book presenting the kind of “mental geography” that Annette Baier (1985) suggests as the appropriate substitute for theory? What makes one a presentation of a theory and the other not? Why should we not consider the anti-­theoretical voices as presenting theories about morality in their own right? Nussbaum’s criteria for theory (Chapter 2.2) seem far too normative to be helpful here, as they describe a conception of what moral theories ought to be, in her view, rather than making sense of what is generally meant by “moral theory.” The question about the nature of moral theory is, in contemporary AngloAmerican philosophy, most poignantly raised by post-Wittgensteinian philosophers who are troubled by the methodological presuppositions of standard analytic philosophy. To get a better grasp of what moral theory is supposed to be, I will first look at a few discussions concerning what theory is or should be in philosophy more generally. Then I will go on to note a few things that have to do specifically with moral theory. Richard Allen and Michael Turvey present a tentative definition of theory to gain a grasp of Wittgenstein’s rejection of theory in philosophy. Here, the methodological discussion is dressed as a commentary on Wittgenstein’s rejection of theories in philosophy in general, but the discussion is helpful for getting started with the question of the role of theory in moral philosophy. Theories, in Allen and Turvey’s account: tend to possess two basic features. First, they unify a range of apparently disparate, unconnected phenomena by postulating an underlying principle that these phenomena putatively have in common and that can explain their nature or behavior. Second, the common underlying principle postulated by the theory—whether it takes the form of an entity, process, force, concept, or

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


something else—is at least initially hidden from view. It is these two features— the unification of apparently diverse phenomena, and the postulation of an underlying principle that cannot be immediately discerned—that theories typically share, despite their other differences. Allen and Turvey 2001: 2

Theories aim at unifying a range of phenomena by an underlying, explanatory principle that is initially hidden from view. This is supposed to be a definition of theory that covers a broad range of fields where theories figure. But on closer inspection it may be far too narrow to make sense of the concept of theory as it figures in Wittgenstein’s work as well as in contemporary moral philosophy. The problem with this definition is that it seems to make the case too easy for philosophers who want to reject theory in philosophy, by picturing theory as essentially monistic and essentially “explanatory” in a way faintly reminiscent of the natural sciences, and essentially concerned with something “hidden.” Taking a closer look, the definition is composed by putting together various aspects of theory that Wittgenstein rejects as unsuitable for philosophy in his later work. But that hardly makes it a good definition of what theories generally are in philosophy. Oswald Hanfling (2004) also raises the question of what philosophical theories are in relation to Wittgenstein’s rejection of theory. He quotes at length one of the more famous passages of Wittgenstein, which states the latter’s opposition to theory most explicitly: It was true to say that our considerations could not be scientific ones. . . . And we may not advance any kind of theory. There must not be anything hypothetical in our considerations. We must do away with all explanation, and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its light, that is to say its purpose, from the philosophical problems. These are, of course, not empirical problems; they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in despite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by reporting new experience, but by arranging what we have always known. Wittgenstein 1953/1998, Philosophical Investigations, hereafter PI: § 109

But what does Wittgenstein mean by theory here? How inclusive is his conception of theory implied in this statement? Is this an instance of rejecting the kind of theories that Allen and Turvey describe? And finally, is Wittgenstein’s conception of theory of any use for a broader reconsideration of the role of theory in different branches of philosophy, for example in ethics?


Literature and Moral Theory

It is evident, in this passage, that Wittgenstein rejects the idea of anything reminiscent of scientific theories in philosophy. Philosophy should not explain; it should not present hypotheses; it does not deal with empirical problems. Philosophy rearranges what is already open to our view. But is this all he claims? Most certainly his rejection of theory is used by others to reject a lot more than merely theories that match Allen and Turvey’s definition above. Hanfling would not be content with Allen and Turvey’s definition because he perceives more of an initial plurality in the use of the word “theory” than what their definition acknowledges. He notes that the word “theory” is often used in ways that have nothing to do with scientific theories. It is, for instance, used in a diluted sense, to mean little more than “view” or “opinion” (Hanfling 2004: 186). To take an example from my discussions in this chapter, a diluted sense of theory is at work in Nussbaum’s (2000a: 248–9) argument when she proceeds, from the claim that pre-­philosophical understanding is full of “theory” (in the diluted sense), to the idea that we should regard explicit moral theory as more or less necessary for philosophical thought. The theories of pre-­philosophical understanding are certainly nothing more than roughly systematic, often implicit, morally relevant generalizing views, prejudices, etc. They are theories, at most, in a diluted sense. “Theory” is also used for kinds of proposals (Hanfling 2004: 191) which are put forward as suggestions concerning how a phenomenon could reasonably be conceptualized. This is a fairly common kind of theory in philosophy. Such a “theory” is neither a truism nor mere statement, nor the conclusion of an argument but, in a sense, the beginning of an argument. As an example of this, Hanfling suggests J. J. C. Smart’s seminal essay, which presents the mind/brain “identity theory” and refutes a range of objections that could be brought against it. Also Mill’s statement that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to produce happiness”—referred to by Mill himself as a theory—comes under Hanfling’s account of this kind (ibid.). Although Hanfling does not say this, it is reasonable to think of some of Wittgenstein’s own later claims in this light, as proposals for how to look, even though in another sense they are part of an “anti-­ theoretical” whole. It may be asked how anti-­theoretical thinkers relate to these kinds of “proposal theories.” Further, some theories in philosophy differ from, for example, theories in the empirical sciences by being “arrived at and defended by deductive argument” (ibid.: 190). Such theories have explanatory aims, but according to Hanfling they differ from scientific theories in important respects. “A theory (analysis)

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


of knowledge does not appeal to some hidden entity or process” (ibid.), but attempts to arrive through deductive argument at an accurate analysis of the concept of knowledge. “The premises of a theory of knowledge are openly presented to the reader, and the conclusion—that knowledge consists in such and such conditions—can be checked against the actual use of the concept of knowledge which, again, is open to view” (ibid.). Thus, such theories do not attempt to reveal anything that is hidden by, or is beyond, language. In Hanfling’s view these kinds of theories conform to the paradigm against which Wittgenstein formulates his objection by being explanatory, but they do not conform in other respects. Many of Wittgenstein’s claims can be considered theories in a diluted sense, though, as Hanfling notes, “it may be thought unnecessary or perverse to do so in the face of his denials” (ibid.: 196). But there is a further way in which Hanfling finds that Wittgenstein presents theories which go beyond the “logical or conceptual truths of which he seeks to remind us when he is making his ‘grammatical’ remarks” (ibid.). What Hanfling has in mind here are the “diagnostic” remarks that Wittgenstein presents (ibid.: 196). In a number of important passages he describes how certain features of language may lead to a ‘bewitchment of our under­standing’ (PI 109). Thus, we are liable to be misled by ‘the uniform appearance of words when we hear them spoken and meet them in script and print’, for this may lead us to think that ‘language always works in one way’ (PI 11), and to neglect the radical differences between, for example, the words ‘five’, ‘red’ and ‘apple’ (PI 1). In discussing such topics as meaning, expecting, thinking, etc. he described how we may be tempted to regard them all as mental processes, overlooking the ways—the various ways— in which these concepts actually work. Another pitfall to which he drew attention is the resort to introspection—as if we could become clear about what thinking is by ‘observing ourselves while we think’ (PI 316). And another, more general diagnostic remark was that about ‘the craving for generality’ (BB 18).

In these remarks Hanfling finds Wittgenstein putting forward explanations in relation to contingent matters of fact. The truth of these remarks is not a conceptual issue but is a matter of contingent psychology (ibid.: 196). The introspective notes on pitfalls in thinking that Wittgenstein presents are idiosyncratic and different people are differently prone to suffer from their effects. Thus in a sense they are empirical. The things revealed by these remarks have not been initially “hidden,” in the same sense as the things that are revealed by scientific or metaphysical theories, as they are “matters of self-­knowledge”


Literature and Moral Theory

(ibid.: 197). They are not readily “open to view” in the same sense that the answers to conceptual questions are. Now, Hanfling’s discussion serves here primarily as an example of the variety of ways of employing the notion of theory. Much more in the vein of his discussion of Wittgenstein can be suggested in relation to the work of philosophers who discard theory in philosophy (in our case more specifically moral philosophy), as there is a full spectrum of semi-­theoretical, semi-­ explanatory, semi-­generalizing strategies of philosophical elucidation between mere “grammatical remarks” or mere description of practices, and full-­blown theoretical systems. Theories overall look radically different depending on the field of inquiry where they are formulated. Theories in the social sciences and history are different from those in natural science, and literary theories are a different thing altogether. Philosophical theories come in many varieties, which are more or less purposively fashioned according to some explicit idea of what a philosophical theory should pin down. When looking for the nature of theory in moral philosophy, a useful point of analogy is found in Arthur Danto’s (1985: 3) juxtaposition of scientific theories and historical science: Tycho Brahe is celebrated for having made, over a long period of time, a series of celestial observations of unprecedented accuracy concerning the positions (amongst other things) of the known planets. Yet he himself failed to find projectable patterns among these various positions. It was Kepler who succeeded in this, discovering, after some arduous work, that a planet’s position could be located on an ellipse with the sun as one focus. This would be like having what I have called a descriptive theory. It remained for Newton to explain why this particular pattern held; that is, to offer an explanatory theory.

Historical research can, in Danto’s account, not properly reach even what could be called a Keplerian stage of theory. A collection of data is not yet a history, but a chronicle. Thus observations need to be organized according to a pattern, for history to emerge. But such an organization does not have the same kind of predictive power as Kepler’s (descriptive) theory. Already, at a Keplerian level, the scientist’s potential of predicting future events is far beyond anything that the historian can produce. Moving on to a “Newtonian” level in history would mean not merely predicting but postulating a causal explanation for a law-­like pattern that covers not only

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


past history but also the future. Indeed, “it may be urged, a truly successful historical theory would go beyond the data gathered by history, not only reducing them to a pattern, but predicting, and explaining, all the events of future history” (ibid.: 4). Such attempts constitute what Danto calls “synthetic philosophies of history” and they are theories conveying the laws that are proposed to encompass all of historical time. Marxism, for example, is such a theory. It does not merely describe a pattern of the past, but postulates that this pattern must hold till the end of time as we know it. But such theories, however stimulating they may be, have in Danto’s view little to do with the methods of historical research (ibid.: 4–5). As Danto notes, historians have a range of methods at their disposal for gathering information that could be compared with Tycho Brahe’s observatory notes. But there are also “within history itself, attempts to organize the known facts into coherent patterns” (ibid.: 5). These do not admit the kinds of projections into the future that scientific theories allow, but have a more limited kind of predictive potential—for example, giving clues about what kind of information could be found if one continues research in a particular direction. The analogy to the theory/anti-­theory discussion in ethics should be plain. Some theorists look for a “Newtonian” theory of ethics; one which does not merely account for observations, regularities and patterns, but gives a law-­like explanation that covers all of these and is projectable into the future. Indeed, Allen and Turvey’s definition of theory pays courtesy to a conception of theory that is fairly “Newtonian” in this sense. But, as anti-­theorists claim, moral philosophy has no business with these kinds of general explanations that determine the moral significance of past as well as future events. Indeed, one need not be an anti-­theorist to sympathize with this rejection. Moral philosophers can, in this analogy, do little more than Tycho Brahe did, because the observations that can be made do not and cannot amount to the kind of regularity that Kepler observed. Or, depending on how the analogy is used (because it is indeed merely an analogy), it may be suggested that insofar as there are regularities, these can be formulated and used (e.g. for predictive purposes), but they do not apply with necessity, and aberrations from the predicted patterns need not be separately explained. In this line of thought any attempt to move on to the Newtonian level of underlying explanation will be a fraud. There can be no fundamental explanation of regularity if there is no regularity of the relevant kind in the first place. An offered explanation is in such a case a peculiar instance of violence upon our


Literature and Moral Theory

ways of thinking, an attempt to impose an order which is neither helpful nor suitable for the matters at hand. Anti-­theorists agree that there are indeed moral norms and ideals that are discernible as systematizing elements in people’s lives and thoughts and action, but claim that it is not the task of the philosopher to postulate ideal regularities, in theoretical form, beyond the variety. But there may indeed be other kinds of regularities and partial explanations, more reminiscent of those that historians and anthropologists produce: predictions rather than projections, manners of finding one’s way about rather than of fixating assumed certainties. Indeed, a great part of moral philosophy, in this account, should be moral history and moral anthropology. As Annette Baier puts it: “I think we philosophers need to work with anthropologists, sociologists, sociobiologists, psychologists, to find out what an actual morality is; we need to read history to find out how it has changed itself, to read novels to see how it might change again” (1985: 224). The matter is complicated by the fact that the regularities that normative ethics deals with are essentially normative, that is, they are prescribed regularities, rather than factual ones. (Such and such is what anyone ought to do in such and such a situation, from here to eternity, no matter what people actually will do or believe.) If this is the case, what conclusions can we draw from irregularity at the level of observations? No conclusions at all. From Baier’s point of view, philosophy has no business with postulating normative generalizations. For others, perhaps the “Newtonian” level is to be considered the fundamental one in ethics and the observational irregularities are merely the sad signs of an imperfect world. But in this case any guiding analogy with scientific theories, of course, idles, because such a theory has lost its empirical grounding. But sorting out the relationship of philosophy, and especially moral philosophy, to ideal images of theory derived from the sciences will not be sufficient to provide a full understanding of the nature (or natures) of moral theory in contemporary moral philosophy. The idea of morality as essentially law-­governed, for example, is not easy to get rid of merely by dropping allegedly unsuitable ideals derived from analogies with science, as another variety of law-­ governedness is deeply embedded in the tradition of moral philosophy, both in the varieties of the natural law tradition and in Christian ideas of divine law. Elisabeth Anscombe’s (1981)19 rejection of modern moral theory, to cite one example, does not build on the assumed harmfulness of an analogy with scientific theory (as do Wittgenstein’s criticism above and some varieties of postWittgensteinian anti-­theory), but on the idea that modern moral theory is built

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


on a framework of divine law which has lost the metaphysical underpinnings that originally gave it meaning. Law-­likeness is, beside explanatoriness, one of the features of modern moral theory that contemporary anti-­theorists object to, and it is the anti-­theoretical imagery closely associated with the same kind of undue generalization that is linked in the minds of many philosophers with the demand for explanatoriness. Both of these features have multiple sources in the history of moral philosophy and cannot be detached from moral philosophy just by showing the inadequacy of one particular influence. On the whole, therefore, there is no universally accepted formula for moral theory in Anglo-American moral philosophy and no guiding definition for theory that would be broadly in use. Nussbaum (2000a), along with the majority of normative ethicists in the Anglo-American context, thinks that moral philosophy needs some form of systematic, explanatory theories that attempt to spell out why a certain action is right or a certain value or virtue is central. Furthermore, of course, the answer should be something more than a plain reference to authority or custom. The answer should come in a form which makes sense on a larger scale of moral thought, ideally even to people who do not share the basic normative and evaluative commitments that it builds upon. The question as to what extent explanation here works in ways analogous to that of theories in other fields—for example, the natural sciences—is to some extent left unanswered. The theoretical approach to morality which is the anti-­theorists’ central target is likely to be too narrow to catch much of the work that is actually being done under the label of moral theory today. This target is characterized in a variety of ways: as an assumption that moral theories should be complete and hierarchically ordered (Annas 1993: 7–8) or as a picture of ethics as a “decision procedure for moral reasoning” (Williams 1981: x), or as a “calculus of action” (Winch 1972: 153). These descriptions exhibit a puzzling mixture of imagery from the empirical sciences as well as mathematics. But in spite of the mixture, they give the picture of a certain kind of moral theorist who is recognizable in the twentieth century and in the contemporary context of moral philosophy. Overall, anti-­theoretically inclined thinkers have a specific kind of opponent in mind when they speak about the harmfulness of theory: one whose conception of theory is quite close to Allen and Turvey’s definition. This theorist is, in the tradition of Kant and the utilitarians, tracing back morality to one overarching principle, and he is influenced by the scientific ethos of early


Literature and Moral Theory

analytic philosophy, where the natural sciences were allotted the empirical work and philosophers took care of linguistic analysis. Early analytic philosophy in itself had little to give to the pursuit of normative moral philosophy. Linguistic analysis is quite insufficient for dealing with the normative aspects of morality, and the emotivism of Ayer (1936/1952), for example, can be seen as a fruit of this insufficiency, barring the way for a meaningful normative ethics. Moral theory, in this tradition, is in a sense born out of the philosophical impossibility of a philosophical ethics. Moral philosophers, when turning back with some confidence to normative ethics around the mid-­twentieth century, thus had to create a paradigm of philosophizing that relies importantly on central philosophers and traditions of moral thought prior to the birth of analytic philosophy, while finding its stylistic ideal in the analytic philosopher’s conceptual elucidation. Analytic moral theory seems to combine the demand for law-­like generalization which is characteristic of natural sciences, with an idea of the absolute demandingness of morality (whether this be generated by divine will, human reason, rational choice, natural law, or intuition). Thus a normative theory, when it has dealt with all relevant objections and internal incoherencies, and shown how it can incorporate central insights of other theoretical approaches, should—at least in principle—be an instrument for determining which actions are right in the current situation and for predicting or prescribing right or good actions in the future. But this ethos of moral theory and philosophers who have been singled out as its central proponents, like R. M. Hare, can also be seen as something of an oddity in the history of moral philosophy. Nussbaum (2003) notes that the primary target of anti-­theorists seems to be a limited mid-­twentieth century phenomenon, and the criticism directed against this target fails—in many respects—to hit the most prominent and influential work, historical as well as recent. Both Kant and Mill, who are the historical master theorists of contemporary moral philosophy, although in search of the ultimate principles of morals, are rich thinkers with important contributions, for example, to issues of liberty (both) and virtue (Kant) that are not reducible to their respective “monistic” projects. Anti-­theoretical descriptions of moral theory, like those mentioned above, may sound old fashioned in the way they fail to describe the pluralist spirit of much contemporary work, prejudiced in how they the fail to give theorists a fair reading, and paranoid in how they ascribe detrimental effects to the pursuit of moral theory.

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


Now, if most prominent moral theories, today as well as historically, are not “decision procedures,” nor “complete and hierarchical”—if the anti-­theorists fail to describe the kind of work they are opposed to in a way that would clearly cover the most influential work of moral philosophy in the tradition—why would their criticism matter? And above all, if moral theory is not one thing, but a broad range of things, then what exactly are the anti-­theorists opposed to in the first place? These two questions are complexly interconnected and I believe there is no simple way of answering either one of them. I will argue, especially in Chapter  5, that anti-­theoretical criticism is an important aspect of an overall reconsideration of the role and nature of theory in moral philosophy, irrespective of its internal problems. It is important as it helps 1) to articulate underlying assumptions in contemporary moral philosophy concerning what moral philosophy should be, 2) to crystallize a more widely felt unease with these assumptions and 3) to articulate positions at the opposite (anti-­theoretical) end that can in their turn be criticized to find a useful balance. Before leaving this chapter I will attempt a characterization of analytic moral theory. Given the considerations discussed so far, it would not be surprising if the analytic ethos of Anglo-American ethics is a pile of bric-­a-brac. Analytic moral theory could be defined on the lines of how a medical syndrome is diagnosed. There is a group of symptoms/requirements of which a certain number must be present: systematicity, generality of formulation, universality of scope, hierarchical structure, clarity of presentation, explicitness, explanatoriness, ability to account for exceptions, and action-­guidingness (if it is a normative theory). For an account of morality to count as a specimen of moral theory proper, a number of these requirements need to be fulfilled. But as the number of features that will be sufficient is not universally agreed upon, it is typical of discussions in analytic ethics that theories can be criticized for failing to fulfill one or other of these requirements, quite disregarding how the theorist has formulated her particular aim for the theory. Thus a theory which fails to cover a sufficient number of the points listed above can be labeled as incomplete. If it is programmatically against some of the requirements, it can be rejected as fundamentally misguided or inapt. In virtue ethics, neo-Aristotelian ethics and the particularisms, various aspects of the paradigm are flouted to the benefit of differing ways of conceptualizing what is seen as central to our understanding of morality. In all of these philosophical enclaves some philosophers are closer to and some farther away from the analytic paradigm, and it generally seems to hold that the closer


Literature and Moral Theory

they are, the more attention they get from their analytic colleagues. Some virtue ethicists, like Hursthouse (1999), have argued that virtue ethics can be action-­ guiding in a way which is analogous to action-­centered theories. Dancy’s (2004) formulation of moral particularism has had an important impact on analytic discussions, whereas more explicitly post-Wittgensteinian particularists are passed by in silence. Nussbaum’s rhetorical path has been to present ideas that are fairly radical in relation to the analytic paradigm, while emphasizing that they do fit into an enlightened and suitably broadened variety of this paradigm. I will come back to this in Chapters 4 and 5. In the work of Iris Murdoch, which I will discuss more thoroughly in Chapter 4, theoretical thought is abstract, speculative and general, but it does not exhibit any affirmative relation to the common requirements that are placed on theories in analytic moral philosophy. For this reason she has been for a long time practically ignored in core analytic ethics, although she has been a central inspiration for thinkers (Blum 1994; Diamond 1991; Goldberg 1993; Taylor 1989; Williams 1985) who have taken alternative paths. Thus, theory can be many things and anti-­theory, correspondingly, can be opposed to one, several or all of the things that fall under the label of theory. To summarize the essentials of this discussion, it seems to me that there are three distinct things that are characteristic of late twentieth century anti-­theory in moral philosophy. First, the criticism is primarily directed toward a paradigmatic figure, with some real-­life predecessors. Second, the position this figure is assumed to hold is analyzable into a series of assumptions concerning the generalizability, systematicity, comprehensiveness, action-­guidingness, explanatory power etc., of moral theory, each of which is found criticizable in its own right. And third, due to the occurrence of varying combinations of these assumptions in many different forms of moral philosophy and theory, anti-­ theoretically inclined philosophers are prone to extend the cautions they have toward the paradigm theorist to cover a wide range of theoretical/philosophical efforts. In spite of the plurality of features that constitute moral theory in analytic moral philosophy today, there is one feature which is singled out as particularly significant when moral theory is compared to the way narrative literature conceptualizes moral issues. Moral theory aims at general formulations concerning the nature of morality, right and wrong, and good and evil, etc. Narrative literature, as argued thus far, is brought forward in Anglo-American moral philosophy as a way of getting at more particular, situation-­bound insights

Literature, Moral Particularism, and Anti-­Theory


that qualify and put in question the generalizations that are inherent in both moral principles and moral theories. As we will see in the next chapter, the conception of narrative literature as the particularizing medium par excellence needs to be qualified by insights into how narrative works present ethically relevant generalizations in their own right, and how these generalizations are used by the very same contemporary moral philosophers who have profited from the particularizing functions of literature.


Generality in Literature I have thus far argued that the core of the ethics/literature discussion in analytic moral philosophy over the last few decades has been focused on a conception of moral philosophy where the particular and situation-bound aspects of moral thought are brought to the center of attention. But the particularizing emphasis of this discussion does not exhaust the ethical significance of narrative literature, or its role in contemporary analytic moral philosophy. Besides being brought to the discussion to illuminate the particularity of moral experience and practical decision-making, narrative literature plays a number of roles that bring forth a different register of moral generalization than what is customary in theoretical discussions. The task of this chapter is to consider some issues concerned with the way narrative literature relates to ethical generalizations, how it contributes to making such generalizations, and how these are used in late twentieth century and contemporary analytic or Anglo-American moral philosophy.

3.1  Ethical generality in literature One of the reasons we are drawn to fictional works is precisely that they combine the particular and the general in ways we find natural and intelligible. The general is woven into the particular, which gives the particular significance and the general substance. McGinn 1997: 3 I have thus far argued that the trend of reading narrative literature in the context of analytic moral philosophy is connected to a variety of discussions, primarily neo-Aristotelian and post-Wittgensteinian, where a need has been perceived for narrative literature to put forward the particularity of moral experience and the situation-bound aspects of moral goodness and obligation. It could thus, echoing


Literature and Moral Theory

Colin McGinn, be said that the role of literature has been that of providing particular situations to give substance to the moral philosopher’s generalizing thought. On the other hand, it should be clear that this role does not exhaust the interest moral philosophers have in narrative literature and that it does not exhaust the variety of ways in which works of narrative literature have taken part in philosophical debates over time as well as in the current contexts of discussion. From the point of view of philosophical theory, which aims at ideally objective generalization, the emphasis on particularity in literature is attractive, for it presents literature to the moral philosopher as that missing other: the real-life connection which can be put into use when it is called for, as examples and illustrations. Narrative literature is praised for catching the particularities: the particular quality of particular human existence, the little shades of difference that may make a big difference in human lives. But, as Nussbaum (1990: 5) puts it, “Life is never simply presented by a text; it is always represented as something.” The association of narrative literature with particular, contextbound insights does less than full justice to the philosophically significant substance inherent in narratives and may even disfigure the insights it offers by ignoring the generalizing aspects of any text, or any representation. The immediacy of experience through narrative literature is not the immediacy of real experience. Literary works cannot as such make available to us the plurality and particularity of real life, as they are in themselves complex, highly processed products of human thought. A narrativized course of events, communicated through a specific narrative work, contains on the one hand much less, and on the other hand much more, than any real-life happening. On the one hand, it is limited to a specific storyline and wording which leaves a great deal for our world knowledge and imagination to fill in. With late twentieth century reader-response criticism (e.g. Wolfgang Iser and Stanley Fish) it has become a commonplace that the reader’s dispositions, experiences, and knowledge are in a variety of ways constitutive of the meaning of a literary work. On the other hand, any narrative work contains, in its selection and organization of elements, a specific way of picturing the world, a processed perspective which enters between the reader and the world. In a non-fictional narrative, as in a biography, part of the material is pre-selected; a biography about Iris Murdoch will have to deal primarily with the knowledge which can be made available about her life. It also has to deal with real-life material rather than mere fantasies. Still, there are many choices left for

Generality in Literature


the biographer to make. In a completely fictional narrative some limits are constituted by readability and the requirements of genre, but the liberty to select, order, and frame is infinite. This selective work of the author is not free from generalization, stereotypes, normative or evaluative commitments, but is on the contrary a way of expressing such commitments and inviting the reader to share them. How can we then consider that such a stylized individual selection presents life itself or makes life itself a common object of attention for different readers? A tentative answer to this question could be that we, in some senses, as for example Brian Fay (1996) has suggested, live narratives, and that we indeed narrativize our living quite independently of our engagement with narrative fiction. Moreover, we do these things collectively as well as individually. Sharing narratives (and narrative art) is, just like living together and conversing, one of our ways of communicating general perspectives as well as the phenomenal particularity of our existence. Art is not life, but it can be, and is, a way of reaching at life through representation. In this chapter I will discuss how narrative literature, in the context of contemporary analytic ethics, operates on a register of morally relevant generalizations. In 3.2 I will suggest a view of how morally relevant ideas are constructed in narrative, building on an analogy with the (1985) discussion by Bernard Williams about thick moral concepts. In 3.3 I will discuss two kinds of generalizing content in narrative literature: propositional idea contents and perspectives. Both of these are central for the contribution of narrative literature to current philosophical discussion. In 3.4 I will discuss questions about philosophical authorship in narrative form, as well as the implied intellectual agency behind a narrative work, the so-called implied author, and how this agency is understood in terms of a philosophical voice, putting forward an interpretive and evaluative suggestion for how we should orient ourselves in the world. In section 3.5 I will consider how literary characters are recognizable and useful for moral thought because they create and represent moral types, a manner of moral philosophical generalization in its own right. In 3.6, finally, I will discuss genres of stories that give form to moral reasoning. Together, these pieces will suggest a picture of how narratives do perform normative generalizing tasks. My ambition here is not to offer a complete picture of how ethical generalizations figure in narrative literature (that would be an infinite task), but rather to display a few aspects of how


Literature and Moral Theory

morally relevant generalization is noted and used in the very same discussions in contemporary analytic moral philosophy where its particularizing aspects are appreciated. One central difference between philosophical writing and narrative literature seems quite persistent. Whereas the philosopher’s generalizations often aim at being systematic and in some sense complete, the reading of narrative literature may require a different attitude. The ethical contents of narrative literature are often found to be relatively subtle, ambiguous, and elusive. Thus, as Richard Eldridge (1989: 21) puts it, in relation to literature “philosophy must both resist and embrace the perennial temptation to achieve full closure of understanding, to deny the potentially revolutionary importance of new cases, as it must both move toward general characterizations and retain its responsiveness to the particular.” This requires a heightened sense of humility on the philosopher’s part in order to be able to take part in what narrative works may have to offer, insofar as it is something different from what more narrowly philosophical texts do. Finally, granting that narrative literature does contain or suggest philosophically significant generalizations in a number of ways, this may set some limits to how literature can be used for the particularizing task to which it has been assigned in the contemporary discussion. For philosophers like McGinn, Eldridge, Nussbaum, or Murdoch it seems plain that ethical generalization is as much a part of narratives as is their particularizing power. For them the challenge is to make intelligent use of these two potentials of literature. For thinkers (e.g. in the Winch-Phillips tradition) who are more cautious about generalization in moral philosophy, and more prone to anti-theoretical and anti-generalist modes of thought, there is a special challenge to give literary works a reading which does not neglect the range of ethical generalizations which they importantly contain.

3.2  A thick medium of ethical insight (the how?) Moral generalization in literature does not always come in forms reminiscent of the generalizations that are customary in moral philosophy. Narratives can evoke generalizing normative ideas and perspectives that are elsewhere put forward in theoretical form, but their range of generalizing ethical strategies is on the one hand much broader than this and on the other hand of a slightly different nature

Generality in Literature


than the generalizations involved in meta-ethical and normative theories of modern analytic moral philosophy (or of philosophy overall). One of the distinguishing features of literature in the context of moral philosophy is that it is often found to represent a different merging of fact and value, description and evaluation, than modern moral philosophy, which has strived to keep them separate. According to the well-known distinction by Bernard Williams (1985), moral concepts come in two categories: so called thin moral concepts like good, right, ought, which are purely evaluative, and thick moral concepts “such as treachery and promise and brutality and courage, which seem to express a union of fact and value” (ibid.: 129). I will look briefly into Williams’ discussion of these concepts before proceeding to questions concerning literature. According to Williams, one mistake of modern moral philosophy has been to focus unduly on the thin moral concepts, neglecting the thick ones, to the detriment of a general understanding of how moral language works. A further mistake has been to misconstrue the nature of the thick ones (ibid.: 129–30): The way these notions are applied is determined by what the world is like (for instance, by how someone has behaved), and yet, at the same time, their application usually involves a certain valuation of the situation, of persons or actions. Moreover, they usually (though not necessarily directly) provide reasons for action. Terms like this certainly do not lay bare the fact-value distinction. Rather, the theorist who wants to defend the distinction has to interpret the workings of these terms, and he does so by treating them as a conjunction of a factual and an evaluative element which in principle can be separated from one another.

The terms seem to express a union of fact and value, and they are analyzed by philosophers into a factual/descriptive content plus an evaluation like good. There is, in Williams’ account, more than one problem with interpreting thick moral concepts as description-plus-evaluation. First, the analysis does not hold, for the concepts collapse if one attempts to take them apart. There is nothing such as, for example, courage minus evaluation that would give us the mere descriptive content of the word. There is no value-neutral concept which is available to us when we remove evaluation. The fact-value distinction is, in Williams’ view, forced upon the concepts by philosophers with certain preconceptions, rather than found in language itself (ibid.: 130).


Literature and Moral Theory

Second, the very distinctive character of the thick concepts is, according to Williams, lost in such analysis. The evaluative job is expected to be done entirely by the thin moral aspect of the concept. Thus the moral or evaluative functions of these concepts are interpreted in terms dictated by how the thin concepts work (ibid.). But these concepts are, as has been argued, only one aspect of moral language and moral understanding. Third, thinking, like Williams does—that our ability to make competent and accurate moral judgments is dependent on our grasp of thick moral concepts and our competence in attributing them—it is vital that the thick concepts are not seen as morally derivative from the thin ones. To describe someone in terms of thick moral concepts is not like saying “he is thus and thus and that is good.” It is something quite different, which we must understand in its own right to be competent moral agents in a society; something more closely related to giving and understanding specific descriptions (with truth values) than to sharing thin evaluations like “this is good.” I will not here go into the pros and cons of Williams’ refusal of the “standard analysis,” but rather look at what kind of significance it has for how one enters moral philosophical thought, if one assumes that Williams is right. It means for one thing that re-evaluation in many cases requires fundamental redescription rather than merely changing positive moral words like “courage” to their presumed value-neutral or negative equivalents. It also means that we do not accept a picture where thin moral concepts account for the full moral significance of a situation. A great deal of the moral job is, in this view, done by substantial descriptions of people and events. It provides a qualitatively distinct way of formulating and expressing evaluative thought. In some cases the most precise description is fundamentally evaluative, and there may be no non-evaluative alternative that would describe the same factual constellation of things. Williams is merely talking about thick moral concepts, but, as I will argue, the thick moral quality of these concepts can be seen at work also in more extensive descriptive/evaluative formulations, propositions, narratives, etc. It is worth noting that attention to this kind of merging of the evaluative and the descriptive is not unique to Williams, but is found throughout the work of Iris Murdoch and is central for Samuel Goldberg (1993) and Nussbaum, for example, when they discuss the ethical significance of narrative literature. Geoffrey Galt Harpham (1992: 66) also notes the connection I discuss here between Williams’ discussion of thick concepts and the merging of fact and value in language, as it is put forward in the context of ethics/literature

Generality in Literature


discussions, but passes it by very swiftly with the contention that “by concentrating on a larger but still limited number of individual words, he [Williams] discourages attention to the more pervasive pressures exerted both by and on the individual through language use itself. He has, in fact, radically understated his case by suggesting that only a few words can claim thickness.” I agree with Harpham’s claim that Williams’ consideration of a limited family of concepts is insufficient to make sense of the evaluative/descriptive thickness of language more broadly. But unlike Harpham I see the case of Williams’ thick concepts as an illuminating starting point for looking at the merging of descriptive and evaluative aspects of language, which is brought to the fore by the ethics/literature discussion. In relation to narrative literature, thick moral concepts come into play in more than one way. Novels abound with thick concepts and the moral tones of a narrative are, due to the descriptive specificity of these concepts, painted more vividly with them than with thin ones. It can also be argued that a grasp of their full meaning is tied to narrative form in a special way. Virtues are only exhibited over time: a single laudable act or attitude may be a result of chance or arbitrary decision rather than true character. But something analogous can be claimed on behalf of other thick concepts as well. We may think that the meaning of keeping a promise in this complex world is only graspable through a number of narrative renderings of people who actually do keep promises, or fail to do so. Thus, narratives and thick moral concepts work towards moral understanding in a symbiotic manner. But this range of connections is not what I will discuss here. What I suggest is that the moral significance of a novel as a whole can be understood through an analogy with the way thick moral concepts work, exhibiting a similar intimate union of the normative and the descriptive. I will explain how. Thick moral concepts, as they function in Williams’ account, show how evaluation is inherent in the descriptive realm. When looking at what we call moral concepts, the moral or evaluative aspect is semantically overt: the words are hedged with a moral aspect and signal the presence of moral evaluation. But it is equally possible to express moral perspectives and evaluations in purely descriptive or narrative terms, without either thick or thin moral concepts being involved. This is noted e.g. by Nussbaum (1990: 131) in the way Henry James in The Golden Bowl reveals aspects of his protagonist’s moral posture through her way of comparing her husband to an art object. Narrative literature is essentially thick in the sense that it constructs, through description and narrative, a world where evaluations of characters and situations


Literature and Moral Theory

are not necessarily overtly marked by moral concepts. We can say that the text as a whole expresses a thick evaluation where the descriptive aspects cannot be separated from the evaluative ones without significant loss of meaning. The thick moral content of a text is in an important way independent of the overt moral expressions in the text, as the meanings of the latter may be reversed by irony or an unreliable narrator, etc. Now, there is reason not to push the analogy between Williams’ account of thick moral concepts and the moral thickness of literary works too far. A difference between how narrative literature and thick moral concepts work is found in the way the meanings of the latter, in Williams’ discussion, are bound to a non-reflective or pre-reflective state of living. Williams suggests—in a seminostalgic story, much reminiscent of the corresponding stories told by MacIntyre (1984) and Anscombe (1981)—that there once was moral knowledge that could be expressed in terms of thick moral concepts, but that the reflectiveness of modernity has destroyed the concepts that made such knowledge possible. Moral knowledge is lost, but what we have is good enough: “We can gain knowledge about, or around the ethical. Inside the ethical, by the same process, we may gain understanding” (Williams 1985: 168). Modern narrative literature as a thick medium of moral insight can only to a limited extent be regarded as communicating moral knowledge in the simple, immediate, unquestionable way that Williams envisages for thick moral concepts. On the one hand, narrative literature utilizes layers of very specific cultural understanding to communicate perspectives which are both descriptive and evaluative at the same time. The normative weight and significance of a narrative is intimately bound to the precision and accuracy of its descriptive efforts, its ability to catch something recognizable and yet striking. The more particular and complexly allusive a literary work is, the more of it will be lost on a reader who does not in some sense share the cultural codes within which it is produced. Here narrative literature resembles the Williamsian thick moral concepts in being intimately tied to a shared cultural context. On the other hand, a significant interpretive space is granted to a work of fiction even in its original context of appearance. To those works that survive over time and in translation, new layers of culturally specific meaning will be added when old layers lose their significance by no longer being understandable to their readership. The use of narrative to make moral claims or elucidate moral questions and points of view requires reflection and interpretation, and only in special cases where one and the same narrative is used repeatedly to convey the

Generality in Literature


same moral lesson can it work as a straightforward reminder of a moral point that is readily accepted as accurate. Thus, here the analogy between thick moral concepts and narrative literature comes to an end. It seems that narrative literature often expresses and transmits moral understanding precisely through the kind of reflective procedures which in Williams’ account are seen as destructive of moral knowledge proper and potentially unsettling for our notion of moral understanding. As Wayne Booth (1988) noted, the path to moral knowledge or understanding through literature is a complex project of reinterpreting, re-evaluating and reformulating. The (descriptive/evaluative) thickness of the moral contents of literary works considered here must also be distinguished from another kind of “thickness”: the fact that a literary work may be a dense package of different, even contradictory, descriptive/evaluative claims which may to some extent be taken apart and looked at separately. A narrative of some length is likely to provide a perspective on more than one moral issue. Particular narratives can be read as providing thick (descriptive/evaluative) moral expressions both concerning different moral issues and concerning mutually exclusive positions on one and the same question. As an example of the former, we may read Pride and Prejudice as a story about pride and prejudice, but also, like all of Austen’s novels, as a story about money and class, or about how a witty and virtuous girl shall rightly climb the social ladder. As an example of the latter, we may read Anna Karenina as the story of a strong woman who fights desperately against the limits to her happiness that patriarchal tyranny has set, or a story about what kind of disaster defiance of the social order rightly brings about. Through a disambiguating interpretation we come to the idea that a narrative says precisely “this,” something that we may not be able to paraphrase exactly. Thus disambiguated, the narrative works as a kind of ostension which is more specific than any simple statement. To unravel it we enter the path of literary criticism, and try to give form to our experience of reading and the bundle of description and evaluation we encounter in the text. This, perhaps, is what Nussbaum has in mind when talking about some novels as “an ineliminable part of moral philosophy” (1990: 49). This specific thick moral content of a novel operates in a manner analogous to the way thick moral concepts do, relying on a common life-world where such complex contents make moral and descriptive sense. Thus making moral sense of narratives—and making sense of our lives through narratives—requires active, analytic and critical inquiry. Without


Literature and Moral Theory

critical inquiry we do not necessarily get down to the thick moral contents of literary works, but remain at the level where most good novels seem to lack moral content while others, more clear-cut in their moral message, appear to operate with thin moral contents, merely hitting people on their heads with things like “racism is wrong.”

3.3  Ideas and perspectives (the how?) Many books enter their initial context of readers as unambiguous commentaries on moral and political questions and events. It is one of the everyday functions of narrative literature—in the hands of authors as well as in the hands of readers—to communicate moral, social, existential, and political claims. That Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, some decades ago, was interpreted by readers in terms of the Cold War era turned it into such a commentary quite independently of how this impression is actually brought about by the book, and also independently of authorial intention. That it is such a commentary is also quite independent of what other potential readings the book may generate over time. For a younger contemporary reader, the Cold War reading may not even be thought of and the work may find its ethical-political and existential anchorings in other historical movements, for example, a deteriorated anti-terrorism scenario. It could also—for example, by a suitably clueless teenager—be read as a clever story without any particular political significance. That some works are open to several different interpretations is what makes them survive over time. A book which is a direct commentary on recent political developments is often of little value for readers for whom the original context is lost. Part of what makes us value literary works as classics is that they can adjust to new groups of readers through time. But the openness to different readings may be of little importance at a time when a specific reading comes naturally and appears important for a certain group or generation of readers. I will use the term propositional idea contents for such contents of narratives that can be extracted and separated from the narrative in the form of propositions. What is distinctive to these idea contents is that they can be paraphrased in a fairly simple form. What the subject matter is, and what the narrative conveys, can be stated in a few sentences: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is about the wrongness of slavery”; “Oliver Twist is about the harm done to children in nineteenth century

Generality in Literature


industrial society”; “The Golden Bowl is about the importance of fine-tuned moral perception.” Discovering the variety of rhetorical strategies of fictional narrative works to convey unambiguous propositional idea contents for specific audiences is a complex task in its own right and I will not attempt it here. For the current purpose it suffices to say that narrative works are often considered complex statements of generalizing propositional idea contents of a moral or political kind; they are also considered to provide an “argument” for the adoption of such propositional ideas. But not all generalizations made by literary works are of this kind. A central thread followed by Nussbaum (1990), Eldridge (1989), Goldberg (1993) and McGinn (1997) is that literary works are needed in moral thought because they do something that cannot be done in plain philosophical text, by unambiguous statements and arguments. Beyond transmitting propositional idea contents a literary work generalizes through its choice of perspective. According to James O. Young (2001: 67), it is precisely by presenting perspectives that art makes its distinctive contribution to human knowledge, but there is no need to make claims concerning the proper or distinctive functions of art here. The point is simply that every work presents a perspective (or several perspectives) that it invites the reader to share, concerning the things and ideas it depicts. A literary work is never objective, although it may simulate objectivity, or gain different degrees of objectivity. A subjective selection is made even when no specific claims, evaluative or other, can be directly read off from the text. We may dwell on the concept of a perspective for a while. It is ambiguous here in a peculiar way, which is not noted by Young. It plays with two different visual metaphors, with two different directions of association. On the one hand, a perspective can be an angle of vision, what fits into one’s visual field when standing in a certain spot. On the other hand, it can be a filter on the lens, something that gives a slightly gray or yellow tone to everything that is shown, or makes some tones disappear. When talking about the perspective of a literary work, both metaphors are at play. A perspective offers a selection of things and makes other things disappear. The perspective determines what is highlighted and what is left out, how things are accentuated in proportion to each other.1 Cora Diamond’s example from Dickens which I mentioned in Chapter 2.1.2 is—due to its compact form—useful here again for illustrating how works of narrative literature are used to highlight an ethically significant perspective.


Literature and Moral Theory

“I remember Mr. Hubble as a tough high-shouldered old man, of a sawdusty fragrance, with his legs extraordinarily wide apart: so that in my short days I always saw some miles of open country between them when I met him coming up the lane” (Dickens, quoted in Diamond 1991: 299). This passage “shows us how the world looks to a small and helpless child” (ibid.). We may note here how the effect is achieved through focalization. The passage follows the gaze of this particular child, to present what could be thought of as the point of view of a child, more generally. Diamond notes that the presentation of the child’s point of view is related to a moral perspective, which we are invited to adopt. In Dickens’ narratives the moral urgency of the children’s conditions of living gives his tales an obvious moral significance. But Diamond emphasizes that there is a moral aim “even in passages which do not bear explicitly on treating a child well or badly” (ibid.). In her account, they show us a perspective of attentiveness, of what it means to attend to a child in a way that engages us. They represent “a particular style of affectionate interest in human things and imaginative engagement with them” (ibid.: 300). Thus, in this passage we are already invited to consider two perspectives, both of which exhibit a thick mixture of fact, evaluation and emotion; the perspective or point of view of the child, and, through contemplating it, the perspective of keen, interested human attention. It is important to note here that the distinction between presenting perspectives, and presenting propositional idea contents or arguments, should not be confused with a (surface-level) distinction between “telling” and “showing” in narrative texts, as discussed by Wayne Booth (1961/1983: Chapter 1). This latter distinction is primarily concerned with the surface form of how the contents are displayed through a text—a distinction between direct and indirect communication—while the distinction I made between propositional ideacontents and perspectives is concerned with what kind of contents are being displayed: the fruit of reading rather than the form of the text. For a narrative to be read as an unambiguous commentary on ethical or political issues it is not required that there should be any direct reference to this implied content. It does not require direct statement of the ideas in the work. Narratives rarely “mean” what they tell explicitly; any competent reader can make a distinction between the claims of the work and the (explicitly stated) claims in the work. Many unambiguously interpreted propositional idea contents are revealed in narrative literature through showing. We can find an example of

Generality in Literature


the former in any ironic work, such as Swift’s A Modest Proposal while the aforementioned Nineteen Eighty-Four serves to exemplify a work where propositional idea content is shown. Propositional idea contents and perspectives of narrative works are interrelated in important ways. The propositional idea contents arise against the background of an overall perspective of a work. Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin may, in its primary idea content, be about the wrongness of slavery, and be historically an influential and significant political contribution, it may still be found objectionable today because of its perspective, which, in addition to compassion has produced persistent stereotypes—for example, of what black people are like. To show people in a limiting light is hardly a part of the intended idea contents, but the text may still in a contemporary context reveal an objectionable tendency. The perspective offered by the text gives birth in a new context to propositional idea contents that cast a more uneasy light on the perspective presented. Here it is evident how thin the line is between what may count as a part of idea contents and what may count as a part of perspective. What is first only a potentiality, inherent in the perspective of a work, may in a different reading take the form of a propositional idea contents that forces itself upon the reader. To express a perspective we often take to formulations of propositional ideas. Thus we can come close to paraphrasing a perspective expressed by a narrative work in direct propositional terms, although the propositional ideas used to approximate the perspective will never exhaust it, and may sometimes seem completely unsuitable or insufficient for the task. Now, my reason for dwelling on the distinction between perspectives and propositional idea contents may need to be made clearer here. In the case of the latter it ought to be evident that we are dealing with a form of generalization. The individual work of literature is presented as expressing a general idea. If the propositional idea contents are of a moral kind, we are dealing with moral generalization. But also a perspective, presented by a literary work, is generalizing in its own right. It gives a guideline for how particular presented events should be interpreted, and suggests what kinds of propositional idea contents can appropriately be ascribed to the text; it offers types, stereotypes and classifications, and sets a tone for how we are expected to react. In contemporary writings on ethics/literature it is emphasized that the ethical significance of literary works goes beyond the propositional idea contents and arguments that can be attributed to literary texts, and that the distinctive


Literature and Moral Theory

contribution of literature to moral philosophy is to show perspectives that make a difference for ethical thought. When for example Nussbaum (1990, 1995), Diamond (1991) and Murdoch (1997) bring forth both the importance of particularizing moral vision and issues concerning perspective as important parts of their overall positions, an impression may arise that thinking of the ethical contribution of literary works in terms of perspectives, rather than propositional ideas, would in some sense be less generalizing, or figure on a level which is closer to the particularity of lived experience. Both the notion of particularizing vision and that of a perspective operate with a visual metaphor, which has been of importance in making room for particularizing insights in Anglo-American ethics. But it should be noted that we can see general patterns as well as particular objects, and that the scope of the metaphor extends beyond the particularizing discourse where it has been most at home. Thus, another way of drawing the line between the ethical contributions of philosophical texts and literature suggests itself. Rather than thinking of the former as the generalizing medium and the latter as the particularizing one, we may see philosophy as a medium of explicit argument and narrative literature as one where morally relevant claims and perspectives, both particular and generalizing, are, above all, shown. What we still need before proceeding is a bridge back to the discussion about narrative literature as a thick medium of moral thought. If we look at the propositional idea contents of narrative literature, we may note that some are overtly moral while others are clearly factual or descriptive. Perspectives again, being ways/angles of looking at phenomena, are essentially concerned with both factual and evaluative aspects of the world. If one is inclined to accept Williams’ account of thick moral concepts as unanalyzable into a factual and an evaluative aspect, one is not likely to object to the idea that the moral contribution of narrative literature resists this kind of analysis. A perspective presented by a literary work proposes a way of viewing; a literary work invites us to share a way of looking. In a given way of looking a particular selection of phenomena is given salience over other things that are perceptible (or potentially perceptible). Arguably, such a selection is never valueneutral but involves judgments of the relative importance and value of the things perceived. Whereas the Williamsian thick merging of fact/description and value is controversial in core analytic ethics (see e.g. Blackburn 1992; Gibbard 1992), some version of it is more or less universally accepted, though to some extent

Generality in Literature


tacitly, in discussions concerning the ethical significance of literature. This may in this context have to do with the great influence of Iris Murdoch, whose work emphasizes the inseparability of fact/description and evaluation. Murdoch, whose contribution to the ethics/literature discussion I will discuss more thoroughly in Chapter 4, pushes this merging almost so far as to leave no room for a thoroughly non-evaluative description of things in a human world. But it could also be argued that narrative literature suggests a thick merging of description and evaluation, and leads the philosopher along this path. Redescription or renarration here means re-evaluation, and re-evaluation means that a slightly different narrative must be presented. The evaluative and descriptive potentials of language in narrative literature are essentially intertwined so that we cannot alter one without having the other one altered as well. Accepting this claim in the case of literature need not imply any claims concerning the ultimate inseparability of description and evaluation, fact and value, in other forms of philosophical thought (e.g. moral theory), but it smoothes the way for considering Williams’ conception of thick moral concepts as business as usual rather than as some kind of anomaly.

3.4  In dialogue with the implied author (the who?) In determining and assessing the moral content of a narrative work it is unavoidable that a large part of the content that is assessed depends on the interpretation of a specific reader. This is one of the marked differences between the conventions of reading and writing literary and philosophical texts. The question “What does the author of this book mean to say?” is normally considered decisive in the case of a philosophical text.2 In the case of literary texts the connection between the meaning of a text and the authorial intention is less straightforward. The authorial intention may be interesting, but is not as central a source of significance for the work. As an artwork, a literary work is to a higher degree cut off from the author when it reaches the audience, and is interpreted on its own terms. The contemporary ethics/literature discussion treats many different kinds of narratives with varying degrees of moral content or aim. It includes literary works from Greek tragedies to contemporary novels and short stories, and a broad range of narrative styles, including dramatic narration, the strong authorial perspective of nineteenth century novels, the experiential concretion


Literature and Moral Theory

of modernism, etc. The general impression of contemporary writings on ethics and literature is that the narrative style in itself does little to determine the moral or moral philosophical contents or implications of a literary piece. Many kinds of text can provide substance for ethical discussion and inquiry. This is important to underline, as there has been a tendency in twentieth century literary theory to consider a strong authorial voice a vehicle of moralism and connect the lack of such voice, in authors like Flaubert, Joyce, and Woolf, with a higher degree of neutrality and objectivity (discussed by e.g. Booth 1961/1983: 67–77). But as Booth argues, the banning of a strong authorial voice, furthered by modernist authors and critics alike, did not succeed in effacing the moral/evaluative perspective from literature. Moral commitment does not depend on a particular form of presenting, and moral and evaluative commentary can equally well be given indirectly, often unwittingly: through the selection of scenes, through focalization, through rhetorical nuances, or even by choice of topic or through the aspects of discourse that are purposively avoided. Although the overall moral or evaluative perspective of a narrative work is neither to be associated with an overt narrator, nor with an authorial intention, we may still have use for the notion of an agency in the work to whom the perspective can be ascribed. In a sense we do not hear the voice of the author in a novel; what we hear is something else, something that is completely derivable from the work itself. When the literary work is cut off from the intentions of the real-life author, and given autonomy as a work of art, it gains a voice of its own. In late twentieth century literary theory this voice has been called the implied author, a term coined by Booth (1961/1983: 71). The implied author is normally seen as differing from the narrator by not being overtly manifested in the work as a narrator’s voice (although the points of view of overt narrator and implied author may sometimes merge). In works where there is no narrator, or the narrator is unreliable or ironically portrayed, the distinction becomes particularly clear. Again, the implied author differs from the real-life author by being completely based on the work. The implied author is the sum of the values and beliefs put forward by a literary work as a whole. Although the idea of an implied author is a theoretical construct, it is a useful entity to consider in the context of moral philosophical discussions on literature, not least because many real-life authors who are of interest for this discussion would not have seen their work as contributions to such a discussion, nor as making reference to moral issues in the first place.

Generality in Literature


The implied author is normally considered to be work-specific; the spirit expressed by one work. As Booth (ibid.: 72) puts it concerning Henry Fielding: . . . no single version of Fielding emerges from reading the satirical Jonathan Wild, the two great “comic epics in prose,” Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, and the troublesome hybrid, Amelia. There are many similarities among them, of course; all of the implied authors value benevolence and generosity, all of them deplore self-seeking brutality. . . . But when we descend from this level of generality to look at the particular ordering of values in each novel, we find great variety.

This sense of variety is caught by the principle of ascribing an implied author of its own to each individual work. But it is not unreasonable, in some cases, to name an implied author which several works by the same author have in common. To the extent that Henry James’ later novels are read as exploring one and the same range of values and commitments, they could be an example of this. This is at least the spirit of Nussbaum’s reading when she states that she will “only talk about The Golden Bowl and James’s later style” (1990: 138), detecting a commonality of perspective between his late novels. Similarly one may, as Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) to some extent does, read Dostoevsky’s oeuvre as a path toward a realization of the polyphonic ideal which is most fully realized in his last work, The Brothers Karamazov. In other cases the works of a single author have so little in common in terms of underlying value commitments or perspective that it is more interesting to consider their inherent commitments separately. It is useful to consider the implied author—as the locus or source of the work’s commitments—as the “person” with whom the moral philosophers primarily enter into dialogue when addressing the moral or moral philosophical contents of a literary work. The concept of implied author differs from the concept of perspective, as used above, in two respects. On the one hand, it applies to the work overall, while one single work may invite its readers to share several different perspectives. The implied author, or overall perspective, may either be neutral or ambivalent in relation to these, or stand behind one of them above the others. For example, again, The Brothers Karamazov is split between the perspectives of the three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. The split is radical: not just a distribution of focalization but three radically different temperaments and worldviews. The implied author of the work is not thoroughly impartial in relation to the perspectives and a moral


Literature and Moral Theory

preference for Alyosha may (in some readings) be evident. But the overall perspective does not choose between the viewpoints, but rather encompasses them all. On the other hand, the concept of an implied author is useful as it creates an imaginary persona in the work, the one who is, so to speak, responsible for the overall perspective. This is convenient as it helps to place the “perspective of the work” on the “authorial scale,” between an internal narrator and a real-life author. It gives a form to the idea that we enter into conversation, a dialogue, with works of literature. Any philosophical discussion of a literary work rests on a complex pattern of dialogue. At the center there are the people and events portrayed, real or fictional, but they are not accessible as such. It is easy when discussing a literary example to create an illusion of the philosopher and her reader as engaged with a particular case. But the philosopher—as a reader of literature—approaches the events through a dialogue with an implied author. The implied author is in a sense the philosopher of the literary work—and his commitments are to be assessed as critically as views presented in standard philosophical texts—and not only by aesthetic criteria. The implied author is the locus of the generalizations which a literary work invites us to share, often under the disguise of only telling something very specific and peculiar. When Nussbaum calls upon the work of Henry James to highlight the particularity of moral judgment, she utilizes a double method, addressing simultaneously both the very particular narratives and the generalizing moral and philosophical intentions of the author. The pattern is indeed very interesting for it highlights a way of proceeding which is as problematic as it is, perhaps, intuitively appealing and even necessary, when investigating the moral content of a novel. A central aspect of her argument for including James’ works in moral philosophy is the claim that Henry James’ conception of his own authorial task, as expressed in his critical prefaces, is expressed in “language which brings him into intimate connection with the Aristotelian enterprise” (Nussbaum 1990: 139). Nussbaum enters into a dialogue, not only with his works, but also with his critical commentary, and finds a philosopher in James the critic as well as in James the literary writer. The one and the same philosopher, that is. Nussbaum seems to talk about Henry James himself, the author, as the agency behind the moral philosophical contributions of his work. But she is also very

Generality in Literature


particular about localizing the agency in a literary work to a text-bound entity, separate from the real-life person who wrote the book (ibid.: 9): It is important to distinguish, here, three figures: (1) the narrator or the authorcharacter (together with this character’s conception of the reader); (2) the authorial presence that animates the text taken as a whole (together with the corresponding implicit picture of what a sensitive and informed reader will experience); and (3) the whole life of the real-life author (and reader), much of which has no causal relation to the text and no relevance to the proper reading of the text. The first and the second pair are what will concern me here: that is, I will be concerned with intentions and thoughts that are realized in the text, and that may appropriately be seen in the text, not with other thoughts and feelings the real-life author and reader may find themselves having.

The authorial presence in point (2) in this quotation corresponds to what I have been discussing as the implied author, and heeding this note we must consider Nussbaum’s references to the author/philosopher James as references to an implied author. But it is worth noting that her appeal to the author’s prefaces compromises the idea of the implied author as an agency which is completely based on the literary text. If we keep to a strict notion of work-specific, text-based, implied authors, James prefaces are reduced to an equal standing with any critical/ explicatory commentary. But they are appealed to by Nussbaum to strengthen her claims concerning the philosophical intentionality of James’ literary work in a way which suggests that they are not to be seen as just any old commentary. One way of making sense of this way of proceeding would be to think that the author’s commentaries are particularly reliable as they spring from a thorough knowledge of the work, and are thus particularly illuminating. But this does not grant them interpretive authority. Alternatively, we can assume that the prefaces are part of James’ literary oeuvre, and that the late novels and the critical prefaces share an implied author, which would put the prefaces on the same level with the novels, rather than a meta-level. It is not clear how Nussbaum would address these concerns. What should be clear though is that the problem here, insofar as it is a problem, is caused by the fact that Nussbaum is relying on two different types of text— literary work and critical preface—which are interpreted according to different conventions, especially concerning the responsibility of the author. The same problem could not emerge when she discusses Proust (e.g. ibid.: 245–59; 2001), as the narratives and essayistic reflections in his case are both internal to the


Literature and Moral Theory

literary text, and she can thus consistently discuss the ideas of a work-specific implied author and author-narrator. Nussbaum’s double appeal, to literary text and authorial preface, is aided by the fact that the authorial intention expressed in James’ critical prefaces converges, in her reading, with her interpretation of the implied author in his literary works. The appeal to the prefaces illuminates her reading of the novels in terms of moral philosophical intent, and strengthens her case when making a place for James among the moral philosophers. As a moral philosopher James is, in Nussbaum’s reading—as expressed in novels as well as auto-critical prefaces— especially concerned with the particularity of perception and the uncodifiability and personal resonance of every moral situation. Nussbaum, thus, does not fail to make a distinction here between the implied author, who is confined to the literary work, and the real author, James, who attempts to express his authorial intention in his auto-critical prefaces. But she uses this distinction in a way which allows her to appeal to the author’s own commentary on his work as a source of insight into what is supposed to be found in the texts themselves. What Nussbaum achieves, by blurring the borderline between implied author and the author’s auto-critical prefaces, is a philosophical agency which is less of a construct than an implied author, and more like an ordinary philosopher who expresses his views in his texts. We find a slightly different interpretive reliance on the (real-life) author in Rorty’s (1989) discussion on Nabokov and cruelty. Nabokov most emphatically declares that the only sound purpose of art is to create aesthetic bliss, and rejects literature with other purposes as “topical trash” (ibid.: 144), but Rorty attempts to poke a hole in this intention by showing how Nabokov’s novels can be read as books that teach us how to avoid cruelty (the superior liberal goal in Rorty’s scheme). He does not do this against the grain of the real-life Nabokov’s intentions, but engages with Nabokov’s authorial personality, views concerning literature, and idiosyncratic moral temperament, to show a special attention to the suffering of others and the avoidance of cruelty at the very heart of his aesthetic pursuits. “The curious, sensitive artist will be just the paradigm of morality because he is the only one who always notices everything” (ibid.: 159). Although Nabokov, in Rorty’s account, does not fully manage to believe in this connection between compassion and artistic skill, it is still importantly there as a central pursuit of his work. Thus Nabokov’s works, without being turned into novels of ideas, become examples of books that attempt to make us better people.

Generality in Literature


Rorty is here concerned with evidence of moral significance in the real-life author’s project, and his discussion emphasizes how literary authors are not always the best judges of the moral import of their work. But it is plain that the moral or moral philosophical import of Nabokov’s novels does not depend on the correctness of Rorty’s biographical tale. If they can make us more perceptive of the suffering of others or discuss such perceptiveness in a way which is of interest to moral philosophy, they do so in their own right, quite independently of whether Rorty’s argumentative maneuver succeeds in establishing the connection between Nabokov’s ethical personality and his works. The implied author of his work can thus, in a plausible reading, be seen as committed to the avoidance of cruelty, quite independently of the biographical discussion. Auto-critical prefaces, postscripts and essays, along with biographical details, can be read for guidance and a deepened interest in the literary works, but they lack the kind of interpretive authority which would make them decisive for moral philosophical discussion of the works. Thus the author’s moral aim should not be what is primarily looked for when the moral philosophical significance is weighed. Simultaneously, the picture of the morally neutral narrative must be discarded. Granting a role for an implied author—an inevitable evaluative presence, with ethical commitments and projects that reach beyond the intentions of the real-life author—leaves little room for the idea of literary works as neutral documents on the particularity of human existence. This is, of course, an issue that literary criticism and literary theory have been wrestling with through the ages, and in these fields it is difficult to be unaware of the artificial and non-neutral aspects of any literary work. But it is nonetheless worth noting here, due to the current context of discussion. When discussion on narrative literature is transposed to the context of moral philosophy, a large part of the intended audience will not be equally at home in the discussions of literary criticism as, for example, Nussbaum and Rorty are. The change of focus may push some common literary critical considerations into the background to make room for philosophically convenient practices, such as that of using literature as a stand in for real life. Considering a literary work as a particular picture of reality may seduce the philosopher into ignoring the necessarily selective patterns of presentation that commit the work to generalizing beliefs and values. But in spite of the risk, the contemporary, particularistically inclined moral philosopher’s craving for real, particular life has not led to a


Literature and Moral Theory

global neglect of moral generalizations in the works where the particular life has been sought. Looking at the analytic ethics/literature discussion of the late twentieth century there is a thoroughgoing emphasis on both the particularity of human experience conveyed through literature, and the more generalizing moral and moral philosophical insights and commitments expressed by the implied authors of different novels. The type characters and ethical genres that I will discuss in the remainder of this chapter provide typical examples of the latter. Moreover these aspects—the particular and the general—are, more often than not, interdependent. The most particular observation, placed in the frame of a literary work, becomes a tool for the generalizations of the implied author of that work. In this way Humbert’s inability to notice the suffering of the Barber of Kasbeam resonates against the general moral importance of being a person “on whom nothing is lost,”3 and the generalizing equation of social imperceptiveness with potential cruelty.

3.5  Moral types: type characters (the what?) Narrative literature relates to the world by picking out features of reality that are useful for different purposes of depiction and understanding. One central way of organizing reality in narrative literature is the creation and representation of types of persons, situations, events, and processes. This is most clear in fairy tales, fables and detective stories, for example, where the gallery of types and situations is to some extent pre-given by the genre, but I will argue that it is—and is found to be—central also in novels and quite as central in contemporary ethical readings of novels. I will here discuss types of character, as this is the most common kind of moral type-discussion on the contemporary Anglo-American ethics/literature scene. Many moral philosophers have noted how characters are used in narrative literature to enact different moral temperaments, as well as different moral positions familiar from moral philosophy. That fictional characters represent types does not necessarily mean that they represent something common. Some types are easily identifiable, even though they are extremely rare, or non-existent in real life, like the type of holy boy instantiated by Alyosha Karamazov, or the utilitarian instantiated by Dickens’ Gradgrind (as discussed by Nussbaum 1991). Some types are identifiable because

Generality in Literature


they represent identifiable ideas and some because they represent identifiable temperaments. Many are combinations of these, representing ideas as well as temperaments. In both cases we are dealing with a kind of generalization; not only this individual but also, and essentially, this kind of individual.4 That a character is a clear representative of a type does not necessarily make him less particular and lifelike for readers. Similarly, that a character does not allow a characterization in terms of types is no guarantee of his particularity, but may equally well make him appear blurry and unskillfully created. The use of character types is merely one of the instruments at a writer’s disposal, and it can be used for a variety of purposes, both for individuating and for generalizing ones. In spite of this, it is a form of generalization in its own right, and one that is repeatedly referred to as such in contemporary moral philosophical commentaries on narrative literature. A focus on moral type characters is central to Martha Nussbaum’s (1990: 148–65) discussion of the characters of Bob and Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl. Here these two characters represent two distinct types of temperament that provide them with different moral strengths and vulnerabilities. “Bob Assingham is a man devoted to rules and to general conceptions. He permits himself neither surprise nor bewilderment—in large part because he does not permit himself to see particularity” (ibid.: 157). Fanny again “takes fine-tuned perception to a dangerously rootless extreme” (ibid.: 158). Following the proceedings of young Maggie, the Prince and Charlotte, Fanny lets her imagination be stirred to an extreme of undue involvement and subsequent guilt, while Bob’s more arid moral perspective proves altogether inapt to address the situation. Fanny’s strength lies in her imaginative capacity and keen human interest, but unchecked by the firmness of principle these good features are open to irresponsibility. Bob again is orderly and principled, but his lack of imagination causes many morally significant details to pass him by without notice. Together they can create a more adequate perspective: “James shows us how a shared moral ‘basis’, a responsible vision, can be constructed through the dialogue of perception and rule” (ibid.: 158). The moral profile of Hyacinth Robinson in The Princess Casamassima is discussed by Nussbaum (1990: 195–217) in terms reminiscent of those used for Fanny Assingham. Whereas Fanny is a relatively privileged older lady with too much time on her hands and Hyacinth is a young, intelligent bookbinder who dreams of intellectual grandeur in his sparse free time, their basic moral types are closely related: they are imaginative people, with too little practical good sense and principle to keep them from trouble. And just as Fanny finds her moral


Literature and Moral Theory

other half in Bob Assingham, Hyacinth finds a rule-bound, commonsense counterpart in his childhood friend Millicent Henning. Maggie Verver, the heroine of The Golden Bowl, is also presented as a moral type on a scale between principled and intuitive morality, who struggles with her type-specific problems. In her case it is the shortcomings of “Kantian” principled morality which form the central issue. Maggie, in Nussbaum’s reading, starts off with high standards of moral purity, as a rigid and slightly naïve moral type, but comes successively to see the limits of such morality, and to understand how it must be checked by a more sensitive perception of other people and an acceptance of imperfection in oneself. A clear pattern of thought evolves through these characters: a tension and a dialogue between a principled Kantian perspective and a sensitive/imaginative morality of perception, both of which, in a due balance, are necessary for the flourishing of these characters, and arguably, of anyone. Here it becomes clear how Nussbaum in two different ways makes untenable the particularist and antitheoretical interpretation of her early writings (Clarke and Simpson 1989; Putnam 1983), on the one hand by explicitly underlining the equal importance of “the Kantian account” and the perceptive/intuitive one, and on the other hand by utilizing, for the making of this point, a highly generalizing aspect of James’ novels: his systematic use of moral types. In her reading the complex and highly ambiguous texture of James’ late novels is disambiguated to support her analysis of where the central challenge of morality, both personal and theoretical, is to be found: the joint contribution and proper proportioning of principle and particular perception. Once we start looking for this kind of ethical type-reading of novels, it seems to be found everywhere. Emma Rooksby’s (2005) ethical reading of the eighteenth century novella Three Women by Isabelle de Charrière deals with a problem closely related to Nussbaum’s. The novella presents four characters who each live according to a different moral code. Emilie, a noblewoman who has escaped from the French Revolution, is a moral intuitionist. Josephine, Emilie’s maidservant, who due to her independent means ends up supporting Emilie after the escape, “endorses no moral theory and is suspicious of people who do.” Constance, who settles in the town where they live, is a “sophisticated empiricist utilitarian.” Theobald, whom Emilie will eventually marry, “is a thoroughgoing Kantian.” In Rooksby’s account “Much of the action in Three Women is generated by characters employing their chosen ethical theories, and then ending up in trouble as a result” (ibid.: 9). The propositional idea contents (to use my tentative vocabulary as introduced before) of the novella are two: first, that “however conceptually adequate any

Generality in Literature


moral theory may be, it will often fail to produce good behavior in those who endorse it,” and second, that “one may be a good person despite failing to measure up to the ideals of any particular moral theory, so long as one possesses a good character and has some sense of morality” (ibid.). Rooksby’s overall conclusion concerning the novella’s contribution to moral thought is more negative toward theory than Nussbaum’s readings of James. But it is important to note that the conclusion is reached through reliance on theoretical constructs: not merely by showing the non-generalizability of reallife morality, but by playing the different generalizing (theoretical) perspectives of the character types against each other, to the conclusion that “characters make moral progress because they have and employ the moral emotions, such as friendship, loyalty and empathy” (ibid.: 17), rather than by actually relying on theoretical viewpoints. Thus, theoretical implications of the characters play an important instrumental role in how the conclusion is arrived at. Another ethical type-reading, even more distinctly virtue ethical in tone, is Karen Stohr’s (2006) discussion of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, already touched upon in Chapter 1.2.2. Investigating the role of the Aristotelian virtue of phronesis in the novel, Stohr suggests that two of its characters, Marianne Dashwood and Mrs. Jennings, represent two ways of how an “inadequate imaginative capacity can impede the exercise of practical wisdom” (ibid.: 379), while Elinor Dashwood represents phronesis in full (ibid.). In this discussion the moral typing of the characters is not, as in the former cases, in any straightforward way connected to distinct theoretical positions. The interrelation between imagination and phronesis here at stake is rather an internal issue raised by a broad virtue ethical perspective than an issue between frameworks. Still, Stohr’s argument, like Nussbaum’s, rests on a picture where different temperament types run the risk of different moral mistakes. “Mrs. Jennings is a woman of considerable moral worth,” and “judges as she ought in all the important things” (ibid.: 384), but lacks the sensitivity that would give her full command over her moral conduct. She seeks entertainment in the love affairs of the young people around her, and believes that she is actually promoting their good by her gossiping and teasing. Her cheerful vulgarity contains no malice, but her occasional insensitivity causes both pain and trouble. In Stohr’s reading, she “suffers from an impoverished moral imagination” (ibid.: 385). Marianne again, superior to Mrs. Jennings in terms of intellect and sensitivity, sees it appropriate to let herself be guided by her strong emotions and headstrong opinions. Although her “capacities for imagination are considerable, she is ineffective in


Literature and Moral Theory

the direction of her imagination” (ibid.: 391). Rushing to conclusions, unable to see that the world is not always as it seems to her, she often ends up exhibiting an equal narrowness to that of Mrs. Jennings in her understanding of the moral demands of the situations she finds herself in. Elinor’s rich imaginative capacity, on her side, is guided by her prudence and her constant concern for others. Her virtue depends on her ability to check her inclinations by the use of practical judgment. Rather than representing different theoretical perspectives, their respective character types illustrate one and the same moral issue: the importance of moral imagination and how the imaginative capacity requires the complement of practical wisdom to be fully at an agent’s disposal. Very close to Nussbaum’s discussions in Love’s Knowledge concerning the Aristotelian emphasis of James, and the emphasis on imagination in his scheme, Stohr uses here a slightly different palette of moral types than the ones discussed by Nussbaum. Most centrally we have no strictly Kantian character here, nor, thus, a treatment of the risks of such perspective. The comparative rigidity of Elinor in her sister’s and mother’s eyes is merely due to the inability of the less virtuous to recognize true virtue (ibid.: 382). Elinor and Marianne are equally rule bound in their conduct, but Marianne’s choice of principles is not guided by as good a capacity of judgment as Elinor’s. Toward the happy end of the novel we find Marianne—without losing her particular temperament—much improved, both concerning the scope of her imagination and her use of phronesis, and we may trustingly allow her the happiness of a good and wealthy husband, and a handsome estate. One more example will seal my discussion of moral type characters. Richard Rorty’s (1989) reading of Nabokov’s Lolita, though careful to avoid the most obvious generalist moral conclusions in relation to the novel, also makes a central point of identifying the moral type of Humbert Humbert. A short passage narrated, like the whole book, in Humbert’s voice, crystallizes his outlook in Rorty’s reading: In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easelled photograph among the ancient grey lotions, that the moustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years. Nabokov, quoted in Rorty 1989: 162

Generality in Literature


Humbert is unable to engage with the perspective of the barber. His shock does not relate to the pain of the old man, but is caused by his becoming aware of his prior inattentiveness, to which he does not seem to give much moral significance. He is in this reading an extreme case, the archetype of the person who is unable to notice anything of human interest in his surroundings that is not directly related to his own goals and projects. Although he is sensitive and intelligent, his capacities are entirely used for his personal search for bliss, which causes blindness to everything that is not related to it. This very same blindness is, in Rorty’s view, what makes him able to live his life with Lolita, depending on her for his personal bliss, oblivious of her particular self. His moral type is not that of the child molester but that of the morally blind person: “. . . the moral is not to keep one’s hands off little girls but to notice what one is doing, and in particular to notice what people are saying. For it might turn out, it very often does turn out, that people are trying to tell you that they are suffering” (Rorty 1989: 164). Humbert’s type does not in Rorty’s reading represent a moral theory, or an aspect of a moral theory, but rather a moral disorder or disability, which a certain kind of reader may recognize in himself. It is notable that all the works I have here considered as examples of generalizing through character types are simultaneously constitutive of the emphasis on particularity, perception, and imagination described in Chapters 1 and 2. This suggests that moral generalization is not done away with in these discussions, but is transposed to another mode of presentation. This mode is less conclusive in form due to a certain interpretive openness, but is no less generalizing, and is no less normative in what it suggests for the improvement and elucidation of moral thought and conduct. Now, how do these type-readings relate to ethical theories? On the one hand, as in the cases of Rooksby and Nussbaum, the character types are constructed in line with different theoretical positions and the characters’ failures and triumphs can thus be read as indirect arguments for or against the theoretical frameworks they represent and personify. Thus the discussion on literary works can be seen as a different mode of going on with the theoretical discussions of moral philosophers. As Rooksby (2005: 7) suggests, writing in the narrative form may in the case of de Charrière have been a strategic choice, due to eighteenth century publishing policies, as women were broadly considered unfit to write philosophical treatises, whereas gender was not an obstacle to writing narrative literature.


Literature and Moral Theory

But, on the other hand, the formulation of ethical generalizations in terms of types is, in its own right, a different way of conceptualizing moral ideas, which in its way is no less systematic, orderly, and generalizing than moral theory. Only some of the type-characters we encounter in literature are understandable as representatives of theoretical positions. Although the connection between some literary characters and moral theories provides a link between moral theory and a narrative mode of presenting, it is important to note that most of the narratives discussed above do not rely on this connection to be able to treat moral problems in a reflective and organized way, nor do the moral philosophers who discuss philosophically interesting features of narratives need to make reference to ethical theories.

3.6  Moral genres (the what?) Overemphasizing the particularizing powers of narrative may tempt us to forget that many types and genres of narrative are designed to serve a generalizing, normative moral aim. I will here consider two kinds of type stories with moral relevance which have been used and discussed in contemporary discussion on ethics/literature. The first one is the parable, which I will discuss in relation to Peter Winch’s analysis of the Good Samaritan. The second is the formation story, most prominently alive in the Bildungsroman tradition (broadly conceived), which is a central carrier of many of the concerns of the neo-Aristotelian revival, steeped in genre-specific expectations that create a framework for moral generalization.

3.6.1  The parable A parable, even when it can, in some readings, accomplish descriptive depth and complexity, is normative in its aim. It is a lesson in narrative form. Its strength compared to the explicit moralism is not that it leaves the moral aim or lesson open, but rather that it convinces the audience by letting them figure out the lesson for themselves. Passing on some of the intellectual work to the listener or reader can be a supreme pedagogical tool; a story convinces through capturing, entertaining, and engaging, without argument. It can also produce a more deeply felt commitment to the value or norm or way of judging or seeing that is put forward, than explicit argument would, as the process of interpretation

Generality in Literature


may also work as a process of making the content one’s own; of digesting it, so to speak. A parable contains a specific moral message, just like any set of rules or any normative theory does. It is not infinitely open for interpretation and reinterpretation like many other stories. A parable generates norms or attitudes which are, rather, open for application and reapplication to a changing world. Once the moral lesson is lost, or the connection to the lesson is not made by people in a predictable way when they hear the story, it has ceased to work as a parable. Or, insofar as the lesson which is attached to the parable has changed considerably over time, we have, in a sense, now a different parable than the one which was before. This characterization could be offered to point out some differences between parables and other narratives, for example, novels. Clearly this picture may simplify the interpretive work that goes into making sense of the lesson in a parable. But varying interpretations and changes in interpretation over time do not change the fact that a parable is, on every occasion when it is told as a parable, essentially a generalizing, normative, ethical tool. Against the background of these considerations we should expect that parables are not the most likely vessel for the kind of particularizing considerations which have been central for the turn towards literature in contemporary ethics. But there is indeed a case of this kind of use of a parable which is of some interest here. Peter Winch, in search of narrative examples in ethics, turns to the parable of the Good Samaritan (1987: 154–66). He asks the reader to attend to the structure of the parable. It begins with a lawyer asking Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks him to consult the law, and the lawyer does so: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, . . . and thy neighbour as thyself.” Still not satisfied the lawyer goes on to ask: “And who is my neighbour?” To this Jesus replies with the story of the man who fell among thieves and was neglected first by a priest and then by a Levite, before he is finally taken care of by a Samaritan. Then Jesus asks, “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?” “He that shewed mercy on him,” says the lawyer. Then said Jesus unto him, “Go and do thou likewise” (Luke 19: 25–37, in Winch 1987: 154–5). Jesus is pressed to explicate the law, but “instead of answering with a definition or a set of criteria, Jesus tells a story. Nor does he extract a definition or a criterion from the story but instead confronts his interlocutor with a further counter


Literature and Moral Theory

question concerning the story itself. When this is answered, he simply gives an injunction (‘Go and do thou likewise’)” (ibid.: 155). Now what is so remarkable about this? Winch finds a number of things of interest that seem to mock the lawyer’s expectations. One thing is that Jesus does not attempt to provide criteria for recognizing a neighbor, but suggests rather “that his question is not one that can be answered in that way” (ibid.: 156). The Samaritan’s recognition is not based on criteria; it does not involve calculation like the Levite’s, but is immediate. “Nothing intervenes between the Samaritan’s taking in the situation and his compassionate reaction” (ibid.). Further, Jesus does not invite the lawyer to extract suitable criteria himself. Instead, he turns the tables and asks “Which of these three was neighbour unto him that fell among thieves?” Winch underlines that this is curious because the original question seemed to be about who would be the Samaritan’s neighbor. The point here is that the relationship is reciprocal. It seems that Jesus, rather than explicating the law in greater detail, is inviting the lawyer to share a certain perspective on how to relate to other people: “recognizing someone as a fellow human being is in a certain way inseparable from behaving towards him as a fellow human being” (ibid.: 156). The law will not become clear to the lawyer by being explicated in further detail, but only if he stops asking certain questions and enters a realm of reciprocal, unhesitating compassion which the law essentially is about. Answering the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’, or: ‘Who was neighbour to the wounded man?’, has to take the form of a practical response. It ‘has to be’ because anything arrived at in another way would not be an answer to the question. . . . It is tempting to say that we are all responding to the same thing: to whatever it is that falls under the concept ‘fellow human being’; but this, though it is not wrong, misleadingly suggests that we have some access to this otherwise than through such responses. Whereas what we have to do, I think, is to describe the character of the response itself more helpfully. Ibid.: 157

And thus Winch goes on to describe the reaction, noting features like the necessity of helping, as perceived by the Samaritan, the purity of his compassion, etc. Now several things of interest open up in this discussion. First, Winch underlines that the contribution of the parable is not an alternative, perhaps rhetorically effective way of providing criteria for recognition of other people and for good action. It is something different; it is an invitation to a different mode of viewing the situation. This comes very close to Nussbaum’s claims for

Generality in Literature


Henry James’ novels, as well as to Diamond’s use of the Dickens example mentioned in 3.3. The narrative mode and the open questions reveal a different perspective which needs to be conveyed precisely in that mode. The easy way back to a more explicit (propositional) generalization is barred by the fact that any such generalization (“an attitude toward a fellow human being” for example) will only approximate the insight, and potentially neglect its specific nature. But in spite of finding a more particularizing path to the moral theme of the parable of the Good Samaritan, avoiding generalizing expressions that do not take us all the way, there is little doubt in Winch’s discussion that the parable still expresses a general moral which is supposed to be the same for all those who understand it correctly, and which is supposed to extend to a number of cases where we may hesitate about what to do.

3.6.2  The formation story We saw in 3.5 that many novels, too, are readable as extensions of moral theories, presenting moral types that illustrate considerations in and between moral theories. I will not dwell on these kinds of type-character narratives here as they have already received their share of attention above. Instead I move on to narratives that follow the path of one character through changes in stage of life, character, and outlook. The genre of the Bildungsroman offers a wide variety of novels of this kind, but there are many novels, as well as other narratives, that are carriers of the same kind of moral significance—centered on the development of a particular character—without being typical instances of the Bildungsroman. The typical Bildungsroman, following a (young) protagonist through developments to a more mature state of existence, establishes indirectly an order of higher and lower, of failures and victories, of morally appropriate and inappropriate character formation. It places the protagonist in a dialectic relationship to his world, assessing both the protagonist’s suitability for a life in it, and the world’s acceptability as a world to live in. We may see how this fits the pursuits of the ethics/literature discussion of contemporary analytic moral philosophy in allowing a number of questions concerning character and values to be processed on the way. Jane Austen’s Emma is a useful example here. The novel sees the development of Emma Woodhouse from a clever but childishly insensitive and snobbish girl, blind to her own faults and prone to interfere with other people’s affairs, into a woman with a more sensitive realization of other people’s distinctness. Written


Literature and Moral Theory

from Emma’s perspective, the novel occasionally invites the reader to maintain that perspective even when Emma’s judgments go astray, and occasionally invites the reader to break with her perspective when she goes too far. The novel is a rather simple example of individual growth, as it does not fundamentally question the norms and ideals of the surrounding society. It mocks the vulgar materialism of some characters, but rather than criticizing the fundamental values of the society it follows Emma’s path toward becoming a good member of it, upholding the better half of what the novel presents as its central values: culture, prudence, dignity, and purity of heart. An example of a different kind is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird where the very young protagonist, Scout, successively comes to see the racism, hypocrisy, and injustice of her surrounding society, and learns to live in it without either accepting its values as her own or condemning the people who (to some extent unwittingly) contribute to preserving them. Here individual development is closely linked to a rejection of the moral belief system of her contemporaries as incoherent and ultimately immoral, and to the making of a different moral map to guide the protagonist’s conduct in approaching maturity. In both of these novels the higher standard toward which the protagonist strives is from the outset represented by another character. In Scout’s case this is her aging father Atticus Finch, and in Emma’s case her brother-in-law and future husband Mr. Knightley, who is the only one to truly challenge her views. Although not essentially a Bildungsroman, The Golden Bowl, discussed before, is read as one by Nussbaum (1990), who picks up the development of Maggie Verver as the central line of ethical thought in this work and offers it as essential material for the moral philosophers. The change of Maggie’s moral posture, from a strictly principled idealism to a more sensitive perception, is in Nussbaum’s reading the moral backbone of this novel, establishing a moral order where principles are subjected to the sensitive workings of perception and judgment. Among plays Ibsen’s A Doll’s House stands out as a good, plain example of a story of moral development (discussed in the context of recent moral philosophy by Stanley Cavell 2004), depicting a few days during which the young wife and mother, Nora, comes to the insight that she cannot go on with the life she is living, and eventually leaves her family. Through practical hardships Nora is forced to outgrow the narrow space which is allotted to her as Torvald Helmer’s little wife, and comes to pose the question of what she, as an individual person, is meant to be and do. Although the play does not present a clear verdict of Nora’s conduct (which might be deemed utopian, irredeemably silly, doomed,

Generality in Literature


courageous, wickedly selfish, etc.), it does create an ethical space where a life lived according to narrowly defined social roles can be suggested as inferior to a life which is in some sense freely chosen by an autonomous individual. What the formation story above all offers is a general formula for reflecting on moral issues. The developing protagonist becomes the vessel for moral considerations of a variety of kinds. What is fundamentally particularizing in this approach is that the idea of appropriate change and adjustment is determined by the circumstances, needs, and identity of a particular, idiosyncratic protagonist. But just as different parables convey different lessons, so do different formation stories establish different generalizing hierarchies concerning the values that apply to the protagonist within the narrative universe: hierarchies of higher and lower in moral development, and thus of higher and lower in worldview and in morality. In many stories of moral development the superiority of the end state is not authorized by the narrative, but rather presented as a suggestion, or even as a compromise in the face of the impossibility of a truly felicitous development. Many feminist emancipation stories of an older date share a combination of portraying (what we would consider as) real insight and true development in the protagonist, and the impossibility of a satisfactory solution.5 Ibsen’s A Doll’s House does not say that Nora is doing right when she leaves her husband and children, nor does it say that she is wrong, but in almost any reading it actualizes a set of questions concerning the acceptability of the conditions under which she lived before, of the possibility of a fuller human existence, and the moral importance of individual self-realization, whatever that may be. A story of moral development is never just an inquiry into the particularity of existence. The direction of development is basically the same: from immaturity to maturity, from limited understanding to insight. It gains its moral weight from the implied assumption that the development of one character is, at least in some respects, generalizable. Where the parable is defined by the way it conveys an indirect moral lesson, the formation story is defined by the way it establishes a hierarchy of values and ways of life. In both cases the narrative mode gives an anchoring to the reader’s life experience and may help to point out complexities in moral reasoning; but rather than taking away ethical generality it helps certain generalities to take hold of our minds.


Between Literature and Theory: Nussbaum and Murdoch In Chapter 3 I argued that the particularizing perspective on literature, in spite of promoting central insights, is insufficient for making sense of the moral potential of literature, and the use to which it has been put in contemporary Anglo-American moral philosophy. Literature is here simultaneously used as a particularizing medium and as an independent vehicle of generalizing moral thought. The task of this chapter is to investigate two ways of combining the insights provided by literature—both particular and general—with a theoretical and generalizing framework of ethical thought, as presented in the work of Martha Nussbaum and Iris Murdoch. In spite of the particularizing note in how they see the proper role of narrative literature in moral thought, they both find a natural place for generalizing functions of literature in their respective frameworks. In 4.2 and 4.3 I discuss how literature enters into their respective frameworks of moral philosophy. In 4.4 I juxtapose their conceptions of moral theory as they evolve in dialogue with their conceptions of the ethical role of literature.

4.1  The interdependence of the general and the particular I have thus far argued two things concerning the role of narrative literature in contemporary analytic moral philosophy: on the one hand that the appearance of literature in ethical discussions is related to the more prominent role which has been given to the particular and context-­bound features of moral judgment, and on the other hand that its presence on the scene of moral philosophy exercises a pull on the focus of moral philosophy towards insights concerning the particularity and non-­generalizability of moral thought and judgment. The presence of narrative literature in discussions on moral philosophy works as a reminder of the limits of generalizing thought concerning morality.


Literature and Moral Theory

I have moreover argued that this connection to particularity and non-­ generalizability ought not to be considered as a general truth about the ethical significance of narrative literature, as literary works, authors, and genres have their own ways of developing moral and theoretical generalizations that need to be taken into account when considering the moral import of a literary work. Thus the division of intellectual labor between moral philosophy and literature in this context is not a straightforward one, where the former represents the attempt to generalize and the latter the attempt to particularize. Both philosophy and literature give a role to both particularities and generalities, and these roles are also duly recognized by philosophers who have written on the ethical roles of literature in recent years. In the context of theory-­oriented analytic moral philosophy, literature, if taken seriously as an intellectual medium, presents an alternative mode of weighing general and particular concerns, and thus offers an implicit criticism of the underlying assumptions in moral philosophy concerning the proper task and form of that philosophy. We see this critical edge at work in both Iris Murdoch’s and Martha Nussbaum’s thought, although the reconsideration of the role of philosophical generalization gives for each of them a different overall picture of the tasks of philosophy. In this chapter I will investigate the balancing act between particularizing insights and generalizing frameworks in the work of these two philosophers, who have contributed importantly both to bringing narrative literature to the center of moral philosophical interest, and to reconsidering the respective roles of the particular and the general in ethics. As we have seen thus far, Martha Nussbaum occupies a peculiar role in the contemporary negotiation between generality and particularity in ethics. Although she had earlier been associated with a critical stance toward general moral rules and moral theory (Clarke and Simpson 1989; Putnam 1983: 193), she is one of the most outspoken critics of the anti-­theoretical tendencies in contemporary ethics. Nussbaum (1999), as discussed before, classifies Iris Murdoch as a proponent of theoretical reason along with herself, while grouping a number of other philosophers as problematic opponents of systematic theoretical reason in ethics. What Nussbaum does not explicitly note in this context is that Murdoch is an important inspiration for many philosophers with a critical stance toward moral theory (e.g. Diamond 1991; Goldberg 1993) and for a good reason. Finding a central ethical inspiration in Simone Weil (also a central inspiration to the anti-­ theoretically inclined Peter Winch), Murdoch represents a manner of thought

Between Literature and Theory


which gives no evident priority to systematic theory. On the one hand, Murdoch is a skilled theoretical thinker, and her late book, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, presents a comprehensive vision of the nature of ethical thought. She also repeatedly emphasizes the importance of theory and elaborate abstract “speculation” in moral philosophy. On the other hand, her work, to a large extent consisting of disparate papers, does not put forth a moral theory which would address normative or meta-­ethical questions in a manner expected by her contemporaries in analytic philosophy. Also, her magnum opus is bound to be found troublesome from the point of view of the analytic tradition. In Stephen Mulhall’s words: “the trouble with Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals is that in general its sentences, its individual chapters and its overall structure appear to be extremely disorganized” (1997: 220). Mulhall proceeds, correctly, to argue that this appearance is superficial. It is of some importance that Murdoch chooses to express her thought in a manner which mocks the expectations of her contemporary academic peers. Furthermore, her cautions about defining the area of ethics suggest skepticism towards at least those kinds of theory which require such definitions. Nussbaum again is a thoroughly theory-­centered thinker, aiming to place her various ethical considerations within the theoretical frameworks that she builds on a foundation of Aristotelian, Stoic, and Rawlsian/liberal thought. When we look at the work of these two central figures of the literary turn in analytic ethics, we find an explicit concern for both the context-­specific and entangled nature of particular moral judgments, and for the generalizing theoretical constructions which help us to make sense of morality. Both philosophers inhabit a middle ground between generalist and particularist positions, and for both the ideals of what good moral philosophy should be are affected by their consideration of narrative literature as an independent moral medium. But their pictures of moral theory are interestingly different, illustrating in their respective ways the limits of philosophy in relation to ethics.

4.2  Nussbaum—literature, Aristotle, and social justice It is made clear in Nussbaum’s (1990: 37–40) earlier work on narrative literature that the ethical significance of literature is, for her, intimately tied to its ability to show the unique and non-­generalizable aspects of human moral situations. Literature opens us up to the moral bewilderment and risks of human life, and


Literature and Moral Theory

to the difficulties of making generalizations about sound moral judgment. This is a perspective which is easily lost for readers of her later work if they look at her efforts to use a narrative mode and recommend works of literature (1995) to further public goals, and her efforts to build a theory of human rights (2000b, 2006) based on neo-Aristotelian grounds. One of the things that Nussbaum has been criticized for, for example by Richard Posner (1997), Joshua Landy (2008) and Candace Vogler (2007), is her overly optimistic vision of the moral effects of literature. Her claims that it can make us more perceptive and sensitive (Nussbaum 1990) and that it ought for this reason to have an important role in education (Nussbaum 1995, 1997), especially the education of public officials, are easily met with ambivalence even by readers who are sympathetic to her overall picture of the ethical significance of literature. What is notable in this respect is that she nurtures similar hopes for moral theory; for example, that it would drive out prejudice and harmful implicit generalization (Nussbaum 2000a). Thus the moral role of both literature and moral theory (although the roles of the former are by no means confined to the moral one) is to improve moral practice. The improvement is supposed to come about through the improved perception and understanding which is born out of reading literature and theorizing. Indeed, some hope of improving moral thought and action can perhaps be found behind every moral philosopher’s work, but in Nussbaum’s case there is a clear emphasis on a real, active potential of both literature and philosophy for practical improvement.Although this enlightenment optimism is central for her philosophical perspective, it is not necessary to share it to be able to share her picture of the ways in which literature and moral theory work in different areas of moral thought and life. I will here leave aside the alleged effects of reading and writing literature or moral theory, and rather look at the conceptual frameworks she uses to talk about the ethical functions of literature and theory respectively. In Love’s Knowledge (1990)1 Nussbaum presents a lengthy argument for the Aristotelian grounding for her discussions on the ethical significance of literature. The ideas of correct perception and discernment of moral situations as prior to moral rules and general theories, and the role of moral formation as the cultivation of both perceptiveness and emotions, are presented as fundamentally Aristotelian moral features which are exemplified and developed in literature more accurately than in modern (academic) philosophy. The way of doing moral philosophy indicated in Love’s Knowledge has a special accuracy in treating questions of personal morality and moral

Between Literature and Theory


development on a level which requires little systematic generalization, centering as it does on the perception of situation bound features. But when Nussbaum turns to moral questions concerning social justice, distribution of wealth, the duties of society towards individual people, and issues of human rights, the vocabulary of perception loses some of its appeal, as the metaphor it builds on is pushed one step further. It is easy to form an adequate picture (whether one accepts it or not) of what kind of sensitivity the semi-­ metaphorical expression of “moral perception” denotes when it is attributed to persons. Talking about perceptiveness or sensitivity of social institutions, on the other hand, makes no sense other than as casual shorthand for institutions which, in their functioning, live up to a certain degree of flexibility and decency in relation to the distinct situations of individual people. The decency of society, again, depends on the decency of its inhabitants. Thus it is reasonable to consider the perceptiveness of institutions, as far as one wants to talk about such a thing, as constituted by the perceptiveness of public officials and politicians. This is the line taken by Nussbaum (1990: 97–9) when she emphasizes that Aristotle made no important distinction between the moral requirements of public and private life (ibid.: 98): Aristotle’s ideal person of practical wisdom is no solitary Jamesian heroine, but a politically active citizen of Athens; Pericles is an example. Indeed, even when we read those parts of his discussion that appear to be about personal choice, we must remember that there is no strong distinction between the public and the private in Aristotle’s ethical conception. The good human life is a life with and toward others; membership in a polis is an important part of one’s other-­directed activity.

The “solitary Jamesian heroine” illustrates thus only one type of context where the “Aristotelian” range of moral considerations is required; this association should not be seen as limiting the range of their application to drawing-­room scenarios. The very same range of virtues, the same perceptiveness and good judgment, is required in public as in private life. This may all be well and good. There are indeed dangers in postulating a gap between private and public morality, particularly the risk of seeing right and good conduct in public life and in public offices as a more straightforward issue, where the entangled moral concerns of private persons do not apply. But then again perceptive and virtuous citizens and public officials do not necessarily make decent institutions, especially not if the institutions and political procedures


Literature and Moral Theory

themselves are not designed to give appropriate (neither too much nor too little) room for the accurate perception and good judgment of the officials. The moral perceptiveness of individuals in a society may be essential for bringing important values to the center of political concern, above the mere politics of power. It is naturally necessary for the proper functioning of courts, civil servants’ offices, etc. that the individuals who participate in the functioning of these institutions have the ability of independent moral perception and judgment. But situation-­bound moral perception does not provide sufficient tools for negotiating a morally reasonable social order, nor explicate the step from perceptive individuals to a good society. Managing a society to the furtherance of complex human happiness, dignity, or wellbeing requires more than perceptiveness on behalf of its guardians. It may require generalizing moral and evaluative vocabularies (beyond vocabularies of virtue) to negotiate the values which are to guide practice, and the means and procedures which are acceptable to further what is seen as good. While ethics and aesthetics have during the late twentieth century seen developments in an anti-­theoretical or non-­generalist direction, the fields of social and political philosophy appear to be thoroughly resistant to these kinds of ambitions.2 Nussbaum (1990: 97–101) argues, with Aristotle, in explicit contrast to what she considers to be a common view to the contrary, that the perception-­centered approach to morality bears as much on public as on private life. Yet, when moving towards issues of social justice, she opts for a different strategy, arguing from a Rawlsian framework of ethical/political theory, but against the thin conception of the human good or human welfare of the Rawlsian liberal picture. By “thin conception” I mean here a conception of the human good which is unsubstantiated, and relies on the assumption that the good for one person is whatever he or she may come to choose, all things considered. To substantiate the conception of human good Nussbaum (2006: 76–8) suggests a variety of basic capabilities including such items as health, integrity, imagination, emotions, practical reason, and affiliation, to name a few, to be considered as the basis for a reasonably good life that ought to be guaranteed for everyone. The result is a normative political theory, based on a social liberal political ideal, and, in spite of common ideals, quite far removed from the neo-Aristotelian universe of Love’s Knowledge. Thus, Nussbaum’s work seems to be divided into two different strands, with important connections between them, but no master vocabulary to unite them. A question that arises here is how she understands the relationship of these

Between Literature and Theory


theoretical frameworks and the vocabularies that are used to formulate them: a vocabulary of perception and virtue where narrative literature takes a central place, and a vocabulary of rights and social justice for issues in the public sphere, where the resources of the virtue vocabulary come to an end. The only article in her volume on the ethical significance of the novel which treats a clearly political issue—the one on Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima (1990: 195–219, already touched upon in Chapter  3)—does not particularly differ in its emphasis from those treating non-­political moral issues. It frames the story of young Hyacinth as one of individual perceptiveness, though placed in a context of political tumult. Much of her later work on the social significance of literature (1995, 1997) is, in its turn, an extended argument for the appropriate inclusion of literary works in students’ curricula, rather than a bridging account between the two vocabularies.3 But the discussion on The Princess can be read as attempting to provide a bridge between particular perception and the requirements of generality inherent in political thought and action. In Nussbaum’s reading, the supreme sensitivity, gentleness and—considering his poor situation—good education of the young bookbinder Hyacinth Robinson of James’ novel is contrasted with the straightforward political personality of his friend Paul Muniment, who is a portrait of the “charismatic future leader of the socialist bureaucracy” (Nussbaum 1990: 208). In the relationship of these two we see the confrontation of a complex, thoughtful perceptiveness and single-­minded action-­oriented generalization. Is this a conflict between one morality for the private sphere and one for the public, perhaps? No. Nussbaum (ibid.: 209) argues that the kind of keen perception represented by Hyacinth, much akin to the perceptiveness found in James’ typical drawing-­room scenarios, is necessary for a sound development of society, and that it expresses, on both Hyacinth’s and James’ part—despite its personal tone—a political commitment. The revolutionary will and force of Muniment, admirable in their own strange ways, are bound to result in blindness to central human goods. The sensitive perception of Hyacinth, though making him perhaps too weak an actor on the political scene, as his eventual suicide may suggest, is necessary for protecting values which are endangered by the single-­minded aggression of his more straightforwardly political companions. Through his appreciation of art, intellectual effort, beauty, and tradition he is a protector of the continuity and plurality of culture, of slow development towards justice, not by tearing down the privileged, but by providing opportunity for a better life for the


Literature and Moral Theory

wretched, not according to a pre-­given model but according to the goals each and every one may come to formulate for him- or herself once he/she is sufficiently well off. On a closer look, the position represented here by Hyacinth is closely related to the one put forward by Nussbaum in relation to her “capabilities approach” (2000b, 2006), which could be formulated roughly in the following terms: justice cannot be done without an account of the human good. Pictures of the human good are an essential part of any viable political ideal, both on a level of basic needs, common for all, and on a further level of picturing individual goals and ideals. Muniment’s political force, just like the most rudimentary kinds of liberalist framework, is empty in this respect, and this emptiness opens up for a society where the possibility of cultivating one’s own humanity is not necessarily available. The political frame, whether it is a Rawlsian conception of justice or the imagined order after the worker’s revolution, cannot provide the means for a good and decent society without substantial but sufficiently pluralistic pictures of the human good. What Nussbaum suggests is a framework of things that governments should guarantee for their citizens, to make them able to lead a fully human life; including sufficient material means, leisure, and opportunities to develop their skills and change their living conditions. This demand is echoed in the Princess discussion where she quotes Hyacinth’s complaint about the effects of poverty on the minds of people. “. . . centuries of poverty, of ill-­paid toil, of bad insufficient food and wretched housing hadn’t a favourable effect on the higher faculties . . . In his own low walk of life, people had really not the faculty of thought; their minds had been simplified—reduced to two or three elements” (James, The Princess Casamassima, quoted in Nussbaum 1990: 201). In both these accounts it is morally essential to bring people to a material level of existence where they can think for themselves.4 But both the capabilities approach and the character Hyacinth, in Nussbaum’s reading, emphasize the importance of not pinning down more articulate pictures of the good life as communal ideals, but leaving that to people themselves, who are enabled by improved conditions to make their own decisions. Formulating a decent level of existence—in Nussbaum’s vocabulary a “threshold” level (e.g. 2006: 71) of each basic capability—thus requires a conception of the necessities of a good life. But the social engineering should stop at that level and leave the field open for a plurality of evaluative frameworks and individual choices (ibid.: 70):

Between Literature and Theory


The capabilities are then presented as the source of political principles for a liberal pluralistic society; they are set in the context of a type of political liberalism that makes them specifically political goals and presents them in a manner free of any specific metaphysical grounding. Presented and commended by argument in this way, the capabilities, I argue, can become the object of an overlapping consensus among people who otherwise have very different comprehensive conceptions of the good.

But what is further argued through the perspective of the young Hyacinth is that the more substantial pictures of the human good cannot be cultivated without a certain conservatism—a certain passion to preserve the fruits of the culture of earlier generations—although Nussbaum explicitly avoids using this word due to the reflective and critical nature of Hyacinth’s vision (Nussbaum 1990: 212).5 His wish to take part in and preserve the fruit of elitist art, and preserve the leisured conditions which are necessary for its creation and enjoyment, are according to Nussbaum not merely due to his elitism, and his partial identification with the higher strata of society, but also, importantly, due to the realization that they carry with them important paths of insight to who we are and what the good life might be. What is more, they represent for him “. . . the pervasiveness of tensions among the goods that, with imperfect attention and defective circumstances, human agents pursue” (ibid.: 212). Thus, in his contemplation of art he finds something that is lacking in his comrade Poupin’s vision of a world “where the human family would sit in groups at little tables, according to affinities, drinking coffee (not tea, par example!)” (James, quoted in Nussbaum 1990: 206), something that he finds practically absent in the world where everybody is supposed to be provided bread and butter before there is room for art. Thus, according to Nussbaum, “. . . instead of showing himself incapable of political thought, James is offering us a searching critique of most actual political thought, and arguing that the sort of thought we usually call personal promises a politics richer in humanity” (ibid.: 210). Although most of James’ work would suggest an elitist priority given to fine shades of moral nuance among the rich and leisured, The Princess Casamassima invites a reading which connects this ethics of nuances to the question of the wellbeing of society as a whole, and of its weakest members in particular. Nussbaum thus does not draw a dividing line between the particularist-, virtue-, and perception-­centered vocabulary of personal morality and the rightsor principle-­centered vocabularies of the public domain, but intends rather to


Literature and Moral Theory

show how the vocabularies, or parts of them, are interrelated and interdependent. Ideas of justice cannot be detached from the particular, substantial pictures of the good life of individual persons, and conversely the pictures of good lives cannot be detached from the idea of a just order which makes their realization possible. In spite of this, the vocabularies used by Nussbaum to further the different aspects of moral understanding are, to some extent, discontinuous with each other. Coming to this conclusion does not necessarily imply a criticism. It is a commonplace in moral philosophy (perhaps with the exception of some extremely monistic formulation of deontology or consequentialism), as well as in practical life, that the private and public spheres place different demands on moral thought and action. What we have here, though, is not one perspective and vocabulary for the private sphere and one for the public. There are rather two different vocabularies, one of justice and one of virtue and perception, both of which apply to private as well as public aspects of morality, and which depend on each other for assistance. The discussion concerning The Princess Casamassima does indeed clarify the bridge, suggested throughout Nussbaum’s work, between her ethics of perception and her political philosophy, but this bridging account may not be entirely satisfactory. Both her perception-­centered writings and her political ones are readable in the light of the Princess discussion. Yet there is a certain discrepancy between her early and later work, particularly visible in her way of using literature in the respective discussions. I will argue here that narrative literature, which fills a substantial function in the perception-­centered discussions, taking philosophical thought to places where it could not have gone on its own, is in her political writings more clearly used rather as a rhetorical means of furthering a point already inherent in the philosophical argument. In her early writings, narrative fills a fundamental philosophical function, helping us understand a particular human situation in its complexity, while in the later writings it primarily fills the function of moving us to compassion and consent. Let me exemplify this distinction by considering the role of narrative in arguing for the particularizing point of The Golden Bowl and the use of narrative elements in arguing for the capabilities approach. As we recall, Nussbaum’s (1990: 125–38) reading of The Golden Bowl follows Maggie Verver on her way from a rigid youthful moral perfectionism and denial of guilt, to the realization that we cannot live as human beings without getting our hands dirty; that the

Between Literature and Theory


fulfillment of important human relationships and a full adult life may be impossible without partiality and the refusal to meet equally the wishes of all others who may have claims on us. The novel, in Nussbaum’s reading, shows what particularity (and partiality) of perception may demand of a person, and substantiates what such particularity (and partiality) can mean. Where philosophy can merely build a system where the priority of particularity and the priority of perception are stated, the novel gives an inside view: we must follow Maggie to understand what happens, what matters, and why. This is of course only one way of summarizing the content of Nussbaum’s discussion, just as her discussion is only one way of interpreting the ethical content of James’ novel. This is not only due to the plurality of possible interpretations, but is also due to the fact that the narrative literary work is the primary formulation of the complex of ideas that is investigated in it, and any paraphrase, however clarifying it may be, is an effort only to approximate and highlight its content. In the case of Nussbaum’s political writings—whether the narrative which is being used is a “real life” one or a literary one—the basic formulation of thought is the theoretical or argumentative text, while the narratives work as a kind of illustration, coloring and deepening the philosophical content presented, but not constituting it or changing it radically. Stories about struggling women in India (2000b) and families with disabled children in the US (2006) are used to argue that theories of social justice need to attend to what a person in a given society can actually do with her life, and that a corrective redistribution of means is motivated to improve the lives of those who are underprivileged by nature or by unequal distribution of wealth in society. The perception-­centered use of narratives relies heavily on the morally thick nature of those narratives, which I discussed earlier in Chapter  3.2, while the narratives in the rhetorical uses are thinner, stripped down to the elements that are required for making a clear philosophical or moral point, persuasive and engaging. Now, a qualification to this distinction between substantial and rhetorical uses of literature needs to be made. The borderline between these two different kinds of use of narrative is in many cases elusive and the role of the literary narrative in relation to the philosophical content is not always either that of primary material for reflection or that of rhetorical device, but sometimes a mixture of the two. Furthermore, Nussbaum’s discussion concerning the cognitive function of the emotions6 may complicate this distinction between rhetorical and substantial uses of narratives in philosophy. Nussbaum emphasizes


Literature and Moral Theory

the fundamental role of the emotions in our understanding of the world. Emotions are a vital part of our make-­up as rational, thinking beings and, moreover, changes in emotions are changes in how we perceive the world, and how we conceptualize it (e.g. Nussbaum 2001: 1–3). The use of narratives in Nussbaum’s political writing aims at moving us to consent, with the explicit principle in mind that feeling differently will make us think differently, and further, that finding the appropriate emotional response will make us think better. On the one hand, she makes it clear that the upheavals of thought caused or constituted by emotional changes are a legitimate and indispensable part of our cognition. This is exemplified (ibid.: 1) by the radical change of orientation in Proust’s Baron Charlus when he falls in love with the young violinist Charles Morel.7 His world changes and this is, fundamentally, a cognitive change (although it is, perhaps, a pitiable one, forcing him to acts of obsessive control). As Nussbaum’s example shows (along with a number of other examples that could be derived from Proust), changes of emotion may indeed change our understanding of the world for better or worse, but an emotional response may be required to change our understanding in the direction of a more adequate (e.g. compassionate, selfless, or less reductive) way of viewing the lives of others. It is a compassionate vision which is the central aim of those uses of narrative in Nussbaum’s work which I have called rhetorical. But if this kind of moving to compassion has something that could be seen as a substantial cognitive content rather than a mere persuasive function, then how is it to be distinguished from the substantial use of narrative, where the narrative provides moral reflection in its own right? Nussbaum uses a quotation from Walt Whitman to describe the compassionate vision gained through literature, the judgment of the person who has enriched his perception through narratives: “He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing.  . .” (Nussbaum 1995: 80). Although this is a thoroughly rhetorical use of a literary piece, aimed to persuade the reader to consult literature for moral guidance, this quotation reveals on a deeper level a picture of a different cognitive attitude required in judging a person, one which, Nussbaum suggests, perhaps finds its clearest expression in metaphorical form. But how can we tell when a moral philosophical use of literature is primarily rhetorical and when it is something more, adding something which is truly inexpressible in theoretical terms? One may suggest that this distinction between rhetorical and substantial uses of literature is merely approximate and will not

Between Literature and Theory


necessarily apply in a straightforward manner to the actual uses of narrative (or poetry) for the purpose of moral reflection. In many cases, one will be inclined to detect both substantial content and rhetorical functions performed either by appeal to emotions or appeal to our reasoning faculties. Nussbaum herself does not make a big issue of this difference, which has the consequence that her substantial use of literature is neglected by some readers, and her use of narrative is criticized as being merely rhetorical, using literature on terms dictated by a preformed moral philosophical agenda (e.g. Posner 1998). But this seems to neglect a central aspect of her earlier discussions (Nussbaum 1986, 1990), where the effort to let the literary works speak for themselves, and to transform our vision, is essential. There, especially, Nussbaum attempts to build her argument on a substantial reading of literary works, and she returns repeatedly to details of the work at issue, such as symbols, choices of words, and portrayals of the characters, to strengthen and substantiate her interpretation. Rather than isolating a storyline, she enters into texts to see how the text itself presents what she takes to be a parallel but independent perspective to the one she is arguing in philosophical terms. It is important to hold on to this distinction between such substantial uses and the rhetorical ones in Nussbaum’s work in order to bring out the irreducible contribution of some works of narrative literature to moral philosophy, which is also frequently emphasized in Love’s Knowledge. The difference between the substantial and rhetorical uses of narrative in Nussbaum’s work is partly related to the nature of the narratives she uses. The Golden Bowl and The Princess Casamassima are novels with their own complex moral agendas that are (arguably) at least partly irreducible to philosophical argument, while the narratives used in arguing for the capabilities approach are mostly pieces of real life, served to us for the purpose of argument. Although embroidered to appeal to a reader’s compassionate moods, the latter are customized in the sense that they contain only what is needed for rhetorical or illustrative purposes. But even literary narratives are easily used for the rhetorical purposes of theoretical/political agenda, as is shown by Nussbaum’s (1995) treatment of Dickens’ Hard Times, a novel which permits such use because it would seem to be written for a social/political purpose.8 The Princess Casamassima inhabits here a middle ground, opening both to an interpretation as 1) an inquiry into the particularity of moral sensitivity and its relation to politics, and as 2) a case of moral perception, which is rhetorically at the service of a sociopolitical agenda.


Literature and Moral Theory

There is no reason to go as far as to deny that narratives can fill a substantial function (rather than merely a rhetorical one) in social and political thought. But there is a tendency in Nussbaum’s work to suggest that literature takes the role of rhetorical means when combined with generalizing philosophical claims—political, ethical, or meta-­ethical—while keeping a more independent role when used as a vehicle of particularizing moral effort.

4.2.1  Nussbaum and the nature of moral philosophy (Nussbaum and Baier) It may be suggested that Nussbaum’s position concerning the nature of moral philosophy and the generalizability of moral judgment has changed over the years so that her early emphasis on the particularist nature of moral judgment and the later emphasis on the importance of theory would mark a change in her perspective on the roles of particular perception and generalization. Her appearance in two contrary roles, as anti-­theorist—for example in Clarke and Simpson (1989) and Phillips (1999), and as anti anti-­theorist in Hooker and Little (2000)—may encourage this interpretation. Indeed she seems to have moved away from her fondness of Bernard Williams and emphasis on the limits of theory, to a fondness of Rawls and an emphasis on the importance of theory. But she is more inclined to stress the continuity between the different parts of her work than point out changes. Already in an early reply to Hilary Putnam, who criticizes her for lapsing into an “empty ‘situation ethics’ ” (Putnam 1983: 193), she emphasizes the importance of the “Kantian account” (Nussbaum 1983) rather than offering an argument for the sufficiency of a virtue ethical or particularist perspective.9 Similarly, the moral importance she has ascribed to narrativity, emotion, and the virtues continue to do their work in her theoretical account on human rights as capabilities, in giving substance to the underlying conception of the good human life. Guided by the idea that moral philosophy, and more specifically moral theory, ought to serve moral practice, Nussbaum exhibits a sincere interest in meeting the needs of moral practice at many different levels, in every field of moral or political thought: personal relations, professional roles, and political organization. It may be helpful to think of her approach to the different theoretical vocabularies as dictated by pragmatic considerations. The Aristotelian metaphor of the Lesbian rule, bending to the shape of the object it is measuring, thus suits very well the totality of her philosophical work. Some inquiries will demand a

Between Literature and Theory


rationalist leap of thought while others will require the empiricist’s gathering of data about human beings. Some require the contemplation of what is non-­ generalizable while others will require system building around generalizations. And finally, some will require a rhetorical use of narratives while others will plunge into narratives without a distinct, preformed philosophical conception of what will be found. Although she emphasizes the importance of theory she does not appear to consider the hierarchical ordering of distinct ethical vocabularies, a master theory, as a necessary or even commendable goal for moral philosophy.10 She is rather content to proceed in a variety of ways and inform her reader of how these ways relate. Clarke and Simpson (1989: 293) describe Nussbaum’s position in The Fragility of Goodness as “coherentist.” Although this characterization matches Nussbaum’s intellectual self-­image, her very appearance in the anti-­ theorist role in Clarke and Simpson’s anthology is to some extent misleading. The picture of morality and moral theory, as it can be discerned in Nussbaum’s overall work, is a patchwork or mosaic, where a division of moral labor between narrative and theory will see to it that the non-­generalizable as well as the generalizable aspects of morality receive their due. The mosaic metaphor as introduced by Annette Baier (2003: 169–70) describes a conception of moral philosophy which does not insist on gathering all of morality under a few overarching principles or a unitary vocabulary, but is open for new considerations, different manners of expression, particularity, etc. But keeping in mind Nussbaum’s strong refusal of the anti-­theorist alternatives of our time it is clear that her position differs significantly from that of Annette Baier, who is also one of the anti-­theorists in Clarke and Simpson’s selection. Reading Nussbaum’s position against Baier’s is useful here as their points of divergence seem to be found in very crucial places. Especially so if one is concerned with the role of generalization in ethics and with the different forms available to express and systematize ethical thought. Baier, inspired by Hume and Wittgenstein, sees moral philosophy as a descriptive enterprise, describing and mapping the ways in which we actually do make and talk about moral judgments. Nussbaum on her part would see this mapping as only one side of moral philosophy, the other being systematizing normative effort, that is, normative moral theory. Both claim reliance, in their way of doing ethics, on the example set by Aristotle (Baier, e.g. 1985; Nussbaum 1990, 2000b). But while Baier (1985: 232) sees Aristotle’s (as well as Hume’s) endeavor as primarily a descriptive one, and underlines that he does not present a normative theory


Literature and Moral Theory

concerning morals, Nussbaum emphasizes that Aristotle’s work (though differently constructed than modern alternatives) constitutes a moral theory with normative implications. This does not mean that the two ascribe radically different roles to generalizing normativity in morality, for the moral reality—which is merely described in Baier’s view of moral philosophy, and described and ordered into normative systems in Nussbaum’s—is by both philosophers considered as a bundle which exhibits regularities, explicit rule-­following, as well as non-­generalizable instances of moral action and thought. Neither does it mean that they would differ significantly concerning the critical role of moral philosophy in relation to moral practice, for both are willing to grant a role for moral philosophy in practical life (Baier 1985: 226; Nussbaum 2000a: 234), even seeing such a role as necessary to give legitimacy to the pursuit of moral philosophy. They differ, essentially, concerning the way they think this critical role is properly performed. Baier (1985: 207–9) denies any sound role for normative moral theories in practical morality. “The result of teaching moral theories,” she says (ibid.: 209), . . . is that, in addition to the variety of cultural traditions initially there, we add a variety of theories. So we might expect to end up with Catholic utilitarians, Catholic contractarians, Catholic intuitionists; Protestant variants of all of these; atheist variants of all of these. In fact the alternatives seem to cancel one another out, leaving a moral vacuum.

Normative theory is in this account not likely to do anything but weaken a person’s culturally formed ability to make consistent and adequate moral judgments, by putting in question the very framework within which such judgments make sense. Being normative is from this perspective not the job of moral philosophy. Instead, the task of moral philosophy should be considered as that of describing the variety of moral practices and assumptions which are an important part of our lives. Moral philosophy should also be cautious concerning overarching generalizations on the level of description, as such generalizations may hide from our view the variety of the phenomena that we encounter. It should be an inquiry “which is realistic in starting with functioning moralities, and which tries to understand those moralities—to discover, not prescribe, what sort of coherence they have, what links the bits together” (ibid.: 226). What counts as coherence here is not predetermined, and although we are inclined to look for patterns, these patterns should not be fixated in the form of theory. The

Between Literature and Theory


result of this descriptive project is, according to Baier, a clarification of moral thinking. It contains the seed for improving the practices described, not by replacing them with coherent philosophical systems, but by reflective criticism within and around the practices. In Nussbaum’s view (2000a: 248–9), quite to the contrary, systematic, normative moral theory is essential for a constructive criticism of habitual ways of life and of moral traditions. Moral theory is the tool for making sense of moral traditions, of testing beliefs and pointing out inconsistencies. And what is more, refusing to engage in explicit, normative systematizing thought in ethics might mean giving up the game to blind prejudice, crude generalization, and mere stupidity. Where Baier sees central moral threats in the claims of moral theory, Nussbaum finds the major threat in covert, inarticulate generalizations. Clearly both would find, in habitual moral thought, both good and bad, both constructive and degenerate aspects. Moral philosophy aims, for both of these philosophers, at doing away with the degenerate elements, to provide room for adequate moral judgment and action. But the ills of moral philosophy ought, according to Baier, to be cured through non-­theoretical reflective practices, while Nussbaum insists on theoretical practices as a necessary part of the philosopher’s project. To some extent this difference appears to be based on different interpretations of what they see in practice. Baier (1985: 207–8) sees her students’ moral worldviews disintegrating as a result of acquaintance with the basic arsenal of moral theories. Nussbaum seems to see nothing of the kind, although she considers narrative literature an important means to avoid the cruder interpretations of moral theories. A central question here is whether these two philosophers mean the same thing by moral theory. A reasonable answer, as I see it, would be both yes and no. No, in the sense that Baier operates with a more rigid picture of what a moral theory is, fashioning it on the lines of its most easily rejected variety, as foundationalist, hierarchical, codifying, and action-­oriented. Nussbaum, however, has already rejected this conception of moral theory, claiming the name of theory for constructs which are much more heterogeneous both in form, content and texture.11 One thing to be noted about this difference is that Baier’s position, as it is considered here, belongs to the first wave of anti-­theory in analytic moral philosophy in the 1970s and 80s, while Nussbaum’s explicit formulation of her position on the role of moral theory is of a later date, which gives her the advantage of being able to take into account some problems that Baier’s anti-­theoretical position encounters in the current context of moral


Literature and Moral Theory

philosophy. This context is no longer as dominated by the kind of rigid hierarchical models for normative theory that are the primary target of Baier’s criticism, as virtue-­ethical, pluralist, and particularist options have become part of the public face of the field. But this difference in the time of writing does not explain the fundamental difference between Baier and Nussbaum. To a sufficient extent they do agree on what a moral theory is supposed to be—a systematic, coherent, normative, action-­guiding presentation of morality (see e.g. Baier 2003; Nussbaum 2000a)—and their differing perspectives concerning the necessity and beneficiality of moral theory build upon this agreement. Thus, commitment to a mosaic, patchwork, or plural vocabularies conception of ethics, which both of these philosophers represent, does not entail any specific commitment regarding the role of normative theory in moral philosophy. Even a mosaic conception can, as in Nussbaum’s case, host a robust corpus of systematic theory, as long as the rest of moral thought and language is not expected to follow from it or to conform to it in a hierarchical manner. Nor does a mosaic conception necessarily grant any role to narrative or literature, for a mosaic philosopher may still be a theoretical creature to the extent that she finds the sprouting and porous medium of narrative too unreliable to express interesting philosophical insights. What we have is a tendency: a mosaic conception of moral philosophy is more likely to make room for narratives and literature, and to have a less rigid conception of what moral theory ought to be.

4.2.2  Literature, theory, and an Aristotelian style Before leaving Nussbaum for a while I will look once more at the place of narratives and literature in her specific mosaic of moral and moral philosophical thought. There is, as mentioned, a parallelism between her conception of moral theories and her conception of literary works as moral tools. First, both theoretical and literary works are peculiar products of culture; both are highly processed and—when good enough—strictly organized, according to the respective demands of genre and to the author’s particular vision. There is in Nussbaum’s writing a thorough acknowledgment of the constructed nature of literary work behind her use of literature as a stand-­in for real-­life situations. As quoted before in Chapter 3.1, “Life is never simply presented by a text; it is always represented as something” (Nussbaum 1990: 5). Second, she emphasizes the positive and active potential of both moral theory and literature to actually change moral thinking and conduct; and third, she

Between Literature and Theory


emphasizes their potential for change to something better rather than worse.12 Thus there is an implicit trust in the idea that serious thought in both genres will lead us in the morally right direction. But in their task to elucidate issues in the realm of moral philosophy novels do not, in her account, stand on their own, but, as mentioned before in Chapter 3.1.4, “make their contribution in conjunction with a style that is itself more explanatory, more Aristotelian” (ibid.: 49). In practice this means that novels require an explicit commentary—philosophical in nature—that will reveal and explicate the ideas they contain. But this kind of philosophical commentary should beware of simplifying the literary works it considers (ibid.: 49): In order to be the ally of literature, and to direct the reader to that variety and complexity, rather than away from it, this Aristotelian style itself will have to differ greatly from much philosophical writing that we commonly encounter: for it will have to be non-­reductive, and also self-­conscious about its own lack of completeness, gesturing toward experiences and toward the literary texts, as spheres in which a greater completeness should be sought.

Exactly why narrative literature needs the assistance of a more philosophical style is not made entirely clear in this context. A tentative answer to this question could be that Nussbaum is here specifically considering the contribution of literature to discussions on moral philosophy, among moral philosophers. In relation to such discussions it is indeed important that the contributions of literary works are, to some extent, translated into the language of philosophical/argumentative discourse. A narrative will need to be provided with a specific reading, a specific interpretation, and its relevance for the discussion will need to be spelled out. It is on the other hand clear that Nussbaum also makes room for a more direct access to the moral (and moral philosophical) substance of literature, as she emphasizes that reading some novels cultivates moral perception and moral imagination in any reader, irrespective of interests in moral philosophy more narrowly conceived. Concerning The Golden Bowl she states that (ibid.: 143): this novel calls upon and also develops our ability to confront mystery with the cognitive engagement of both thought and feeling. To work through these sentences and these chapters is to become involved in an activity of exploration and unravelling that uses abilities, especially abilities of emotion and imagination, rarely tapped by philosophical texts.

The distinctly philosophical contributions in relation to narrative works can in Nussbaum’s view (ibid.: 49) take many forms; in the cases of Plato and Proust


Literature and Moral Theory

both elements—narrative and commentary—are incorporated in a literary work, in the case of James the literary oeuvre is completed by auto-­critical prefaces, while critics and philosophers like Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, and Lionel Trilling make their contribution by commenting on the work of others. What Nussbaum here suggests, especially in the case of James, Cavell, Diamond, etc., and also provides in her own literary discussions, is a third format (though a multiform one) of philosophical thought, beyond the form of narrative literature and the form of moral theory. This format is the one which brings her closer to anti-­theoretical and non-­theoretical contributors to the ethics/literature discussion (like Rorty, Winch, Diamond, etc.), as well as to ethical critics among literary scholars (Newton, Booth, Goldberg), and it shows her appreciation of the open-­endedness of moral philosophical thought beside her emphasis on the importance of explicit moral theory. What becomes Nussbaum’s characteristic feature in this context is her insistence that the open-­endedness of these discussions, though precious in its own right, needs to be complemented by the more systematizing efforts of theory. Above all, in this account, the systematizing, generalizing efforts of theory are needed to prevent us from losing touch with the systematizing, generalizing patterns inherent in all human thought. Even if we grant this much, though, it gives little clue to how the register of theoretical thought should be administered and what its proper role in the overall scheme of moral philosophy ought to be. In the work of Iris Murdoch, to whom I will turn next, the roles of both literature and theory, as well as both particularity and generality, are quite differently distributed in the overall picture of moral philosophy.

4.3  Murdoch—an ethics of the substantial self Iris Murdoch, both a novelist and a philosopher in her own right, states the difference between philosophy and literature in a manner which bars the way for at least the most reductive uses of literature for philosophical purposes: Philosophy aims to clarify and to explain, it states and tries to solve very difficult highly technical problems and the writing must be subservient to this aim. . . . Literature interests us on different levels in different fashions. It is full of tricks and magic and deliberate mystification. Literature entertains, it does many things, and philosophy does one thing. Murdoch 1997: 4

Between Literature and Theory


Philosophy must be clear and transparent while literature may be opaque and mystifying. Philosophy fills the specific function of making sense, while literature has no particular task or purpose. The moral of this passage for the contemporary discussion on the ethical roles of literature is that neither philosophy nor literature can be instrumentalized to serve the purposes of the other without significant loss. They are the fruit of separate endeavors with different goals. Looking at the totality of Murdoch’s work, this separation of the domains seems to tell less than half the truth. It is worth considering the possibility that this statement is above all to be understood personally, as Murdoch’s wish to keep her philosophical work and her work as a writer apart (a point on which she was adamant throughout her career). There is an aspect of conservatism in the above formulation, where philosophy is confined to a technical and exclusive project, rather along the lines of modern academic Anglo-American philosophy, while the philosophical, ethical, and existential functions of literature are downplayed, to be presented as optional playthings for the author. This is a natural emphasis considering all the more or less inappropriate things that might be assumed about the philosophical contents of her novels, or the interrelation between Murdoch’s novels and her philosophical work. But it is not clear that Murdoch’s own philosophical writings reflect this view of philosophy, nor that the most natural use of novels, her or others’, when read in the spirit of her views on literature, is strictly discontinuous with the tasks of philosophy. The points of convergence between philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s work (and even within the same interview from which the quotation is taken) are much more substantial than this characterization would suggest, and she is correctly considered a central figure in creating an interest in narrative literature in analytic moral philosophy and beyond, inspiring, for example, Nussbaum, Diamond, Blum, and Goldberg among the authors discussed thus far. Yet, one should tread very cautiously here. Murdoch’s literary oeuvre is to a large extent entertaining in a way which appeals to intellectual and non-­ intellectual audiences alike, and she repeatedly claimed that she drew on her knowledge of philosophy and philosophical contexts primarily as raw material.13 Philosophical argument appears frequently in dialogue; characters in her books have philosophical training, work on philosophical books and dissertations, or live according to explicitly or implicitly philosophical ideologies. Nothing of this amounts to philosophy proper, although overt allusions to philosophical issues, for example in dialogue, may indeed reflect deeper philosophical constellations in the narrative. As philosophically oriented readings of her novels have


Literature and Moral Theory

suggested, some of them are quite readable as developments of philosophical themes.14 It is perhaps not an exaggeration to say that the large majority of Murdoch scholars have chosen to disregard her own cautions on this issue, with varying results. In what follows I will only discuss Murdoch as moral philosopher, such as comes through in her philosophical writings. I discuss her as the most central philosophical pioneer of the literary turn, rather than as a novelist: this is the aspect of her work that has been inspirational for philosophers of the literary turn, like Diamond, Nussbaum, and Raimond Gaita, while her novels have mainly been inspirational in this respect for literary scholars of the “ethical turn.” Thus my choice of perspective is mainly dictated by the perspective of this book. But I also have more substantial cautions concerning philosophical readings of her literary work, which guide my choice here. One obvious hazard when reading Murdoch’s novels as moral philosophy is that their interpretive openness gives misleading clues for how to read her philosophical works, leaving us with a muddled rather than clarified picture of what she meant to say in matters of moral philosophy. Another hazard has to do with her double role: scholars can find lots of moral philosophical interest in, say, Faulkner, but are none the less rarely inclined to read him as a moral theorist in disguise. The fact that Murdoch was also a moral philosopher seems to give license to read her novels quite differently than one would read the work of most other novelists: as expressions of philosophical theories or positions. This is likely to distort rather than clarify our understanding of her novels. (She did criticize Sartre and Beauvoir for writing programmatic “philosophical novels,” and there is little reason to think that she would have done what they did.) I am not suggesting that Murdoch’s novels should not be interpreted in a context of moral philosophy or ethical criticism. I would rather say that when thus interpreted they should be considered as novels, that is, works of art/fiction, rather than clues to, or alternative (or better) formulations of, Murdoch’s moral philosophy.15 To understand her contribution to the literary turn, we should thus not rush to address her as a novelist, but rather pay close attention to her philosophical writings, and to how they address the moral philosophy of her contemporaries. Murdoch’s early philosophical work enters a context of philosophical thought that is split between the linguistic philosophy of her contemporary British scene, and the existential philosophy of her French contemporaries, above all Sartre. Both of these she finds, eventually, limited in related ways (e.g. 1997: 77, 134; for discussion, see Antonaccio 2000: 61–84), giving too little significance to the moral importance

Between Literature and Theory


of the individual consciousness and overemphasizing choice, will, and overt actions. The perspective of the Anglo-American philosophers is, according to Murdoch, distorted by a legacy that “combines the philosophical insight of Hume16 (we live in a world of disconnected facts) with that of Kant (morality is rational and seeks universally valid reasons), while more surreptitiously it embodies the morality of Mill (‘a creed learnt by heart is paganism’)” (1997: 78). This perspective is marked by an avoidance of metaphysics, an external behaviorist view of the individual person, a focus on overt action, and an understanding of moral concepts in terms of a (thin) fact plus value model (ibid.: 77). In this view “the moral life of the individual is a series of overt choices which take place in a series of specifiable situations” (ibid.: 77). The existentialist context is in Murdoch’s account also plagued by a simplified conception of the human person. Although Sartre exhibits a keen interest in human consciousness, he does it in a way that, in the realm of moral thought, duplicates the behaviorist features of the analytic context. “Sartre concentrates attention on the individual consciousness, and its immediate mental behaviour, and what emerges is a non-­historical, non-­social, and non-­determined individual. A solipsistic picture” (1997: 134).17 The moral person is a choosing will which exercises its powers in a moral world which is readily open to view as a range of choices. This represents a dilemma in Murdoch’s relation to Sartre, for in spite of her appreciation of his concern with the individual person and the individual consciousness, she finds him unable to account for the thick moral texture of this consciousness. As Maria Antonaccio (2000: 62) puts it: In spite of his concern to defend the individual and its freedom in the face of every form of totality, Murdoch argues, Sartre’s essentially liberal affirmation of the value of the individual is not adequately supported by his philosophy as a whole. As a political liberal, Sartre wishes to affirm the value of the individual existent as the self-­determining creator of its own values. Yet having abandoned any belief in God, Nature or History, which have traditionally provided the constitutive background for conceptions of the self, Sartre’s defence of the individual is left ‘without the support of any background faith, religious or political’.

This thin behaviorist/existentialist individual, thus deprived of both personal depth and contextual embedding, is according to Murdoch a philosophical fiction that for its part adds to the narrowing down of the grasp of moral philosophers to what is observable in overt action.18


Literature and Moral Theory

The picture of man, thoroughgoing in both analytic philosophy and existentialism, is in Murdoch’s account “both alien and implausible. That is, more precisely: I have simple empirical objections (I do not think people are necessarily or essentially ‘like that’), I have philosophical objections (I do not find the arguments convincing), and I have moral objections (I do not think people ought to picture themselves in this way)” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 9). Murdoch argues that we cannot make moral sense of human beings if they are understood in this manner, for this perspective lacks what is most central in human morality: a notion of human beings as real, substantial individuals with a stream of consciousness where perception and evaluation are constantly intermingled and often inseparable. What Murdoch demands in moral philosophy is a more substantial account of the human person; a reintroduction of an inner life, and an understanding of the contents of the human mind as full of moral significance.19 Once the idea of a continuous, substantial moral self is rehabilitated in philosophy, a further step is made possible. Morality is conceivable not only as a series of overt actions, but as equally concerned with what we see and feel and think. Beginning moral inquiry at the level of overt action means beginning too late, at a level where we are bound to be unable to account for the whole of morality. The original delineation of phenomena for the inquiry has been too limited from the start; “a circle is formed out of which it may be hard to break” (Murdoch 1997: 76; cf. Chapter 2.1.2). What first of all is required is a relocation of an important part of the moral task from that of describing free, isolated actors to that of approximating an accurate vision of reality, above all the reality of other individual persons (ibid.: 293). This is both a prerequisite for right action and a central moral good in itself. The concepts of vision and, as adopted from Simone Weil, of attention, receive a central place in Murdoch’s ethics. Rather than beginning moral inquiry by asking which principles to act upon, or searching for the ultimate legitimacy of different sets of principles, we should try to see more clearly, to attend more conscientiously to what we have before us. Constant attention is required—to the reality that surrounds us, to the realities of other people as well as our own limitations and blinding desires and wishes—as the plurality of morally salient features of our surrounding reality eludes our efforts to pin it down once and for all. At this stage a few things ought to be said about Murdoch’s place among her contemporaries. First, her critical contribution, rejecting a number of generally

Between Literature and Theory


held assumptions in Anglo-American moral philosophy, matches the related contributions of her colleagues and friends, G. E. M. Anscombe and Philippa Foot. Second, her way of framing the problems of modern moral philosophy has been very successful if measured by the number of younger contemporaries who develop lines inherent in her thought, and what is more, the philosophical success of these younger contemporaries in bringing about an appropriate change, at least in some quarters, in the academic discussions of moral philosophy. The critical part of Murdoch’s contribution has been adopted and elaborated by several contemporary philosophers. It revolves around the criticism of several of the central tenets of modern moral philosophy: the behaviorist man, the focus on action, the fact/value distinction, the non-­cognitivist tendency. The turns toward the substantial self and the ethical importance of perception are, for instance, echoed in influential work of the late twentieth century, the former above all by Taylor (1989) and the latter by Nussbaum (1990), both of whom credit the influence of Murdoch. Murdoch’s substantial self is further present in the broad revival of virtue ethics, her moral realism (which I will discuss in the following section) is echoed in the work of John McDowell (1998), Cora Diamond (1991), Sabina Lovibond (1983), Raimond Gaita (2003), and Alice Crary (2007), and the criticism of the fact/value distinction in Bernard Williams’ (1985) work, as well as the work of Lovibond (1983), etc. According to Antonaccio (2000: 5), Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good “is arguably one of the most influential and widely read works in moral philosophy to appear in the last fifty years.” This is surely something of an exaggeration, because it is not unusual among contemporary moral philosophers to consider her contribution to philosophy negligible (without having read her). These philosophers, though, are often not aware of her influence on a number of philosophers they do consider important. Both the simultaneity with related contributions and the influence that her thought has exercised prove her thorough familiarity with not only the philosophical tradition within which she works, but also the current state of that tradition. Neither of these functions could have been filled by a free intellectual or philosophical essayist or writer, only partly familiar with the proceedings of academic philosophy and only partly interested in contributing to the technical problem-­solving of philosophy. It seems likely that this is part of what she aims at in her seemingly rigid characterization of philosophy (above): that philosophical efforts are bound to miss their target if they are made outside philosophical discussions, for they will not achieve a sufficient precision outside an appropriate discursive context.


Literature and Moral Theory

To a certain extent she does in her philosophical writing keep to a discourse which primarily meets a narrow audience of philosophical specialists, who are interested in solving very specific philosophical puzzlements in a given academic context. But she also clearly breaks with the expectations of mid- and late twentieth century analytic philosophy, earning the comment from her long-­ term friend and colleague Mary Midgley that “Iris, however, has never minded being unfashionable” (Midgley 1998). Widdows (2005: 11) points out that Murdoch is found by many critics to be insufficiently articulate and systematic about central parts of her philosophical outlook.20 Even her mature major statement of her moral philosophy, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, proceeds by circling around a vast number of philosophers and topics, presenting more of an overall vision than a philosophical theory. This feature of her style, however, does little to diminish the context-­bound nature of the philosophical questions she sets out to address. She enters philosophy extremely self-­consciously at a certain point in time and at a certain point of philosophical discourse. Thus, when Murdoch emphasizes that “Philosophy aims to clarify and to explain” and that “it states and tries to solve very difficult, highly technical problems and the writing must be subservient to this aim” (1997: 4), this can also be read as a note of warning to those who interpret her idiosyncratic style in philosophy as a mark of disconnection from the tradition she comments upon, and from its central questions. The problem of categorizing Murdoch’s work has less to do with her critical contributions and the local or specific positive contributions presented to replace the criticized positions, or even with the idiosyncrasies of her style, than with the overall vision of morality which emerges from these. Although she shares many concerns with the contemporary particularists, and has inspired some of them (e.g. Blum 1994), she has too much of a generalizing normative vision to fit very neatly into the particularist scheme. It is notable that the particularistic, perception-­centered aspect of her thought is only one aspect of her overall picture. In spite of sharing many concerns with contemporary virtue-­ethicists, such as her interest in the neglected inner life in moral philosophy, a certain preference for a thick moral vocabulary and the refusal to accept a simple fact/value analysis of moral concepts, etc., she does not propose any theory of the virtues. Both particularists and virtue ethicists share her concern for moral vision or perception as well as the general outline of her criticism of modern moral philosophy, but their ways of moving on from this common ground are different from hers.

Between Literature and Theory


The more humble success of Murdoch’s overall vision may partly be due to the fact that analytic moral philosophy has, through the joint contributions of many of the mentioned philosophers’ work, gone through a critical phase where the pieces of Murdoch’s criticism are at home, while the general outcome of the critical wave is still quite unclear and the critics suggest a host of different strategies for moral philosophy to overcome features of the (still) current paradigm that has been criticized. Although much of the criticism of modern moral philosophy (on the lines of the taxonomy of features in Chapter  1) is widely shared, there is no widely shared consensus over how to proceed from there. Thus it ought not to be surprising, in this situation, that a philosopher shares the critical perspective with others while being more or less alone with her positive suggestion. But the humble success of her positive contribution is also a result of the very peculiarity of Murdoch’s moral philosophy, which I will now turn to.

4.3.1  A metaphysics of imagery Whereas those contemporary philosophers who share Murdoch’s critical concerns have turned to Aristotle and to Wittgenstein to find inspiration for a different model of pursuing philosophy, Murdoch finds her master philosopher in Plato. Both Plato’s idea of the good and his imagery describing the ascendance toward the good occupy central places in her thought. As Widdows (2005: 90) puts it: “Murdoch’s interpretation of Plato is fundamental to her conception of the moral life. It would be no exaggeration to describe her philosophy at this point as an exegesis of, or meditation on, Plato’s Cave.” I will here look into what this could mean. Where neo-Aristotelians emphasize taxonomies of distinct virtues and the irreducible qualitative differences between different goods, Murdoch emphasizes the importance of the idea of the one good, which we strive toward, beyond the plurality—the one behind the many. The ideas of moral vision and attention are in Murdoch’s scheme intimately connected to an idea of a moral reality which is independent of the agent’s preferences and evaluations. The good, as something that transcends our individual situations and choices, is not invented but found. The human world is fundamentally moral in a way that precedes the acts of willing of any human individual, and that requires a careful attuning to the moral demands that are placed upon us as participants in this world.


Literature and Moral Theory

This note of realism is matched by the often implicit trust in the independent reality of the moral realm, the demands of morality as found rather than made, which is prominent in contemporary moral philosophical discussions on literature.21 For Murdoch this trust is solidified into the form of an explicit moral realism, a thoroughgoing argument for the reality of the good or of an idea of perfection in our lives. Although morality may not consist of facts in a narrow sense, it is a cognitive field as much as any; of knowing, believing, and being in error. The reality of the good is intimately tied to the acknowledgment of the reality of other people. “Morality, goodness, is a form of realism. The idea of a really good man living in a private dream world seems unacceptable. Of course a good man may be infinitely eccentric, but he must know certain things about his surroundings, most obviously the existence of other people and their claims” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 57). Acknowledgment of a common world already contains an orientation between good and evil. Connecting to the moral reality is equivalent to connecting to a quite ordinary external world, in which there are other people who are as real as you, with equally real and justified wishes, plans and claims. Murdoch’s moral realism is thus closely tied to her repudiation of the simple fact/value dichotomy of analytic moral philosophy. Whatever we take the facts of a matter to be, there are always evaluative biases—a specific orientation in the world, for example—and many of our most precise, factual descriptions are fundamentally evaluative in ways that are revealed to us only on a closer look, or in retrospect.22 Evaluation is omnipresent in our perceptions and descriptions, and is not to be seen as an adjunct that can be removed while leaving our understanding of the “facts” intact. Conversely, not only the knowledge of empirical facts accessible to natural science or common experience, but a much broader range of insights—including moral and aesthetic ones—contain knowledge of an external reality. The realm of empirical fact and the realm of value are not disconnected, but fundamentally intertwined in our consciousness and language. To substantiate her moral realism, Murdoch argues from within everyday evaluative and moral experience. From this perspective, we cannot account for moral experience without understanding it as grounded in something that is external to us and independent of our will. Murdoch suggests that although what is good and right in a specific case is revealed by close attention to the concrete situation, we understand this goodness in terms of something beyond the situations, or potentially manifested in the situations, that they have in

Between Literature and Theory


common; a goodness that “. . . is not a function of the choosing will but a real object of knowledge” (Antonaccio 2000: 117). “Good represents the reality of which God is the dream” Murdoch writes (1992: 496), and continues further on (508): God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured. That is, it is real as an Idea, and is also incarnate in knowledge and work and love. This is the true idea of incarnation, and is not something obscure. We experience both the reality of perfection and its distance away, and this leads us to place our idea of it outside the world of existent being as something of a different unique and special sort. Such experience of the reality of good is not like an arbitrary and assertive resort to our own will; it is a discovery of something independent of us, where that independence is essential.

This sequence illustrates the double nature of her picture of the good; it is on the one hand part of our everyday experience (incarnate in it), but it has on the other hand a dynamic, striving character for which she uses a rich metaphorical language, in this short passage briefly visible in her way of placing the good at a certain distance from us (spatial metaphor). The idea of the good, as something transcendent and beyond our will, illuminates our attention to particulars in our everyday existence (Murdoch 1992: 507). The quantity of metaphors is one of the aspects of her writing that makes it potentially obscure if read through the spectacles of analytic philosophy, but this obscurity should not be overrated, for reasons that surface if we look closer at both the ordinary-­life anchoring of her realism and the metaphorical language she uses to describe human striving towards the good. Like the neo-Aristotelian virtue ethicists, Murdoch builds her picture of morality on a close attention to the small nuances of everyday life, and the small amendments which we make to our characters if guided by appropriate ideals. We see this in her frequently discussed example of the mother-­in-law, M, who first thinks that her son has married beneath him, but who successively comes to appreciate her daughter-­in-law, D, by learning to see in a different light the very features she first condemned (Murdoch 1970/2001: 16–17). In everyday life we do presuppose the reality of good and evil. These are not philosophical constructs: “. . . we do really know a certain amount about Good and about the way in which it is connected with our condition. The ordinary person does not, unless corrupted by philosophy, believe that he creates values by his choices. He thinks that some


Literature and Moral Theory

things really are better than others and that he is capable of getting it wrong” (ibid.: 95). When we start looking for evidence for the reality of these things we have already lost contact with the only possible source of such evidence: our actual lives. We have in our ordinary lives, normally, a sense of directedness toward the good, although we may of course be deluded concerning what, in the real world, is good, that is, concerning what could match the compelling idea. Antonaccio (2000: 116) describes Murdoch’s stance as “ ‘reflexive’ or ‘hermeneutical’ realism,” which means “that she will be seeking a criterion of valid moral knowledge in and through the reflexive medium of consciousness itself.” This may be a helpful formulation if the aim is to place Murdoch’s account among varieties of moral realism, for it is indeed through looking at our dynamic, reflective, and necessary relation to an idea of the good that Murdoch comes to argue her perspective. But Antonaccio’s talk of reflexive realism does not do full justice to the simplicity of Murdoch’s idea of consciousness, or the idea of our consciousness of goodness that provides the experiential basis of Murdoch’s transcendent idea of the good. Rather this labeling suggests too much of a theoretical burden. I will spell out in more detail here how my interpretation of Murdoch’s conception of the idea of a transcendent good differs from Antonaccio’s interpretation, as she is one of the leading contemporary scholars on Murdoch’s moral philosophy and thus likely to have formed many readers view of Murdoch’s work. Antonaccio (2000: 123) claims that Murdoch makes use of a version of the ontological proof in order to show that goodness is the transcendental condition for moral knowledge (rather than a property that inheres in objects of moral knowledge). Here she relies on Murdoch’s discussion of Anselm’s proof for the existence of God (in Murdoch 1992: 391–430). Antonaccio argues that Murdoch’s discussion contains “a transcendental argument that seeks to answer the question ‘what is the meaning of the term “good”?’ by establishing the reality of the good on transcendental rather than empirical grounds” and “what she calls a ‘metaphysical’ (or perfectionist) argument that seeks to answer the question ‘what things are good?’ by providing an ideal standard by which to judge things good” (Antonaccio 2000: 123, my emphases). This formulation is starkly misleading if used as the key to understanding Murdoch’s arguments for the reality of the good. Murdoch is not presenting an ontological proof or ontological argument for the reality of goodness (as the transcendental condition for moral knowledge), but rather illuminating her own conception by means of the parallel she perceives in Anselm’s discussion. Using

Between Literature and Theory


such parallels and analogies is characteristic for Murdoch’s work; presenting proofs is not. The ontological proof is no exception. Antonaccio (ibid.: 123) suggests that Murdoch, by presenting the ontological proof, attempts to avoid the charge of subjectivism that her vocabulary of perception and vision invites. But there is no reason to think that Murdoch would hold such a proof to be necessary in the face of such a charge. Murdoch’s metaphysical and theoretical apparatus is also much lighter than Antonaccio suggests. A more apt description of the ontological role of the good in Murdoch’s philosophy is that she considers human mindedness as essentially organized in terms of good and bad, or good and evil, an organization which is not a consequence of human choices, but is rather the prerequisite for any individual choices, evaluations, or desires. This basic orientation is, in Murdoch’s view, what thinkers like Plato, or Anselm, or Kant have in various ways been describing. Yet this characterization has its hazards, since the orientation should not be considered in terms of something “mental” or “internal.” It is rather to be seen as a directedness in terms of goodness in the real world, something discovered rather than made by or inherent in the individual mind. Talking about Murdoch as presenting an ontological proof is problematic in several interrelated ways. First, such interpretation gives a misleading picture of Murdoch’s original conception of metaphysics, by installing what looks like a rather traditional metaphysical argument at the center of her account. Second, it clouds the very casual everyday base of her conception of the transcendent good, and the highly intuitive, casual and mobile language she wants to use for describing it: we experience goodness as something beyond us, and we need to talk about it in such terms. Third, the ontological proof is bound to make Murdoch seem more of an oddity in the ethics/literature context than her great influence upon this context would suggest, as the ethics/literature discussion is, in many ways, a fruit of the twentieth century caution against metaphysics (e.g. as seen in the post-Wittgensteinian discussion). To get hold of what is distinctive to Murdoch’s rehabilitation of metaphysics we must attend more closely to the everyday, experiential grounding of her moral philosophy. Starting from a casual, non-­technical, non-­theoretical account of consciousness, Murdoch wants to move forward to explore the human orientation towards the good, in a manner that attempts to speak directly about it, without jargon: I want to talk about consciousness or self-­being as the fundamental mode or form of moral being . . . as distinguished from conceptions depending


Literature and Moral Theory

solely upon choice, will and action, from voluntarism and ethical behaviourism, and indeed from Kant for whom phenomenal awareness (the mess of actual consciousness) is without value, also from theories in the style of Husserl or of Freud which depend upon technical terminology. Philosophers are supposed to clarify, and should attempt to write in ordinary language and not in jargon. Murdoch 1992: 171–2

Our knowledge of the evil of concentration camps and the good of a comforting friend, or of love, or of a good work of art, are unquestioned in our real lives, just like the reality of our own and other people’s substantial selves and inner lives. We should try to talk about these things in ordinary language, starting from ordinary, heterogeneous forms of experience. But pointing to experiences will be insufficient for understanding their significance and to account for the dynamics of our relation to the good. What we need, in Murdoch’s account, is a rich picturing activity describing this experience. A central task of moral philosophy is to approximate our understanding of the good through an imagery that catches the essential orientedness and the dynamics of moral life. The metaphorical vocabularies picturing the good as the sun, the human ascent toward improvement in terms of Plato’s cave, etc. are ways of reaching at the compelling character of this experience, the pull of a force which is—essentially—beyond us and our contingent willing. Here we come to the meaning of Widdows’ statement that Murdoch’s philosophy can be read as meditations over Plato’s cave. The cave metaphor, and its attached ideas of ascendance, of vision, of moral improvement as both spiritual and cognitive improvement, provides a powerful imagery to which Murdoch constantly returns from her excursions into other areas of moral, political, aesthetic, and religious thought. The specific dynamics of our lives and actions toward the idea of the good is central for the description of moral experience. Moral experience, as described by Murdoch, has this vertical dimension, the dimension of ascendance, as a central component. Heeding the quotation above, these metaphorical images and vocabularies should not be understood as producing a closed or conclusive theory of the good, or a theory of morality. Neither do they, in spite of Murdoch’s recurring allusions to mysticism, suggest an esoteric realm that is separated from common and shared experience. They are rather continuous with our everyday activities of image-­making, imagining, and making sense. Certain, predominantly Platonic, myths and metaphors seem to be essential for expressing Murdoch’s

Between Literature and Theory


overall picture of what is central in morality, but they are not to be frozen, but rather to be constantly intermingled with other images. Here we approach what Murdoch means by metaphysics. Metaphysics is image play; approximating with images and metaphorical descriptions a reality and ideas about our relation to and place in that reality. Metaphysics is our activity of articulating our human condition and its limits, and metaphor is the essential mode of metaphysical thought.“Metaphors are not merely peripheral decorations or even useful models, they are fundamental forms of our awareness of our condition: metaphors of space, metaphors of movement, metaphors of vision” (1970/2001: 74). The great metaphysical systems of our philosophical history are, in Murdoch’s account, attempts to come to terms with the metaphors by which we approximate the fundamental issues of our existence. The function of these metaphors is not to mystify but to clarify what cannot be spelled out in literal terms. Murdoch’s interpretation of Plato as a thoroughly metaphorical thinker, using myths, stories, and images to picture what is plain and ordinary and present, rather than to establish an independent mystical transcendent realm, should be seen as the key to interpreting her own use of metaphors. She underlines what she takes to be Plato’s awareness of the metaphorical nature of his pursuit (Murdoch 1992: 10–11). Similarly, she repeatedly notes and points to the presence of metaphorical expressions in her own discussions, and in her discussions of the thought of other philosophers: words indicating metaphors of space, movement, light; metaphors in the form of parables, etc. Thus metaphysics, as a picturing activity, is essentially not about freezing an image of our relation to a transcendent reality in the form of a metaphysical system, or about presenting a metaphysical proof, but rather the perpetual activity of describing our experience of being in the world. It is a creative/ explorative endeavor which requires shifting vocabularies, images and modes of presentation. It can take the form of elaborate metaphysical systems, but it is a kind of activity in which we engage spontaneously in our everyday speech, imageries, art, and religious practice. Thinking for example of the past as behind me and the future as in front of me are metaphysical metaphors of a kind, describing what the world is, essentially, like. Our various “root metaphors” (though she does not use that term) are parts of what Murdoch would call our metaphysics. The exploration and elaboration of this kind of metaphysical thinking is found by Murdoch to be out of fashion among her contemporaries, deemed as empty


Literature and Moral Theory

and valueless by the “behaviorist” and empiricist philosophers of her time. She rejects the anti-­metaphysical tendency of her contemporary philosophical scene as inhibiting the kind of picturing activity which is essential for philosophical thought, flattening our understanding of what there is in the world, and what can reasonably be said.23 Concerning metaphorical activity she contends that “. . . it seems to me impossible to discuss certain kinds of concepts without resort to metaphor, since the concepts themselves are deeply metaphorical and cannot be analysed into non-­metaphorical components without a loss of substance” (1970/2001: 75). What she communicates here is also a picture of language very much out of step with her contemporaries. What can be expressed clearly in literal language does not exhaust the potential of philosophy in exploring the human world. “What these linguistic analysts mistrust is precisely language” (Murdoch 1997: 83n), she states in relation to her mid-twentieth century colleagues whose conception of language—the new focal issue of philosophy of her time—she finds overly restricted. In Murdoch’s view it is not only possible but fundamentally important, especially in morals, to stretch the limits of language towards all the things that seem inexpressible in literal terms. The creative pictorial language of Murdoch’s moral metaphysics is all but nonsense or ornament; it is an essential form for verbalizing what is involved in the moral striving and ascendance that is pictured. This insistence on the importance of a metaphysic of metaphors, a creative stretching of the limits of language even when we are describing what is everyday and ordinary and present, is what most clearly sets Murdoch apart from her post-Wittgensteinian colleagues in the ethics/literature discussion. Although she shares with them the insistence that philosophical discussions should be jargon-­ free and thus should not develop a dependence on technical vocabularies, this insistence has in her view slightly different consequences. Where postWittgensteinian philosophers are centrally concerned with bringing “words back from their metaphysical to their everyday use” (PI § 116) (cf. 4.7 above), Murdoch pictures a range of metaphysical uses where language is at home, uses which are an essential part of our linguistic practices in relation to the world. One thing to be noted here is, of course, that the notions of metaphysics used by post-Wittgensteinian philosophers and by Murdoch are different. What Wittgenstein and his followers have in mind are philosophical discourses where words are naïvely taken beyond their normal contexts of use and where we end up with philosophical questions which seem irresolvable due to puzzlements

Between Literature and Theory


concerning how to use language in these new contexts, where no reasonably stable practices exist. Murdoch would certainly agree upon the futility of many philosophical (theoretical, metaphysical) discussions that Wittgensteinians object to. But when talking about metaphysics she envisages a realm of thought where the use of language is self-­consciously explorative and creative. Her understanding of metaphysics is an attempt to reconsider and rehabilitate metaphysical thinking in a post-­metaphysical age; to suggest an interpretation of metaphysical thinking which can save what is essential in it for a twentieth and twenty-­first century audience. On account of this Murdoch is much more liberal towards attempts at metaphysical system-­building (historical as well as contemporary) than post-Wittgensteinian philosophers tend to be, as she sees the metaphysical attempts as akin to her own philosophical endeavor. But there is—in this interpretation of Murdoch’s idea of metaphysics—not necessarily a strict conflict between the Murdochian affirmation of metaphysics and the Wittgensteinian repudiation of metaphysics. They can rather, at least to a certain point, be seen as two different directions of philosophical thought, exploring different regions of our understanding. Heeding Murdoch’s occasional preference for metaphorical expression it may here be allowed that I summarize my account of Murdoch’s moral philosophy in metaphorical terms, as three movements of thought that aim at putting in place three aspects of morality, the reality or significance of which have been put in question by a variety of strong trends of twentieth century moral philosophy. First, there is in Murdoch’s philosophy an inward movement of reconstituting the substantial self, and restoring a moral philosophical reliance on the moral significance of introspection. Second, there is an outward movement in reconstituting a common reality which is full of real, non-­subjective moral significance, which the substantial selves need to make sense of in order to live and act well. Third, there is an upward movement in the striving of the moral person towards the good, and the constant picturing of what is better, the ideal beyond the flaws and incompleteness of the actual world. It is now worth noting that the aspects of Murdoch’s moral philosophy that I have treated thus far: 1) the critical contribution, including the reconstitution of the substantial self, and 2) her metaphorically constructed metaphysics of the good, which centers around Plato’s cave, only give a suggestive orientation into her body of work, which is conceptually rich and opens several interesting paths into ethics, aesthetics, religion, and politics, as well as into the nature of philosophical thought.


Literature and Moral Theory

4.3.2  Philosophy and literature in Murdoch’s perspective The domains of philosophy and literature overlap in several ways in Murdoch’s overall picture of moral philosophy. There is a particular way in which her view of the appropriate concerns of moral philosophy invites literature into philosophical collaboration. Philosophy, in Murdoch’s account, ought to be more interested in how we come to see and evaluate the world as we do, rather than assuming a given order, open to view, in which we act. In this explorative task, narrative literature, as well as other kinds of narrative and art, provides essential material. An important aspect of the moral significance of novels resides in their narrative representation of the movements of consciousness, how a particular person comes to see, appreciate, and judge the things around her in specific ways. We thus find a rather conventional division of philosophical labor in Murdoch’s view, where literature depicts the particular and philosophy makes the generalizations: “. . . the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations” (1970/2001: 33). Literature pictures particular situations, while philosophy makes critical interventions and creates metaphysical imagery. In this manner the special task of showing the particular, allotted to literature in the contemporary discussion on ethics and literature, is to be found at the center of Murdoch’s conception as well. We should note that it is the explorative, substantial task of literature which is called upon by Murdoch, rather than the rhetorical one. The philosophically untamed, sprouting character of literature, which Murdoch (1997: 4) emphasizes, may be exactly what is required to preserve the intellectual autonomy of literature as an independent vehicle of moral thought. Literature is a lesson in how to picture and understand; it teaches us how to engage in the fundamental moral activity of making sense of the world, richly, at multiple levels, and yet aware of our own limitations. But it does not, primarily, give us philosophical answers or illustrate philosophical positions. The exemplary narrative of the mother-­in-law who learns to see her daughter-­ in-law in a more generous light and discovers that her harsh judgment was partly due to her own jealousy, is essential for Murdoch’s argument in The Sovereignty of Good. It shows the importance of the inner movements of the individual mind in moral philosophy. What is distinctive about this example is its reliance on temporality, perceptiveness, psychological change and the absence of overt action. This example is presented in the thin fashion of a “philosophical example,”

Between Literature and Theory


but it replicates in these aspects the working of the more elaborate narratives of many novels. Narratives have a range of ways to articulate the inner life of a particular human being, the inner life which has been found problematically unavailable for philosophical scrutiny by much of modern philosophy. Narratives have an ability to show us the substantial self, and the reality of inner events, thoughts and changes, which are not necessarily visible in the person’s overt behavior. “Novels, both old and new, from Murasaki (The Tale of Genji) onward, seem to have had no radical difficulties with the concept of consciousness. The variety of solutions is one of the charms of the art form” (Murdoch 1992: 170). Given a variety of ways of making more tangible the inner movements of a human mind, readers and writers of narrative literature do not run the risk of abandoning a substantial picture of the inner life of human beings. The inner self takes such a natural, unquestionable role in the literary medium that not even philosophers are likely to think of it as something too obscure to function as the basis of understanding human beings and human morality. Murdoch contributes to the discussion around James’ The Golden Bowl by noting the symbolic metaphorical devices James uses to describe the movement of Maggie’s mind when she discovers what she has perhaps intuited for a long time: that her husband and her friend Charlotte are having a long-­term love affair right before her eyes. Murdoch quotes at length a passage from which I draw here only a part, describing the mind of Maggie around the time for her discovery: This situation had been occupying, for months and months, the very centre of the garden of her life, but it had reared itself there like some strange tall tower of ivory, or perhaps rather some wonderful, beautiful, but outlandish pagoda, a structure plated with hard bright porcelain, coloured and figured and adorned, at the overhanging eaves, with silver bells that tinkled, ever so charmingly, when stirred by chance airs. She had walked round and round it—that was what she felt; she had carried on her existence in the space left her for circulation, a space that sometimes seemed ample and sometimes narrow; looking up all the while, at the fair structure that spread itself so amply and rose so high, but never quite making out, as yet, where she might have entered had she wished. She had knocked, in short—though she could scarce have said whether for admission or for what; she had applied her hand to a cool, smooth spot, and had waited to see what would happen. Something had happened; it was as if a sound, at her touch, after a little, had come back to her from within; a sound sufficiently suggesting that her approach had been noticed. James, quoted in Murdoch 1992: 170, 171


Literature and Moral Theory

These passages exemplify both the temporal development of Maggie’s awareness and the power of metaphorical expression to bring forth, more exactly than any literal expression, the precise mood and character of her experience. Murdoch notes that we do follow such passages as descriptions of states of consciousness without difficulty: “We are able to think of the imagery both as something which the character is continually, like the author, coining as she goes along, and as something ‘deeper’ or ‘beyond’, which the imagery evokes or points to” (ibid.). The garden, the pagoda, the circling around, it all makes perfect sense. For Murdoch there is no real problem concerning how we do this. There is ultimately nothing strange about this, as figurative language is everywhere in our thinking “apprehended by the thinker as ultimate or as pointing beyond” (ibid.). The passages focus on the ability of literature to describe, through narrative and metaphor, the movement of the individual consciousness. But they also suggest how literature is equally concerned with our common life world, beyond the mind of the individual. The movement of Maggie’s mind approximates the reality of her situation, her imaginative activity reaches out to describe and to act upon facts in the real world which she thus far has managed to push away from her. The text is thus not only concerned with Maggie’s consciousness, but also with the struggle of that consciousness to face reality. In addition to describing the nature of Maggie’s particular consciousness, it illustrates the dynamic relationship between mind and world, the effort to see more clearly, which is central for Murdoch’s moral philosophy. It should be clear that this relationship, the experience of this struggle, may require modes of presentation beyond the plainly narrative: pictorial, metaphorical and symbolic. The picturing activity of literature functions on several distinct, but interrelated levels in Murdoch’s account. First, we have realistic depictions of particular, idiosyncratic, individual people and their situations and actions. Second, we have the creative symbolic devices of the author to describe the texture of the individual experiences. In the passages from The Golden Bowl we see a richness of symbolism in the description of plain, ordinary, realistically rendered experience. Third, literature has a potential of picturing moral ideals through images and symbols of goodness, perfection, holiness, etc., thus participating in the metaphysical work of describing our orientation towards the idea of a good that is not of our own making. This metaphysical dimension is found most clearly in myths, but also in characters representing these ideals, such as the goodness and redemptive suffering of Christ or Christ-­like figures in literature (e.g. Murdoch 1992: 131–2). This third level should not be

Between Literature and Theory


considered as radically, qualitatively different from the second: the experience of the transcendent good is in Murdoch’s view part of our ordinary, everyday experience, such as it can be rendered to us through the medium of realistic art. It is not here separated because it suggests a mystical realm beyond this world, but rather because it is of particular moral philosophical interest, a place for unity beyond the plurality. Through the complex texture of imagery and symbolism in literature the particularity of individual human proceedings, the dynamics of experience and reality, and their connection to an idea of a transcendent good, are expressed in a rich variety of ways. There is thus a natural path for literature, in its very particularizing effort, to approach the metaphysical. Particular human situations, as represented in literature, give us common objects of attention by which we can mirror the good in human proceedings. The vertical dimension, the striving toward the good is, for Murdoch, manifested in different ways in the particularities of human life and action, and literature works as a tool for making the appropriate connections. In Murdoch’s account both literature (as art) and philosophy are, in spite of important differences, occupied with picturing human life. Both work, in these activities, at the service of reality; that single reality which we will come in touch with, once we put our selfish fantasies aside (Murdoch 1970/2001: 83). Both art and philosophy are tools for knowledge and truth, measured not only by their inventiveness but by their accuracy (Murdoch 1997: 11–12). Both are tools for fighting the illusions and delusions which are part of our everyday life: “Art then is not a diversion or a side issue, it is the most educational of all human activities and a place in which the nature of morality can be seen. Art gives a clear sense to many ideas which seem more puzzling when we meet with them elsewhere, and it is a clue to what happens elsewhere” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 85). It is important again to see how the notion of reality used by Murdoch is fundamentally moral. Reality is not the totality of empirical facts, but an evaluative realm; a life-­world. It is most clearly seen when we consider how the obstacles to perceiving that reality are described by Murdoch. For they are not merely sensory or cognitive obstacles, although the moral realm is a “cognitive” one, but above all moral failures like selfishness, pride, lies, and comforting fantasies. “We are anxiety-­ridden animals. Our minds are continually active, fabricating an anxious, usually self-­preoccupied, often falsifying veil which partially conceals the world” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 82). The imaginative picturing activity of both philosophy and art, which Murdoch sees as necessary


Literature and Moral Theory

for understanding the world, is not without risks, for the creative faculties are open to corruption, producing false, soothing, convenient and comfortable pictures of the world. Especially in the realm of art, corruption is constantly close at hand. Imagination, which is the capacity of imagining when it is at the service of truth, is contrasted with fantasy, which in Murdoch’s scheme is comforting illusion (1997: 11, 255). Through imagination we are able to see the reality of the other person as a separate being. The pair of concepts works for morals as well as for art criticism, and brings to the fore the interconnectedness of these realms in Murdoch’s work. What we have here is a Platonic idea at work; phantasia is a product of the mind of the man in the cave, consoling him, and thus preventing him from seeing his pitiable situation. Imagination is the power of the mind striving towards ascendance from the cave, and towards seeing reality. The distinction between fantasy and imagination is a thoroughly moral one, for it points out both the right direction of our striving—toward what is beyond ourselves—and shows us one of the greatest moral pitfalls in Murdoch’s framework, the experiential similarity between true vision and false consolatory fantasizing. It is notable how Murdoch, in drawing this distinction, combines a criticism of Plato’s hostility towards art with recognition of reasons that warrant this hostility.24 Plato does not make room for the positive moral function of art, envisaged by Murdoch, because he sees all art as being three removes from reality: being a picture of the object which in its own right is merely a picture of its transcendent idea (which is the real thing). For Plato “Art both expresses and gratifies the lowest part of the soul, and feeds and enlivens base emotions which ought to be left to wither” (Murdoch 1997: 391).25 In his account “artists are interested in what is base and complex, not in what is simple and good” (ibid.). Against this, Murdoch makes a point of the distinction between (fantasy) art, that is, and (imaginative) art, that is not, thus removed from reality, and attributes to the former category the deluding and morally corrupting features of Plato’s conception of art. Good art, again, is seen as an essential tool for moral understanding. Here she incorporates and encapsulates Plato’s cautions against art in her own account, which could seem to give quite a contrary view of the moral role of art. Bad art and our most fundamental moral shortcoming, the inability to see beyond our own narrow interests, are in Murdoch’s account products of the very same faculty: our ability to create false, selfish pictures of our existence. Bad art

Between Literature and Theory


celebrates narcissism and leaves us in the dark. “We can see in mediocre art, where perhaps it is even more clearly seen than in mediocre conduct, the intrusion of fantasy, the assertion of self, the dimming of any reflection of the real world” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 58). Good art provides us with imagery which aids us in our moral ascendance; it helps us to see more clearly the independent reality of people other than ourselves, on terms which are not dictated by our own needs and wishes.26 Taking this connection seriously means rejecting bad (or mediocre) art as a potential guide to morals. An artistically poor novel cannot give moral guidance, for artistic merit and moral merit are, for Murdoch, fundamentally intertwined. Murdoch is here clearly more rigid than many of her colleagues in the ethics/ literature discussion. A bad or mediocre novel may perhaps arouse sympathetic feelings and come to laudable normative conclusions, but it cannot properly serve the purposes of moral philosophy or moral improvement, for it has neglected the necessary groundwork, the accurate, selfless, and unsentimental depiction of life. Thus Murdoch bars the way for the potential criticism—directed against Nussbaum (Posner 1997: 16)—that she turns to artistically inferior novels when looking for clear and strong moral points in literature. The interconnectedness of the moral contents and the artistic qualities of a work of art, of ethics and aesthetics, leads Murdoch, to some extent, to evaluate the quality of literature according to criteria which are important for her moral outlook. The novels of the nineteenth century are in Murdoch’s view much better than those of the twentieth due to the way they are capable of depicting a social world which is considered unquestionable: “Society is real and the human soul is pretty solid too: the mind, the personality are continuous and self-­evident realities” (Murdoch 1997: 221). These assumptions give the nineteenth century novel a confidence which twentieth century novels lack. And confidence, here, is quality. We see that this evaluation is not disconnected from her view of what is lacking in moral thought, namely the confidence in the real existence of substantial selves: “There is in these novels a plurality of real persons more or less naturalistically presented in a large social scene, and representing mutually independent centres of significance which are those of real individuals” (ibid.: 271).27 A certain kind of circularity is unavoidable here. These novels are capable of contributing to moral thought because they are good, and they are good to a large extent because they have the feature which serves Murdoch’s moral purpose: confidence in an independent reality and real, continuous other selves. The alleged superiority of nineteenth century novels is interesting because of the


Literature and Moral Theory

way it illuminates Murdoch’s view of the moral worth of literature more generally. These novels are good because they combine insights into the human soul with the reality of a social world. It is easy to see the risks of at least some forms of modernist and postmodernist literature, proposed by this judgment. The subjectivity of modernism may suggest that the social world is less real, while the dissolution of the subject in some postmodern literature may suggest that nothing whatsoever is real. We are led along a path that may hinder rather than support our (moral) recognition of a common reality that is fundamental for Murdoch’s moral perspective. The circularity need not be harmful for Murdoch’s position, as it is not intended to be conclusive. Literature does, as we saw, many things, and does not have a conclusive aim or task. The interconnectedness of the ethical and the aesthetic aspects of literature is essential for Murdoch’s view of literary art, and she is led here to take an aesthetic standpoint due to considerations relating to her moral philosophy. But she does not thereby delimit the possible range of tasks that literature can perform, or preclude other (equally ethical) criteria of goodness that can redeem literature of the twentieth century. This connection between moral goodness and good art does not exclude the potential profitability of the kind of ethical criticism discussed by Booth (1988), which aims at revealing prejudice, narrow-­mindedness and corruption in literature, or other works of narrative art. Thus, Murdoch’s framework is compatible with the idea that discussion about both artistically and morally inferior art can be morally useful in exhibiting the false or corrupt modes of consciousness and vision that “bad” art represents. She also provides a useful tool for such criticism in her distinction between fantasy and imagination. To summarize this discussion, narrative literature, and narrative art more generally, is in Murdoch’s view a picturing activity which is essential for making sense of the world around us. It is both continuous with and distinct from the picturing tasks of philosophical theory and metaphysics. It is especially concerned with showing the particularity of human life, but its task is not confined to the realm of particularity. Using a multiplicity of devices, literature points beyond the particularities it depicts, and reaches thus at more general insights that are not readily available in the form of simple, literal propositions or systematically presented theories. Linking back to the vocabulary of Chapter 3, it could here be said that a central part of the moral import of literature is in Murdoch’s view found in its ability to show us new and various perspectives, new ways of seeing the world, and the people and things it contains.

Between Literature and Theory


4.4  Nussbaum, Murdoch, and the nature of moral theory In her 1970s’ book The Sovereignty of Good Murdoch sets the agenda for moral theory as follows: What I feel sure of is the inadequacy, indeed inaccuracy, of utilitarianism, linguistic behaviourism, and current existentialism in any of the forms with which I am familiar. I also feel sure that moral philosophy ought to be defended and kept in existence as a pure activity, or a fertile area, analogous in importance to un-­applied mathematics or pure ‘useless’ historical research. Ethical theory has affected society, and has reached as far as to the ordinary man, in the past, and there is no good reason to think that it cannot do so in the future. For both the collective and the individual salvation of the human race, art is doubtless more important than philosophy, and literature most important of all. But there can be no substitute for pure, disciplined, professional speculation: and it is from these two areas, art and ethics, that we must hope to generate concepts worthy, and also able, to guide and check the increasing power of science. Murdoch 1970/2001: 74

The philosopher’s characteristic activity, “pure, disciplined, professional speculation” or, in a broad sense, theory, is thus seen by Murdoch as irreplaceable. Both Murdoch and Nussbaum emphasize the active, critical moral potential of philosophical theory, indeed its necessity in carrying out a reasoned criticism of our moral understanding and practice. Nussbaum finds the critical potential above all in how theories can deal with prejudice and implicit generalizations (as discussed in Chapters 3.2 and 4.2). Murdoch again emphasizes the role of moral theory, alongside literature, as a creative realm which generates conceptual tools and frameworks that we need in order to deal with the moral challenges of our time. Both Nussbaum and Murdoch reject utilitarianism and embrace, among other things, a range of moral philosophical efforts that try to account for the inner life of the individual person. For this task (among others) moral philosophy benefits from the consideration of narrative literature. For both Nussbaum and Murdoch the substantial consideration of narrative literature as a medium for moral and moral philosophical thought also affects the way moral theory is, and can be, pursued. Narrative literature shows the limits of generalizing ethical theory by bringing forward aspects of morality and moral thought that are not fully expressible in theoretical form. Moral theory


Literature and Moral Theory

emerges as one path to moral philosophical insight among others; useful, perhaps necessary, but not self-­sufficient as a medium for such inquiry. Although both Murdoch and Nussbaum make important distinctions concerning the respective roles of theory and narrative literature in moral philosophical thought, it is essential for both that the ethical pursuits of narrative literature cannot be sealed off from the pursuits of moral theory. Moral theory and ethical discussions on literature are two aspects of a common inquiry of trying to make sense of human life and morality. From their respective perspectives it is not possible to consider the discussions on the ethical aspects of literary works as a specialized topic in contemporary philosophy, which can be pursued without consequences for how we understand the nature and role of moral theory. When narrative literature is, as in the work of these two philosophers, considered in a substantial sense, carrying morally significant insights that are not straightforwardly translatable to the realm of theory, it poses a serious challenge to analytic moral theory. Philosophical inquiry often begins with an interpretation of the field in which the philosophical question at stake is asked. This gives an aspect of an unavoidable bird’s-­eye perspective to much of philosophy: one eye on the subject matter, and one eye on the overall tradition or field of inquiry which makes the subject matter and the manner of treatment meaningful and legitimate. One thing that Murdoch and Nussbaum have in common is a keen interest in the nature of moral philosophical inquiry, precisely from this bird’s-­eye perspective. Although neither one of them takes the reconsideration of the field as far as a rejection of standard moral theory, the functions and roles of theory are profoundly altered in their frameworks from how they are pictured in mainstream Anglo-American moral philosophy. I will here once more give a sketch of Nussbaum’s and Murdoch’s respective conceptions of moral theory, to get a firmer grasp of what can happen to moral theory in the proximity of narrative literature. I will not postulate any directions of influence: some may claim that consideration of literature, in moral philosophy, leads to a reconsideration of theory, and some that philosophers who reconsider the role of theory are prone to find an alternative vehicle of thought in narrative. Both claims are likely to be true at least in the case of some individual thinkers, but this is a side issue here. Far from presenting a comprehensive theory of any one of the topics that she is concerned with, Murdoch pursues a multilayered theoretical discussion

Between Literature and Theory


which is equally open to the contributions of theoretical thinkers as of writers and artists. Self-­consciously she avoids closing her theoretical discussions. As Stephen Mulhall (1997: 219) puts it concerning Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals: “The elements of its moral vision are not systematically laid out but rather endlessly reiterated, revised and qualified in formulations which emerge unpredictably from more or less detailed discussions of metaphysical issues, discussions that are themselves unpredictably and alternately concentrated around specific texts and thinkers or dispersed across vast historical vistas.” Murdoch’s moral philosophy is a multiform context of reflective discussion, where moral theories represent philosophical voices among others, rather than attempts at giving ultimate solutions to the questions of moral philosophy. The overall picture of her moral philosophy presents a peculiar mixture of unity and disunity. The unity is above all represented by her Platonism, and its central idea, the unifying idea of the good. But she also describes this search for unity as an inclination, rather than a self-­evident goal for philosophical inquiry: It is the traditional inspiration of the philosopher, but also his traditional vice, to believe that all is one. Wittgenstein says ‘Let’s see.’ Sometimes problems turn out to be quite unconnected with each other, and demand types of solution which are not themselves closely related in any system. Perhaps it is a matter of temperament whether or not one is convinced that all is one. (My own temperament inclines to monism.) Murdoch 1970/2001: 49

On the one hand there is, thus, the temperamental inclination to monism, exhibited above all in Platonism as a magnetic center of her wide-­ranging discussions. This is the unity. On the other hand this unifying perspective is unsuited to account for the separateness of different areas of (and approaches to) morality, which are accommodated in her work, and her conception of unity is also qualified by cautions against monism. “Philosophers have sought for a single principle upon which morality may be seen to depend. I do not think that the moral life can be in this sense reduced to a unity” (Murdoch 1992: 492). But, she continues: “On the other hand I do not think that it can be satisfactorily characterized by enumeration of varying ‘goods’ and virtues” (ibid.). Instead she makes a slightly surprising move in her late magnum opus (Murdoch 1992) by dividing the area of moral inquiry into four distinct headings that describe four modes of moral philosophical thought: axioms, duties, Eros and Void. She describes these in a variety of ways: for example, as “modes of


Literature and Moral Theory

ethical being” (ibid.: 492), “regions” (ibid.: 498), and “categories” (ibid.). The whole of moral life is described as “a field of force, a field of tension” (ibid.: 492) between these different modes. Axioms are “strict and sweeping” (ibid.: 493), of great generality like life, liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Axioms are primarily at home in the political realm; belonging “in the Hobbesian rough-­and-tumble of the field of ‘political morality’, which of course has its connection with ‘private morality’ but is properly to be distinguished” (ibid.). Duties again constitute the Kantian realm of “things we are (morally) required to do irrespective of inclination” (Ibid.: 493–4). In Murdoch’s account, duties help the formation of moral habits by clearly and publicly defining some acts, and thus making us “internalise and take for granted certain patterns and values” (ibid.: 494). But thinking in terms of duty cannot cover the whole of morality, or even work as the central mode. The concept of Eros covers the most central part of Murdoch’s discussions in moral philosophy. It is the warm, fierce, emotionally charged search for the unifying goodness in the plurality of the human world: “the continuous operation of spiritual energy, desire, intellect, love, as it moves among and responds to particular objects of attention, the force of magnetism and attraction which joins us to the world, making it a better or worse world: good and bad desires with good and bad objects” (ibid.: 496). This is the mode of thought where Murdoch’s Platonism is at home, and which can be read as constituting the heart of Murdoch’s moral philosophy. Finally, there is Void, which is a field of concerns inherited most obviously from Simone Weil. It differs from the other three “regions or categories, since the latter may, in the context of the argument, be treated as types of moral thinking, whereas this looks more like a tract of experience” (Murdoch 1992: 498). This tract of experience Murdoch describes as the opposing side to the perspective of Eros: the side from which the images of goodness and the spiritual ladders of Eros seem vain and sentimental: “There are dreadful human fates, even in ‘sheltered’ lives there is black misery, bereavement, remorse, frustrated talent, loneliness, humiliation, depression, secret woe. The misery of the world can be seen every day on television. There are places in lives, and geographical places too, where there is nothing but darkness . . .” (ibid.: 498–9). Facing the void is facing the ultimate dread, an emptiness which is the opposite of the struggling optimism of Eros. Murdoch attempts to differentiate Void from Kierkegaard’s Angst and Sartre’s néant, suggesting that these are too optimistic and too

Between Literature and Theory


romantic, that “we are hearing the voice of the cheerful spectator” (ibid.: 500). The real void is absolute darkness, the absence of value, and is difficult to touch by means of philosophy. Art is, for this purpose, a better medium. This division into four breaks against the semi-­unity of Murdoch’s account as I described it before (in 4.3.1 and 4.3.2), and introduces parallel modes of moral thought alongside the vocabulary of moral vision and moral ascendance (here described as Eros). From a standard moral theoretical perspective this ought to be disturbing, not least because the vocabulary of Eros is already unsystematic and heterogeneous in its own right. But this is a characteristic feature of Murdoch’s style, and it is in accordance with her philosophical aim to be faithful to ordinary language and elucidate ordinary experience. Compared to this, Nussbaum is a fairly conventional contemporary AngloAmerican philosopher, who attempts to set a coherent agenda and settle a variety of issues by theoretical formulations, and who poses as a defender of standard moral theory in the face of anti-­theoretical criticism. But a second glance at her discussion on the nature of moral philosophical inquiry shows a somewhat non-­standard conception of moral philosophy, emphasizing a dialogical, pluralist conception of philosophical enquiry. Moral theory is a systematization of thought in a context of multiple styles and multiple considerations. Both Bernard Williams—the “anti-­theorist” who emphasizes a plurality of irreducible values—and Wayne Booth—the literary scholar who presents ethical thought as a conversation with books—are central figures, to whom she refers with sympathy especially in her discussions on the ethical functions of literature (Nussbaum 1990). The aim of moral theory is moral practice, which requires good habits of mind, thoughtfulness, attentiveness, imagination, good preliminary principles, and theoretical elucidation. The practical goals of theory are emphasized throughout her work, above theoretical closures that fix the principles, procedures, and values to be promoted. Practice, rather than theoretical perfection, is the goal of moral philosophical inquiry. Moral theories, literary works and other ethical writings are reflective tools that are used in a multitude of ways to further ethical thought, in the philosophical as well as in the practical realm. This is very far from the monistic, hierarchical, reductionist model of theory that is presented in the anti-­theorists’ paradigmatic account of “theory.” Insofar as Nussbaum is a standard moral theorist in the Anglo-American context, it is clearly according to a newer standard (or a reconnection with an older standard,


Literature and Moral Theory

if one wishes), born out of a pluralist, mostly neo-Aristotelian, critique of the monistic, hierarchical tendencies that both anti-­theorists and neo-Aristotelians have attempted to describe and reject. Yet with her emphasis on theory Nussbaum manages, in her ideal and overall style of moral theorizing, to stay fairly close to standard assumptions concerning the nature of moral philosophy in the AngloAmerican tradition, to the effect that the more radical implications of her early work on narrative are smoothed over by herself, and interpreted as more conventional than necessary by others. Now it should be noted that my description of the differences between Nussbaum’s and Murdoch’s approaches to moral philosophy and moral theory goes against Nussbaum’s own description of them. In her discussion of Murdoch’s novel The Black Prince (2003) she, roughly, suggests that Murdoch (as a kind of Platonist) is mainly interested in a singular, transcendent, unobtainable ideal, while Nussbaum herself (as an Aristotelian, with a more “Dantean” conception of love) is interested in the plurality and particularity of human life (Nussbaum 2004). One should not rely on Nussbaum in this issue since her criticism is built on a striking simplification of Murdoch’s complex discussions on the relationship between plurality and unity in ethics. It further relies 1) on a misunderstanding of Murdoch’s Platonism and 2) on a stark misreading and, if I may say so, misuse of the novel The Black Prince. I will say a few words about these since Nussbaum’s argument is widely read, has been reprinted several times,28 and most readers interested in both philosophers are likely to encounter it. David Robjant (2012: 43) notes that “[m]uch literature on Iris Murdoch projects on to her whatever the author understands to be Plato’s metaphysics.” This certainly is the case with Nussbaum. In both Fragility (1986) and Love’s Knowledge (1990) she makes a distinction between an Aristotelian legacy in philosophy, which emphasizes plurality of values and persons, and a Platonic legacy, which emphasizes, or indeed requires, a singular highest good and a singular measure of the good. A variety of this distinction between monism and pluralism is what she brings to bear on Murdoch here, suggesting that Murdoch (as a Platonist) is single mindedly in pursuit of a singular, otherworldly (ultimately unattainable) good, while Nussbaum herself (as an Aristotelian) is interested in the plurality of values and imperfect individual people in the real world. Readers with an interest in Murdoch’s complex and original reading of Plato (and her emphasis on plurality and everyday experience) are bound to find this surprising. How has Nussbaum, who certainly has a thorough knowledge of Murdoch’s works, come up with this image of Platonism in relation to Murdoch?

Between Literature and Theory


One answer might be that she somehow simply has not noticed, or has not taken seriously enough, the profound difference between Murdoch’s reading of Plato and her own. Another answer might be that she has indeed consulted Murdoch’s own philosophical texts, but turned to the wrong kinds of texts, namely Murdoch’s novels. A central part of her discussion on Murdoch’s Platonism revolves around the novel The Black Prince, where the main character and narrator in most of the book, a writer named Bradley Pearson, often sounds quite a lot like Murdoch. That is, he goes on extensively about the good, love, art, Shakespeare, etc. in ways which bring Murdoch’s philosophy to mind. Surely Nussbaum, as indicated before, is not alone in finding elaborations, illustrations, or clarifications to Murdoch’s philosophical views in her novels. But here she seems particularly to disregard how Bradley Pearson is a starkly unreliable character/narrator. She notes that his high-­minded talk is compromised by his perceptions, actions, and less philosophical reflections. (His relations to the people around him are rather cold and smug and certainly not ideally perceptive.)29 But rather than interpreting this as a purposive aspect of Murdoch’s literary construction, she sees Pearson’s faults as problems that stem from, and illustrate, the high-­ minded, abstract coolness of Murdoch’s Platonism. But let us suppose that Pearson is not Murdoch’s alter ego, and The Black Prince is not a philosophical novel of that kind, putting forward Murdoch’s theories through the voice of a character. Nussbaum is of course, as a critic, entitled to her reading, but moving from this reading to a rather harsh dismissal of Murdoch’s moral philosophy— claiming that it is insensitive to the particularities of persons—is a rather vulnerable move. The paper, further, ends with an ad hominem with matricidal tones: Nussbaum (2004: 708) describes how she was invited for lunch at Murdoch’s house and served food she could not eat (“a very fatty pâté, which I hate, and a plateful of cherries, to which I have an allergy”) while the dame discussed philosophy, fixing Nussbaum with her eyes, attending to “something of immense importance that was, as I say, not exactly outside of me, and that was perhaps more real than me, but that was not precisely me either.” This description of Murdoch’s inattentiveness to Nussbaum’s particular person is put forward as proof of the suggestion that Murdoch’s philosophy—as a form of Platonism, and as stemming from Murdoch’s allegedly chilly sort of intellect—is not sufficiently interested in the particularity of real people. This is indeed a moral allegation rather than a philosophical one.


Literature and Moral Theory

But a reader should be more inclined to ask: What did Nussbaum expect? What was the hoped-­for response that she did not receive: recognition, support, affection, even admiration? (This odd but very human desire of younger scholars to be seen by their elders, of journalists to be seen by the celebrities they interview, of literary critics to be seen by their chosen authors! How come that Nussbaum, a successful scholar, well into her middle age at the time of writing her text, wanted to expose this?) Nussbaum has given her criticism a light varnish of politeness, even respect for Murdoch’s work, she for example talks about her “vague anxieties about the novel” (2004: 707), but the text has, I think rightly, been interpreted as a rather harsh attack.30 The personal dismissal of Murdoch’s “Platonism” (poorly grounded in Murdoch’s texts) is a piece of Nussbaum’s philosophical work that may strike one as unworthy, even potentially tainting the rest of her work, making one wonder if these uneasy aspects of her thinking weren’t there all along. Many philosophers have written such occasional ad hominem pieces, and one should perhaps not make too much of it. I have mainly dwelled on it here to illustrate why Nussbaum should not be considered a reliable guide to understanding Murdoch’s conception of moral philosophy or moral theory, but a few words need to be said about why I think this particular text is of relevance for assessing Nussbaum’s contribution to the literary turn overall. Although I think she is very helpful for anyone who is interested in the general features of the late twentieth century and current interest in literature among philosophers (as discussed in Chapter 1), this piece on Murdoch, along with Nussbaum’s dismissals of “anti-­theorists” show that she is a rather poor guide to reading other philosophers of the literary turn. If they don’t agree with her on her central tenets, she is not likely to give them what could seem to be due credit, or put much effort into making sense of what they (in contrast to her) do with narrative literature. Rather than bringing out what is interesting in thinkers like Murdoch and Diamond (who in many respects offer deepened insight into things that Nussbaum holds dear), she ultimately makes them sound less interesting, if not indeed bad, and by and large not worth reading. She does not give them sufficient exegetical attention to be clarifying, but rather uses them as devices for providing a clearer outline to her own position. The contents of Diamond’s and Murdoch’s texts must, thus, come as something of a surprise for anyone who has approached them, first, through Nussbaum. There is one further aspect worth noting in Nussbaum’s discussions on The Black Prince, Plato, and indeed Proust (who pays a visit in the Black Prince

Between Literature and Theory


article), which has less to do with her view of theory and more to do with her readings of literature. Nussbaum is, much more than Diamond and Murdoch, inclined to take philosophical discussions in dramatized or literalized forms at face value. Murdoch (1992: 181) notes (with Stanley Rosen) that many readings of Plato suffer from not paying sufficient attention to the dramatic form of his dialogues (e.g. Socrates’ “arguments” often depend on who he is talking to, and what this person (and the reader) needs to hear in order to start thinking). Or as Rosen puts it, in relation to Heidegger: “The spoken voice of the dialogues occurs always within the Cave (if not always in the language of the Cave). We may emerge from this Cave at any instant that we hear the silent accompanying voice of Plato. In my opinion Heidegger goes wrong because he is not sufficiently attentive to the silence of Plato” (Rosen 1988, quoted in Murdoch 1992: 180–1). Similarly, Diamond (2008) does not dwell on Elizabeth Costello’s arguments, but rather forces the reader to attend to the silence of Coetzee in the text, and—rather than look for opinion—to imagine the (fictional) person, Elizabeth, who fails to fully participate in argument. Nussbaum is very interested in form and is very sensitive to detail, but she seems to have a propensity to consider philosophical arguments in literary form as something very close to philosophical arguments presented by the author. Thus what some would be inclined to call Socrates’ “tricks,” or Bradley Pearson’s or Marcel’s high-­minded nonsense, is taken rather seriously as (an aspect of) the author’s philosophical thinking by Nussbaum. Of course this should not be seen as a place for general either-­or judgments. Some authors do expose their own views in rather direct statements encapsulated in fictional frameworks, some expose their views in auto-­critical commentary, some don’t have views of the relevant kind at all, etc. But as compared to Murdoch and Diamond, Nussbaum’s readings are more literal-­minded and make somewhat less of a difference between argumentative texts and literary ones. This feature can of course be to her benefit in many cases. My inclination is to think that it leads her astray in the cases of The Black Prince, Plato, and occasionally, Proust, but actually making this case would require an extensive exegetical discussion that I will not enter into here. With this brief discussion of Nussbaum’s criticism of Murdoch I conclude this section, and I will postpone my ultimate discussion of Nussbaum’s conception of moral theory to the last chapter, as it is closely tied to my conclusions concerning how the contemporary significance of the ethics/literature discussion should be understood.


Literature as Critique of Moral Theory In this final chapter I will negotiate a position concerning the role and nature of moral theory, in the wake of the literary turn. In 5.2 I return to the conflict between Nussbaum’s theory-­oriented perspective and the anti-­theoretical posture, and question Nussbaum’s repudiation of anti-­theory in moral philosophy. I will argue that the conflict between anti-­theorists and more theory-­oriented philosophers, like Nussbaum, runs the risk of eclipsing the critical hopes of the ethics/literature discussion by creating a frontier of hostility in the middle of it. To overcome the conflict we need to consider the positions as enabling ones: positions that explicitly aim at making more fruitful philosophical work possible. Taken as such, both Nussbaum’s and the anti-­theorists’ positions are unnecessarily restrictive. Instead we need a perspective on moral philosophy which enables us to make use of both directions of thought, a viewpoint which can endure internal conflicts, and plural approaches and genres. To incorporate the central insights of both postures I suggest in 5.3 a third position which I here call “the inclusive approach,” which incorporates both theoretical work and work done in the spirit of a repudiation of theory. Finally, in 5.4 I will discuss three ways of reinstalling the idea of morality as a realm of something absolute, which are compatible with the inclusive approach.

5.1  A range of reconsiderations I have hitherto argued that a substantial consideration of narrative literature in moral philosophy opens the way for a conception of moral philosophy, which, in the late twentieth century and the contemporary context of analytic moral philosophy, could be regarded as non-­standard. The standard way of pursuing moral philosophy in this context has been by presenting systematically argued theories, and, within the theoretical frameworks, interventions that aim either to strengthen or to criticize given theories. This perspective is challenged by the contributors to the ethics/literature discussion.


Literature and Moral Theory

The discussions on literature by philosophers like Nussbaum, Winch, Eldridge, Rorty, Cavell, Crary, and Brudney do reveal evaluative and other commitments that can be tied to distinct theoretical frameworks. But the nature of their discussions in conjunction with literature is not the systematizing attempt of moral theory. Many discussions on literature are used as parts of an argument for a specific theoretical outlook—in Crary’s (2007) case the argument for a broadened conception of objectivity and rationality, and in Nussbaum’s case the argument for a broadly Aristotelian conception of ethics—but the role of the discussions as a part of such argument does not exhaust their philosophical significance. The philosophical thought moving around a literary narrative brings forth aspects of the narrative, as well as aspects of the philosopher’s grasp of the philosophical subject matter, that are not reducible to formulation in plain philosophical argument, and that do not necessarily require to be associated with systematic moral theory to make moral philosophical sense. In Chapter 1, I introduced the contemporary ethics/literature discussion by presenting a number of features of the moral philosophical outlook which dominates the ethics/literature discussion. It is now time to return to some common features that aim at characterizing what I will argue to be the overall philosophical significance of this discussion in late twentieth century and recent analytic moral philosophy. The ethics/literature discussion has been intimately bound to a rejection on the one hand of foundationalism (see e.g. Furrow 1995) and on the other hand of monism in ethics, and a defense of pluralism. Foundationalism here is the idea that morality as a whole can be founded on one or a few specifiable principles or values—such as utility, duty, a specific conception of human nature, etc.— from which the whole of morality can be derived. Foundationalism of this kind normally goes hand in hand with the idea that it is the task of moral philosophy to unravel the founding principles. Monism again means that there is supposed to be one ultimate principle rather than a number of irreducible principles, as there are e.g. in W. D. Ross’ (1930) theory of plural prima facie principles. The ethics/literature discussion defends pluralism at several levels of ethical discourse: the level of incommensurable and equally morally salient values, the level of plural principles that may come into conflict, the level of an irreducible plurality of human perspectives, as well as a plurality of styles and genres, including philosophical articles and books, through critical essays to biographies and works of narrative fiction. Where theory seeks to systematize and unify, literature can explore particularities, differences, and contrasts.

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


The broadening of the range of styles of moral philosophical thought does not in itself imply a criticism of moral theory. But considered against the background assumption of analytic moral philosophy, that theory is the form of moral philosophical thought, the entrance of non-­theoretical discussions— for example, discussion about the moral substance of literary works which are considered as contributing something that is irreducible to theory—leads to a necessary reconsideration of the field of moral philosophy, and a reconsideration of its proper scope and methods. As moral theory, normative and meta-­ethical, has been the privileged vehicle of moral philosophical thought in the Anglo-American context, the rethinking of the nature of moral philosophy takes here above all the form of a rethinking of the role and nature of moral theory. The inclusion of literary texts in discussions of moral philosophy is thus not a special interest or special topic in contemporary ethics, but contains a range of challenges to reconsider standard assumptions about how moral philosophy should be pursued, and how its results ought to be understood.

5.2  Two approaches to ethics in alliance with literature Although many aspects of the criticism of analytic moral philosophy inherent in the ethics/literature discussion are common to the discussion overall, there are differences in how the appropriate role of moral theory is pictured by different philosophers. I have already, in Chapters 3 and 4, discussed Nussbaum’s disagreement with the so-­called anti-­theorists. As I find this disagreement particularly enlightening for an understanding of the overall significance of the ethics/literature discussion during the past thirty to forty years, I will return to it here. To a certain extent, Nussbaum and the anti-­theorists share a picture of the ethical significance of literature in moral philosophy. Their agreement concerns primarily the positive contribution of literature as a mode of thought which can show us different perspectives, highlight the experiential aspects of moral situations, present different moral personalities and types, arouse compassion, provide insights concerning one’s own moral shortcomings, etc. In short, it can aid our understanding and function as a vehicle for moral as well as moral philosophical reflection, where moral theory seems insufficient to give us a full grasp of the phenomena at hand.


Literature and Moral Theory

But when moving beyond these positive contributions—to see what kind of significance they have for the pursuit of moral philosophy in general and for the role of moral theory in particular—a split occurs right through the ethics/ literature discussion, along the lines of Nussbaum’s disagreement with the anti-­theorists. Nussbaum (2003) characterizes the disagreement as one between an “alliance” camp and an “adversaries” camp. The former, to which Nussbaum herself belongs, argues that “certain works of literature are valuable allies of ethical theorizing, helping us understand issues having to do with moral perception and moral emotion in a way that we could not do well without turning to such texts” (ibid.: 10). According to these philosophers, narrative literature fills its ethical functions in conjunction with philosophical texts, by highlighting aspects of morality that cannot be easily captured in philosophical texts or in philosophical theories. Philosophical theory needs literature, and literature needs philosophical theory, in order to put forward a full account of morality. Nussbaum emphasizes that this should not be seen as a reductive perspective on the moral potential of literature. Although literature fills an important function in conjunction with philosophy, it also has moral import that is available for people who are unfamiliar with the philosophical aspects of the texts: “. . . both philosophers and non-­philosophers will expand their moral sensibilities by accepting the invitations of such works to perception and, at times, to a merciful closing of the eyes” (ibid.). The latter “adversarial” camp, in its turn, perceives an antagonistic relationship between the ethical perspectives provided by literature and those provided by theory. It “sees literature as offering us philosophers a challenge and a choice: go on doing things in the old theoretical way, or turn to literature and do things in an (allegedly) more adequate, rich, and humane way” (ibid.: 11). The complex texture of human life, and the variety and particularity of considered moral judgments, as they are shown by literary works, are seen as presenting a perspective on morality which is radically incompatible with the proceedings of moral theory. According to these philosophers, moral theory can, after a consideration of the philosophical aspects of literature, be nothing but an inadequate and highly problematic simplification and distortion of the phenomena it attempts to make sense of. The “alliance” versus “adversaries” issue in relation to literature is, for Nussbaum, another way of articulating the theory versus anti-­theory issue (Nussbaum 1999, 2000a) discussed in Chapter 3, and to relate the latter explicitly to the role of literature in ethics. Among the “alliance” philosophers she lists

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


Richard Wollheim, Patrick Gardiner, and Iris Murdoch, and notes that “the views of David Wiggins and John McDowell make them natural allies of this position” (2003, n10). Among the “adversaries” we find for example Richard Rorty and Cora Diamond. Nussbaum engages especially with Diamond’s perspective to argue her disagreement with the “adversaries” position. She admits that the two camps (here represented by Nussbaum and Diamond) agree concerning the role of literature in bringing forth morally important insights that are often insufficiently noted by theory (ibid.: 16–17). But it is clear that they differ concerning the way they understand how a philosophical consideration of literature affects our conception of the role of moral theory. The “allies” camp envisages a harmonious coexistence of theory and literature in a broadly “Aristotelian” conception of moral philosophy. For the “adversaries” camp a serious consideration of the moral insights provided by literature destabilizes the habitual role of theory in moral philosophical thought, and a radical reconsideration of the field is made necessary. But it is important to keep in mind that Nussbaum’s conception of moral theory, though fairly faithful to the paradigm of her analytic context, is not unaffected by her consideration of literature. On the one hand, it underlines the philosophical insufficiency of moral theory as a complete and self-­contained vehicle of moral understanding. Theory needs at least the complement of literature as well as of a kind of essayistic criticism which brings forth the ethical aspects of literature, to achieve understanding of a whole range of moral phenomena that she considers to be of highest moral and moral philosophical importance. On the other hand, the proximity to literature is connected to a certain way of understanding moral theory, which could be characterized as pluralist, and also, to some extent, pragmatic. What we need, from Nussbaum’s perspective, is not one master theory which would solve the problems of morality, but rather a whole range of theoretical work that helps us understand different aspects of morality. She looks to the stoics for an understanding of the emotions (Nussbaum 2001), to Kant for duty and universality (Nussbaum 1983, 1990, 1999), and to Rawls for social justice (Nussbaum 2006). Although she harbors great hopes for an Aristotelian framework to encompass all the relevant theoretical insights in an internally non-­contradictory whole, it is clear that her approach to theory is not reductionist, but rather expansionist, wishing to open up new areas of morality for theoretical scrutiny and scholarship. Furthermore, just like the anti-­theorists’ perspective, her perspective contains a rejection of ethical foundationalism. Instead she relies on plurality and


Literature and Moral Theory

reflective equilibrium: in her account moral thought ought to strive towards a complex balancing of theory, principle and considered particular judgment (Nussbaum 1990: 173–4). Thus, while being a fierce defender of moral theory in the ethics/literature context, she does not represent the kind of typically monist, foundationalist theory that the anti-­theorists criticize most severely, and that provides the essential raw material for their image of the typical moral theorist. In what follows I will discuss these two approaches to theory which create a split in the ethics/literature frontier. In my discussion I will consider Nussbaum alone as the pro-­theory voice, while the anti-­theory perspective in my discussion is primarily based on the joint contributions of Diamond, Winch, Phillips, and Rorty. As Nussbaum (2003: 11) notes, the theory versus anti-­theory issue expands beyond the ethics/literature discussion, and both postures within this discussion have allies who hold a related position concerning the appropriate role of theory, without discussing narrative literature in relation to their view. Thus figures like Bernard Williams and Annette Baier have, both for my work and for Nussbaum, had a central role in structuring the conception of an anti-­ theorist position. The benefit of leaving these other anti-­theorists’ contributions to echo in the ethics literature discussion is that they expand the anti-­theorist posture beyond the post-Wittgensteinian context (and Rorty), and remind us that ethical anti-­theory is a broader phenomenon in late twentieth century and recent ethics. Just as the theory/anti-­theory controversy stretches beyond the limits of discussions around literature, the ethics/literature discussion extends beyond discussions concerning the role of theory. There are plenty of disparate contributions to the ethics/literature discussion that do not take an explicit stand concerning the theory/anti-­theory issue. The fact that a particular discussion does not take an explicit stand, though, does not mean that it could not be placed in one or the other of the two camps. For example, Karen Stohr’s (2006) discussion of Sense and Sensibility (discussed before) could be classed as an “allies” perspective, due to the distinctive (virtue ethical) theoretical frame against which Austen’s book is interpreted. Rooksby’s (2005) discussion of Three Women, again, could be considered to give voice to an “adversaries” position, as the perspective of the novel is presented as criticism of moral theory as a suitable guide to moral conduct, thus, potentially, suggesting an antagonism between the moral contributions of moral theory and literature. On the other hand, neither of these discussions takes an explicit stand on the appropriate role of

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


moral theory in ethics. Although it is possible to place most contributions to the discussion in either one of the camps, it seems fair not to draw too far-­ reaching conclusions from discussions such as Stohr’s and Rooksby’s. The claim that a controversy concerning moral theory is found at the heart of current ethics/literature discussions is a positive one which I share with Nussbaum, but which is not necessarily the most central concern, even for the most part of those who write on the topic of narrative literature in Anglo-American ethics. Yet, the tension between the two varieties of reconsidering moral theory creates a gap in the midst of the ethics/literature discussion, which is lamentable from the perspectives of both varieties. On the one hand, it promotes the marginalization of anti-­theoretical formulations in mainstream analytic moral philosophy, and the anti-­theorists gather at post-Wittgensteinian corners of contemporary philosophy, where the dialogue with other parts of the philosophical scene is impaired. On the other hand, it promotes an interpretation of the “pro-­theoretical,” Nussbaumian variety of the reconsideration in a way which downplays the more radical challenges to moral philosophy inherent in ethical readings of literature, and smoothes over the gaps between different ways of conceptualizing morality that are included in moral philosophy through the attention to literary texts. By the split, the critical hope of the ethics/literature discussion is, to some extent, lost, and the challenge to analytic moral theory it manages to present is either considered as sectarian prejudice (especially the Wittgensteinian anti-­ theorists), or turned into something that no longer appears as a criticism (Nussbaum’s position). Although I will, in what follows, primarily discuss the theory/anti-­theory issue within the ethics/literature debate I will not here adopt Nussbaum’s way of describing the participants as the “allies” camp and the “adversaries” camp, but rather speak of Nussbaum and the anti-­theorists. My reason for not using Nussbaum’s labels, although they are well suited for describing the conflict at hand, has to do with the third approach to the role of theory in this context, which I will suggest in 5.3, which follows—as a positive solution—from a consideration of the respective limits of Nussbaum’s and the anti-­theorists’ discussions. This third approach is a form of “allies” approach, in the sense that it makes room for both literature and systematic theory in the overall picture of moral philosophy, but it takes seriously the radical challenge to moral theory inherent in ethical readings of literature.


Literature and Moral Theory

5.2.1  Nussbaum and the post-Wittgensteinian vertigo In most schools of contemporary philosophy it seems unlikely that a dismissal of theory would even appear conceivable. Indeed, if philosophers are not supposed to present philosophical theories of some kind, then what are they supposed to do? A certain absurdity in the charge facilitates Nussbaum’s counter-­ attack against the anti-­theorists. She compares the attack on moral theory with the external attacks that moral theory has suffered through European history— from the Church and from political authorities in, for example, communist countries—to make a rhetorical case against the internal anti-­theory of recent moral philosophy (Nussbaum 2000a: 227–31). Considering the obvious evils of persecuting moral theory from the outside of philosophy, for example on political or religious grounds, she suggests that philosophers should beware of condemning moral theory as harmful or useless. Nussbaum’s rhetorical gesture here is to align philosophers, who are concerned with describing moral practices rather than presenting systematic theories, with conservative, irrationalist forces in society, while systematic theory is presented as coming with enlightenment and a live promise of social change. What she disregards here is that the anti-­ theorists perceive potential staleness and oppression precisely in the practice of moral theory, where she perceives liberation. Nussbaum also deliberately seems to misinterpret the function which the anti-­theorists ascribe to the non-­ theoretical practices of moral philosophy. A purposively non-­theoretical philosophical approach is not a void that will be filled with prejudice, but a method of getting at important insights that the systematic generalizations of theory, supposedly, will hide from our view. Theory is, according to the anti-­ theoretical view, to be replaced by descriptive, reflective and above all critical practices. Thus, rather than the promise of progress on the one hand, and the darkness of unreason on the other, we have two perspectives, each of which declares that it will carry the promise of a better future for moral philosophy. Nussbaum argues that moral theory, as it has been pursued especially through the modern era, is needed for solving real-­life moral problems, individually and locally as well as on a global political scale, whereas the anti-­theorists claim that we need an altogether different way of looking at morality to replace a kind of theory that has outlived its emancipatory promise. But some form of moral theory constitutes the major part of what moral philosophers have produced for the afterworld, and it is hard to imagine that the

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


anti-­theorists would not have profited from moral theory themselves when constructing their picture of morality. Quite disregarding the strong attitudinal flavor of Nussbaum’s discussion of the anti-­theorists, there are a number of fairly good reasons for a moral philosopher to defend moral theory whenever it seems to be under attack. First, moral theory has served the function of structuring thought as well as of giving a systematic form to the ethical insights that are born out of reflection. Second, as suggested in Chapter  2 in relation to the anti-­theorists and the Wittgensteinian particularists, explicit theory is a reasonably good way of making systematic underlying beliefs visible and open to critical scrutiny. Third, as moral theory is a multiform phenomenon, it is necessary that the global attack on theory is carefully scrutinized, and that a reasonable defense is presented for the kinds of theory, or the aspects of theory, that do not deserve a dismissal on the grounds presented by the anti-­theorists. Thus Nussbaum’s defense of theory, even in the form of a counter-­attack on anti-­theory, is philosophically warranted and even important. It can even be interpreted as a way of taking the anti-­theorists seriously, in a way that they are not taken seriously in mainstream analytic moral philosophy, where moral theory is being pursued as if its ultimate suitability for moral philosophical inquiry had never been put in question in the first place. But while taking them seriously enough to engage with them in several articles, she does not seem to take them seriously enough to do full justice to what they say. The core problem with Nussbaum’s dismissal of the anti-­theorists, as I see it, is that she does not seem to acknowledge the perspective which opens up for the anti-­theorists and which leads them in the direction where they end up. The rhetorical edge suggests that she does not recognize the philosophical seriousness of her anti-­theoretical opponents, nor the fact that their solution is a solution to a problem that she also may be expected to have felt in her bones. This may seem puzzling, as the anti-­theorists perspective lies, in many ways, near to the spirit of her own earlier work in The Fragility of Goodness (1986) and Love’s Knowledge (1990). Nussbaum does not admit to experiencing literature’s radical challenge to philosophical theory, and thus, seems unwilling to acknowledge in the anti-­ theorist response another, equally natural reaction to a puzzling perspective. The challenge she does admit, and which she discusses throughout Fragility of Goodness and Love’s Knowledge is one which moral theorists can deal with through minor modifications concerning their views on the nature and role of


Literature and Moral Theory

moral theory, and their relation to other morally significant genres of thought and writing. To reopen a dialogue between the Nussbaumian perspective and the anti-­ theoretical one in the contemporary ethics/literature discussion, I will take a closer look at the latter to bring out what I consider to be its central insight and challenge. The heart of the anti-­theorists’ challenge in relation to narrative literature is this: moving from the perspective where moral theory seems to be the sensible way of making sense of morality, to the perspectives on morality suggested by literary works, may cause a loss of ground and orientation. Two ways of proceeding with moral philosophical questions seem to create two incompatible worlds, two meanings of morality even, rather than describing one and the same subject matter. The images of morality suggested by moral theory and narrative literature respectively seem incompatible. The loss of ground here is related in an illuminating way to another discussion of post-Wittgensteinian origin: John McDowell’s (1998) discussion of Wittgenstein on following a rule, which I touched upon earlier in Chapter  2.1.1. McDowell quotes Stanley Cavell at length to describe what is at stake when we face the thought “that there is nothing but shared forms of life to keep us, as it were, on the rail” (ibid.: 61): We learn and teach words in certain contexts, and then we are expected, and expect others, to be able to project them into further contexts. Nothing insures that this projection will take place (in particular, not the grasping of universals nor the grasping of books of rules), just as nothing insures that we will make, and understand, the same projections. That on the whole we do is a matter of our sharing routes of interest and feeling, modes of response, senses of humor and of significance and of fulfillment, of what is outrageous, of what is similar to what else, what a rebuke, what forgiveness, of when an utterance is an assertion, when an appeal, when an explanation—all the whirl of organism Wittgenstein calls “forms of life.” Human speech and activity, sanity and community, rest upon nothing more, but nothing less, than this. It is a vision as simple as it is difficult, and as difficult as it is (and because it is) terrifying. Cavell 1976: 52, quoted in McDowell 1998: 60

Here Cavell draws the readers’ attention to how our practices of rule following rest on nothing but our shared ways of living. Facing this perspective, and the ultimate groundlessness of our practices, McDowell describes as causing “vertigo” (1998: 61, cf. Chapter 2.1.1). The notion of vertigo here is peculiar in how it merges a physiological state with a psychological state and a philosophical

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


condition. This merging is not unimportant as it suggests a highly personal, experiential resonance of philosophy which is central for much of postWittgensteinian philosophy. The metaphor of vertigo describes a certain kind of philosophical realization of groundlessness. In McDowell’s discussion we face this kind of philosophical vertigo when realizing that our practices of rule-­ following rest on nothing beyond the practices themselves, and a shared life-­ world where these practices make sense. But similar points of vertigo can present themselves in a variety of philosophical contexts. Looking at the same phenomenon—in our case morality—from two radically different angles, that of moral theory and that of narrative literature, we may come to feel that neither one of the angles is the real or the ultimate one: the one that provides a safe ground for structuring one’s thought or contemplating action. There is nothing to stand on, nothing firmer than habit, mutual understanding, and practical agreement. The incompatibility of the perspectives breaks down the illusion of something ultimately firm to ground our habits on. The vertigo caused by the experience of incompatibility of the perspective of theory (search for systematic, general, explanatory formulations) and literature (subjectivity, particularity, and a different, unsystematic, manner of generalizing) can be understood as a special case of McDowell’s vertigo. McDowell’s vertigo invites to a rejection of theory by the insight that there is nothing “behind” our practices, thus making redundant a certain idea of a need for an explanation. The philosopher’s vertigo in the face of literature invites a rejection of theory by the insight that two (arguably) incommensurable ways of conceptualizing moral experience and understanding make equal claims on our attention. We arrive at the vertigo in different ways in the two cases: in the first the key is the insight that there is nothing “behind.” In the second case the key is the insight that an incommensurability or fundamental tension between the two manners of conceptualizing morality leaves us without a safe way of proceeding, and without the sense that any formulation could be ultimate. It is important to note that neither one of these vertigos requires a rejection of moral theory. McDowell’s insight suggests a rejection of theory if theory is seen as the postulation of some explanatory principle beyond our variety of shared practices. But as we saw in Chapter 2.3, this is just one of the possible tasks of philosophical theory, and other kinds of theory may be compatible with the insight. The rejection of moral theory in the face of narrative literature, again, is only one possible way of responding to the vertigo experienced between literature


Literature and Moral Theory

and theory, and it is related to McDowell’s insight in a special way. It is, in many cases, a specimen of the same post-Wittgensteinian branch of contemporary philosophy as McDowell’s (and also Cavell’s) work, and incorporates the general cautions against philosophical theory that are the defining mark of this family of thought.1 Faced with the vertigo between two modes of conceptualization (moral theory and literature), there may for a thinker within this family be little interest in saving theory, as theory—at least in forms that try to provide a normative code and an explanation in terms of something underlying or initially hidden—is already discredited in this context of philosophical thought. There is, in a sense, a small McDowell vertigo discernible behind the theory/literature vertigo. Facing the ultimate groundlessness of our practices, whether they be linguistic practices, moral practices, or practices of doing philosophy, the response to the sense of vertigo is a rejection of moral theory. Anti-­theory in philosophy, whether born out of dialogue with narrative literature or through a contemplation of the groundlessness of human practices, develops the core insight, described by McDowell, into a positive philosophical program. It transforms the picture of a “whirl of organism” into a philosophical creed in its own right, building on the idea that once faced with the vertigo we need to remain facing it. McDowell suggests that the vertigo is overcome by the insight that we are not in need of grounds: Contemplating the dependence should not induce vertigo at all. We cannot be whole-­heartedly engaged in the relevant parts of the “whirl of organism,” and at the same time achieve the detachment necessary in order to query whether our unreflective view of what we are doing is illusory. The cure for the vertigo, then, is to give up the idea that philosophical thought, about the sorts of practices in question, should be undertaken at some external standpoint, outside our immersion in our familiar forms of life. McDowell 1998: 63

But this solution does less than full justice to the role that the point of vertigo receives in his post-Wittgensteinian context of thought. This specific philosophical experience of vertigo, the insight that there is nothing “behind” our linguistic (and other) practices, is here a transformative experience which will not only guide us to pursue philosophical scrutiny of our practices from within our practices, but will put us permanently on our guard against impulses and attempts to look for general philosophical explanations (or anything that

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


looks like them) behind or beyond these practices. Phillips (1992, 1999) is, in the field of moral philosophy, one of the most extreme examples of this, but the tendency is also clear in the work of Diamond and Winch.2 In relation to literature, the anti-­theorist (post-Wittgensteinian or other) faces the vertigo, faces the ultimate groundlessness and potential incompatibility of different vocabularies and ways of conceptualization, and draws (again) the conclusion that theory (as we knew it) must go. What we have is a multitude of practices that we have not even begun to understand, that must be lived and attended to, in philosophy as well as in practice. The perspective of literature is compatible with this plurality, while the perspective of theory is not. Theory comes to seem like an imposture: a quasi-­guarantee and a false picture of order. The philosopher must transform the task of philosophy into one which is compatible with the insight that nothing is guaranteed, and that there is not necessarily any underlying order which we can attempt to present in systematic form. In practice, for the contemporary anti-­theorists, this means ideally a philosophy of small observations, a philosophy of the here and now. What do we want to say about this case? And what about that? Whereas system-­building, a search for an underlying order, a search for definitions, generalizations and explanations, have been among the defining features of philosophy, this new philosophy will build on a strand of philosophical thought that has perhaps been underfed, though always present in philosophical thought: the archetypal impulse of the literary writer or artist to inquire into what is particular. I have here related the experience of incompatibility between literary and theoretical modes of expression in moral philosophy to an idea of a loss of grounds that is a core feature of a certain branch of contemporary postWittgensteinian thought, but it seems to me that the idea of vertigo in the face of this incompatibility is viable, even important, also outside this specific context. Literature and theory, as modes of expressing ethical insights, create a tension which must be taken seriously in any consideration of the role of narrative literature in moral philosophy. Narrative literature, considered as an independent vehicle of moral thought, proposes a challenge to moral philosophy that must be faced. The tension opens up a potential point of vertigo which may transform moral philosophy completely. Nussbaum’s manner of rhetorically discrediting the anti-­theorists’ way of dealing with the vertigo (by rejecting theory) is a way of not taking the tension seriously. There are indeed several possible ways of dealing with the tension and the vertigo. One could face it as a form of incompatibility and modify either one’s


Literature and Moral Theory

conception of the ethical import of literature, or of moral theory, until they fit into a common framework. Alternatively, one may suggest an overall framework that is highly inclusive, and that can endure internal conflicts and shifts of vocabulary and perspective. A variety of this is what I will (in 5.3) suggest as my positive solution to the theory/anti-­theory issue, and this is, as I see it, also Iris Murdoch’s path (as argued in Chapter 4). One could also face the tension/incompatibility and decide that the perspectives provided by literature cannot be trusted for guidance: that they are elusive, tricky, and emotionally charged. And who knows what the author meant anyway? In this case the perspectives on ethics inspired by literature are discredited or explained away to get rid of the point of vertigo. This is a perspective that is most likely to be tacitly adopted by moral theorists who have reservations about giving a more substantial role to literary texts in moral philosophical inquiry than that of an illustration or an example. I believe this is a possible, although hardly a very likely response, as experiencing the vertigo in this context already suggests a perspective on the moral significance of literature where literature is taken seriously as a vehicle of substantial moral thought. One response to the vertigo could be a retreat to the professionalization of philosophy and the division of philosophical labor, by accepting that philosophers do theory, writers write novels, and essayists write literary essays; all of these relate to morality in different ways, but, as specialists in our respective fields we need not bother our heads with the question “how?”. The problem with Nussbaum, as I see it here, lies not in her way of uniting literature and moral theory within a single overall framework, but in the way she goes about it as if the vertigo, or the tension causing the vertigo, did not exist, although the cause of it lies at the very center of her work, in her attempt to combine a substantial ethical consideration of narratives with moral theory. She explains, for example, Diamond’s harsh break with theory by attributing it to narrow-­sightedness in relation to the philosophical tradition. “Diamond is so exercised by the deficiencies of her immediate generational predecessors, whether it be Frankena, or Ayer, or D. D. Raphael . . ., that she neglects the greater breadth that is characteristic of most of the really distinguished thinkers on the subject, from Plato and Aristotle to Dewey and Rawls. I think her work suffers from its focus on inferior targets” (Nussbaum 2003: 15–16). Indeed, a narrow-­ sightedness of this kind is visible (as discussed in Chapter 2.3) in many of the 1980s’, as well as contemporary, formulations of anti-­theoretical thought. Mid-twentieth century analytic moral philosophy is an easy target for the

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


anti-­theorists’ criticism, but I would suggest that the anti-­theorists do not depend on it to make their case. An overly narrow conception of theory cannot be considered the primary cause of the anti-­theorists vertigo, as the criticism presented in anti-­theoretical discussion is complex and tries to get at the whole perspective on morality which generates moral theory, beyond the specific articulations that express this perspective. Could we consider that Nussbaum’s picture of the ethical significance of literature is more thoroughly formed by her theoretical position than she seems to admit? Or is her picture of theory so supple, so instrumental, and so pragmatic, that the theories she envisages make no claims that would quarrel on a fundamental level with the perspectives provided by literature? As the point of vertigo is not perceived, it does not cause any problems that need to be addressed. Nussbaum’s solution, if she could be described as seeing a problem, would be a modification of both the ethical claims of theory and those of literature, to fit a common overall perspective. But a modification of theory in the face of vertigo and a modification of theory without experiencing vertigo are two quite different things. Nussbaum’s reflective equilibrium perspective suggests that everything can be weighed and balanced to yield a satisfactory result, that there are no radical gaps, no fundamental leaps, between our distinct ways of conceptualizing morality. This is partly possible as Nussbaum’s conceptions of moral theory, morally significant literature, and moral practice seem to be pre-­harmonized in a way that effaces the point of vertigo. Why, then, would it be important that Nussbaum would acknowledge the source of vertigo which the anti-­theorists perceive? First, it seems to be warranted by her own work, where a point of vertigo may be felt, by those who are inclined to feel it, between the perspectives provided by her discussions on literature, and the theoretical (Aristotelian) framework in which she places them. Clarke and Simpson’s (1989) alignment of her with the anti-­theorists was not completely misguided, after all, as especially her early discussions on literature offer a way of dealing with moral questions which is definitely an alternative to moral theory (even if it may be found compatible with theory). We need a better understanding of how the claims of theory match the underlying multiform reality, full of separate individual people and situations that are better brought forward by literature. As a sketch? As a suggestion for how to take a bird’s-­eye perspective of the field? The crisscrossing bridges from the particular situations described in Nussbaum’s discussions on literary works, to her Aristotelianism, to her political


Literature and Moral Theory

theory, and back, do not do full justice to the differences between the modes of looking involved in these different areas. Second, and more controversially, I suggest that ignoring the point of vertigo is related to a denial of the positive contribution, and the positive hopes, of the anti-­theoretical philosophers. It is not just that Nussbaum does not share their negative points concerning theory; she also does not admit that where they aim—a philosophy where the positive contributions are more in the tradition of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, than that of Aristotle, Kant, and Mill— is a meaningful place to go. The tradition she thus tacitly discredits is one where the unifying, coherence-­seeking methods of the latter category of philosophers is challenged and where philosophical thinking proceeds by unsystematic observations, contrasts, juxtapositions, and plural vocabularies (either with or without the aid of more systematic theories). Nussbaum (1999) considers Murdoch her ally in the pro-­theory camp, but disregards the fact that there is hardly any philosopher in the mid- and late twentieth century Anglo-American context who is Murdoch’s equal in giving voice to thought in this parallel tradition. Yes, Murdoch defends theory, but she also presents a perspective on philosophy where tensions and potential points of vertigo are omnipresent and necessary for an accurate grasp of human morality. Thus there are three charges presented against Nussbaum here. The first one is that she gives the anti-­theorists a stepmotherly treatment although they reveal a point (the vertigo between two forms of thought) that is essential for understanding the challenge posed by literature to moral philosophy. The second charge is that she falsely discredits the tradition of unsystematic, non-­theoretical philosophy as irrationalist and conservative. Third and last—a charge which I cannot argue fully in this work, but which is given by a juxtaposition of Nussbaum’s view of ethics with the anti-­theorists’ or Murdoch’s views—she may in the contemporary context of ethical discussions on literature be trying to make moral philosophy as a whole just a bit too coherent to get the best out of the challenge posed by narrative literature to philosophy.

5.2.2  Measuring the two approaches as enabling positions No matter how we are inclined to choose sides in the disagreement between Nussbaum and the anti-­theorists, we will be faced with a specific delimitation of meaningful moral philosophy, as the latter dismiss theory, and the former moral philosophy that is pursued in the anti-­theoretical spirit. But heeding Murdoch’s

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


reminder of the “two-­way movement in philosophy,” “towards the building of elaborate theories” and “back again towards the consideration of simple and obvious facts” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 1), we may now pose the question whether either one of the dismissals is necessary. I will suggest that they are not. I would like to draw attention here to a feature in both Nussbaum’s and the anti-­theorists’ position that is easily overlooked when they are presented as competing philosophical standpoints concerning the nature and necessity of moral theory. Both are clearly normative positions concerning the proper role of theory (however theory is understood), issuing respective recommendations that are based on factual observations concerning specific theories or groups of theories, and subsequent generalizations concerning all theories, or most theories, or the most important theories. Thus, they base their recommendations on claims such as “there are no regularities that can be expressed truthfully in the form of a moral theory” or “moral theory is necessary for sound moral thought.” From this perspective it seems that, to assess the respective positions of individual thinkers, we need to find out exactly what is meant by “theory” by each contributor to the debate, and to assess the truth of their factual claims, etc. But I would suggest an altogether different way of dealing with the controversy. It may be useful to transpose the discussion for a while to a different level, and look at what functions these descriptive and normative claims fill in their respective frameworks. I suggest that the two contrary moves (anti-­theory/ adversaries and pro-­theory/allies) fill parallel functions in the ethical discussion on literature. Both Nussbaum’s position and the anti-­theoretical position are presented as what I will here call enabling positions. By an enabling position I mean a meta-­level (in this case both a meta-­ethical and a meta-­theoretical) position that aims at making more relevant, more interesting, or more profound work possible in a specific area of thought. This can be done in many different ways: by broadening the scope of scrutiny or by narrowing it down to what is considered the most central aspect of the issue at hand, by shifting perspective or by finding a way of combining the work done in one field with that in another. The formulation of an enabling position in moral philosophy is an attempt to bring about a change, through a scrutiny of how moral philosophy is pursued and through issuing a new recommendation. It is the sketching out of a new path of inquiry, something that could become a new and hopefully better paradigm. On a small scale it is perhaps always possible to see an aspect of this kind of meta-­level positioning in original contributions to philosophical thought. Philosophical thought often attempts to start from the beginning, and recreates


Literature and Moral Theory

its subject matter, as it does when it enters a philosophical discussion and a philosophical tradition at a specific point in time. In this process of creation it also recreates the scene on which the new contribution is made. In the cases of both the anti-­theorists and Nussbaum the aspect of recreating the pursuit of moral understanding in philosophy is a particularly marked and self-­conscious move against what they perceive as the mainstream paradigm of mid- and late twentieth century analytic moral philosophy. The critical feature is later downplayed by Nussbaum, who prefers to emphasize the continuity of her own efforts with a longer tradition of moral theory. Nussbaum’s emphasis on the enabling aspect of her position is also visible in her early (1986, 1990) dialogue with standard analytic moral theory of the 1970s and 80s. Here she presents her dismissal of a kind of theoretical rigidity (closely connected to theoretical monism), which neglects the plurality and detail of moral life, and suggests a remedy to the problem in the form of a broader range of philosophical styles. She attempts to liberate moral philosophy from unnecessary limits concerning style and genre, to include insights that are better presented in a different medium, like that of narrative literature. Nussbaum formulates her enabling position precisely as a widening of the scope of ethics to include both texts and issues that have not, in her mind, had a sufficient role in moral philosophical thought. She opens up the field with one of the fundamental questions of philosophical writing, formulated in the opening sentence of Love’s Knowledge as follows: “How should one write, what words should one select, what forms and structures and organization, if one is pursuing understanding? (Which is to say, if one is, in that sense, a philosopher?) Sometimes this is taken to be a trivial and uninteresting question. I shall claim that it is not” (Nussbaum 1990: 3). Her reply is, to some extent, fixed at the time of writing these lines and I have discussed it in different forms in earlier chapters. But this opening line highlights the opening movement that is not only the method, but also the aim, of her contribution. The anti-­theorist again does not see the inclusiveness of this movement as possible, partly because the tension between the theoretical mode and other modes—the narrative, the merely descriptive—seems intellectually unbearable, and partly because the theoretical mode, as long as it is seen as a real option, casts a shadow over other kinds of philosophical pursuit, forming them so that we no longer see what we initially might have seen. Thus, opening up the field for a new kind of ethical inquiry requires, for them, a denial of something that has habitually had a place at its very center.

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


A central aspect of Nussbaum’s attack on the anti-­theorists is to deny the enabling character of their discussions, and to read them in thoroughly negative terms. Similarly, the anti-­theorists are bound to characterize theory, at least in its most prominent formulations, not as an additional possibility, but as a hindrance or falsification. Thus, in a critical exchange between Nussbaum and the anti-­ theorists, the focus on enabling philosophers to do better work, which is central to both, is rhetorically downplayed in their mutual efforts to refute the claims of the “other side.” As a result, the debate centers on the factual claims and the following normative claims, neglecting the enabling claims that are from my perspective the driving force of both. Now, if Nussbaum’s and the anti-­theorists’ views concerning the role of theory are primarily considered as enabling positions, they should ultimately be measured according to what they make possible—what kinds of unnecessary and undue limitations they remove—rather than with reference to the truth of some kind of propositional claims that they embody. Both are unnecessarily and unduly restricted in enabling scope by their respective dismissals of “theory” and of “anti-­theory.” Considering the limits presented by each of the above conceptions of moral philosophy for what kinds of philosophical work they make possible, I will present here a third, alternative conception of moral philosophy which heeds the insights of the overall perspective of the ethics literature discussion, but avoids the respective pitfalls of the two positions discussed. This alternative conception takes a middle course between Nussbaum’s position and the anti-­theoretical position, considered as enabling positions, and incorporates both the theoretical and the anti-­theoretical impulses. I find an important precedent for this picture in Murdoch, who takes great care to incorporate contrary impulses into her conception of ethics, rather than smoothing out the contrasts and oppositions. But my third enabling position is not Murdochian in any strict sense. I will briefly return to Murdoch at the end of this chapter, when making my way back from the broad, meta-­level enabling position to a reinstallation of a unitary conception of the pursuit of goodness.

5.3  The third way—enabling more To reunite the ethics/literature discussion, and regain its critical potential we need to formulate a perspective on moral philosophy that is capable of including


Literature and Moral Theory

the benefits of both the so called “alliance” and the “adversaries” positions. On the one hand, we need to take the anti-­theoretical challenge seriously and heed the tension caused by the gap between the perspectives on ethics presented by literature and by moral theory when both are considered as independent (and equally important) vehicles of moral philosophical thought. We need a due recognition of the anti-­theorists’ cautions concerning the effect of systematic theory on our perspectives on a range of moral phenomena, and due appreciation of the philosophical contributions that are reached precisely by a repudiation of theory. On the other hand, we need to take seriously the problems inherent in denying a role for theoretical or systematically generalizing thought in moral philosophy, and provide a proper role for theoretical efforts. The approach I suggest takes a step backwards to gain a larger view, and includes in its scope both theoretical work, the anti-­theoretical repudiation of it, and work done in the spirit of this repudiation. The conception underlying this approach of moral philosophy should be understood as what I have described as an enabling position, a meta-­level understanding of the nature of moral philosophy. As such it need not solve the issues between Nussbaum and the anti-­ theorists, but may embrace both of these positions, as well as the tension between them. I will use the labels “the inclusive approach” or “the inclusive conception” to refer to my position here. The inclusive approach relates to the literary turn as a suggestion born out of the conflict between what Nussbaum calls the “alliance” and “adversaries” positions concerning the interrelation of moral theory and narrative literature in moral philosophy. It is an attempt to unify the field opened up by the literary turn and to create a platform of moral philosophical inquiry where the essential insights of both “alliance” and “adversaries” positions are acknowledged and made use of. The core of the suggestion is that moral philosophy must endure plural genres, conceptual non-­commensurabilities, gaps, holes, and parallel systems of thought to be a fruitful context for moral thinking. As the inclusive move includes partly non-­commensurable conceptions of how moral philosophy should be pursued, and of what counts as a contribution to meaningful moral philosophical thought, I will give an account here of how I perceive the roles of theory, narrative literature, and other formats of philosophical writing in this perspective. I will further discuss how this inclusive approach, as an enabling position, relates to the ethics/literature discussion in analytic moral philosophy, and provides a perspective for viewing the change in the conception

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


of moral philosophy that comes with the discussion on the ethical role of narrative literature.

5.3.1  The inclusive approach to moral philosophy In this view, moral theories are patterns of structured thought, based on moral beliefs and intuitions that people hold in real life. Different moral theories clarify different moral ideas or intuitions, give them a systematized form and put them in relation to each other, so that their role in the larger whole can be more clearly grasped. Due to the starting point of any moral theory in a narrow range of privileged intuitions, the limited set of exemplary cases that are considered when trying out a theory, and due to the ideal of theoretical unity that forces the theorist to choose between competing and incommensurable ways of conceptualizing moral phenomena, moral theories are bound to be partial and preliminary. Moral theories are not complete pictures of moral reality, and cannot give a comprehensive overview of morality, or even of the area of morality—for example, rightful action, or the virtues, or moral emotions—that they attempt to describe. Doing moral theory is an activity of constructing and reconstructing conceptual frameworks that attempt to make sense of different moral and moral philosophical ideas. I suggest that moral theories should be considered instrumental for structuring thought and trying out what happens if we generalize particular moral ideas and intuitions systematically.3 Thus consequentialism is the trying out of the intuition or idea that the consequences of an action are what matter, whereas deontology tries out what happens if we consider moral action from the point of view of an inherent obligation in the action itself. Some versions of virtue ethics try out the idea that we could derive the whole of morality from the idea of an ideal character. All of these efforts are intellectually important insofar as they develop and investigate distinct directions of thought that seem to compete for our attention. But their import is precisely intellectual; they are vehicles of thought. Moral theory differs in this respect from theory in areas where it provides a platform for praxis and policy-­making. Moral theorizing does not aim at creating a platform for practical morality, but is an intellectual activity which perpetually recreates its own initial questions, and is thus optimally in constant flux. Different theories can be used for a plurality of purposes of argumentation and elucidation. As such an activity it provides on the one hand an intellectual resource for moral thinking in practical life, and on the other a place for what Murdoch called “professional speculation” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 74). But no


Literature and Moral Theory

theory is an accurate picture of morality. Theories are there to be used, not to be fixated as truths about morals. Further, from this point of view the pursuit of questions and the changing landscapes that open up along the way are more central for moral practice than the positive answers that one is able to elicit in the course of theoretical investigation. When moving on from moral theory to applied or practical ethics, a particular moral theory or moral theoretical text may provide a suggestion of how to proceed with a practical ethical problem. It can be consulted for ideas of how to reconceptualize a moral situation or idea, or how to reason about moral questions. But it cannot be consulted for authoritative guidance. Now, although moral theory is seen as multiform in this manner, we should not stretch the concept of theory to cover just any reflective vehicle of moral thought. The inclusive conception of moral philosophy accommodates a variety of other types and genres of writing that provide insights into what is seen as relevant for moral philosophy. Narrative literature is a central one of these types. The inclusive approach does not privilege explicitness and the particular kind of conceptual clarity that is typical for moral theory, but considers theory as one path among others for gaining more clarity—including philosophical clarity—in moral matters. There is within this framework no pressure to interpret narrative literature on terms dictated by moral theories, no pressure to see it as illustrating philosophical positions or arguing philosophical viewpoints. Thus, in this framework narrative literature occupies the position which writers on the subject, from Eldridge to Rorty, and Goldberg to Nussbaum have—in their different ways—aimed at creating for it. Literature is here something more and something else than a philosopher’s handmaid: it functions on different terms, often indirectly and suggestively, with a focus on particularities, using moral types and moral situations to open up more general questions and perspectives, and to provide preliminary platforms for moral thought. As there is, in this perspective, no privileged form for moral philosophical thought, there is no need for the philosophical insights in relation to literature to be transformed into a theoretical or argumentative form. Literature can fill its functions of moral philosophical thought in a plurality of ways. One novel may do something significant for moral philosophy by showing the perspective of a child, or a poor person, or a housewife, or someone who is dying of cancer. There need not be any particular lesson attached to the showing of such perspectives. Another novel may make its contribution precisely by presenting a moral lesson, or by presenting a moral lesson and then relativizing it by offering a variety of alternative perspectives.

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


A novel may also perform its moral philosophical task by exaggerating tendencies in the present time to investigate a possible scenario of consequences. This is the typical device of dystopia. What makes a literary piece philosophical, or what makes it a philosophical contribution in a specific context of discussion, need not be predetermined. This may be a disquieting perspective for those who find it important to be able to draw the boundaries around different disciplines of thought in a clear way. But the inclusive perspective sticks to the view that something we want to call moral philosophy may turn up in a broad variety of texts and conversations. Moral philosophy is living, reflective thought about morality, and as such it does not privilege any particular format. Some formats, like moral theory, as it is pursued in the academic contexts of today, have a special role in preserving a tradition of moral philosophical thought, but this role does not privilege them as instances of moral philosophy. This does not mean that just anything can be moral philosophy. Indeed “philosophy” is sometimes used in a diluted sense, analogous to the diluted sense of “theory” discussed in Chapter 2.3, to express something like “view” or “opinion.” Sometimes such views or opinions may be part of a philosophical outlook, or of a philosophical exchange, but quite often, of course, they are not. What this conception of moral philosophy rejects is an a priori delimitation of philosophically relevant viewpoints or formats, along with any narrowly defined ideas of what a good philosophical conception should look like. The reason for not privileging any format is that the independent contributions of, for example, literature to philosophical exchange are easily diluted or destroyed when transposed to a different medium. It is one of the great challenges for philosophers who write about the moral significance of literature not to lose what was distinctive about the moral contribution of a literary work on the way. Novels and other writing can be used as illustrations and rhetorical devices in conjunction with theoretical discussions, and illustrations can often become partly constitutive of the ideas they illustrate, and thus make an independent contribution to philosophical thought.4 But sometimes philosophical preconceptions of what counts need to be bracketed to get at something that is both morally and philosophically distinctive about a literary work. The essayistic literary commentary or literary criticism, which is the typical mode of writing of the philosophers of the literary turn, is frequently used for bridging accounts between moral theory and particular literary works. But we should avoid considering such bridging accounts as the primary function of


Literature and Moral Theory

these discussions, as the essayistic format can be used for a great variety of purposes that are interesting from the point of view of moral philosophy. It can be used to highlight particular features of works, like underlying moral commitments, tendencies, interesting moral personalities, moral character types, etc. It can be used for proving a moral theory wrong, or for showing the implied author of the literary work to be wrong, and it can be used for trying to alter our conception of what counts as morally relevant, or, equally well, for confirming our philosophical prejudices. Many of Nussbaum’s discussions on literary works (in e.g. 1986, 1990, and 1995) are bridging accounts between her philosophical/theoretical viewpoints and literary works: presenting features of her neo-Aristotelian perspective, highlighting the role of moral emotions, personal growth, and so on. This has to do with her typical method of discussing literary works that confirm and illustrate her views. But as discussed in Chapters 1.1 and 4, she emphasizes that the task of moral philosophers in relation to literature is not just to “allude to familiar philosophical ideas and positions” (Nussbaum 2008) in the literary works, but to pursue living philosophical thought in them and in relation to them. In addition to theoretical texts, literary texts and essays (e.g. on literary works) there is, of course, a variety of other kinds of philosophically interesting texts. In the inclusive approach a particular interest is turned toward texts that from the strictly theory-­oriented perspective are uncomfortable. Kierkegaard,Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, and Iris Murdoch are here more comfortably seen as partners for philosophical exchange, rather than peculiar objects of exegesis whose texts need to be translated into a more straightforward argumentative or theoretical form. Moral philosophy emerges as a kind of conversation: a network of formulations and ideas that are intermingled to yield a range of preliminary insights. The role and content of a specific philosophical work is only partly determined by what is in the work, and equally by its discursive positioning in the magnetic fields of philosophical conversations. Moral philosophical thought is constant inquiry: mobile and changing, responsive to changes in people’s conditions, as well as to influences from intellectual work within as well as outside the moral philosophical community. Moral philosophy constitutes a reflective dimension of morality: the abstract inquiry into the concepts, structures, and tendencies in human thinking and acting in relation to good and evil, right and wrong. From this perspective the constant disagreement in moral philosophy—which has been put forward by, for example, MacIntyre (1984) as evidence for the futility or malfunctioning of the field—is not a sign of futility but merely a fact of how it works.

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


The benefit of this perspective, as an enabling position, is that the theoretical and the anti-­theoretical intuitions need not be brought into harmony to enable fruitful thought and writing in moral philosophy. There is a great deal of conceptual clarification that may need to be done in order to get down to the real disagreements between particular philosophers on questions about the proper role of moral theory. But the disagreements concerning the proper role and meaningfulness of moral theory should not be allowed to create a frontier of hostility in the midst of a discussion which benefits from both theoretical efforts and writers that turn their backs on theory. Moral philosophy need not be purified from contrary impulses, but can be pursued in a spirit which shows awareness of the contrary impulses and the philosopher’s own relation to them. As MacIntyre (1984: 8) suggests, the contemporary splits in moral thought are not only to be found between people but also within individual persons. But contrary to his view I see this not as a sad consequence of modernity and the loss of a meaningful moral framework, but as an essential feature, neither laudable nor lamentable, of the current situation that opens up for moral philosophical thought. The inclusive approach to moral philosophy creates a scene of inquiry which could be characterized as polyphonic, and it also makes way for internal polyphony in the work of individual philosophers. Moral philosophy exhibits a multitude of voices, several of which may be constitutive of our understanding of morality. Doing moral philosophy is moving around in a field of tensions between different outlooks, commitments, and ways of conceptualizing morality. The term “polyphony” was used by Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) to characterize the novels of Dostoevsky, and Bakhtin’s reflections on the intellectual resourcefulness of a polyphonic method provide an important point of reference for the contemporary philosopher who is dissatisfied with the linear argumentation and monistic ideals that have a central role in philosophy. In, for example, The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky does not solve the tension between Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha by showing moral preference for the outlook of one of them. The central philosophical (and ethical) contribution of the novel is, arguably, how it manages to articulate the distinctive moral temperaments and worldviews of the three brothers, and to place the reader in their midst. It is an articulation of the tensions in the author’s worldview in the form of three distinct characters that are equally real, and that have an equal claim on our attention. A lesson to be derived from Bakhtin and Dostoyevsky is that it need not always be the moral philosopher’s task to erase conflicting points of view or


Literature and Moral Theory

non-­commensurable perspectives, even when they seem to produce outright contradictions. Systematization under one master vocabulary or master theory is just one possible philosophical goal among others, and not the only proper goal for moral philosophical inquiry. The mapping of a moral landscape in terms of several distinctive voices is, on a second look, a creative analogue to the “mental geography” that Annette Baier (1985) sees as the legitimate task of moral philosophy. Yet, from a polyphonic perspective, theoretical systematization need not be shunned—as the anti-­theorists shun it, for the reasons they do—if it is interpreted as one voice among others, contributing to a reflective polyphonic whole. Many of the aspects of what I call an inclusive approach to moral philosophy are implicitly at work in discussions on the ethical significance of literature, where a multiplicity of positions and tensions are endured for the benefit of a more multifaceted understanding of the variety of moral phenomena. The dominant gesture of the literary turn is one of opening up, broadening the range of intellectual possibilities, effacing borderlines between philosophy proper and other intellectual pursuits. In practice this means—as I have argued—accepting uncertainty, accepting tensions, and accepting that a science of morals is a lost ideal. The inclusive conception of moral philosophy is a way of embracing the more far-­reaching consequences of this overall gesture.

5.3.2  Commitments of the inclusive approach I talked before about Nussbaum’s position, the anti-­theorist position, and my own inclusive account of moral philosophy as enabling positions, that is, bird’s-­eye positions which aim at making more fruitful work possible in a given context of philosophical thought. But contrary to Nussbaum’s and the anti-­ theorists’ discussions, both of which set specific agendas for moral philosophy, my account is thus far a large but empty receptacle that could harbor almost anything. In the remaining sections of this chapter I will attempt a normative reorientation within this perspective, in the spirit of insights derived from the ethics/literature discussion. But before that we need to view some of the normative commitments of the enabling position itself. Heeding Murdoch’s (1997: 76) suggestion that no definition or delimitation of the realm of moral philosophy is normatively innocent, I will here explicate a few of the generalizing normative commitments of my position. It may be noted that the normative aspect here is not normative in a narrowly moral sense, but is to be understood as normative for how moral philosophy should be pursued.

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


These (meta-­level) commitments do have consequences for normative issues in the practical realm of moral life and action, but I will not discuss them here. First, I am committed to the idea that it is not the task of moral philosophy overall to fixate evaluative, normative, or meta-­ethical commitments. Insofar as distinct actors in the field pursue argumentative closures, these closures should be interpreted in relation to their contexts, as individual voices in a large chorus of moral philosophical discourse. Philosophy does not deal with fixating evaluative and normative commitments, as these belong to the realm of moral life and practice. Moral philosophy can clarify, process, or recommend such commitments, but when it recommends it does so on the same terms as such recommendations are presented in practical moral life. Moral philosophy is not to be seen as authoritative. Presenting an evaluative commitment as part of a systematized, general, and coherent system does not add anything essential to the commitment that would make it normatively binding. Here I agree with the anti-­ theorist Winch when he claims that “. . . philosophy can no more show a man what he should attach importance to than geometry can show a man where he should stand” (Winch 1972: 191), and with Baier when she claims that “a moral compass to guide us, not only in our individual actions but in our institutional or educational reforms and innovations, is not something we are likely to think up in an armchair, but something that will itself evolve by the testing of generations of people” (Baier 1985: 224). Thus, clear limits to the normative ethical effects of moral philosophy are set by this perspective. A second commitment relates to the relationship between moral philosophy and moral practice. There is in this account no moral practice that would require or would be improved by stable solutions to the big questions of moral philosophy. Moral practice requires good people, good habits, and good rules. Often these things are promoted by better thinking about morality, and sometimes better thinking is aided by professional philosophical work. Moral practice does not await the “results” of philosophical inquiry, but philosophical inquiry opens up a reflective space for thinking about morality. Iris Murdoch emphasizes that it is important that we provide room for philosophical thinking that does not worry about its relation to practice—“there can be no substitute for pure, disciplined, professional speculation” (Murdoch 1970/2001: 74). Sometimes the intellectual efforts that are needed to illuminate or reconsider moral practice can only be developed when the demand for practical applicability is set aside. But precisely because of the creative, speculative elements of philosophy, the fruits of moral philosophy are often of little use for practical morality. The relationship between


Literature and Moral Theory

positive results in moral philosophy and the improvement of moral practices is at its best contingent and at its worst non-­existent. But, if moral philosophy is available to people—outside the narrow academic discussions that dominate contemporary philosophy, as a part of intellectual culture—it may provide tools for structuring and developing moral thought in relation to practice. It would do this not by giving answers, but by broadening the range of conceptual devices that we have at our disposal for this task. Third, and finally, the position is cautious when it comes to giving too specific recommendations concerning how moral philosophy should be pursued, and to which moral issues it should give priority. Moral philosophy should in this view be intellectually mobile and wary of implementing potentially limiting models of inquiry on a large scale.

5.4  Preserving the absolute I do not intend my inclusive approach to suggest a prospective path for how moral philosophy should be pursued, for I believe that moral philosophy, just like philosophy in general, comes closest to an ideal of living thought when it does not attempt to gratify commonly held expectations. The cost of this move may seem to be that we end up with an all too inclusive approach, which provides little guidance for a future moral philosophy. In particular, a consequence of a constant mobility in moral philosophy—the emphasis on the contingency of all philosophical attempts to conceptualize the moral realm—seems to be that we lose our ability to conceptualize the notion of something absolute, something inviolable at the center of morality. Ethics becomes a flux of thought or a mishmash of half-­hearted suggestions. The praised movement of thought prevents any substantial configurations from forming. It could be suggested that the mobilized, inclusive conception of moral philosophy makes philosophy unsuited to account for our notion of morality as a realm of something absolute. By the absolute I mean a notion of something inviolable that constitutes the center of an account of ethics. It can be, as in the case of Kant, human reason or the person as an end in him- or herself. Utilitarianism replaces absolute principles with an absolute end, the greatest happiness or utility, and thus gives a singular direction for moral thought. Virtue ethical perspectives may be found problematic from the perspective of the absolute, because they do not seem to deal with absolute rules or absolute values

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


in a comparable way. But here the virtuous person, and the doctrine of the mean, may assume the roles of absolutes. Absolute rules, values, and ideals—and theories or other suitable expressions of these—capture our sense of morality as a domain of something serious and inviolable, something that must be settled and put in place in our lives. There is in modern moral philosophy a tendency to try to preserve the absolute in assumptions concerning the proper structure of moral theory. Codification has been a warrant against the loss of the absolute, which is a perpetual worry in post-­ religious ethics. Some aspect of a current paradigm—God, or reason, or principle, or the virtuous man—is regarded as a safeguard for the absolute, the thing that needs to be put in place to guarantee our access to a domain of an absolute, objective goodness. In analytic ethics there is a strong reliance on the idea that further argument, and further refutations of possible objections, will set things straight: that what comes out of the process of such argument will have the hoped-­for solidity to take the place of an absolute. The loss of everything absolute appears as an ultimate loss of orientation. From this perspective there is little left to do once the role for the absolute in moral philosophy has been abolished. Normative moral philosophy evaporates; all we can do is to describe moral language, describe moral practices, and make maps of different ways of moral thinking. But there is no mere description of moral phenomena. We cannot pursue a “mental geography” without relying on, or revealing, normative and evaluative commitments. We cannot step outside morality when we investigate it. Even when opting for a meta-­perspective on morality—meta-­philosophical, meta-­ theoretical, or meta-­ethical—we do so as people who are immersed in evaluative assumptions. Any moral practice is always seen from the inside of some moral practice, and our points of orientation form our conceptions of the phenomena we attempt to describe. Further, the “neutrality” of a sociopath or an amoral person does not produce the most competent moral philosopher, for morality, as a phenomenon, can only be known from the inside of some morality. We approach morality as thoroughly evaluative creatures. Arguably, we orient ourselves in the moral realm with reference to ideas, concepts, and conditions that seem to be more firmly in place than others: life, liberty, justice, the avoidance of cruelty, for example. In this way, by necessity, the idea and the pursuit of something morally absolute or ultimate makes its way back to philosophy. As I argued in Chapter  1.2.9, the dominant tone of the ethics/literature discussion is realist in relation to morals. There is, in this discussion, a substantial


Literature and Moral Theory

faith in the reality of values, and in the possibility of gaining moral knowledge and objective understanding, in spite of the fact that a majority of the writers in the ethics/literature discussion are inclined toward a particularizing and non-­ theoretical, if not anti-­theoretical, mode of thought. The rejections of codifiability, binding general norms, the turn towards particularism, etc., are thus not related to increasing relativism (as Eldridge 1989: 27–8 suggests), but to a different way of conceptualizing the moral realm. The particular, situation-­bound judgment is considered to be as absolute and as binding as a judgment generated by a universal rule. The study of an individual literary character’s moral path is generally not used to prove the ultimate agent-­relativity of morality, but as an inquiry into the idiosyncrasies of orientation in relation to a communal realm of good and right. Further, the repudiation of normative moral theory is here not motivated by a loss of faith in an objective, communal moral realm, but a loss of faith in ways of articulating this realm in terms of general, universally binding principles and systematic normative theory. There are several ways of making room for a notion of the absolute in ethical thought. I will suggest here that the mobile, discursive paradigm of the ethics/ literature discussion has its own ways of approximating the absolute that are of use when one starts to consider how to preserve the idea of something absolute in a conception of moral philosophy modeled according to the inclusive approach. In the remaining pages I will discuss three models for reinstalling a notion of a moral absolute in accounts of morality which do not attempt to put all the pieces of morality in place by means of a theoretical system or hierarchy. Thus, these models do not attempt to safeguard the absolute by means of giving a firm structure to the philosophical account. In each of these, the absolute is formulated in non-­naturalist terms, although the accounts overall exhibit a special interest in understanding, for example by means of narrative literature, the human nature or human conditions that incorporate this absolute. These ways of reinstalling the absolute should here be considered examples of how such reinstallations can be formulated, and as suggestions for ways to proceed from the preliminary platform provided by the inclusive approach. I am not here articulating a commitment to any one of these paths.

5.4.1  The absolute in the immediacy of moral response (Winch) The first reinstallation of the absolute that I want to discuss here is found in conjunction with Peter Winch’s (1987) criticism of Elizabeth Anscombe in his

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


paper on the Good Samaritan (briefly discussed earlier in Chapter  3). Here Winch goes against the naturalism implied in Anscombe’s 1958 paper “Modern Moral Philosophy” (in Anscombe 1981). Anscombe claims there that the language of moral philosophy is incomprehensible because it relies on a worldview where moral goodness was equated with divine command (a point more extensively treated, without due acknowledgment of Anscombe’s precedent, by MacIntyre 1984). As the foundational beliefs of this worldview are lost, the moral language of obligation suffers from a fundamental loss of meaning. Instead, Anscombe suggests, we need to base the language of moral philosophy on a realistic picture of human nature and the path to this picture is through an adequate philosophy of psychology. “Behind this,” Winch believes, “was the thought that human ends are derivative from human needs; and behind this again the thought that human needs flow from the kind of being a human being is. In other words the conception as a whole is that morality is somehow based on and perhaps derivable from (an independently graspable) human nature” (Winch 1987: 159). Winch goes against two distinct things in his criticism: first, naturalism, in the form of deriving the whole of morality from a conception of human needs, and second, the idea that the language of moral obligation has lost its meaning. He suggests that a moral response which we would describe in terms of an absolute obligation or a necessity does make sense in a world where the Christian metaphysics is lost, although it makes a different kind of sense (ibid.: 160): It clearly does not follow from the alleged disappearance of circumstances which once gave a certain intelligibility to a linguistic usage that such usage now has no intelligibility. The most we can conclude is that it now has to be understood rather differently. Whether it means anything, and if so what, can only be determined by an examination of its present use—something we do not find in that early Anscombe article.

The alternative he proposes is in a sense thinner and less explanatory than Anscombe’s because it does not attempt to go behind the use of moral language to account for its foundations. We can, according to Winch, account for the meaning of notions of obligation by seeing how they are used, how we do make them make sense in our lives. All we need to do is pay attention to the immediacy, the necessity, of the way the Samaritan comes to the aid of the wounded man. The parable, in Winch’s account, does not build on the idea of a divine law-­giver, but challenges it (ibid.: 160–1):


Literature and Moral Theory

Or at least it commented on the conception in a way which presupposed that the moral modality to which the Samaritan responded would have force for the parable’s hearers independently of their commitment to any particular theological belief. It is the lawyer’s own response to that modality which enables him to answer Jesus’s final question and thus to expand his comprehension of the law. So his understanding of and response to the modality cannot itself be thought of as dependent on his conception of the law. And I might add that it is perfectly possible for us to respond to that modality whether or not we have a conception of God as the author of a moral law. Otherwise the parable would mean nothing to someone who did not share that conception—something which is not only untrue, but which would radically thwart one of Jesus’s apparent intentions in teaching in this way, by parable.

We need not and ought not to give up the language of obligation, in the face of the loss of theological background assumptions. At least not before we have actually tried to make sense of what kind of meaning it may have for us. The causal relationship between a language of obligation and a divine lawgiver goes, in Winch’s account, rather the other way around: “The responses to moral modalities that we share with the Samaritan (however much they are modified or stifled by circumstance) are amongst the seeds from which, in some people, grows the conception of divinity and its laws” (ibid.: 161). The experienced immediacy of obligation, which the interlocutor of the parable can grasp, is in this account the core of our notion of moral obligation. The idea of a divine law is an elaboration of this core. We do not need this particular elaboration to make sense of the core. But the core is lost in an account which is naturalistic in the sense that it attempts to base morality on a conception of human ends and needs. Such a conception will, at best, explain the birth of obligation as instrumental to the fulfillment of needs and ends in a human community, or, at worst, do away with absolute obligation altogether. Interestingly enough, both Anscombe’s and Winch’s accounts of how we should deal with moral obligation owe a great deal to Wittgenstein’s influence: Anscombe’s by doing away with an outdated metaphysics when replacing it with a naturalist inquiry, and Winch by extinguishing the metaphysics and suggesting that it need not be replaced with anything, because what we need to make sense of is already open to view.5 In Winch’s view of moral philosophy, which is both particularist and anti-­ theoretical, and against any codification of moral obligation, the absolute is found where it is experienced, for example, as an absolute, immediate, unquestionable

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


obligation to come to another person’s aid. But this is not where the story ends. We must understand the Samaritan as the ideal agent, the admirable one. Thus there is a double recognition of obligation here: the Samaritan’s recognition of obligation, and our recognition of the Samaritan as the ideal agent, with the ideal response, whom it is our obligation to follow in attitude and behavior. Winch does not look for a system to account for the absolute that thus emerges in the midst of situation-­bound non-­codifiable morality. All he requires is that we locate it and perceive what is distinctive to it, and acknowledge it as central. On the one hand this contribution goes beyond Winch’s Wittgensteinian framework by postulating a central ideal with normative consequences, from which much of morality seems to be derivable. On the other hand, it is parallel to Wittgenstein’s later work in the way he refuses to go behind what is open to view in the search for an explanatory account.

5.4.2  The absolute respect for persons (Eldridge) A second reinstallation of the absolute in a non-­theoretical moral philosophical framework is found in Richard Eldridge’s (1989: 30–3) attempt to reconcile what he calls a relativistic-­aretaic and a rationalist-­universalist conception of moral life. These categories require some explanation here as their outlines differ somewhat from the positions I have characterized thus far. This concerns especially the relativistic-­aretaic, which in Eldridge’s dichotomy seems to incorporate the whole of virtue ethics and particularism. Eldridge (ibid.: 26–7) emphasizes, in his description of the latter, the relativistic aspect of this direction of ethical thought; an emphasis which seems to go against my characterizations of these trends as predominantly realist, with a strong faith in the communality and objectivity of the moral realm. A partial explanation of the difference is perhaps found here in Eldridge’s selection of exemplary philosophers; MacIntyre, Foot, and Williams—with historical predecessors in Nietzsche, Freud, and Hume—all of whom have formulated strong criticism of the rationalist-­universalist theories that dominate modern moral philosophy. Another explanation could be found in his argumentative need for a polemic dichotomy. But the talk of relativism in this context is not very enlightening, as it tends to establish misleading associations with postmodern or anti-­realist directions of thought. The gist of contemporary virtue-­centered and particularist formulations is not to argue the “relativity” of morals, but an attempt at reformulating what matters, and how it should be conceptualized.


Literature and Moral Theory

On the other hand, this need not disturb our consideration of Eldridge’s discussion of the dichotomy, as it matches—in spite of interpretive differences— the outline of the particularity versus generality/universality dichotomy in ethics that I have sketched out. Like Nussbaum and Murdoch, as discussed before, Eldridge is centrally concerned with combining an attention to the particular in ethics with an account of general and universal aspects of moral thought. He suggests that “accounts of the moral lives of persons that proceed from the relativist and rationalist standpoints tend to pass each other by in mutual incomprehension, and this is largely because they fail to rest on a shared understanding of the phenomenology and possibilities of human deliberation and action” (ibid.: 30). The articulation of the phenomenology is realized through readings of literature: Conrad, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Austen. Literature shows the particularity and variety of human life, but it does not reduce morality to this particularity and variety. Narratives, in Eldridge’s account, “contain the fullest reflective accounts there are of deliberation and action in specific circumstances” (ibid.: 33). But at the same time they reach out to us in our common capacity as moral persons who acknowledge limits and possibilities that are not arbitrarily chosen, but formed in communication with transcendent ideals: “. . . one might hope that a suitably full phenomenology of deliberation and action could make a place for the claims of both particular attachments and universal principles, that such a phenomenology could even articulate their interaction for us” (ibid.: 31). Eldridge articulates the tension between a universalist and a narrativist mode of moral thought in terms of Kant and Hegel, and lets Hegel stand for part of the challenges that a Kantian approach needs to face in order to relate to the particular variety of human life. Eldridge’s Kantianism can be condensed into two distinct features. On the one hand, there is a conception of moral personhood as manifested in respect for other persons, which constitutes the central value— the absolute—of his moral philosophical perspective (ibid.: 67). On the other hand, there is the insight that the centrality of this value (insofar as it is available) is available a priori to the reflective moral person, and not derivable, for example, from experience. The issue is a “grammatical and interpretive one, not a standard scientific, narrowly experimental one—and grammatical questions can be treated only through complex interpretive efforts at self-­recognition” (ibid.: 65). The notion of respect for persons is both other-­regarding and self-­regarding: we need to understand both how our own moral personhood is manifested and what kind of demands the personhood of others puts on us. The respect for persons, as

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


an absolute universal ideal, is articulated in rationalist terms, as knowable by human reason alone. But Eldridge argues that the rationalist methodology is insufficient for providing us with a thorough understanding of how this value works in human life, and thus, is insufficient for giving us the full practical guidance we need. The value is known a priori, but its manifestations in the world need to be studied in a casuistic manner in order to achieve an understanding of what it means and what it demands of us. His readings of literature are, thus, attempts to trace the moral absolutes— universal respect for persons, and moral personhood—in the particular lives of literary characters that exhibit the open-­ended, open-­textured, multifaceted plurality and particularity of human life.

5.4.3  The absolute good—Murdoch’s Platonic ascendance In both of the reinstallations of the absolute discussed thus far the absolute is given a specific content; the immediacy of response in the first case and the respect for persons in the second. The first one is to some extent anti-­intellectual, the second thoroughly rationalist and reflective. The third reinstallation which I will mention here, that of Iris Murdoch, may look like a Platonic oddity in the current context of philosophical thought, but is none the less a thoroughly clever solution to the confusion that may seem to invade moral philosophy when particular, situation-­bound judgment, and a plurality of virtues and ideals take over the realm of moral philosophy, as a myriad of equally important considerations. Murdoch operates with an abstract, essentially indefinable idea of the good as an overarching ideal image. The good is manifest in the multiform phenomena of the world, but transcends them. It offers what could be seen as a vertical dimension to moral thought: the striving toward an ideal, above and beyond the varieties of human life. Her framework can endure a high degree of variety and partial incompatibilities without disintegrating because of the constant returns to the idea of the good or perfection as something familiar from our everyday dealings with value. We have experiences of gradations of value—of better and worse, of good things and people, and actions—and can from these experiences derive the idea of perfection. The most obvious problem here could be perceived in the apparent lack of content of this transcendent good. It is approached through metaphors, but it is never really substantiated. Can something more be said about the nature of the


Literature and Moral Theory

good? It is at times closely associated with Murdoch’s notion of Eros, and with loving attention to the world in all its variety. These seem to describe a mode of directedness better than a specific content that would motivate directedness, but precisely this may indeed be a clue. The transcendent good, which constitutes the central moral absolute of Murdoch’s framework, is a mover or a force, rather than a thing. It is a force that demands a certain humility, the achtung that Kant talks about; an acknowledgment of a mover that is not reducible to personal inclinations and desires. Although Murdoch is inclined to use the word “mysticism” here it seems to me that we should be wary of placing too heavy a mystical load on her perspective. Like Eldridge she wants to describe morality from the inside of experience rather than from the outside. There may indeed be a hint of something mystical in our experience of goodness, but seen from an experiential viewpoint the perceived mysticism loses some of its esoteric quality. It is communal and universally human. It does not depend on any specific kind of faith, religious framework, or conception of a deity. Her talk about mysticism may even be read as a reclaiming of the word: the mystical experience is not weird nor in need of a special, exterior, explanatory description that would render it natural. It is, rather, perfectly natural as its stands. The appeal of Murdoch’s idea of the good becomes clearer if one considers it against the background of the ethics/literature discussion overall, and its thoroughgoing critiques of foundationalism, monism, and the codification of morality. It shows that we need not choose between ready-­made alternatives; we need not choose between fixating an overarching value or a specific procedure for morality on the one hand, and giving up the idea of unity in face of a perceived plurality on the other. We can attempt to describe our sense of unity and directedness in terms that are not reductive, in a vocabulary which is open ended. This alternative has been available to and realized in religious frameworks and in art, and it is equally available in philosophy as long as we resist the temptations to reduce the tasks of philosophy to explicit argument, conceptual analysis, systematic theory, or the like. It is as if she were saying: “We are the philosophers. We decide what philosophy can be and do. Let us not be so anxious.” This attitude has an edge which can be equally directed against the analytic moral theorists and the Wittgensteinians who are prone to find all theoretical or metaphysical attempts in philosophy idle or misguided. In spite of the considerations that, to my mind, speak to the benefit of Murdoch’s conception of moral philosophy, I have wished here only to hold it up

Literature as Critique of Moral Theory


as an example of how one could think, rather than arguing for it as a model of how one should think. Murdoch’s conceptions of morality, of moral philosophy, and of the good provide a fertile ground for moral philosophical thought, but her modes of philosophical inquiry and writing are highly idiosyncratic. Imitation is not likely to yield satisfactory results, and it is not clear that she has a philosophical method that one could successfully adopt. Her readings of other philosophers often seem frustratingly unsystematic and we may feel that a style like hers needs, in the larger discussions of moral philosophy, to be complemented by styles that are, in Nussbaum’s words, again,“more explanatory, more Aristotelian” (Nussbaum 1990: 49). Murdoch is not likely to be a new large-­scale role model for moral philosophers, and maybe this, precisely, is one of her benefits. We are not in need of a new paradigm for moral philosophy. Philosophy does not require a normal science. New coordinates we do already have, and many of them are revealed in the late twentieth century and contemporary discussions on ethics/literature, if we care to look.

Notes Introduction 1 Published as The Fragility of Goodness (1986). 2 This essay was originally published in New Literary History (vol. 5, nr. 1, autumn 1983), and later republished in Love’s Knowledge (Nussbaum 1990: 125–47). I will hereafter refer to the latter publication. 3 The volume Existentialists and Mystics (Murdoch 1997) consists of papers from the early 1950s to the middle of the 1980s. 4 An illuminating exchange between Posner and Nussbaum is to be found in the journal Ethics and Literature. See Nussbaum (1998) and Posner (1997, 1998). 5 On the two turns, see also Michael Eskin (2004). 6 Goldberg dedicates a chapter of Agents and Lives – Moral Thinking in Literature (1993) to criticizing the way moral philosophers, especially “Aristotelian” ones, use literature in ethical discussions. He is particularly concerned here with how they, from his point of view, are overly focused on conduct. But owing to this openness toward the moral philosophical discussion, and a range of similarities in ideals and aims between his discussion and the moral philosophers, his contribution can well be read as a constructive part of the literary turn. 7 Conant’s article is a commentary on Gerald Bruns’ article “Stanley Cavell’s Shakespeare.” One of the things Conant does here is to resituate Cavell’s work on Shakespeare—which Bruns has aligned with continental figures like Gadamer and Levinas—between the contexts of continental and analytic philosophy.

Chapter 1 1 In my discussion on Nussbaum’s work in 5.2 I will get back to the difference between literary examples and other kinds of examples. 2 For another way of making sense of the relationship between Moorean intuitionism and later discussions in this vein, see Antonaccio (2000: 116–23) on the relationship between Murdoch and G. E. Moore. 3 In Murdoch’s work this distinction has a broader function in also applying to her philosophy of art, fantasy being the faculty which produces bad art and kitsch, while only imagination produces good, serious art. Thus, in Murdoch’s view, only



aesthetically good, imaginative art is morally constructive. I will return to Murdoch’s distinction between fantasy and imagination in Chapter 4. 4 See especially the article “Anything but Argument?” (Diamond 1991: 291–308). 5 I will discuss Murdoch’s conception of reality further in Chapter 4.3. 6 Similar lines of thought are discernible in Nussbaum’s discussions, for example, on Sophocles’ Antigone (1986), and James’ The Golden Bowl (1990). 7 Von Wright’s chapter on virtues in The Varieties of Goodness, along with Foot’s response to it, is an interesting topic in its own right, and illuminating for the development of virtue ethics in the late twentieth century. But as it is a side issue from the point of view of the ethics/literature discussion I will not go into it here. 8 This essay, “ ‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination” describes through the characters Fanny and Bob Assingham the balancing of a perception-­centered moral outlook and a principled one. See especially the endnote, on pages 165–7. 9 See e.g. Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends (1996), Barbara Herman, The Practice of Moral Judgment (1993), Onora O’Neill, Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy (1989), Nancy Sherman, Making a Necessity of Virtue: Aristotle and Kant on Virtue (1997). 10 Richard Eldridge (1989) can be considered as doing this, though his discussions exhibit a special mixture of Kantianism and particularistically inclined ethics of perception.

Chapter 2 1 The term particularism appears before the current trend in R. M. Hare’s Freedom and Reason (1963: 18–20). 2 See Crary and Read (2000). 3 The references to McDowell here are to his article “Virtue and Reason,” which was first published in The Monist 62 (1979) and reprinted in McDowell (1998). 4 Dancy is the major particularist considered in McKeever and Ridge’s extensive refutation of particularism (2006). His idea of particularism as building on a holism of reasons is common in contemporary discussion on particularism. See also Simon Kirchin (2007). 5 Related, primarily US-based expression of post-Wittgensteinian thought has during the last few decades circled under the labels of “New Wittgenstein” (Crary and Read 2000) and “The Resolute Reading,” both of which are primarily exegetical approaches to Wittgenstein’s work. The claims in these discussions, though relevant for particularist moral philosophy, are not primarily concerned



with moral philosophy. In the field of moral philosophy I find it helpful to read the moral particularism of, for example, Cora Diamond, against the background of the work of philosophers like Winch and Phillips, whose concern with the nature of morality expresses their common dissatisfaction with the generalist and theoretical assumptions of analytic ethics. 6 I give here the original passage from Murdoch of which Diamond quotes, word for word, only the last part: “a circle is formed out of which it may be hard to break.” 7 I will discuss this more thoroughly in Chapter 3, where I look at moral generalizations in literature. 8 There is an interesting parallel between Phillips’ criticism of Nussbaum and the literary scholar Samuel Goldberg’s (1993: 253–303) criticism of moral philosophers concerning their ways of using narrative literature for moral philosophical thought. Both propagate ethical discussions on literature as a neutral, non-­ normative, explorative domain. In the case of both it could be argued that they 1) to some extent misunderstand the purpose of what moral philosophers do, and 2) that they overrate the alleged neutrality and non-­normativity of an explorative/ contemplative approach. I will not go further into this issue here. 9 I will return to this issue in 2.3, where I discuss the nature of moral theory. 10 This focus on language should not, of course, be interpreted as a disregard for the realities we aim to talk about in language. Philosophers, in this view, look at certain uses of language to get at the things that the uses of language are about. Thus it is more a question of method than a question of object. 11 See also Chapters 2.2 and 5. 12 See T. H. Irving (2000) for an interpretation of Aristotle which is non-­particularist in a strict sense, while accommodating many of the particularist concerns. 13 Being an anti-­theoretical normative generalist is not unthinkable, but does not seem to be an available alternative in contemporary moral philosophy as it appears as blatant dogmatism in the philosophical context. Asserting a generalist normative position while refusing to theorize about its groundings would indeed not be considered very philosophical. 14 We may note here that anti-­theorists would hardly deny that one may learn something from considering theories and positions which one finds inadequate: it is always possible to learn from other people’s mistakes. But where Nussbaum would find theoretical elucidation essential for moral philosophy, anti-­theoretical thinkers are more inclined to see it as misguided and thus potentially harmful. 15 This formulation is found in the initial abstract of Nussbaum’s article. 16 Nussbaum’s placing of Murdoch in the anti-­utilitarian, theory-­centered, category can be seen as a polemic move. It is clear that Murdoch’s work is open to different



interpretations of her position concerning the role of theory in ethics, and Nussbaum chooses here, in spite of important differences, to interpret Murdoch’s position as something close to her own. 17 For further discussion of these, see Nussbaum (1999: 188–200). 18 The alleged non-­normativity of some post-Wittgensteinian contributions (Phillips 1999) could provide a central dividing line among these discussions, but as suggested before I find it to be based on a false idea of ethical neutrality. As I will argue further in Chapter 4—in accordance with Murdoch’s view of both consciousness and language as thoroughly evaluative (see Chapter 4.3)—the very choice of a specific narrative and manner of discussion reveal evaluative/ normative commitments that are passed on to the reader. 19 The paper where she formulates the rejection, “Modern Moral Philosophy,” was first published in 1958 and reprinted in the third volume of Anscombe’s collected papers (Anscombe 1981). My references are to the later reprinting.

Chapter 3 1 The idea of a perspective presented by a particular work is by necessity loose, and it is to be distinguished from such technical concepts as focalization (Bal 1985), which is more rigid in its use, indicating a specific point of view, a specific gaze within the narrative. A perspective, as I use the concept here, is not limited to the scope of an individual character’s or narrator’s perception, but is rather an overall point of view that the reader is invited to share. Focalization is one of the strategies through which a certain perspective can be realized. 2 There are indeed exceptions to this, but normally, if a philosopher wants to address a thought he finds in a text of philosophy disregarding authorial intent, this needs to be stated explicitly to avoid confusion. 3 This is an expression used by Henry James, cited by Nussbaum (1990: 148). 4 On representation of types, see also Young (2001: 36–7). 5 One good example of this, besides Ibsen, is found in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1972).

Chapter 4 1 Especially Chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5. 2 For critical discussion of anti-­theorists in aesthetics, see Mothersill (1984).



3 Nussbaum’s (1991) article “The Literary Imagination in Public Life” where she discusses Dickens’ Hard Times, and especially the utilitarian character Mr. Gradgrind, can be read as a parallel and complement to the Princess Casamassima essay. The focus here is on the contrast between the simplified vision of life of the utilitarian man and the richer perception we are invited into by the novel. 4 In both accounts the basic capabilities are also moral enablers, making people capable of moral refinement and judgment. 5 Nussbaum’s (1990: 212) discussion on Hyacinth’s respect for the achievements of elitist culture can fruitfully be read as a comment on her debates with communitarian, anti-­theoretical, and traditionalist tendencies in contemporary ethics and political thought (Nussbaum 1999, 2000a, 2000b), marking a distance to these while admitting the importance of tradition for cultivating evaluative thought. 6 Elaborated in Nussbaum (2001), touched upon also in Chapter 1.2.6 here. 7 The thoroughgoing analogy between Charlus’ love for Morel and Marcel’s love for Albertine is highlighted by Nussbaum’s discussion. The example of Marcel falling in love with Albertine in Nussbaum’s book (2001: 458, 459) is also used to illustrate the morally blinding force of a certain kind of personal love. 8 This discussion reiterates much of the argument in Nussbaum’s (1991) earlier discussion on Hard Times but is here explicitly used for her agenda to include the study of literary works into the curriculum of law students, a project which is closely associated to her overall political agenda. 9 It is worth noting that her early discussions on Henry James’ The Golden Bowl can be interpreted in terms of a (broadly) particularist stance as well as a virtue ethical one, although Nussbaum herself would not accept either categorization (e.g. 1999, 2000) of her work. Her refusal can be read in terms of later developments of particularism and (parts of) virtue ethics in an anti-­theoretical direction which make the labels misleading for describing her position. 10 It is for example clear that Kant makes serious efforts to make a place for virtues, happiness, etc. but these are in the totality of his moral philosophy, included as adjuncts of the master idea of the moral act as the act springing from the motive of duty. In a different but related way, Mill’s discussion on liberty falls under the umbrella of his utilitarianism as a means to the happiness of humankind. Nussbaum’s conception does not ask for this kind of overarching principle. 11 Baier (2003: 169) notes that “ ‘theory’ can be used in wider and narrower ways, and in its widest sense a theory is simply an internally consistent fairly comprehensive account of what morality is and when and why it merits our acceptance and support.” Baier does not object to attempts to formulate a “theory” in this very wide sense. But the kinds of theory that Nussbaum defends are clearly more substantial than this (see Chapters 2.2 and 2.3).



12 These two claims can be found, concerning theory, in Nussbaum (2000a), and concerning literature throughout her writings on the ethical significance of literature (e.g. in Nussbaum 1990 and 1995). 13 For example in the interview with Brian Magee from which the quotation above is derived (Murdoch 1997: 3–30). 14 For example, Floora Ruokonen (2008) discusses Murdoch’s novel A Fairly Honourable Defeat as providing philosophically interesting reflections on trust. Bran Nicol (1999) and Miles Leeson (2010) discuss her as a philosophical novelist. Sabina Lovibond (2011) seeks to substantiate her claim that Nussbaum was attached to a social and moral order of female inferiority by reference to a number of Murdoch’s novels. Nussbaum (2004) discusses The Black Prince to criticize what she takes to be Murdoch’s Platonism—see below for further discussion. 15 For more thorough argument in this direction see Maria Antonaccio (2012) and Niklas Forsberg (2013). 16 It is a peculiarity of Murdoch to name Hume among the ancestors of the “current view,” whereas other critics like Annette Baier (1985: 228–45) see in Hume a forgotten ideal which ought to be rehabilitated to fight the pernicious influence of, for example, Kant and Mill. One explanation would be that they refer to different aspects of Hume’s work. But it is worth noting here a difference of focus and a difference of philosophical ideals behind Murdoch’s and Baier’s common frontier against a certain philosophical legacy. Where Baier sees Hume as representing an ideal non-­normative kind of moral philosophy, Murdoch rejects him as she considers him one of the fathers to the thin fact/value conception of morality (the father of the insight that “we live in a world of disconnected facts”) and the atomistic, liberal conception of the moral self. 17 It may be noted here that the article (included in Murdoch 1997) from which the quotation is derived was first published in 1952 and describes Sartre’s early work. 18 For discussion, see for example Murdoch “Vision and Choice in Morality” (1997: 76–98). 19 This is argued at length by Murdoch in the essay “The Idea of Perfection” (1970/2001: 1–44). 20 Cf. Mulhall (1997) above in 4.1. 21 As discussed before in Chapter 1.2.9. 22 In this respect she has much in common with late twentieth century feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial theory and criticism, where underlying evaluative biases of our supposedly neutral beliefs have received increasing attention. This is an aspect of Murdoch’s work which has not been sufficiently appreciated, although Antonaccio notes that the famous M and D example is formulated in terms of class bias. “M describes D as ‘not exactly common” (a clear reference to class) but



certainly ‘unpolished,’ ‘lacking in dignity and refinement,’ ‘pert,’ ‘familiar,’ and so on. . . . Overcoming such overtly classist judgments is precisely what is required by Murdoch’s account of realistic moral vision” (2012: 256). 23 Discussed for example in the essay “Metaphysics and Ethics” (Murdoch 1997: 59–75). 24 A thorough discussion of Plato’s relation to art is found in “The Fire and the Sun” (Murdoch 1997: 386–463), where Murdoch also evaluates the significance of Plato’s cautions concerning art for her own conception of the moral significance of it. 25 This is a standard reading of Plato which Murdoch accepts. I do not take a stand here on whether it is correct about Plato. 26 The idea of selfishness causing an inability to see the reality of other people is a central theme in contemporary discussion on ethics/literature, also visible in Nussbaum’s (1990: 125–47) discussion about Maggie Verver and most notably in Rorty’s (1989: 141–68) discussion about Nabokov on cruelty, discussed before. 27 Interestingly, Murdoch ascribes to the nineteenth century novel overall a kind of polyphony, or at least polycentricism, which Bakhtin considers as invented in and by Dostoevsky. Bakhtin (1984: 9) contrasts the polyphonic novel with “the socio-­psychological European novel”—a category which seems to cover a great part of the nineteenth century novels that Murdoch has in mind. Of course there are differences in how Murdoch and Bakhtin understand the idea of a plurality of real persons here, but the differences are not sufficient to explain the overall difference, which seems rather to be a question of how they apparently read the novels of the last 200 years. 28 The discussion in Nussbaum (2004) is also found in Nussbaum (1996) and in Nussbaum’s introduction to the 2003 Penguin edition of The Black Prince. The versions differ slightly from each other. The paper from 2004 has recently been reprinted in the volume Iris Murdoch—Philosopher, edited by Justin Broackes (2012). 29 For a thorough discussion of the literary construction of The Black Prince, and criticism of Nussbaum’s, see Niklas Forsberg (2013). 30 For a thorough discussion, see Antonaccio (2012: 245–69).

Chapter 5 1 Nussbaum (2003: 9, n11) considers McDowell an Aristotelian (rather than a Wittgensteinian) and as a companion to the “alliance position,” but it must be kept in mind that he (and his discussion on following a rule) has close affinities with



3 4 5


the post-Wittgensteinian (anti-­theoretical) discussion in moral philosophy. Cf. Chapter 2.2 and Nussbaum’s discussion of anti-Kantians and anti-­utilitarians. See Martin Gustafsson (2009) on the difference between McDowell and Cavell on the possibility of overcoming the vertigo. Gustafsson suggests that these two philosophers differ concerning the possibility of solving or dissolving the “terror” (Cavell) or “vertigo” (McDowell). Where McDowell sees the puzzlement as resolvable, Cavell appears to consider that there is a more fundamental and permanent challenge to the philosopher. This impression is confirmed by Cavell’s (2009) reply to Gustafsson’s paper. I have discussed this conception of moral theory also in Hämäläinen (2006) and Hämäläinen (2009). See Thomas Wartenberg (2006), who discusses how illustrations of philosophical ideas in film can be substantial contributions to the ideas they illustrate. It is notable that among the pioneers of a contemporary virtue ethics in the third quarter of the twentieth century we find two prominent disciples of Wittgenstein: Anscombe (1981) and G. H. von Wright (1963). The similarities between neo-Aristotelian and post-Wittgensteinian trends in ethics today are still substantial, and a thorough discussion of the genesis of both from the 1950s to the 1970s could be of use when investigating their effects and critical potential in twenty-­first century philosophy.

References Allen, Richard and Michael Turvey. 2001. “Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy: A Prophylaxis against Theory.” In Wittgenstein, Theory and the Arts, edited by Richard Allen and Michael Turvey. London: Routledge. Annas, Julia. 1993. The Morality of Happiness. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Anscombe, Elizabeth. 1981. “Modern Moral Philosophy.” In The Collected Philosophical Papers of G. E. M. Anscombe Vol. 3: Ethics, Religion and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell. Antonaccio, Maria. 2000. Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Antonaccio, Maria. 2001. “The Virtues of Metaphysics—A Review of Iris Murdoch’s Philosophical Writings.” Journal of Religious Ethics 29 (2): 309–35. Antonaccio, Maria. 2012. A Philosophy to Live By—Engaging Iris Murdoch. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Aristotle. 1998. The Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by David Ross, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Austen, Jane. 2006a, Emma. London: Penguin Books. Austen, Jane. 2006b, Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguin Books. Ayer, Alfred Jules. 1936/1952. Language, Truth and Logic. 2nd edition. New York: Dover Publications. Baier, Annette. 1985. Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals. London: Methuen. Baier, Annette. 2003. “What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?” In Virtue Ethics, edited by Stephen Darwall. Oxford: Blackwell. Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Edited and translated by Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Bal, Mieke. 1985. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Translated by Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. Beardsmore, R. W. 1984. “Literary Examples and Philosophical Confusion.” In Philosophy and Literature, edited by A. Phillips Griffiths. Supplement to Philosophy, Royal Institute of Philosophy Lecture Series: 16. Blackburn, Simon. 1992. “Morality and Thick Concepts, II—Simon Blackburn.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 66: 285–99. Blum, Lawerence. 1994. Moral Perception and Particularity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Booth, Wayne. 1961/1983. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



Booth, Wayne. 1988. The Company We Keep—An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Broackes, Justin. 2012. Iris Murdoch—Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Brudney, Daniel. 1990. “Knowledge and Silence: The Golden Bowl as Moral Philosophy.” Critical Inquiry 16 (2): 397–437. Brudney, Daniel. 1998. “Lord Jim and Moral Judgment: Literature and Moral Philosophy.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (3): 265–81. Brudney, Daniel. 2003. “Marlow’s Morality.” Philosophy and Literature 27: 318–40. Cavell, Stanley. 1976. “The Availability of Wittgenstein’s Later Philosophy.” In Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cavell, Stanley. 2004. Cities of Words—Pedagogical Letters on a Register of the Moral Life. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Cavell, Stanley. 2009.“Replies.” In Acknowledging Stanley Cavell, edited by Niklas Forsberg and Susanne Jansson. Uppsala Philosophical Studies 56. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press. Chopin, Kate. 1972. The Awakening. New York: Avon Books. Clarke, Stanley G. and Evan Simpson (eds). 1989. Anti-Theory in Ethics and Moral Conservatism. Albany: State University of New York Press. Coetzee, J. M. 2001. The Lives of Animals. Edited and with an introduction by Amy Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Conant, James. 1991. “On Bruns, on Cavell.” Critical Inquiry 17 (3): 616–34. Crary, Alice. 2007. Beyond Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Crary, Alice and Rupert Read (eds). 2000. The New Wittgenstein. London: Routledge. Dancy, Jonathan. 1981. “On Moral Properties.” Mind, New Series 90 (359): 367–85 Dancy, Jonathan. 1983. “Ethical Particularism and Morally Relevant Properties.” Mind, New Series 92 (368): 530–47. Dancy, Jonathan. 1993. Moral Reasons. Oxford: Blackwell. Dancy, Jonathan. 2004. Ethics Without Principles. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Danto, Arthur. 1985. Narration and Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press. Davis, Todd F. and Kenneth Womack. 2001. Mapping the Ethical Turn: A Reader in Ethics, Culture, and Literary Theory. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia. Diamond, Cora. 1983. “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is.” New Literary History 15 (1): 155–69. Diamond, Cora. 1991. The Realistic Spirit—Wittgenstein, Philosophy and the Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Diamond, Cora. 2008. “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.” In Philosophy and Animal Life, edited by Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell, Ian Hacking, and Cary Wolf, pp. 43–91. New York: Columbia University Press. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. 2003. The Brothers Karamazov. Translated by David McDuff. London: Penguin Classics. Eldridge, Richard. 1989. On Moral Personhood—Philosophy, Literature, Criticism and Self-­understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



Eskin, Michael. 2004. “Introduction: The Double ‘Turn’ to Ethics and Literature?” Poetics Today 25 (4): 557–72. Fay, Brian. 1996. Contemporary Philosophy of Social Science—A Multicultural Approach. Oxford: Blackwell. Foot, Phillippa. 2002. Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Forsberg, Niklas. 2013. Language Lost and Found—On Iris Murdoch and the Limits of Philosophical Discourse. New York: Bloomsbury. Furrow, Dwight. 1995. Against Theory—Continental and Analytic Challenges in Moral Philosophy. New York: Routledge. Gaita, Raimond. 2003. The Philosopher’s Dog. London: Routledge. Gardiner, Patrick. 1983. “Professor Nussbaum on the Golden Bowl.” New Literary History 5(1): 179–84. Gibbard, Alan. 1992. “Morality and Thick Concepts, I—Alan Gibbard.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 66: 265–83. Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Goldberg, S. L. 1993. Agents and Lives—Moral Thinking in Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Greenspan, Patricia. 1983. “Moral Dilemmas and Guilt.” Philosophical Studies 43 (1): 117–25. Gustafsson, Martin. 2009. “Perfect Pitch and Austinian Examples.” In Acknowledging Stanley Cavell, edited by Niklas Forsberg and Susanne Jansson. Uppsala Philosophical Studies 56. Uppsala: Uppsala University Press. Hacking, Ian. 2002. Historical Ontology, Boston, MA: Harvard University Press. Hämäläinen, Nora. 2006. “Finding a Place for Moral Theory.” Sats—Nordic Journal of Philosophy 7 (2): 21–36. Hämäläinen, Nora. 2009. “Is Moral Theory Harmful in Practice?—Relocating Anti-­ theory in Contemporary Anglo-American Ethics.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (5): 539–53. Hanfling, Oswald. 2004. “The Use of ‘Theory’ in Philosophy.” In Wittgenstein at Work—Method in the Philosophical Investigations, edited by Erich Ammereller and Eugen Fischer. London: Routledge. Hare, R. M. 1963. Freedom and Reason. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. 1992. Getting it Right—Language, Literature, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Held, Virginia. 2006. The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, and Global. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Herman, Barbara. 1993. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



Hooker, Brad and Margaret Little (eds). 2000. Moral Particularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hursthouse, Rosalind. 1999. On Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Ibsen, Henrik. 1992. A Doll’s House. Mineola, NY: Courier Dover Publications. Irving, H. T. 2000. “Ethics as an Inexact Science: Aristotle’s Ambitions for Moral Theory.” In Moral Particularism, edited by Brad Hooker and Margaret Little. Oxford: Oxford University Press. James, Henry. 1960. The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. Kihlbom, Ulrik. 2002. Ethical Particularism—An Essay on Moral Reasons. Stockholm Studies in Philosophy 23. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. Kirchin, Simon. 2007. “Moral Particularism: An Introduction.” Journal of Moral Philosophy 4 (1): 8–15. Korsgaard, Christine. 1996. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Landy, Joshua. 2008. “A Nation of Madame Bovarys: On the Possibility and Desirability of Moral Improvement through Fiction.” In Art and Ethical Criticism, edited by Garry Hagberg, pp. 63–94. Oxford: Blackwell. Larmore, Charles. 1987. Patterns of Moral Complexity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Lee, Harper. 1990. To Kill a Mockingbird. London: Mandarin. Leeson, Miles. 2010. Iris Murdoch: Philosophical Novelist. London: Continuum. Little, Margaret. 2000. “Moral Generalities Revisited.” In Moral Particularism, edited by Brad Hooker and Margaret Olivia Little. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Lovibond, Sabina. 1983. Realism and Imagination in Ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Lovibond, Sabina. 2011. Iris Murdoch, Gender and Philosophy. London: Routledge. MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1984. After Virtue—A Study In Moral Theory. London: Duckworth. Mackie, J. L. 1977. Ethics—Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books. Marcus, Ruth Barcan. 1980. “Moral Dilemmas and Consistency.” The Journal of Philosophy 77 (3): 121–36. McDowell, John. 1998. Mind, Value and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. McGinn, Colin. 1997. Ethics, Evil and Fiction. Oxford: Clarendon Press. McKeever, Sean and Michael Ridge. 2006. Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal. Oxford: Oxford University Press. McNaughton, David. 1988. Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Midgley, Mary. 1998. “Sorting out the Zeitgeist—the Moral Philosophy of Iris Murdoch.” The Philosopher LXXXVI (1). Mothersill, Mary. 1984. Beauty Restored. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Mulhall, Stephen. 1997. “Constructing a Hall of Reflection: Perfectionist Edification in Iris Murdoch’s ‘Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals’.” Philosophy 72 (280): 219–39.



Murdoch, Iris. 1970/2001. The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts. London: Routledge. Murdoch, Iris. 1992. Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. London: Vintage. Murdoch, Iris. 1997. Existentialists and Mystics—Writings on Philosophy and Literature. London: Chatto & Windus. Murdoch, Iris. 2003. The Black Prince. New York: Penguin. Newton, Adam Zachary. 1995. Narrative Ethics. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Nicol, Bran. 1999. Iris Murdoch: The Retrospective Fiction. London: Macmillan Press Ltd. Noddings, Nel. 1984. Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1983. “Response to Richard Wollheim, Patrick Gardiner, and Hilary Putnam.” New Literary History 5 (1): 201–8. Nussbaum, Martha. 1986. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1990. Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1991. “The Literary Imagination in Public Life.” New Literary History 22 (3): 877–910. Nussbaum, Martha. 1995. Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life. Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1996. “Love and Vision: Iris Murdoch on Eros and the Individual.” In Iris Murdoch and the Search for Human Goodness, edited by Maria Antonaccio and William Schweiker, pp. 29–53. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1997. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 1998. “Exactly and Responsibly: A Defence of Ethical Criticism.” Philosophy and Literature 22 (2): 343–65. Nussbaum, Martha. 1999. “Virtue Ethics—A Misleading Category.” The Journal of Ethics 3 (3): 163–201. Nussbaum, Martha. 2000a. “Why Practice Needs Ethical Theory: Particularism, Principle and Bad Behavior.” In Moral Particularism, edited by Brad Hooker and Margaret Little. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 2000b. Women and Human Development—The Capabilities Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 2001. Upheavals of Thought—The Intelligence of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 2003. “Allies or Adversaries?—The Problematic Relationship between Literature and Ethical Theory.” Frame 17 (1): 7–26. Nussbaum, Martha. 2004. “ ‘Faint with Secret Knowledge’: Love and Vision in Murdoch’s The Black Prince.” Poetics Today 25 (4): 689–710.



Nussbaum, Martha. 2006. Frontiers of Justice—Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Nussbaum, Martha. 2008. “Stages of Thought.” The New Republic, May 7. O’Neill, Onora. 1989. Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Parker, David. 1994. Ethics, Theory and the Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Phillips, D. Z. 1992. Interventions in Ethics. London: Macmillan Press Ltd. Phillips, D. Z. 1999. Philosophy’s Cool Place. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Posner, Richard. 1997. “Against Ethical Criticism.” Philosophy and Literature 21 (1): 1–27. Posner, Richard. 1998. “Against Ethical Criticism: Part Two.” Philosophy and Literature 22 (2): 394–412. Putnam, Hilary. 1983. “Taking Rules Seriously—A Response to Martha Nussbaum.” New Literary History 5 (1): 193–200. Raphael, D. D. 1983. “Can Literature Be Moral Philosophy?” New Literary History 5 (1): 1–12. Robjant, David. 2012. “The Earthy Realism of Plato’s Metaphysics, Or: What Shall We Do with Iris Murdoch?” Philosophical Investigations 35 (1): 43–67. Rooksby, Emma. 2005. “Moral Theory in the Fiction of Isabelle de Charrière: The Case of Three Women.” Hypatia 20 (1): 1–20. Rorty, Richard. 1989. Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Rosen, Stanley. 1988. The Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry: Studies in Ancient Thought. New York: Routledge. Ross, W. D. 1930. The Right and the Good. London: Oxford University Press. Ruokonen, Floora. 2008. “Building Trust – A Fairly Honorable Defeat.” Sats – Nordic Journal of Philosophy 9 (1): 46–68. Ryle, Gilbert. 1971. “Jane Austen and the Moralists.” In Collected Papers 1: Critical Essays. London: Hutchinson & Co. Shafer-Landau, Russ. 2005. Moral Realism—A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Sherman, Nancy. 1997. Making a Necessity of Virtue—Aristotle and Kant on Virtue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Singleton, Jane. 2006. “Henry James—Aristotle’s Ally, an Exclusive Pact?” Philosphy and Literature 30 (1): 61–78. Slote, Michael. 2007. The Ethics of Care and Empathy. London: Routledge. Stocker, Michael. 1990. Plural and Conflicting Values. Oxford: Clarendon Press. Stohr, Karen. 2006. “Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility.” Philosophy and Literature 30 (2): 378–94. Swanton, Christine. 2003. Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic View. New York: Oxford University Press. Taylor, Charles. 1989. Sources of the Self—The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Vogler, Candace. 2007. “The Moral of the Story.” Critical Inquiry 34 (1): 5–35. Walzer, Michael. 1973 “Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (2): 160–80. Walzer, Michael. 1987. Interpretation and Social Criticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Walzer, Michael. 1988. The Company of Critics: Social Criticism and Political Commitment in the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books. Wartenberg, Thomas E. 2006. “Beyond Mere Illustration: How Films Can Be Philosophy.” Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 64 (1): 19–32. White, James Boyd. 1973. The Legal Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Widdows, Heather. 2005. Murdoch’s Morality. Farnham: Aldershot: Ashgate. Williams, Bernard. 1981. Moral Luck. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Williams, Bernard. 1985. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana Paperbacks. Winch, Peter. 1972. Ethics and Action. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. Winch, Peter. 1987. Trying to Make Sense. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953/1998. Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell. Wolf, Susan. 1992. “Morality and Partiality.” Philosophical Perspectives 6, Ethics: pp. 243–59. Wollheim, Richard. 1983. “James’s The Golden Bowl and the Plausibility of Literature as Moral Philosophy.” New Literary History 5 (1): 185–91. Wright, Georg Henrik von. 1963. The Varieties of Goodness. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Young, James O. 2001. Art and Knowledge. London: Routledge.

Index absolute 33, 94, 179, 185, 212–20 adversaries 188–91, 201, 204 aesthetics 7, 23, 116, 118, 138, 160, 164, 167, 173, 174, 224, 226 Allen, Richard 86–8, 91, 93 alliance 50, 187–8, 204, 229 Annas, Julia 93 Anscombe, Elisabeth 39, 92, 106, 157, 214–16, 226, 230 Anselm 162–3 Antonaccio, Maria 6, 154–5, 161–3, 223, 228–9 Aristotelian 24, 26, 36, 45, 46, 49–52, 58, 77, 83, 116, 123–4, 135–7, 146, 150–1, 180, 186, 189, 199, 223, 229, 231, 233 Aristotelianism 48, 52, 199 Aristotle 30, 40, 45–52, 57, 58, 60, 74, 82, 135, 137–8, 147–8, 159, 198, 200, 224–5 attentiveness 25, 110, 179 Atwood, Margaret 23 Austen, Jane 22, 29, 107, 123, 129, 190, 218 axioms 177–8 Ayer, A. J. 94 Baier, Annette 49, 79, 81–3, 86, 92, 146–50, 190, 210–11, 227–8 Bakhtin, Michail 115, 209, 229 Bal, Mieke 226 Barcan Marcus, Ruth 36 Beardsmore, R. W. 18 behaviorist 155, 157, 166 behaviourism 164, 175 bildungsroman 126, 129–30 Blackburn, Simon 82, 112 Blum, Lawrence 26–7, 31–2, 51, 96, 153, 158 Booth, Wayne 5, 23, 107, 110, 114–15, 152, 174, 179 Boyd White, James 5

Bran, Nicol 228 Broackes, Justin 229 Brudney, Daniel 19, 25, 186 calculus of action 81, 93 Cave metaphor 159, 164, 167, 172, 183 Cavell, Stanley 8, 23–4, 33, 35, 71–2, 130, 152, 186, 194, 196, 223, 230 Chopin, Kate 226 Christ 170 Clarke, Stanley J. 122, 134, 146–7, 199 Coetzee, J. M. 65, 71–3, 183 Coleridge, Samuel Taylor 218 Conant, James 8–9, 223 Conrad, Joseph 22, 33, 218 consciousness 33, 155–6, 160–4, 168–70, 174, 226 conservatism 84, 141, 153 continental philosophy 7–9, 223 Crary, Alice 42, 157, 186, 224 Dancy, Jonathan 55–64, 76, 96, 224 Danto, Arthur 90–1 Davis, Todd F. 6 de Beauvoir, Simone 8, 154 decision procedure 66, 93, 95 detective stories 120 Diamond, Cora 5, 8, 10, 20–1, 24, 40, 56–7, 64–73, 79, 96, 109–12, 129, 134, 152–4, 157, 182–3, 189–90, 197–8, 224–5 Dickens, Charles 22, 65–8, 109–10, 120, 129, 145, 227 Dilman, Ilham 64, 68 Doniger, Wendy 71 Dostoevsky, Fyodor 22–3, 115, 209, 229 duty 32, 43–4, 61, 137, 177–8, 186, 189, 227 ego 27 Eldridge, Richard 5, 7, 24, 31–5, 85, 102, 109, 186, 206, 214, 217–20, 224

240 Elliot, George 22 emotion 24, 34–6, 39, 48, 50–1, 80, 82, 84, 110, 123, 136, 138, 143–6, 151, 172, 188–9, 205, 208 empiricist 122, 147, 166 enabling 185, 200–4, 209–10 Eros 177–9, 220 Eskin, Michael 223 ethical theory 13, 45, 80, 82, 86, 175 evil 5, 23, 66, 85, 96, 160–4, 192, 208 explanation 82, 87–93, 194–7, 217, 228 explanatoriness 93, 95 fables 120 fact-value distinction 13, 103, 113, 157–8, 160 faculty 25, 27, 140, 145, 172, 223 fairytales 29, 120 fantasy 29, 38, 100, 171–4, 223–4 Fay, Brian 101 feminist 5–6, 36, 131, 228 fictional characters 27, 29, 41, 120, fictional lives 27 Fielding, Henry 115 Fish, Stanley 100 Foot, Philippa 39, 45, 47, 49, 82, 157, 217 Forsberg, Niklas 228–9 Freud, Sigmund 164, 217 Furrow, Dwight 186 Gaita, Raimond 64–5, 154, 157 Galt Harpham, Geoffrey 104 Garber, Marjorie 71 Gardiner, Patrick 20, 189 generalism 30, 56, 57, 61–2, 74, 76 Gibbard, Alan 112 Goldberg, Samuel 5, 7, 10, 24, 31, 35, 96, 104, 109, 134, 152–3, 206, 223, 225 Good Samaritan 65, 126–9, 215–17 Greenspan, Patricia 38 Gustafsson, Martin 230 Gutmann, Amy 71 Hacking, Ian 14–15, 71, 233 Hämäläinen, Nora 230 Hanfling, Oswald 87–90 Hare, R. M. 94, 224

Index Heidegger, Martin 183 Held, Virginia 36 Herman, Barbara 30–1, 83, 224 hierarchical 36–7, 95, 131, 147–50, 179–80, 214 Holton, Richard 56 Hughes, Ted 65 Hume 147, 155, 217, 228 Humean 79 Hursthouse, Rosalind 45, 49, 51, 96 Husserl, Edmund 164 Ibsen, Henrik 130–1, 226 immediacy 100, 214–16, 219 implied author 21, 101, 113–20, 208 inclusive 14, 87, 185, 198, 202–14 incommensurability 24, 36–9, 49, 186, 195, 205 Irving, T. H. 225 Iser, Wolfgang 100 James, Henry 22, 33, 50–2, 65, 77, 105, 109, 115–18, 121–24, 129, 139–43, 152, 169, 224–7 Jesus 127–8, 216 Kamenka, Eugene 18 Kant, Immanuel 36, 50–2, 77, 82–3, 93–4, 155, 163–4, 189, 200, 212, 218, 220, 224, 227–8 Kantian 24, 30–4, 45, 48–53, 82–5, 122, 124, 146, 178, 218 Kierkegaard, Søren 178, 200, 208 Kihlbom, Ulrik 60, 74 Kirchin, Simon 224 kitsch 223 Korsgaard, Christine 83, 224 Landy, Joshua 7, 136 Larmore, Charles 25, 31, 51 law and literature 5 law-like 90–4 Lee, Harper 130 Leeson, Miles 228 liberal 42, 44, 118, 135, 138, 141, 155, 167, 228 Little, Margaret 56, 76, 146 Lovibond, Sabina 42, 157, 228

Index McDowell, John 41, 58–63, 71, 73, 82, 157, 189, 194–6, 224, 229–30 McGinn, Colin 5, 31, 99–100, 109, 234 MacIntyre, Alastair 1, 39–40, 49, 82–3, 106, 208–9, 215, 217, 234 McKeever, Sean 41, 56–7, 74, 76, 224 Mackie, J. L. 47 McNaughton, David 56 Magee, Brian 228 Marxism 6, 91, 228 meta-ethics 10, 13, 30, 36, 42, 57–8, 60, 62, 64–70, 103, 135, 146, 187, 201, 211, 213 metaphor 25, 49, 109, 112, 137, 146–7, 161, 164–6, 170, 195, 219 metaphorical 25, 137, 144, 161, 164–70 metaphysical 89, 93, 141, 162–71, 177, 220 metaphysics 5, 135, 155, 158–9, 163, 165–7, 174, 177, 180, 215–16, 229 Midgley, Mary 158 Mill, John Stuart 77, 88, 94, 155, 200, 228 Moore, G. E. 223 moral guidance 144, 173 imagination 24, 28–9, 38, 48, 51, 123–4, 151, 224, improvement 125, 136, 164, 173, 212 perception 11, 24–8, 32, 39, 42, 49, 52, 69, 109, 137–8, 145, 151, 188 perfectionism 23–4, 142 realism 42, 157, 160, 162 Mothersill, Mary 226 Mounce, H. O. 64 Mulhall, Stephen 135, 177, 228 Murdoch, Iris 4–5, 11, 14–15, 22, 25–30, 39, 42, 64, 82, 96, 100–4, 112–13, 133–5, 152–83, 189, 198–205, 208–11, 218–29 Nabokov, Vladimir 22, 118–19, 124, 229 narrator 106, 114–17, 181, 226 neo-Aristotelian 9–11, 17, 30–1, 34, 41, 45–55, 58, 73–86, 95, 99, 126, 136, 138, 159, 161, 180, 208, 230 neo-Aristotelianism 2, 10, 45–6, 50, 60, 74, 76, 79, 85 neo-Greek 45, 82–3


New Critics 6 Newton, Adam 5, 7, 90, 152 Nicomachean Ethics, The 49 Nussbaum, Martha 1–7, 10–14, 17–52, 66, 71–3, 77–8, 80–8, 93–6, 100–9, 112, 115–25, 128, 130, 133–54, 157, 173–6, 179–93, 197–210, 218, 221–30 O’Neill, Onora 224 ontological proof 162–3 Orwell, George 44, 108 parable 65, 126–9, 131, 165, 215–16 Parker, David 5 Phillips, D. Z. 8, 64–70, 78–9, 146, 190, 197, 225–6 phronesis 24, 31, 123–4 Plato 77, 151, 159, 163–7, 172, 180–3, 198, 229 Platonic ascendance 219 political thought 139, 141, 146, 164, 227 polyphonic 115, 209–10, 229 Posner, Richard 5, 7, 136, 145, 173, 223 post-colonial 5–6, 228 post-Wittgensteinian 2–9, 30, 57, 64–70, 85–6, 92, 96, 99, 163, 166–7, 190–7, 224–6, 230 practical judgment 24, 31–3, 48–52, 82, 124 Proust, Marcel 22, 35, 77, 117, 144, 151, 182–3 Putnam, Hilary 20, 41, 122, 134, 146 Raphael, D. D. 20, 198 Rawls, John 146, 189, 198 Rawlsian 135, 138, 140 Read, Rupert 224 reader response criticism 6, 100 respect for persons 85, 217–19 Ridge, Michael 41, 56–7, 74–6, 224 Robjant, David 180 romantic 179 Rooksby, Emma 21, 122–5, 190–1 root metaphors 165 Rorty, Richard 5, 7, 21–2, 44, 118–19, 124–5, 152, 186, 189–90, 206, 229 Ross, W. D. 61–2, 186



Ruokonen, Floora 228 Ryle, Gilbert 4 Sartre, Jean-Paul 8, 154–5, 178, 228 Shafer-Landau, Russ 42 Sherman, Nancy 30, 82–3, 224 Sidgwick, Henry 77 Simpson, Evan 122, 134, 146–7, 199 Singer, Peter 71 Singleton, Jane 35, 50–3 skepticism 44, 64, 83, 135 Slote, Michael 36 Smart, J. J. C. 88 Smuts, Barbara 71 Sophocles 224 Stocker, Michael 36 Stohr, Karen 29, 123–4, 190–1 stoic 135, 189 structuralists 6 substantial self 152, 156–7, 164, 167–9, 173 Swanton, Christine 45–6, 49 Taylor, Charles 1, 15, 39–40, 47, 96, 157 thick (moral) concepts 101–8, 112–13, 143, 155, 158 thin (moral) concepts 103–5, 108, 138, 228 tragedy 4, 36, 37, 42, 113 Turvey, Michael 86–8, 91, 93 utilitarianism 81–2, 175, 212, 227 utilitarians 6, 10, 45, 49, 64, 81–3, 93, 120, 122, 148, 227

virtue-ethics 6, 13, 22, 25, 27, 35, 40, 45, 47–9, 52, 57, 74–5, 95–6, 150, 157–8, 205, 217, 224, 227, 230 virtuous 26–7, 35, 48, 58–9, 75, 80, 107, 124, 137, 213 Vogler, Candace 7, 136 void 177–9, 192 von Wright, Georg Henrik 46–8, 224, 230 Walzer, Michael 5, 38 Wartenberg, Thomas 230 Weil, Simone 134, 156, 208 Widdows, Heather 158–9, 164 Wiggins, David 58, 82, 189 Williams, Bernard 10, 36, 39, 44–9, 81–3, 93, 96, 101–7, 112–13, 146, 157, 179, 190, 217 Winch, Peter 4–5, 8, 18, 24, 30–1, 39, 43, 57, 64–70, 81, 85, 93, 126–9, 134, 152, 186, 190, 197, 211, 214–17, 225 Wittgenstein, Ludwig 57–60, 86–90, 92, 147, 159, 166, 177, 194, 208, 216–17, 224, 230 Wittgensteinian 10, 24, 59–60, 65–71, 75–9, 81–2, 167, 191–3, 220, 229 Wolfe, Cary 71 Wollheim, Richard 20 Womack, Kenneth 6 Wordsworth, William 218 Young, James O. 109, 226