The Moral of the Story
reviewed by James Ley
The Age, March 5, 2005
Literature and philosophy have a sometimes prickly relationship. And let's be blunt: it is all philosophy's fault. Specifically, it is all Plato's fault. In The Republic, he laid out the rationalist's basic suspicions of literary practice. Literature, he argued, corrupts reason by appealing to the emotions. It trades in appearances and not reality, fiction rather than truth. Not only does it fail to encourage good behaviour, it glamorises bad behaviour, making immorality appealing to the young and impressionable. Until poets could be trusted to promote virtue through their works, Plato banished them from his republic.
Variations on these moralising arguments have been put forward by would-be censors ever since. They have shaped the controversy about literature's ethical qualities. The editors of The Moral of the Story - one a philosopher, the other a novelist - claim to take "no explicit stand" on this question, but they do have an implicit stance. Their anthology is set out like an introductory course in ethics. They also cite the duchess from Alice in Wonderland, declaring that "everything's got a moral, if only you can find it".
But the key word in the title is "through". Peter and Renata Singer do not look to literature for the kinds of clearly articulated morals that occur in Aesop's fables, but rightly point out that many literary works dramatise ethical questions. Their aim is "to offer good reading that stimulates thought about issues in ethics".
On this count, The Moral of the Story is an extremely stimulating collection. Its examples are mostly drawn from the classics, but there are enough idiosyncratic contemporary choices to give it a distinct flavour. The selections tend to make a specific point or depict a contentious activity and collectively they demonstrate the many ways that literature approaches ethics.
Some works - Mrs Warren's Profession, Uncle Tom's Cabin - challenge specific assumptions. Others - The Brothers Karamazov is a good example - openly debate philosophical questions. Still others, such as Frankenstein or the opening scene of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, lend themselves to allegorical readings. Examples such as these provide a strong justification for the Singers' approach.
Interestingly, however, there is another category of work that sits uneasily with the pedagogical intent. These are the cases in which the ethical debate does not appear "through" the literature, but is imposed upon it. There is a noticeable divide. In these examples, it is not only possible to detect the imposition, but to see the way in which asking moral questions about fictional characters can be misleading.
The editors have the good taste to include, for example, the scene from Pride and Prejudice in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands Elizabeth Bennet give her word that she will never marry Mr Darcy. According to The Moral of the Story, this scene raises the question: "Is a difference in social position ever a reason against marriage?"
Now, there is nothing wrong with this question. It is a good question. It is just that in Pride and Prejudice it is not up for debate. Austen's novels are romantically inclined, of course, but they are built on the assumption that the answer is yes. Elizabeth believes in marrying for love, and she resists the attempt to put her in her place, but even she would agree that social position is inextricably bound up with the institution of marriage. After all, no one ever suggests she might wed the gardener. The question, quite transparently, springs from a contemporary sensibility. Naturally, this does not invalidate it as a question, but it is outside the concerns of the novel.
There are other examples where the literature and the ethical issue seem oddly detached. How far children have obligations toward their parents is a valid question, for example, but it is not one that can be profitably asked about Romeo and Juliet. For the young lovers, obeying their parents is impossible; to suggest they could be more obedient is, in a sense, to question the strength of their passion and make a mockery of the entire play.
And wondering whether the tragically unhappy Anna Karenina is "wrong" to abandon her son is simply crass. Just posing the question seems to align oneself with the hypocritical matrons who are relishing the opportunity to tear her down. Anna acts in accordance with her character; she cannot act otherwise. Because we feel for her, because we have an intimate knowledge of her sadness, we cannot judge her on these terms.
Plato might argue that this is a blatant appeal to sentiment, and he would have a point. But there are many instances in literature when the ethical question is the wrong one. It is one of the unintended effects of The Moral of the Story that it sometimes exposes this gulf between literature and philosophy. Where the former tends to emphasise the singularity of experience, the philosophical impulse is to reach for generally applicable, carefully reasoned truths. Literature can always be used for its hypothetical scenarios, just as War and Peace can be used as a doorstop and Death in Venice can be slipped under the short leg of a table, but the philosophy does not necessarily illuminate the fiction, and in many cases the fiction is not throwing light on the philosophy.
PERHAPS the best example of this is the extract from Macbeth. Late in the first act, Macbeth is trying to rationalise an act of regicide against a virtuous king as a means of realising his "vaulting ambition". As his resolve begins to waver, Lady Macbeth enters and goads him into action, claiming that she would dash out the brains of her own child. Husband and wife then conspire to stab Duncan to death and incriminate his bodyguards by smearing them with blood.
Turning to the "issues" at the back of the book, we are then asked to consider whether Macbeth is "misplaced in (his) priorities". I laughed out loud when I read this. The unintended bathos of the question is an indication of its absurdity. Macbeth is a nightmare of a play. Its atmosphere is thick with an oppressive sense of malevolent fate; its hero is in thrall to horripilating supernatural powers. How on earth can it possibly form the basis of any sensible ethical discussion? If Macbeth is your evidence then ambition is obviously going to seem like a very sinister quality indeed.
The fact that a work of literature is an aesthetic object whose focus is the specific character of its human subject pulls it away from the rational, generalising impulse of philosophy.
In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck lies to protect Jim but also feels guilty about it. He chastises himself for being unable to do the "right" thing and turn in a runaway slave who is legally someone's property. This seems to suggest the question that The Moral of the Story makes explicit: whether our natural instincts are a better guide to morality than what we are taught. But the question does not take into account the singularity of Huck's character. In Huck's case, instincts are definitely a better guide, but he is not everyman. The ironic twists in his reasoning are intended as a satirical commentary. It is one of the comic principles of Twain's peerless novel that Huck is temperamentally incapable of being educated into the rules of his society. The irony is that this is Huck's great virtue. He does the right thing precisely because he is unable to do the "right" thing.
There is an implied moral position in Huckleberry Finn, as there is in most fiction. But this literary morality resists the temptation to make the leap from a subjective experience to an objective principle. This is why literature sits awkwardly with attempts to make it useful. Its "ethics" is based on empathy rather than reason.
It may also explain why Twain prefaced his greatest novel with the following warning: "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."