Themes in Literature

Literary Ethics


Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, seeks to explore rational decision making, with the hope of establishing standards for ideal behavior. Although most people believe that they have an inherent sense of right and wrong, thus making the study of ethics unnecessary, when ethics is examined across time and across various cultures, we see significant differences in how people interpret these concepts. Complicating things further, ethics is often taught alongside or as an extension of religion. For many, the answer to moral questions can be found in holy books or by consulting clergy. However, the way that Scripture is translated and interpreted has changed over time and is susceptible to different interpretations from one person to another. The study of ethics, then, seeks to explore the standards people have adopted for themselves, whether unconsciously or as part of moral or religious instruction, and to recommend a rational basis for these standards through this process.

Because ethical positions are human constructs and because humans are capable of changing their conceptions of right and wrong, ethics is hardly a stable field of study. Rather, these debates are ongoing both among individuals and within larger, even global, communities. Ethics and literature are intimately connected, having emerged simultaneously as humans developed language and began to communicate through stories. Literature is a particularly rich source of ethical reflection in that characters in imagined worlds can make decisions without hurting real people.

There is also a level of ethical engagement outside of the story, on the formal level. How writers represent the world has an impact on how the reader thinks of his or her own world. Although fictional characters run the ethical spectrum (some positively evil, others absolutely good, most somewhere in between) stories very often involve characters making choices with ethical implications. Similarly, many philosophical texts dealing with ethics make use of small fictions to illustrate a point. For example, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) tells a story to help develop his position on being untruthful. If someone runs into your house to escape a murderer, and the murderer knocks at the door to ask if you have seen his or her intended victim, you are forced to decide between lying or telling the truth (and thus helping the murderer). For reasons that will be examined here, Kant argues that even in this situation it would be unethical to lie. If every ethical decision was clear-cut, there would not be much need for or interest in ethics. However, because so many decisions are not as clear-cut as people would like, often involving a choice between two conflicting principles that we believe in, it helps to think through and articulate not only what we believe to be right, but also the relative importance of the principles behind these decisions.

While many philosophers have commented on these issues, there are a number of important positions that help to orient the novice. It should be noted, however, that although the Western tradition has been emphasized in American and British education, there are writers on ethics and ethical traditions from all over the globe, many of whom are gaining prominence in literary study. The English word ethics is derived from the Greek ethike, and in keeping with this linguistic borrowing, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) is often thought of as the first significant contributor to the Western tradition of ethics. In the Aristotelian view, everything has a reason for existence, or some end that it is meant to achieve. For humans, this state is happiness and it is reached through the cultivation of virtues. In order to be happy, humans have to cultivate their potential, often by seeking what Aristotle called the golden mean, or, in other words, by seeking moderation in most things. People act ethically—for example, giving up some of their dinner to help feed a hungry child—not because it is in their self-interest (most probably their stomach wants the whole thing) but because it reflects the cultivation of the virtue of generosity. Put simply, in Aristotelian ethics, people act to demonstrate or work toward being better, more virtuous people. They show who they are, not what they want. Kant, one of the most influential writers on ethics, offered a different, though not unrelated, position. In the Kant view, every human is free insofar as he or she has the ability to exercise reason. Ethics, then, is something that each person imposes on him or herself freely. Kant developed what he called the categorical imperative to describe the basis for ethical action.

Lying, according to Kant, is evil in that it deprives others of the ability to exercise their reason properly. Therefore, telling the truth is a categorical imperative—it is the right thing to do, no matter the circumstances. The other major 18th-century ethical philosophy is that of utilitarianism. Developed by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806– 73), utilitarianism can be described as a philosophy seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Unlike Kant’s philosophy, utilitarianism is concerned only with the results of actions, not the intentions of the people making the decisions. For these thinkers, lying could be justified if it did more good than harm. There are, however, objections to this philosophy; most people would have a hard time sacrificing a family member to try to save two strangers, for example. One important 20th-century ethical thinker was Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95). Unlike Aristotle, Bentham, or Kant, Levinas begins his ideas on ethics with an interaction with another human. For Levinas, each of us has an infinite responsibility to the other person, who will always remain a mystery to us. In fact, Levinas argues that it is precisely when we stop looking at one another as unique people that ethical problems arise. As a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War, Levinas saw firsthand what people were capable of when they labeled others and thought of them as a group rather than as individuals. Precisely because his philosophy emphasizes the importance of language and labeling, Levinas’s thought demonstrates the importance of literature in either furthering bigotry or in exposing the workings of this procedure and warding against it. Few stories have remained in the popular imagination as long or as firmly as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and this, in large part, is because many of the ethical questions it raises are still being debated today. For example, is it right to take advantage of scientific advances to create new life forms? Is the genetic alteration of plants and animals safe? Is it right to clone humans? If we do, does the clone have the same rights as the original person?

Relating to debates over abortion rights, when is a human a human? At what point do the rights of the child supersede the mother’s right to choose? Is it ethical to abort a pregnancy if the child has traits the parents consider to be undesirable? In the novel, Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with exploring the limits of his power as well as the limits of science and locks himself away from family and friends in order to create a being. Although he at first finds his creation to be beautiful, when the being finally awakes, Victor is horrified by his creation and runs away. Unlike his portrayal in many adaptations of the novel, Victor’s creation is hardly a monster at first; he begins his life by helping a poor family, learning their language, and reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Only after the monster, based solely on his appearance, is repeatedly rejected by those around him, including Victor, does he become evil and set out on a path of vengeance. The novel simultaneously taps into many ethical debates over the responsibility of parents to their children, the responsibility of society to those it superficially labels monstrous, the ethics governing experiments with science and technology, and many more. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) is another novel that resonates with many ethical debates. Clarissa Dalloway is an unlikely heroine according to traditional logic, in that the culmination of her day is a small party she is giving (rather than, say, an epic battle or journey).

By conveying her thinking directly through stream-of-consciousness narration, Woolf exposes the complicated, nearly countless threads of Clarissa’s thought as she goes about her day. In this way, the novel challenges not only 19th-century novelistic conventions but a predominant sexist society that values the accomplishments of “great men” as well. The character who seems to most resemble Clarissa, the shell-shocked soldier Septimus Smith, commits suicide at the end of the novel. This grim conclusion brings up two debates: first, whether suicide is ever ethically permissible, and second, what responsibility society has to returning soldiers. Haunting the entire novel is World War I and questions about whether war is ever justified and what its relation is to sexism at home and imperialism abroad. One of the strengths of Woolf ’s writing is the way in which it subtly critiques misogynistic society, demonstrating, for example, how much of the thinking and writing deemed important (including the ethical philosophies discussed above) are written by men or assume a male agent and fail to account for the impact of emotions and the subconscious on reason. Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939) extends the formal experimentation of Woolf and O’Brien’s fellow Irishman James Joyce, offering a much more humorous, though no less ethical stance on writing. One of the novel’s many plots centers on Dermot Trellis, a popular fiction writer who uses character types to create marketable fiction.

When he sleeps, his characters come to life and, unhappy with the roles they have been given, work to keep the writer asleep while they put him on trial. In this sense, this highly self-conscious work dramatizes the argument forwarded by Levinas. Additionally, Trellis’s decision to write a moral tale that nonetheless includes enough smut and bad language to keep it interesting offers a satiric commentary on the genre of the novel, whose practitioners have time and again defended the inclusion of “unsavory” parts as necessary to the book’s overall moral purpose. While the decision in this instance can be ridiculed as self-serving, it does seem that works that are overly didactic lack the complexity and therefore the staying power of other stories. It is clear that ethics will continue to play an important part in literature for some time to come.

See also Chestnutt, Charles W.: “Goophered Grapevine, The;” Davis, Rebecca Harding: Life in the Iron Mills; Defoe, Daniel: Moll Flanders; Ibsen, Henrik: Doll’s House, A; Hedda Gabler; Ishiguro, Kazuo: Remains of the Day, The; Kingsolver, Barbara: Poisonwood Bible, The; Machiavelli, Niccolò: Prince, The; Malamud, Bernard: Natural, The; McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove; Molière; Misanthrope, The; Paine, Thomas: “Age of Reason, The”; Thoreau, Henry David: “Resistance to Civil Government”; Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaughterhouse- Five; Wollstonecraft, Mary: Vindication of the Rights of Woman, A.

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