University of Tasmania
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Ethics and fiction : moral philosophy and the role for literature

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posted on 2023-05-26, 17:18 authored by David MoltowDavid Moltow
Can imaginative literature make a substantive contribution to ethical reflection? If so, what is the nature of this contribution and what is its value? What role can literature play in moral enquiry? Can literature help moral philosophy to shed light on moral questions? Can literature furnish moral knowledge that is unaccounted for, or unaccountable, in the traditional methods of philosophical reflection? In addressing these questions, my aim in this thesis is to construct a comprehensive and critical account of the contribution to ethics that imaginative literature (particularly in the form of the novel) can make within and alongside traditional moral philosophy. First, I consider the character of moral philosophy, conceived as a normative enterprise, and review some systemic limitations of normative ethics. I then examine the arguments of some prominent philosophers concerning literature's role in helping to identify and address these issues. Second, in examining the aspects of literature which render it valuable to ethical reflection, I consider the formal distinctions between literature and traditional moral philosophy, and investigate the unique role of literary devices. The arguments here provide the foundation for my proposition that the value of the connection between philosophy and literature depends crucially on the distinction between them. The third chapter deals with literature's ability to illustrate, challenge and test a moral perspective, and so help to reveal and illuminate features of the ethical life that cannot be apprehended via traditional philosophical reflection alone. To illustrate this expansion of the philosophical method, I consider aspects of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism in light of a select number of literary works. I argue that sympathy is crucial to the realisation of genuine ethical ends. The argument is that seeing the world through the eyes of others enables one not only to understand their motives and actions, and to consider one's own responses to similar circumstances, but that, in doing so, one can uncover the extent to which a moral stance comports with one's own ethical convictions, how that stance can accommodate these convictions, or how these convictions need modifying in light of that stance. Because fiction both exercises and confers a number of important freedoms, fictional literature is an ideal tool for the exploration of ethical concepts. Moreover, as the apotheosis of extended, connected fictional narratives, it is further argued that the novel is the ideal literary mode for this exploration. However, if literature is such a valuable supplement to philosophical reflection, why can we not treat literature itself as a form of moral philosophy? As an adjunct to philosophical reflection, literature can enhance our moral understanding in a manner that does justice to us as complex beings in complex conditions, and in a way that traditional philosophical reflection alone cannot. Literature has the power not only to move us, but to help us shape our lives and make reality out of ethical reflections. However, as literature's ability to make this contribution is a consequential feature of its form, there is sufficient reason not to treat literature as moral philosophy, which requires its own very different approach. I conclude by arguing that cooperation between literature and moral philosophy can enhance moral understanding to an extent unachievable via either form of discourse alone, and that this enhancement flows directly from the distinction between the two.


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Copyright 2006 the author Thesis (PhD)--University of Tasmania, 2006. Includes bibliographical references

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