Fiction as Moral Technology

Richard Hughes, Fiction or Truth -- “... for most of us Fiction in one form or another offers our only way of experiencing the identity of others. This identity is the necessary ground of Ethics.”

Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid -- “This period of childhood provides the foundation for one of the most important social, emotional and cognitive skills a human being can learn: the ability to take on someone else's perspective.”

Stephen Pinker talking to Rebecca Goldstein in an interview for “The Seed" -- “We are getting less cruel, and the question is… why did it happen? What stretched our innate capacity for empathy? And one answer is mediums that force us to take other people’s perspectives, such as journalism, history, and realistic fiction.”

The word “realistic” here seems problematic to me – I think that, for reasons touched on earlier, it would be better to substitute the word “lifelike.” But I like Pinker's argument that “fiction can be a kind of moral technology," one of the ways simulated experience can be useful.

In this interview, Pinker's stress is on how fiction can help us identify with people from other ethnic backgrounds. Learning to identify with a fictional black person can make white readers more compassionate towards real black people -- Pinker gives the example of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

However as evidence that compassion for fictional characters can easily co-exist with indifference towards actual people, I call to the witness stand Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye --

“The part that got me was, there was a lady sitting next to me that cried all through the goddam picture. The phonier it got, the more she cried. You'd have thought she did it because she was kindhearted as hell, but I was sitting right next to her, and she wasn't. She had this little kid with her that was bored as hell and had to go to the bathroom, but she wouldn't take him. She kept telling him to sit still and behave himself. She was about as kind-hearted as a goddam wolf. You take somebody that cries their goddam eyes out over phony stuff in the movies, and nine times out of ten they're mean bastards at heart. I'm not kidding.”

3 thoughts on “Fiction as Moral Technology”

  1. I'm with Holden on this. Sort of.
    Pinker's premises about the "fixed human nature" and "morality" and that "we are turning into a nicer species" seem to me extremely suspect.
    His reference to Peter Singer even more so.

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