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  • Against Ethical Criticism
  • Richard A. Posner

Oscar Wilde famously remarked that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” He was echoed by Auden, who said in his poem in memory of William Butler Yeats that poetry makes nothing happen (though the poem as a whole qualifies this overstatement), by Croce, and by formalist critics such as Cleanth Brooks, a doyen of the New Critics, who insisted that edification was the function of religion but not of poetry. 1 George Orwell, though himself a didactic novelist, was of this view as well, 2 and it is one that most critics adopt when the issue is censorship. I accept Wilde’s thesis—the creed of aestheticism, of art for art’s sake—if understood to mean that the moral content and consequences of a work of literature are irrelevant to its value as literature; or as the critic Helen Vendler has put it, that “treating fictions as moral pep-pills or moral emetics is repugnant to anyone who realizes the complex psychological and moral motives of a work of art.” 3 This is not to deny that reading can have consequences, including moral and political ones. Information affects people’s outlook and behavior, and reading is a source of information. Imaginative literature conveys ideas, opinions, and information, often with great power. Think of the role that novels by Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Dostoevsky (The Possessed), Conrad (The Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes), Koestler (Darkness at Noon), Orwell (Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four), and, of course, Solzhenitsyn played in exposing the horrors of anarchism and communism. Of A Passage to India it has been said that “as an account of the social conditions of British India it was powerful enough to have influenced events.” 4 Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle is thought to have incited federal regulation of food processing; and few doubt the effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) on the abolitionist cause. [End Page 1]

At the core of the aesthetic tradition, which I shall be defending in this essay particularly against its opponents in the “law and literature” movement, are three theses. First, immersion in literature does not make us better citizens or better people. One might be able to pick out some works of literature that would have such an effect because of the information they convey or the emotional state they induce, but they would constitute a skewed sample of literary works. Second, we should not be put off by morally offensive views encountered in literature even when the author appears to share them. A work of literature is not to be considered maimed or even marred by expressing unacceptable moral views; by the same token, a mediocre work of literature is not redeemed by expressing moral views of which we approve. The proper criteria for evaluating literature are aesthetic rather than ethical. Third, authors’ moral qualities or opinions should not affect our valuations of their works.

The insistence, in short, is on the separation of the moral from the aesthetic—but with two qualifications. Some literature has little interest or value apart from the didactic and for it the proper criticism is didactic. And the separation of moral from aesthetic values is not a rejection of the former. The aesthetic outlook is a moral outlook, one that stresses the values of openness, detachment, hedonism, curiosity, tolerance, the cultivation of the self, and the preservation of a private sphere—in short, the values of liberal individualism.

The counter tradition in literary criticism to the aesthetic originates with Plato and insists upon the importance, in some versions to the near or even total exclusion of anything else, of the ethical or political content and effects of works of literature, and less commonly of the author’s own morality. Martha Nussbaum, for example, deems Greek tragedies and Anglo-American realistic novels a part of moral philosophy. 5 Reading novels, she argues, “develops moral capacities without which citizens will not succeed in making reality out of the normative conclusions of any moral or political theory, however excellent.” 6 Wayne Booth, disagreeing with his illustrious...

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