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Philosophy and Literature 24.1 (2000) 185-196

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Notes and Fragments

Unbecoming Virulence: The Politics of the Ethical Criticism Debate

Simon Stow

"Despite their familiarity with the classics," K. K. Ruthven famously observed, "professors of literature do not appear to lead better lives than other people, and frequently display unbecoming virulence on the subject of one another's shortcomings." 1 Philosophy and Literature's 1998 symposium on ethical criticism might suggest, however, that Ruthven's comments apply equally to all professors who choose to write about literature, regardless of their specializations. My aim in this piece will not be to add to the thinly veiled rancor which marked the exchanges in that discussion, but rather to identify--and hopefully to ease--some of the tensions which might account for it. I shall do this by highlighting certain assumptions underpinning the arguments of Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and Richard Posner which suggest that their disagreements are not so much literary as political, in the broadest sense of that term, meant to encapsulate not simply matters of policy but larger questions about human nature and the structure of society. It is these political commitments which, I shall argue, provide the framework and set the limits on the ethical criticism debate. Only by recognizing the impact of these commitments, I will suggest, can we hope to move forward in our attempts to gain an understanding of the potential role for literature in our moral and political life.

The ethical criticism debate, as formulated by the writers under study, revolves around two key issues: first, whether or not it is ever appropriate to judge a literary work on ethical grounds; and second, [End Page 185] whether or not reading particular novels will make one a better citizen of a democratic polity. As we shall see, however, the two issues are very closely interrelated. The first aspect of the debate--whether or not one can or should judge literary works on ethical grounds--is largely the concern of Richard Posner and Wayne Booth. In his book The Company We Keep, 2 Booth sets out a rich conception of ethical criticism centered around the metaphor of friendship: by associating with certain types of characters in fiction, he believes, we can become better people. Consequently, he suggests, we can and should judge books on ethical grounds according to whether or not they promote particular values which we hold dear. Central to this undertaking is, he argues, "coduction," the process by which we come to an agreement of the ethical value of a text in conversation with others. Ethical criticism is not then, Booth suggests, a solipsistic enterprise. For Richard Posner, on the other hand, reading appears to be an entirely private affair. Making literature a subject of public debate, especially in conjunction with some notion of ethical criticism, raises for him the specter of government regulation. Fear of censorship is not, however, Posner's sole reason for rejecting Booth's claims. He identifies himself as an aesthete and cites his support for Oscar Wilde's famous dictum that: "there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." 3 Consequently Posner appears unwilling to brook any suggestion that we might ever judge a text on ethical grounds.

Given the entrenched positions of both protagonists in this conflict it is perhaps unsurprising that their debate proves so unproductive. At times the discussion is reduced to exchanging barbs--Posner finds some of Booth's examples "hilarious," 4 while Booth puzzles over the "deep inconsistency" 5 of Posner's stated position--and, it might be noted, the tone of this exchange is mild when compared to that between Posner and Nussbaum. 6 Even when the writers do try to engage one another, however, it often appears as if they are speaking different languages. A case in point is Booth's attempt to demonstrate that Posner's criticism is ethical rather than aesthetic by rewriting great works of literature. Booth believes that much of Posner's criticism is actually...


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