- Why Banning Ethical Criticism is a Serious Mistake 1
“Education by poetry is education by metaphor. [Poetry provides]
the profoundest thinking that we have.”Robert Frost
Since most of this essay will be a critique of what I think of as the Posner Paradox, or even the Posner Folly, I begin with what I hope will be seen as absolutely unhypocritical praise. I find most of Richard Posner’s book interesting; even the parts that commit the Folly are challenging. 2 In fact I can remember few books making so many good points while revealing so much confusion at the center. Posner deserves our attention, even if we reject his separation of literature from law and his attack on ethical criticism.
The chief problem, in those parts of the book that explicitly reject moral or ethical criticism, is its deep inconsistency. His thesis is not just “difficult to pin down,” as Martha Nussbaum puts it in her paper. It is impossible to pin down, because of an inherent self-contradiction. On the one hand, we have a theorist—I’ll call him Posner One—who rules out all ethical questions from aesthetic judgment; on the other, we encounter throughout an aggressively ethical critic—Posner Two: not a federal judge but a literary judge practicing ethical criticism, sometimes brilliantly, often under various disguises, and sometimes downright incoherently. As Robin West puts it in her criticism of the book, much [End Page 366] of it is a “spirited celebration of legalist virtues,” 3 often finding those virtues in great novels and plays. Posner One never acknowledges that his twin thus violates his own dogma.
He does occasionally draw back from his extreme case by acknowledging the validity of the “meta-ethical” criticism that Posner Two exercises. But his final repeated claim remains intact: to deal with any great story we should rule out political and ethical views, and simply enter into the imaginative world that the story offers us. 4 (From here on I will use the word “story” to cover all narrative, in any medium: sit-coms, operas, narrative ballet, movies.)
My forlorn hope is that by the end of our discussion Posner One will bow to Posner Two and confess defeat: “It was indeed a folly on my part to condemn all of your ethical judgments as irrelevant to literary value, and all ethical criticism of stories as pointless. I surrender, brother, and we can now join each other—and all the other edifying critics. Indeed I think we should resign our Federal Judgeship and join a philosophy department somewhere, or a good English department, if we can find one, probing the ethical center of great narrative—as you so often do throughout our book.”
Posner could avoid some of his incoherence if he were more careful about distinguishing six different questions that his attack addresses, our differences springing in part from different definitions of “moral,” “ethical,” and “aesthetic.” The questions to some degree overlap with Martha Nussbaum’s listing of the five arguments she finds in his work. The six questions are often muddled both by some “aestheticians” in Posner’s camp and some “edifying” critics he is attacking. The more careful critics on both sides, however, agree about how to answer the first four.
Question One: Does engaged reading or listening to stories actually produce moral changes in readers, for good or ill? Posner joins us edifiers in answering decisively yes; he includes many examples like the claim that Goethe’s The Sorrows of Werther raised the European suicide rate. Even the most ardent aestheticians have mostly agreed, while claiming with Posner that the changes are irrelevant to judging any work’s literary value.
I could write endlessly about Posner’s acknowledgments that literature does change people. Here are his effects, for example, of serious reading of the Odyssey. “We learn [from it],” he says, “that revenge works . . . But we are also made aware of the high costs of this method of maintaining law, and perhaps invited to wonder whether there might not [End Page 367] be a cheaper method of dealing with the likes of Paris. We are also made to understand that revenge...