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  • Against Ethical Criticism: Part Two
  • Richard A. Posner*

“There are kinds of beauty before which the moral imagination ought to withdraw.” 1

“The humanities do not humanize.” 2

“Society tends to exert a pressure, such that every poet is either accepted or rejected, according to his fitness to the set of social values of the time. . . . The artist, being always alone, being heterodox when everyone else is orthodox, and orthodox when everyone else is heterodox, is the perpetual upsetter of conventional values.” 3

I am pleased to have this opportunity to continue the debate between the aestheticists, who include among many others Benedetto Croce, George Steiner, Helen Vendler, and Oscar Wilde, and the moralists, who include among many others Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, Plato, and Tolstoy. The aestheticists, among whom I count myself, believe that the moral content of a work of art, including a work of literature, has little to do either with the value of the work, including such value as might be derived from the effect of the work on its readers or on society (or civilization, or humanity) as a whole, or with the pleasure to be derived from the work. Our slogan is Wilde’s dictum, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” Having argued the aesthetic position recently and at some length, 4 I will concentrate here on the specific points raised by Booth and Nussbaum 5 and assume that the reader is familiar with the earlier discussion. In response to Booth’s challenge, I conclude with an aesthetic reading of The Merchant of Venice. [End Page 394]


Booth’s essential claim is that ethical criticism of literature is inescapable, and Nussbaum concedes that it is not. It might seem, therefore, that I would have deeper differences with Booth than with Nussbaum. But the reverse is true. Booth defines “ethical” so broadly that it largely overlaps what I consider “aesthetic.” 6 Nussbaum, with whom I begin (following the order of our tricornered debate at the American Philosophical Association), defends a form of ethical criticism that I find unappetizing.

Let me first comment on her argument that the secret spring of my dislike of moralistic literary criticism is that I am not an egalitarian and that thus lacking compassion for the poor I am not moved by works of literature that stir such compassion in readers such as herself. The premise—that no one who opposes egalitarian policies could be compassionate—is false, since those policies may actually harm the poor. More to the point, the argument assumes that a reader’s reaction to a work of literature is inevitably colored by his or her politics; if I don’t like the moral or political gloss that Nussbaum places on the works she discusses, it must be because I don’t agree with the morality or politics that her gloss brings out. But to reason thus begs the question of the relation between literature and politics (or morality, which is not easily distinguishable from politics when the issue is egalitarianism) by taking for granted that aesthetic responses are always au fond political. And that is false, at least if my own experience is an admissible datum. I am not in sympathy with the politics of the authors of most of the works of literature that I love and admire, whether those politics are egalitarian, as in the case of Blake, Shelley, the early Wordsworth, Dickens, Joyce, and Orwell, or reactionary, as in the case of Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Yeats, Waugh, and Eliot. And I have no truck with the irresponsible moral views that one finds in such works, which I also admire, as The Stranger, Lafcadio’s Adventures, and Lolita.

Nussbaum implies that my dislike of moralizing criticism may derive from an insensitivity to the aesthetic properties of the novel, as opposed to those of lyrical poetry, which engenders in the reader a pleasure that “is closest to the pleasure that we get from the visual arts, especially abstract art, and from music, especially instrumental music” (LL, p. 331; “AE...

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