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  • Virtue Ethics and Literary Imagination
  • Jay R. Elliott

Did Plato see something that Aristotle missed? According to a familiar narrative, Plato regarded literature as dangerous to the aims of philosophy, and he accordingly exiled the poets from his ideal republic (in fact, he proposed to censor them, allowing only those who would "imitate the speech of a decent person,"1 which from a modern point of view is perhaps even worse). By contrast, Aristotle is supposed to have reconciled literature and philosophy, not only through his appreciative account of epic and tragedy in the Poetics but also through his invocations of literary examples at crucial junctures elsewhere in his corpus, for example his use of the Trojan legend of Priam in the Nicomachean Ethics.

In this contest between two of the founding figures of virtue ethics, recent virtue theorists have been emphatically on the side of Aristotle: sympathetic accounts of literary works have now become part of the standard equipment of arguments in virtue ethics, and virtue ethicists widely assume that attention to literature yields important forms of support for their philosophical agenda. Yet in all their enthusiasm for literature, recent virtue theorists may have missed something that Plato saw clearly: for philosophers, literature often spells trouble. Unlike Plato, I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. But contemporary virtue ethicists [End Page 244] perhaps should be more aware of the kinds of trouble literature tends to get them into, and thus more receptive to the challenges that literary reading can pose for their philosophical projects. Philosophers are often tempted to invoke literature in places where something eludes the grasp of their arguments. As a result, philosophers' trouble with literature can be intellectually productive, provided that we hold ourselves fully open to the gaps and challenges it brings to light.

In modern times, the expectation of a deep natural connection between virtue ethics and literature derives above all from the writings of Iris Murdoch. Murdoch proposed a fundamental analogy between the work of reading (or writing) literature and the work of cultivating virtuous character: just as, according to Murdoch, literature is "an education in how to picture and understand human situations,"2 so also virtue is essentially a matter of "really apprehending that other people exist."3 In her view, the essential task of literature is to combine "clear realistic vision with compassion,"4 and in so doing it provides a model for ethical cultivation as well. Many philosophers of the subsequent generation—perhaps most notably Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams—in various ways inherited Murdoch's ideas and sought to show that attention to the ethical work of great literary texts could lend support to some of the central ideas of virtue ethics.

More recently, however, doubts about the presumed natural harmony between virtue ethics and literature have been sown effectively by many astute critics who have powerfully deployed literary examples in order to challenge some of virtue theorists' most basic assumptions. In Unprincipled Virtue, for example, Nomy Arpaly provides an extended reading of a central episode in Huckleberry Finn as a crucial piece of evidence in favor of her argument that virtuous actions need not involve acting on the agent's considered judgment about what he ought to do. In a little-noticed aspect of John Doris's much discussed book Lack of Character, he uses a rich and nuanced reading of Lord Jim as a key part of his argument against virtue theory. Similarly, Kwame Anthony Appiah deploys a reading of certain aspects of Martin Chuzzlewit to cast doubt on some of the claims of virtue ethics in his Experiments in Ethics. It may be time for virtue ethicists to recall something else Murdoch said—that "literature is various and very large whereas philosophy is very small"5—and to recognize that sensitive readings of literary works may give as much trouble as support to their favored arguments and conclusions.

In what follows I offer three case studies, illustrating kinds of trouble that literature gives to current work in virtue ethics, drawn from three [End Page 245] of the most ambitious and creative thinkers in the field: Neera Badhwar, Daniel Russell...


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