The latest The Stone installment is a piece by Gregory Currie (Nottingham) where he examines critically the claim made by several prominent people – he mentions in particular Martha Nussbaum in Love’s Knowledge – that reading “great literature make[s] us better”. He points out that in the philosophical debates so far, proponents of this view have presented arguments on how literature and fiction might have this effect, but no compelling evidence to the effect that it does have the purported effect. He adds the parenthetical remark:
Suppose a schools inspector reported on the efficacy of our education system by listing ways that teachers might be helping students to learn; the inspector would be out of a job pretty soon.
When reading the piece, I was intrigued by the claim that there is no, or hardly any, empirical evidence on the effects of reading literature for moral traits such as empathy, kindness etc. Currie seems correct in noting that authors such as Nussbaum and others coming from the philosophical perspective do not refer to empirical data potentially corroborating the position; but is it true that there are virtually no empirical results on the issue?
A bit of googling quickly shows that there are at least some empirical studies on the psychology of literature. There exists an International Society for the Empirical Study of Literature and Media, and a blog, OnFiction, which describes itself as an 'online magazine on the psychology of fiction'. (In fact, there is even a post at this blog criticizing Currie’s views specifically.) So I am left with the impression that more empirical research on the topic has been done than Currie’s piece suggests – see here for a recent PLOS article, and a Guardian piece on another study, both supporting the claim of the positive effects of reading literature for moral behavior.
However, all things considered, I’m still with Currie here. (In particular, I have serious reservations concerning the methodology and the interpretation of the results in the studies mentioned above.) I have long been of the opinion that reading literature may not only fail to make us better people, but it in fact can have the opposite effect. Literary stories are above all meant to be read, and thus to capture the reader’s interest rather than educate her. So fiction’s first and foremost commitment is with a ‘good story’, one that is engaging, where the pieces hold well together, where the characters go through interesting events – often those that are not at the reader’s reach; to me the novels by Stendhal are the quintessential examples. In short, the gap between ‘real life’ and human life as depicted in literary works is likely to be rather large, and by taking literature as a compass for real life, things could go awfully wrong. (See here a surprisingly interesting piece by Alain de Botton on how great literature does not prepare a person for love in real life.)
Admittedly, this is not very different from the speculative arguments presented by some proponents of the beneficial effects of literature for morality. But there is one fairly well documented psychological phenomenon that I think can lend support to my (and Currie’s) skepticism: the phenomenon of moral self-licensing. (Thanks to Helen de Cruz for reminding me of the exact term!) The concept is defined as follows in a review article:
Past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic, behaviors that they would otherwise avoid for fear of feeling or appearing immoral.
So it seems that if you’ve experienced your share of empathy for the day by commiserating with Anna Karenina, this may boost your self-image as a morally adequate individual, which may then have the effect of making you less empathic towards the flesh-and-blood people around you. Sure, this is yet another ‘may’ which would have to be investigated to become a ‘does’, but it does suggest that exercising your empathic skills by reading literature may not necessarily transfer over to real life.
At the end of the day, the heart of the matter is that we human beings seem to crave for stories and narratives almost as badly as we crave for food or sex. The underlying psychological mechanism seems to be our need for establishing causal relationships between events – narratives – which give us the impression (illusion?) of control over our destinies. This is an observation that comes up time and again in D. Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (also referred to in Currie’s piece), as well as in some of the work by Alex Rosenberg, such as his ‘Disenchanted Naturalism’ paper. So why can’t we make peace with the idea that narratives are quite literally ‘the air we breath’ and accept them for what they are, without resorting to moral justifications for indulging in the sheer pleasure of reading a great book?