Ambiguity and Ethics
It is often asserted that fictions improve their readers morally, whether (a) by imparting instruction, (b) by eliciting empathy, or (c) by forcibly fine-tuning capacities for navigation through the labyrinth of moral life. In reality, however, readers tend—as Chaucer knew—only to “learn” what they already believed going in; empathy is hopelessly unreliable as a guide to virtuous behavior; and fine-tuning, the most promising avenue, is by no means automatic. Moral improvement through fiction thus takes place far less often than is widely imagined. What is more, we should not want wholesale transformation through fiction, since it risks turning humanity at large into a mass of moral wantons. While fine-tuning remains an option under special circumstances, most of us should settle for self-clarification, a morally neutral process that may, after its own manner, prove every bit as salutary.
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