Art lovers and philosophers alike tend to think there is an educational benefit to consuming quality fiction. The claim seems to be that fiction has the ability to morally educate us: to make us more understanding, more empathetic. But while fiction can give us knowledge of all sorts, there is no evidence that it can give us moral knowledge, that it can make us better humans, argues Greg Currie.
Overwhelmingly, people who have a serious interest in fiction—and I mean film, drama and television as well as literature— seem to think that fiction has an important educative role. It is certainly a widespread view in my own community of academic philosophy, Martha Nussbaum being perhaps its best known advocate. They don’t, of course, mean that all fictions provide something educative for everyone who comes into contact with them; we all agree there are fictions with no such capacity, as well as fictions which are apt to spread ignorance and error. But they think that there is a good deal of fiction around from which we can and do learn. The knowledge in question is moral knowledge: the idea is that fiction makes us better, more empathetic human beings. I don’t know whether this is true or not but I do believe there is not much evidence to support it.
When I published an essay in the New York Times a few years ago that questioned this idea the paper’s website was quickly populated with several hundred responses, mostly disagreeing; some even expressed unhappiness about the publication of such views, regarding it as giving comfort to an enemy that wants to see humanistic education downgraded. That’s part of the reason I say that the outlook I have described is widespread, even among nonphilosophers. I don’t, however, recall any of those who disagreed with me presenting any evidence for their view. Asking for evidence on this topic might seem a strange idea. Many, I think, will say that their evidence is their own experience; we know, don’t we, that we have learned from fiction. It can be difficult to say what we have learned—but then it often is difficult to put what we have learned into words. Try telling someone how to ride a bicycle, even when you know very well how to ride one.
People who believe passionately in the value of fiction don’t usually emphasise its capacity to teach us facts about the world; their emphasis is instead on empathy, the broadening of experience, moral growth, greater capacity for tolerance and understanding.
I agree that we should not look exclusively for verbal evidence, though I don’t rule it out. Still, there is such a thing as non-verbal evidence that someone can ride a bike or drive a car—ask them to get on the bike and ride it. In that kind of situation we would not be content simply to have people’s assurances that they have the relevant skill, otherwise we could dispense with driving tests. And learning a skill seems particularly relevant to the question of learning from fiction. People who believe passionately in the value of fiction don’t usually emphasise its capacity to teach us facts about the world; their emphasis is instead on empathy, the broadening of experience, moral growth, greater capacity for tolerance and understanding.
These, surely, are skills. If we think fiction provides these skills we should have evidence that it does so. Will it be enough for people to say that reading fiction has made them more empathic, more tolerant, more understanding? Certainly not. Philosophers have abandoned the idea that our minds are transparent to ourselves, that I know for sure what mental states and capacities I have. Everyone else should abandon it also. Quite often we are the best judges as to what we think or believe or want, though we are never infallible on these topics. We are particularly unreliable, however, on topics such as how morally good we are, how insightful we are, how good we are at understanding other people. People may tell us that their abilities in these areas have been improved by reading fictions; we should not put much store by such claims.
We don’t expect people to become noticeably better moral agents after one reading of a short story.
Where might we find genuine evidence to support these claims? Psychologists have developed tests of people’s “mind reading” skills—our capacity to understand the thoughts and motives of others. They also have tests that probe how empathic we are. Some of these tests are better, more reliable than others, but it is a start. And some psychologists have used these tests to begin to answer questions about whether and how we might learn from fiction. There are some ambitious claims out there but my sense is that this work (I’m currently contributing to a research group doing this) is at an early stage and that we need to be very cautious in our claims. It is easy to see that designing an experiment that shows an effect of fiction is going to be hard. We don’t expect people to become noticeably better moral agents after one reading of a short story. But experiments where we get people to sit down and read War and Peace are impractical. Experiments with short literary passages have been done but often they show little or no effect (unsurprising surely) or an effect which disappears quickly. We might look at differences between people who habitually read a lot of fiction and people who don’t. Some experiments show greater levels of empathy on the part of the readers. But what does that prove? It could easily be that, rather than fiction making us more empathic, being more empathic makes you more interested in reading fiction.
It could easily be that, rather than fiction making us more empathic, being more empathic makes you more interested in reading fiction.
Despite these difficulties I think that experimental methods are our best bet. Perhaps we will get better experiments. One thing we should not do is say “We will never have good evidence one way or another for believing that fiction has the power to make us more empathic, so we are free to choose what to believe, and I choose to believe that it does”. The sensible response to the absence of evidence is to stay neutral.
In one respect I think it is pretty clear that we do sometimes learn from fiction, for they can be reliable sources of factual knowledge. I doubt I am not the only person to have learned that Russian aristocrats in Napoleonic times spoke French by reading War and Peace. There are interesting questions about how this happens, and about how good we are at distinguishing between something that happens in a story which is just invention, and something that happens in a story and is put there because it is actually true—that’s how it is with the French speakers in War and Peace. But I am confident that this kind of learning is possible. However, most people who speak of the value of literature in terms of learning don’t have this in mind; they are, as I have said, thinking of fictions capacity to make us more empathic. On that question I don’t think we can be confident either way.
If we avoid making claims about how good fiction is for our moral and social life, what does that do to our sense that fiction is valuable? Surely there are other kinds of values that fictions, or some of them, have. High quality works of fiction (however you define quality) can be thrilling, absorbing, beautiful. They can be admirable products of human intelligence and imagination. Perhaps for the time being, that should be enough.