Literature and Moral Sense

Author: Sean Haylock

Haylock, Sean, 2019 Literature and Moral Sense, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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What is the moral significance of literature? Philosophical responses to this question have frequently regarded literary works as exemplary fictional representations of the kind of moral challenges that are confronted in reality; literature then assists in judging the validity of abstract ethical principles. But if we discard this overly rationalistic approach to reconciling literature and moral philosophy, then we become capable of recognising literature as a unique form of moral thinking, and reading as an inherently moral task. I argue that noticing the coherences of a fictional character’s life involves employing moral faculties, especially a sense of what might be possible within a human life and the ways that the different possibilities of a life may conflict with or complement one another. Whenever we read a piece of narrative fiction we are encountering and judging a form of life, and this, I argue, is an ineluctably moral activity. Through an interpretation of three contemporary novels by the authors Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, and Kazuo Ishiguro, I seek to demonstrate the limitations of both analytic philosophy and postmodern literary theory with regard to appreciating the moral-philosophical significance of literary works. I challenge the resort to theory by presenting these novels not as containers of extractable and universalizable moral content but as living pieces of language suffused with particular moral meanings.

Keywords: literature, morality, ethics, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Iris Murdoch, realism

Subject: Philosophy thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2019
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Craig Taylor