Thursday, August 2, 2012

Elaine Scarry on the Literary Order and the Moral Order

Elaine Scarry on how the literary order affects and contributes to the formation of the moral order. The more literate we became, the more moral people became. How does this happen? Scarry suggests it comes about because of literature's
invitation to empathy, its reliance on deliberative thought, and its beauty.
She argues that Medieval literature gave rise to new institutions -- and as any Austrian economist will tell you, institutions matter for what kind of spontaneous orders will emerge.

The entire essay is very intersting and very thought-provoking.
Update: PJ Manney makes this argument too, in 2006, in Empathy in the Time of Technology: How Storytelling is the Key to Empathy. HT: PJ Manney


  1. I doubt that the literary order can “affect or contribute to the formation of the moral order” unless the literature contains a strong didactic element. (fables, morality plays, perhaps the Odyssey and more likely the Divina Commedia—but even here one may feel more like emulating Farinata than some of the souls in Paradise). Most literature, especially today, is not of this kind. Similarly with culture in general, or literacy, where there is no assurance that the cultured or literate person will be moral. One does not need to give examples because they are too obvious. So the idea that “the more literate people became, the more moral they became” does not withstand analysis. An illiterate peasant who works hard, takes care of his family, and does not hurt his neighbors may be far more moral than a literature professor or a great writer (a great contributor to the “literary order”). There is simply no correlation between culture and morality. “Invitation to empathy?” “reliance on deliberative thought”? “its beauty”? Since when does empathy lead to moral behavior? What if we empathize with Mephistopheles or Richard III or the narrator in the Marquis de Sade’s works? Since when does “deliberative thought” lead to moral behavior? It can in fact lead to exquisitely depraved behavior. The more learned and intelligent the evil person the more horrible is the damage that person can cause. “Beauty?” Some creators of great beauty have been profoundly immoral people, as have been those with tremendous deliberative thought (Wagner an example of morality? Einstein and his treatment of his family?). No. Again, the only literature that may lead to the formation of a moral order (and this is a big may) is didactic literature or a literature with a strong didactic and or religious component. I am sorry to say this because I love literature. But we lovers of literature have to recognize that our love and perhaps métier is no more normally conducive to high morality than making good shoes, and may be even less so. Dario Fernandez-Morera

  2. I would have to disagree. I would argue that if anything, didactic literature is a brake on moral evolution in the moral order. Didactic literature doesn't challenge morals such that they can change; didactic literature reinforces the moral order as it is.

    First, let me note that the exception does not negate the rule. Further, those on the forefront of moral evolution are typically going to be seen as immoral by the majority who find the moral order just fine as it is. You are going to find the cultured and more literate to be those very people. Now, that is not to say that their morals will be adopted by the majority and become fully integrated into the moral order and more than one would expect en entrepreneur in the market order to succeed 100% of the time. In fact, one will find the majority of entrepreneurial endeavors fail. And just because we don't like a particular innovation, that does not mean it is not properly understood as a moral innovation. In the end the spontaneous order in question -- be it the moral or the market -- will "decide" what properly belongs in it, which is to say, what people want. Good marketing in both cases makes integration more likely.

    Scarry is arguing that what matters less than the explicit content of a work of literature or a set of works of literature is the structural components of literature she laid out. This is something about which Russell Berman agrees in Fiction Sets You Free, in which he makes the argument that the kind of literacy Scarry is talking about set the groundwork for the development of free markets -- and that it was the structural elements, not the content, that mattered.

    At the same time, there is the empathy argument, and one could argue that this is based on content. You ask if we should sympathize with Mephestopheles. I think you should. If you understand his point of view, you are more prepared for him (or people like him). Perhaps you are not supposed to empathize with him or with Milton's Satan, but you do. And in doing so, you question the moral order. And in questioning the moral order, you are in a position to act as eminent critic of it and to experiment with moral ideas. This is how moral evolution takes place in the moral order. Without evolution, there is no real spontaneous order.

    The question is: how does this evolution take place? What causes us to question it and to therefore innovate? I would argue that literature is a player in moral evolution in the same way that the technological order and the monetary order each contribute to the catallaxy.

    The issue isn't that literature gives us "high morals," whatever that may be, but that they affect our ways of thinking and, thus, affect our moral attitudes and, thus, the moral order. There is little question that "Will and Grace" contributed to contemporary attitudes toward homosexuals here in the U.S. It contributed to the moral order by creating the conditions so that viewers could empathize with the gay characters. Whether one considers that an improvement in morals or not depends on whether you think all morals are fundamentally conservative and do not evolve or whether you think the moral universe expands and evolves, that it is a spontaneous order.

    1. Good piece over at this week on this topic:

  3. This review of Jonathan Gottschall's "The Storytelling Animal" also explains how literature affects the moral order.

  4. I am wary of the notion of “evolving morals” being led by artists and writers because it opens up a Pandora’s box. The twentieth century has been particularly rich in very daring experiments in “evolving morals,” and they have not been very reassuring. I don’t have to go into the details of the new man and new morality of the Marxist-Leninists or the new man and new morality of the National Socialists, in both cases one of the premises being that a new kind of morality is necessary and that man can basically create it as he sees fit, and in both cases pretty smart and creative people, including artists, were associated with both movements. Perhaps the problem with the notion is the inevitable unintended consequences element. Perhaps it is something else. A business can fail if it innovates wrongly depending on the market for its innovation, and that is it. But if a new morality fails, countless casualties and enduring moral destruction ensue. Not quite the same. One should not experiment with a people or its morals. Too much is at stake. I also find it a bit presumptuous of artists or writers (but then to be an artist or a writer one has to be a bit presumptuous and even narcissistic) to think that they are at the vanguard (to use the Marxist Leninist word) of humanity and its morals. This notion came into being with the artistes of the nineteenth century, is basically a Romantic notion, and is still, curiously, very muchwith us today. This remaining power of Romanticism was studied by Octavio Paz in Los hijos del limo. Their power maneuver here (it is a power maneuver since it places artists and writers on a privileged position in society; or rather, the artists and writers, not too subtly, place themselves graciously at the vanguard of society; surely no one else placed them) is to generalize from what is good for the artist or writer or at least from what the artist or writer thinks is good for him or her, to assume that such good is good for the people at large. To paraphrase WB, I would rather be led by the first 100 people in the Chicago phone book than by the top (whatever that is) 100 artists or writers in Chicago.

  5. I think you're missing the point of the arguments being made.

    It's not about moral leaders. Nobody is arguing that artists/writers are moral leaders. It is not about this or that particular writer or book; it is about what reading in general does, what storytelling does for us. There is no more a leader of the literary order or of the moral order than there is of the market order. Thus, it is not about imposing this or that moral system on the people, but allowing the moral order to evolve. We are talking here about understanding what affects the moral order. I'm looking at the interaction as a scientist (does the literary order affect the moral order? if so, how?) and not as a moralist (should the literary order affect the moral order?).

    The artist can only speak about what is good for him or her as an artist -- this, and the production of art are how artists participate in the artistic orders. Their products, however, affect culture in a variety of ways. One way is that the work's influence is redirected into the artistic orders. Another way is that it affects the reader/viewer's perceptions, etc., which in turn affect the way they view the world, including the social world, which includes the moral order.

    Yes, moral evolution can lead us into Marxism, but it can also lead us out of Medieval Catholic morality and into classical liberal morality. There is no stopping moral evolution, even if we can affect it in a variety of ways. Literature is one way. And literature's effects are mostly structural, less content. This effect is not the intention of the writer, but is nevertheless a consequence.

    I think you are also making the mistake of thinking that I am arguing that literature is the only influence on the evolution of the moral order. I would argue that all the spontaneous orders affect the moral order -- just as all the spontaneous orders affect each of the other spontaneous orders. But I do not think they affect each other in the ways people think they do. I think the Marxists, for example, are wrong about how the market affects the moral order. The effects are much more interesting and complex.

    It is true that the market has the advantage of profit-loss as a way of judging whether or not something works in the market order. And you are right that the moral order does not have that element in it. But that does not mean we should do everything in our power to stop moral evolution. That would destroy the moral order as much as stopping all change in the market order would destroy it. The moral order is a spontaneous order and, as such, it is both conservative/traditional and evolving at the edges. The evolution, to be healthy, must occur slowly and in the context of the given traditions. It is when a new moral order is imposed upon an old one that problems occur. You have to let people get there gradually. And people have to be given the leeway to try our different ways of living, to find out what morals work and what morals do not. I suspect that whatever morals truly take root, they will be expressions of our moral instincts, which do not in fact change, even if the way they are expressed do.

  6. "I would argue that if anything, didactic literature is a brake on moral evolution in the moral order. Didactic literature doesn't challenge morals such that they can change; didactic literature reinforces the moral order as it is."

    Isn't Atlas Shrugged a work of didactic literature? Doesn't it challenge the existing moral order?

    "Scarry is arguing that what matters less than the explicit content of a work of literature or a set of works of literature is the structural components of literature she laid out. This is something about which Russell Berman agrees in Fiction Sets You Free, in which he makes the argument that the kind of literacy Scarry is talking about set the groundwork for the development of free markets -- and that it was the structural elements, not the content, that mattered."

    Linda Hunt makes a (broadly) similar case in her recent book, Inventing Human Rights. So did Ian Watt in his The Rise of the Novel.


  7. I would argue Atlas Shrugged is a satire, though clearly satires have a didactic element to them. And it is a critique of new ideas using the older ideas of classical liberalism and Aristotle. To the extent she was influenced by Nietzsche, we must remember that Nietzsche too was critiquing his contemporary culture from a more ancient (Greek) perspective. Both wanted to put a brake on what they thought was the direction the moral order was going in, because they thought it was going in the wrong direction.

    In fact, Atlas Shrugged is an interesting case study, because the satirical/didactic elements are intended to try to bring the moral order back to a place where it last "worked," with the novelistic elements, in which we learn to empathize with her heroes, being what would move us forward to a new moral order. It is no mistake that her heroes are much more developed and complex than are her villains; one is satirized, the other is novelized. The satirized villians constitute the didactic element of the novel (this is true too of the Speech, since the Speech is all about the actions of the villains); the novelististic heroes are who we empathize with, which contributes to evolution in the moral order.