Does literature have a moral function? Whether it intends to or not, there is no doubt that fiction, plays and poetry dramatise in a vivid way the difficult choices that human beings have to make in their lives. Issues about what obligations we have to our family, and whether we owe more to fellow citizens than to strangers, form part of the fabric of our everyday lives.
Then there are the specific moral issues about love and sex, work and politics, and the morality of war, not to mention explosive issues such as euthanasia and abortion. Indeed, a concentration on areas of disagreement in contemporary society may well lead us to underestimate the many things we are all likely to agree about. Few people would accept that torturing babies or beating up the elderly could be morally justified. The possibility of talking about “universal values” is not as remote as might be imagined.
The Moral of the Story is an anthology that aims to show, through its selection of 79 pieces, how literature can help illuminate moral issues. In commenting on the nature of ethics in the introduction to the third part of the book, Peter and Renata Singer say that today “few philosophers are cultural relativists”. That may be so, but cultural relativism - masquerading perhaps as “multiculturalism” - is still too easily assumed as the norm by many. As the editors note, a typical claim is that “it is wrong for one culture to impose its views on another”.
Yet that is in itself an ethical judgement that has force only if it applies to all cultures. Indeed, the effectiveness of the pieces selected depends largely on the assumption that writers from all times and places can be of ethical relevance to us here and now. Human nature does not change, and Greek tragedians address some of the basic issues concerning the nature of humanity and our place in the world as much as any modern writer. It is appropriate that a collection such as this can combine highly contemporary writings about things such as underage sex with extracts from Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Shakespeare, Jane Austen and extracts from 19th-century classics such as Middlemarch all combine to form a fascinating mixture.
There are interesting juxtapositions. A piece from Joe Klein’s Primary Colors (1996) is sandwiched between two extracts from Anthony Trollope, illustrating connections between ethics and politics. The passage from Primary Colors deals with the perennial problem of how dirty an election should be allowed to become. Is character assassination of an opponent justifiable? In this, as in other extracts, a constant ethical problem is how far the end justifies the means. Primary Colors concerns Jack Stanton, a presidential candidate, and it is not only his name that reminds us of Bill Clinton.
The collection consists of 15 sections dealing with different aspects of morality, concluding with three sections that reflect on the nature of ethics. Each section is preceded by a short introduction highlighting some of the philosophical issues. One helpful aspect of the anthology is that at the end the editors write a few paragraphs on the moral issues raised by each piece.
Some sections are meatier than others. “Duties to God” contains three short items and is accompanied by a brief introduction that swiftly comes to the conclusion, asserted rather than properly argued, that ethics is independent of religion. This may be the view of the editors, but it is a considerable philosophical issue that deserves more than a cursory dismissal. Even atheists might acknowledge that belief in a god can make a rational difference to the way humanity’s place in the world is seen.
This last point illustrates a problem with anthologies of this kind - that they are likely to reflect the compilers’ personal view of what is morally important. This matters particularly in this case because Peter Singer is highly controversial as a moral philosopher. He wants to grant moral weight not solely to humans but to all sentient creatures. He would value some animals more than some humans, and his view that it is not always wrong to kill an innocent human being (even an infant) surfaces in the introduction to the section titled “Abortion, euthanasia and suicide”. The remarks at the beginning of the “Love, marriage and sex” section even entertain the possibility that incest need not be morally wrong. It claims that the “fact that an intuition is ancient and universal does not prove it to be a sound basis for a moral judgement”. Singer’s radical utilitarianism no doubt lies behind this remark.
The idea behind this anthology is good. Great literature can illuminate the deepest reflections about human nature and morality. Yet this volume attempts too much. It contains a mixture of writing, ranging from classics of perennial importance to ephemeral modern writing, all rooted in the thought of Western culture. Even so, each extract is only a few pages long, with some even shorter. The introductions skate the surface, sometimes tendentiously, of vast controversies.
Who is this collection aimed at? It may be intriguing to dip into but it merely serves up moral problems in bite-sized chunks. It will satisfy neither those who wish to get to grips with great literature nor those who want a balanced introduction to the great moral issues of our times and past ages.
Roger Trigg is professor of philosophy, Warwick University.
The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics through Literature. First edition
Editor - Peter Singer and Renata Singer
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 621
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 1 4051 0583 6 and 0584 4