Works of great literature are often said to possess a special moral sensibility that considers human nature from an elevated position and guides us down the moral pathway, similar to how religion and family shape our principles. But philosophy professor Gregory Currie takes issue with the claim that reading good books makes you a better a person. For starters, he says, there is no evidence that this is so. “Most of the studies undertaken so far don’t draw on serious literature but on short snatches of fiction devised especially for experimental purposes. Very few of them address questions about the effects of literature on moral and social development.”
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What’s the Big Idea?
Our moral sensibility is a complex muscle, so to speak, that is formed by a great many things. The goal of isolating literature as a variable that exercises that muscle has proven nearly impossible (imagine designing an experiment to test readers of Tolstoy). For Currie, finding a causal link between reading and a heightened moral sense is paramount: “Might it not be the other way around: that bright, socially competent and empathetic people are more likely than others to find pleasure in the complex representations of human interaction we find in literature?”
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