Approaching Ethics through Literature †

By Allamneni, Sharada | IUP Journal of English Studies, June 2017 | Go to article overview

Approaching Ethics through Literature †


Allamneni, Sharada, IUP Journal of English Studies


Introduction

Playing the role of a devil's advocate, Stanley Fish (Haven 2009), an eminent deconstructionist, in his blog "Think Again," sparked off a worldwide debate declaring, "It is not the business of the humanities to save us, no more than it is their business to bring revenue to a state or a university." Picking up the debate, Haven (2009) of Stanford Report interviewed a cross section of American academia to seek their opinion. She asked them whether they saw any prospects for arts and humanities in the twenty-first century. Needless to say, most were ambivalent on the topic. In his book, The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom (1987) grieves how university education in America has failed and how since the 1960s American culture has become vapid, churning out youth who are rudderless and self-absorbed. A similar refrain is heard from Steven Muller (Carlisle 2011), former President of John Hopkins University, who laments the failure of higher education in providing a value framework, saying that the situation has come about because the modern university has got deeply entrenched in the scientific method. As a consequence, Muller (ibid.) avers, the university is "turning out skilled barbarians." Bloom (1987) feels that it is because American students do not read what is considered good literature.

In May 2014, at Stanford University's McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, a panel of educators, composed of faculty from the university's business school, law school, and philosophy department, addressed a series of questions about teaching ethics: "Can something as personal as ethics be taught in a classroom?" "Can classes in ethics make students more virtuous individuals?" (Monin, Schapiro, and Fried 2014). And, Fish's (Haven 2009) stance throws up a wide gamut of issues regarding the anti-utilitarian worldview on the relevance of humanities since the second half of the twentieth century. Needless to say, the debate has its underpinnings beyond humanities in theoretical sciences as well. Despite Fish's (ibid.) assertion that humanities on their own may not be able to save us, most of us feel that we would be simply lost without them.

Great works of literature and philosophy mark important epochs in human history as they cover a large area of the changing panorama of world culture. According to Spinoza (2014a; 2014b), a text in its proper spirit reflects the historical horizon in which it was written as well as the mind which produced it. Writers and philosophers have been at the vanguard of human civilization. A French Revolution would have been inconceivable if it had not been for the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau. So also the ideas of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky marked important changes in the Russian social milieu, while the treatises of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels radically altered the texture of human society across the world.

Postcolonial critic, Spivak (2012) has argued for the social urgency of the humanities, expressing the hope that "the literary can still do something." The study of humanities, particularly literature and philosophy, according to Spivak (ibid.), prompts one to conduct an "uncoercive rearrangement of desires." Anthropologists claim that human life in the aggregate-i.e., all human cultures-invariably includes embracing outlooks on life and the world which provide its members with a sense of where they are and what is required of them. It is argued that the study of great world classics gives us a subjective dimension into different cultural milieu, while equipping us with an ability to communicate with the world. By introducing us to the positive essentialism of the other, great literature, through its rich diversity, helps us to resist the homogenizing forces of the dominant culture, promoting a healthy discourse among the various members of the human community. As Spinoza (2014a; 2014b) states explicitly, "Human power chiefly consists in strength of mind and intellect. …

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