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Fictional Characters Real Problems : TheSearch for Ethical Content in Literature

Sophie, Antigone, Elizabeth Rethinking Ethics by Reading Literature


I. Examples or Something More?

For a specific group of philosophers, in the context of late twentieth-century and recent Anglo American moral philosophy, narrative literature has provided an important tool for reconsidering the very fundamentals of their academic field and object of inquiry. The nature of this reconsideration is what interests me here.

I will discuss three different ways of using narrative literature for the purposes of moral philosophy in contemporary ethics. The first, representing the use of literature as example, is Patricia S. Greenspan’s discussion about William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice in her article “Moral Dilemmas and Guilt.”1 This is what I will call the thin use of literature in moral philosophy. The second is Martha Nussbaum’s discussion about Sophocles’ Antigone in her book The Fragility of Goodness. It represents what I will call the thick use of literature in moral philosophy. Both of these discussions treat questions concerning moral

dilemmas: situations where an agent is under (at least) two conflicting moral obligations at the same time. My third case is more recent, and it both is and is not a natural part of the contemporary discussion on moral dilemmas: Cora Diamond’s discussion of J.M. Coetzee’s Tanner Lectures 1997–8 (published separately with commentaries as The Lives of Animals and embedded in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello).

This text presents the character Elizabeth Costello as conflicted, wounded, and unable to interact fully with other humans, due to the way she has come to perceive our treatment of animals. I call Diamond’s use of Coetzee’s text an openended use of literature. Each of the literary works I discuss has been or become something of a standard text in their contexts: the first two in discussions on moral dilemmas and the incommensurability of values, and the third in the interesting post Wittgensteinian discussion about “animal life,” which is a discussion of philosophical methodology as much as it is about our moral relations to animals.

I will not say much new about these texts as such. My aim is rather to look at the assumptions about (moral) philosophy and literature that they exhibit in their distinctive ways of using literature. Although I look at cases related to the question of moral dilemmas, my intention is not here to take a stand on that issue. Yet, my discussion has some potential consequences for the case of moral dilemmas, which I will discuss in sections IV and V of this chapter.

II. The Thin Use—Greenspan and Sophie’s Choice

My first example, Greenspan’s use of Sophie’s Choice, centers around a scene where the character Sophie, on entering the concentration camp at Auschwitz, is forced to choose which one of her two children will be sent directly to death and which one will be allowed to live.

Sophie, with an inanity poised on her tongue and choked with fear, was about to attempt a reply when the doctor said, ‘You may keep one of your children’. ‘Bitte?’ said Sophie.

‘You may keep one of your children’, he repeated. ‘The other one will have to go. Which one will you keep?’ 
‘You mean I have to choose?’ 
‘You are a Polack and not a Yid. That gives you a privileg —a choice.’

Her thought process dwindled, ceased. Then she felt her legs crumple. ‘I can’t choose! I can’t choose!’ She began to scream. Oh, how she recalled her own screams! Tormented angels never screeched so loud above hell’s pandemonium. ‘Ich kann nicht w√§hlen!’ she screamed.5 Sophie eventually lets the guards take the younger child.

This scene, in all its terribleness, has been found useful in the philosophical discussion on moral dilemmas, for it seems to be a dilemma which is very hard to explain away, or turn through re interpretation into a non-dilemma. No matter how Sophie chooses she seems to make herself guilty of something terrible and unforgivable. Also the alternative of not choosing seems to be out of the question, as both children would in that case be killed. Indeed, Sophie, in the novel, can never get over the guilt and remorse caused by her choice, and eventually commits suicide together with her lover. 

Greenspan (p. 117) presents Sophie’s situation of choice as providing a better example of a real moral dilemma than Ruth Barcan Marcus’ exemplary case of a doctor who is unable to treat two mortally ill patients and who has to choose to treat one of them.6 Sophie is not only, due to an unlucky conflict of obligations, forced to omit to act on one of several obligations (like the doctor), but is actively forced to act on one of three evil options, all of which make her actually guilty of causing the death of her own child. She is in Greenspan’s view not merely guilty of unavoidable neglect, but is made—is forced to become—an active part in bringing about the evil. 

Thus her situation is not like the case of a mother who grabs the child nearest to her when making her way out of a burning house. Greenspan argues that not only regret or remorse, but also feelings of moral guilt are appropriate responses for Sophie, even if she was put in the situation through no fault of her own. This room for appropriate guilt, due to Sophie’s actual wrongdoing rather than mere neglect (on the assumption that all the possible alternatives are wrong), is one of the things that set this case apart from the doctor’s case where guilt, in Greenspan’s view, would be inappropriate. 

I will not here attend to the technicalities of this case, but merely look at the way the novel is used here. The example, as presented by Greenspan, is “thin” in the sense that the story is, in her discussion, given mainly in a short paraphrase of a scene in the novel, and is then cut off from the novel itself, which is both rich and broad in its own right. Concerning its contents the example could quite as well have been made up for the sake of argument, stripped as it is of all the things that distinguish a novel from a tale or an exemplary story. 

The novel offers an idea and a scene, but the complexities and exact formulations of the literary text have no role in Greenspan’s discussion. Greenspan even makes an alteration to the scene, to make it match her point better. Whereas Sophie in the novel is faced with a positive choice of which one of her children she is allowed to keep, Greenspan alters it to one where the choice is put in terms of which one is going to die. This may seem like a small alteration, but it is designed to make Sophie’s case more unlike some examples which have been considered in earlier discussion on the same topic, and are considered by Greenspan to be too weak for her purpose.

It seems to me that Greenspan’s case is a rather typical use of a narrative work as the source of a philosopher’s example. It provides a case to think about, a test for our intuitions in a form that suits the argument and substantiates the philosopher’s claims. The philosopher may choose how much of the original narrative to include and may choose to alter aspects of the narrative (as long as this is made explicit to the reader). But the literary example is here, in the discussion, cut off from the literary work that provided the storyline. Indeed, Greenspan does not even quote Styron (as I did), but presents the scene in her own words.

Greenspan does say a few things about the novel and Sophie’s story, beyond the scope of the central scene, e.g., she briefly enters what she considers to be the novel’s point of view: “The novel suggests that her later guilt is an overreaction of some sort; and indeed it may go on too long, from the point of view of her own psychological health” (p. 120). 

Yet, when she goes on to elaborate on this she moves discreetly over to the abstract-universal voice of analytic ethics rather than dwelling upon the literary text: As an ethical reaction, though, it seems to be warranted. She knows she is responsible for doing something wrong, something she could have avoided—even though she could not have avoided doing wrong. The same would be true if she had chosen differently, and allowed both children to be killed. 

It would be strangely insensitive for a mother in her position not to experience guilt at either choice. (ibid.) First she seems to be talking about Sophie, the character, the individual, fictional case. Yet, soon she is involved in questions of what would be appropriate for anyone, from an external “moral” point of view. The novel’s long exploration of Sophie, her surrounding characters, and New York in the post World War II era are not really interesting for Greenspan’s kind of inquiry, and Greenspan does not invite her reader to turn to Styron’s texts for further illumination. 

This kind of literary example differs thus in its way of functioning quite little from regular philosophers’ examples or thought experiments: trolley examples, twin earths, and fake barns in a field. What is left of the literary texts in the example is subordinated to the purpose of the philosophical argument. Thus thin uses of literature, of this kind, do not pose the kind of challenge to standard analytic ways of philosophical argument that more elaborate uses of literature have been known to do.

III. The Thick Use—Nussbaum and Antigone

My second example, Nussbaum’s discussion on Sophocles’ Antigone, is part of her early work on moral luck in Greek tragedy and philosophy. This is a work with many overall philosophical motivations and aims, but the ones most central for the Antigone discussion are to show two things about moral agency. First, that there is a plurality of equally important values that can, in concrete situations, pose equal claims on a moral agent, and second, that failing to acknowledge the multiplicity of demands and feel regret or remorse for those one has to compromise when all the demands cannot be met, are specific kinds of moral shortcomings in their own right. 

The basic narrative is the following: Antigone wants to arrange a decent burial for her dead brother Polynices, but due to the fact that Polynices has betrayed their city, Thebes, the king Creon prohibits this burial. Nussbaum focuses her discussion on the moral dispositions and moral shortcomings of the characters Creon and Antigone respectively, arguing that both of them fail to meet the moral demands of their situations, due to the way they simplify their evaluative commitments in the face of internal conflict. 

Each of the protagonists has a vision of the world of choice that forestalls serious practical conflict; each has a simple deliberative standard and a set of concerns neatly ordered in terms of this. Each, therefore, approaches problems of choice with unusual confidence and stability; each seems unusually safe from the damages of luck. And yet each, we are made to see, is somehow defective in vision. (FG, p. 52) Creon, in his role as the ruler, elevates the good of the polis to the only value, and accordingly outlaws the burial of Polynices within the polis on the grounds of his betrayal. 

The fact that he is related to the dead Polynices and thus would be expected to acknowledge duties of both kinship and piety toward him seems to matter little to his decision. Nussbaum underlines that the simplification of his values even transforms his language (ibid., p. 55). His speech changes the meaning of every word of moral praise, so that they only apply to actions that are beneficial for the polis, and every expression of moral blame is blame for shortcomings in relation to the polis.

 Antigone on her part elevates her duty toward her dead brother to the highest value, refusing to acknowledge the legitimacy of any other claims that could be considered. Her fierce determination to have him buried does not on Nussbaum’s reading even express the sincere signs of personal grief over the death of a loved one, but becomes more like an all-consuming obsession with principled piety for which she is prepared to die (ibid., pp. 64–5). 

Although Nussbaum’s discussion is driven by her philosophical commitment to plural values and the importance of acknowledging competing moral claims even when they conflict, her discussion of Antigone is not reduced to a philosopher’s example in the same sense as Greenspan’s argument before. The difference has primarily to do with the way Nussbaum builds her argument on a substantial reading of the text, and the way she repeatedly returns to details of the texts, such as symbols, choices of words, and portrayals of the characters, to strengthen and substantiate her interpretation. 

She makes explicit her aim to base her discussion on the texture of Sophocles’ text, emphasizing features of its moral contribution that could not be expressed in the typical academic philosopher’s prose. Rather than isolating a storyline, to serve as an example, she enters into Sophocles’ text, with one eye on its original context of performance, to see how the text itself presents what she takes to be a parallel perspective to her own. 

This use of narrative literature (or narrative art, insofar as the play is seen as a play and not just a text) is thick in the sense that the intermingled descriptive and evaluative aspects of the original narrative are left to resonate, and made use of, in Nussbaum’s discussion of them. She offers a philosophically streamlined reading of the original text, focusing on intricacies of practical deliberation, but invites simultaneously the reader to turn to that text (and earlier critical commentaries on the text) for further reflections on the moral questions involved. 

The narrative text, with its particular commitments, ambiguities, and perspectives, becomes thus a part of the philosophical discussion. To be able to discuss the moral contents of a narrative work Nussbaum needs to disambiguate and interpret the narrative; yet, the interpretation does not exclude the original narrative text, but rather actively includes it.




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