I was recently with a longtime friend who revealed that he does not believe in morality. He thinks the only ultimate good is his own happiness. Now, he tries to act in a way that others see as moral because he believes that that is conducive to his own happiness, and he acknowledges having emotions about what other people do (learning about mass murder would make him unhappy for instance), but he refuses to connect these emotions to any propositional knowledge. For him, words like “wrong,” “right,” “ought,” and “should” have no meaning apart from an instrumental one (“If you want to be happy, you shouldn’t go around murdering people – unless you really really enjoy murdering people”).
I agreed with him that there is no way to prove that morality exists, but I maintained that it’s a properly basic assumption. Morality is like causality. The mere fact that A has followed B 1000000 times doesn’t mean it will do so the next time unless we assume causality (see Hume). We can’t prove causality from anything else; it is a fundamental category of our understanding — just the way our brains organize our sensations of the world (see Kant). In the same way, for most of us, moral judgments are inescapable. When we see someone torture an innocent person to death, we judge that act as wrong, indeed evil. My friend does not apparently judge that act as evil; he says knowing about the act would simply cause him negative emotions.
I didn’t ask him what those negative emotions would be, but my guess is that anger would play the predominant role. If the perpetrator “got away with it,” that anger would mixed with indignation or resentment. But why would you experience indignation or resentment at a criminal’s getting away with murder? Why not fear, which is presumably what asocial animals would experience if they witnessed something like this? Why not melancholy?
We are angry because we believe that the act is wrong and unjust, and should be stopped or punished with force or even violence, if necessary. If the act goes unpunished, we are indignant or resentful; the criminal “owes” something that has not been paid. Our moral judgments cause our emotions; they don’t spring from nowhere, purposeless.
Recently, psychologists have been learning more about how emotion and moral intuition are connected, something Adam Smith knew 250 years ago. Sensitivity to moral concerns is not associated with study of moral philosophy or reasoning capabilities, but with strong empathetic abilities (see Haidt, who is wrong on moral philosophy but right on moral psychology, and Margolis).
With no intended disrespect to my friend, I suspect he scores very low on the empathy spectrum. He fails to see that other human beings have legitimate interests of their own and deserve to be able to pursue happiness just as much as he is. He needs treatment in becoming empathetic — in fact, we all need that treatment from time to time.
Here’s where literature comes in. Literary fiction’s central social function is to train our empathetic organ. When we read fiction, especially with complex, nuanced characters, we put ourselves in the place of some of the characters. We see the world through their eyes and come to understand and value them. We can witness an infinite variety of events, characters, and actions that have never actually existed, so allowing us to fine-tune and to extend our empathy to situations that challenge our intuitions, typically by bringing them into conflict, or that make us think of possibilities we have never previously considered. Literature has other, more personal functions as art and entertainment, but its central social function is training us to empathize. That’s the reason why children should read literary fiction, and why it should be taught in schools, not just considered a private hobby. When I discuss books with my daughter, I’m going to ask her about what she felt at particular points, and why she felt that way.
So there you have it: Adam Smith tells us why literature is important for moral development.