Ethics and Literature

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L137-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved June 19, 2019, from

Article Summary

Moral philosophers typically assume that literary texts have no significance for ethical reflection beyond providing one possible source of examples of moral problems. This is in line with philosophy’s long-standing hostility towards literature; it is described as an ancient quarrel even by Plato, whose expulsion of the poets from his republic is often cited as a founding gesture of the discipline. However, some recent writers on ethics contest this assumption. Neo-Aristotelian theorists see the novel as a medium in which their approach finds its most suitable expression. Proponents of moral perfectionism see literary techniques as indispensable in achieving their desired relation to their readers. Others of no particular theoretical affiliation see literary texts as exemplifying the internal relation of reason to imagination, feeling and sensibility in fundamental modes of moral thought. Taken as a whole, these arguments suggest that a moral philosopher’s evaluation of the ethical significance of literature reveals fundamental features of their conception of ethics in general, of the relation between moral philosophy and other philosophical concerns or questions, and hence of philosophy itself.

    Citing this article:
    Mulhall, Stephen. Ethics and Literature, 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L137-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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