“Does reading literature make you more moral?” This was the question posed by philosophy professor Debra Satz to three panelists—myself, David Kidd, and Joshua Landy—at an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society earlier this month. The answer to the question was a definitive “no.” No, because, as Debra Satz admitted in her introductory remarks, “the Marquis de Sade read and wrote lots of novels.” No, because, as Joshua Landy, Professor of French at Stanford University, reminded the audience, tyrants and Nazis alike delighted in the works of Sophocles, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Herman Hesse. And No, because, as I noted, there is a long tradition extending back to the first modern novel, Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quijote, that sees reading literature as profoundly corrupting. Its own conceit is that the inimitable Don “became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk ‘til dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind." Of course, reading literature is no more certain to drive us insane than it is guaranteed to make us more moral. As Landy quipped: “Results may vary.”

In any case, “moral” is a slippery term. Any reasonably diverse group of people will be by stymied in their attempts to give substantive content to the concept; there is profound disagreement among people from different groups even within the United States about what is or is not moral. What one group considers most basic (I am an autonomous human being with a right to self-determination regarding what happens to my body), another sees as profoundly immoral (that abortion is akin to murder). Even if the result of reading a work of literature could always be the same for everyone, there would be vehement disagreement about which result could be considered ‘moral.’

Literature helps shape what we consider to be moral in the first place.

So, if the answer to the question of whether reading literature makes us more moral is so obviously “no,” why ask it in the first place? And why did so many people show up to the event to consider the question? It may have something to do with the worry—pervasive after some literature departments over the past decade were shuttered—that if literature is not shown to be “useful,” then it will be considered dispensable. Literature, its critics have alleged, is not pulling its weight intellectually or economically; its effects are not easily quantifiable, and, worst of all, it does not contribute to the practical education of students concerned about getting jobs. Understandably, those of us who profess literature in the university are disquieted by such attitudes, and we have responded in a variety of ways. Some, like Rita Felski (Uses of Literature, 2008), Marjorie Garber (The Use and Abuse of Literature, 2011) and Joshua Landy (How to Do Things With Fictions, 2012) have addressed the issue head on by publishing books about the usefulness of literature.

Others have turned to experimental methods to demonstrate empirically the real effects that reading literature does have. This is what Kidd, a Ph.D. candidate in Social Psychology at The New School, brought to the discussion. In collaboration with his doctoral advisor, Emanuale Castano, Kidd has run a series of social psychological experiments designed to show that reading literary fiction challenges readers cognitively in a way that has some interesting and potentially beneficial effects; a write-up of their studies was published this past October in Science. Kidd noted that reading literary fiction—as opposed to reading non-fiction, popular genre fiction, or nothing at all—requires readers to integrate several streams of information at once, while highlighting human subjectivity and the existence of multiple perspectives. Literary fiction disrupts the social scripts we take for granted by plunging us into unfamiliar situations, and by requiring us to pay attention to people we might normally never encounter or interactions we would usually sail through without real engagement. What they found is that reading literary fiction at least temporarily improves a test subject’s ability to perform well on social psychological tests of both cognitive and affective theory of mind. The implication is that reading literary fiction might enhance a person’s ability to discern others’ feelings and intentions—a skill that is central to the successful navigation of complex social relationships in a multifaceted multicultural world like our own. Or, Kidd suggested, reading might simply disrupt readers’ customary egocentrism.

Regardless of its use or morality, literature, I submit, is brilliantly suited to the exploration of what it means to be an ethical human being in a particular socio-historical situation. Works of literary fiction represent a creative and formal linguistic engagement—in the shape of an oral or written artifact—with the historically- and geographically-situated socio-political tensions found at the level of individual experience. It is a formal representation that mediates an author’s (and subsequently a reader’s) apprehension of her own “world of sense.” Because works of literary fiction engage our emotions and challenge our perceptions, they both reflect on and help shape what we consider to be moral in the first place. Importantly, this can be the case as much for the author as for the reader.

Consider Toni Morrison’s Sula. In a 1985 interview conducted by Bessie Jones, Morrison formulated the question that motivated the novel Sula: “If you say you are somebody’s friend as in Sula, now what does that mean? What are the lines that you do not step across?” Elsewhere in that same interview, Morrison explains that she views writing as a way of testing out the moral fiber of her characters in order to see how they respond to difficult situations: “Well, I think my goal is to see really and truly of what these people are made, and I put them in situations of great duress and pain, you know, I ‘call their hand.’ And, then when I see them in life threatening circumstances or see their hands called, then I know who they are.” Moreover, because Morrison regards writing as a process of moral and epistemic investigation, she does not write about ordinary, everyday people or events. Instead, she plumbs the hard cases—the situations where “something really terrible happens.” She explains: “that’s the way I find out what is heroic. That’s the way I know why such people survive, who went under, who didn’t, what the civilization was, because quiet as its kept much of our business, our existence here, has been grotesque.” The process of writing a novel can be mode of inquiry in which the “answer” surprises even the author.

In her interrogation of the “lines you do not step across” in Sula, Morrison depicts a number of relationships, some of which are more or less successful, others of which are twisted, even grotesque. The most important relationship in the novel is the friendship between Nel and Sula. Over the course of the novel, the friendship between Nel and Sula ultimately fails not because Sula does not care about Nel, but because she confuses her own interests with Nel’s. Indeed, Sula’s attachment to Nel is so strong that she thinks of the two of them as “two throats and one eye” (147). When, as an adult, Sula has sex with Nel’s husband Jude, she does so without shame or malice. It is only after Sula has sex with Jude—only after Nel refuses to forgive Sula the trespass on her marriage and her feelings—that Sula recognizes that she has overstepped a boundary that exists between them. Thus, Morrison’s question—“What are the lines you do not step across?”— refers not just to ethical imperatives like, “A friend never sleeps with her friend’s husband,” but also to the lines that constitute us and make us self and other. An ethicist in her own right,Morrison explores the dynamic that emerges when a self fails to recognize the other as other—as a unique individual with legitimate needs and desires separate from one’s own.

The “lines” between self and other that one must “not step across” are—like other ethical and moral imperatives—historically and culturally particular; they are not universal. As social psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama demonstrate, there are several different cultural models of the self, some of which are more independent and others of which are more interdependent (see “Culture and the Self" or Markus and Conner's Clash! 2013). Accordingly, an action that might constitute a grievous infringement on another person’s autonomy in one sociocultural context (e.g., that your parents might choose your husband or wife), might be perceived as perfectly appropriate or even desirable in another. But rather than diminishing Morrison’s achievement, the fact of sociocultural variability serves to enhance the value of her project. How else are we to know where those lines are located in a given situation—unless we explore and probe? How better to conduct that exploration than through literature? In theory, we could round up actual people and run experiments; we could put them in “situations in which something really terrible happens” in order to find out “what’s heroic.” But this, of course, is not ethically or morally permissible in our society. For now, literature remains the most significant venue through which authors and readers alike can examine the myriad and complicated reasons that people—as inescapably situated beings—think and behave the way they do.