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Excerpt from:  “Ethical Criticism:  What It Is and Why It Matters,” Style XXXII.2 (Summer 1998):  194-220.


NB: This article has been reprinted in There Is No Other Story: Ethics, Literature, and Theory, ed. Stephen K. George & M. Kip Hartvigsen (Mason, OH: Thomson Custom Publishing, 2003): 15-36.


If we cannot endure living without standards in real life, it follows—since most fictions represent real life—that we cannot endure to read fictions without bringing standards into play there as well. The formalistic view that novels are about language, not about life, fails to explain why people get so caught up liking and disliking different fictional characters or why they deeply desire specific resolutions to certain fictional plots and situations. If ethical questions arise as a natural consequence of first-hand interactions and sociability, then they will also arise as we meet and interact with fictional characters. When we meet new people, we form our impressions of them by asking ourselves questions about them rooted in moral and ethical perspectives, such as "is this person good?" "is this person trustworthy?," "is this person kind, likable, generous, compassionate?," and so on. These ethical categories comprise the most important part of our "reading" of new acquaintances. Not using these categories would make other people appear to us mostly as blanks, mere utilitarian counters like chess pieces or tools, devoid of affective or ethical significance. None of us can imagine living this way. I don't mean only that none of can imagine living happily this way; I mean that none of us can imagine living this way at all. Such an existence would not be human because it would be a kind of existence that Midgley is surely right to say that we could not bear: a life lived "shapelessly, incoherently, discontinuously, meaninglessly—[a life] without standards." But if this is so, then it follows that we will bring our standards into play in all of our social relations, including those we conduct with fictional characters. Whether talking about the characters and events of literature or life, all of us turn to such criteria as better/worst, good/bad, honest/dishonest, fair/unfair, liberated/oppressed, just/unjust, inclusive/exclusive, kind/cruel, humane/inhuman, generous/selfish, self-controlled/self-indulgent, and many others because all such criteria are rooted in assumptions (either explicit or implicit) about such fundamentally ethical categories as moral agency, the "oughtness" or "rightness" of certain social and political practices, or such "should-bes" of the existential condition as "individuals should be allowed freedom of speech and free choice of sexual partners."

If our existence as social creatures explains where ethical criticism comes from, it follows that this same social nature also explains why moral considerations never go away or lose their relevance. Because we never stop being social creatures, the moral dimensions of life are both inevitable and permanent. Human life is saturated with moral considerations, moral judgments, moral categories, and practical moral reasoning. Hardly any of our thoughts about relations with others are morally neutral. Our thoughts about relations with other people are deeply colored by speculations about the impression we are making, about the approval we seek, and about the impression on us that other people make, beginning primarily with the impressions that we all give and receive as moral agents: impressions about such moral features, for example, as honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, kindness, generosity, self-control, and fairness. We may admire people for being strong, clever, brilliant, or talented, but we trust them and love them only when we think they are, at most, truly good or, at least, not malicious. The portraits we draw of other people in our minds' eye—the picture that tells us whether and how much we can afford to trust and love them—are portraits drawn almost entirely in ethical and moral colors.