We Have to Keep Asking
"What is the Moral of the Story?"

“There is a striking absence in literary theory of the organizing questions of moral philosophy”. Martha Naussbaum


When we read literature, our minds and emotions, the ways we think and feel towards others become more palpable. We become more aware of the existence of another being, in another situation, similar or alien to our own. Not only the best of the best reads in literature enables empathy, but the best of the best heightens and expands what Naussbaum calls, “the narrative imagination.”

While you may not be a literature major, but coming from a different discipline, you cannot discount ethical considerations in your practice. Literature, and its analysis is “fundamentally concerned with ethics”. Sans the humanities in general and literature in particular, we might be in danger of ‘forgetting …the ethical’  in our various approaches to any discipline . 


‘Textual ethics’ is responsible language that is “perceived by,  reimagined,  and profoundly speaks of us as social human beings”. 

Martha Naussbaum described a moral theory of literature and a practice of reading that fostered the “narrative imagination.” It gets the readers involved with the characters, their hopes and fears – they acknowledge their own world, and choose morally and reflectively in it. 

  • How does a literary piece affirm or deny the past, present, or future reality as you know it—and what becomes your responsibility in relation to this knowledge?

“The inter-human moment is a profound and natural experience: it marks the beginnings of the existential, opens the individual to new possibilities, and it is the prerequisite of relationship, the inaugural moment of responsibility."

“Crucial in this inter-human moment “is the ability to see people as human beings, not simply as objects.” Naussbaum

  • What literature or reading fare promote the loss of the ability to see people as human beings, but simply as objects?


Other questions with an ethical consideration: What is my moral duty? (Kantian Ethics); How shall I maximize utility? (Utilitarianism).

Material pragmatism of the above questions neglect any account of the moral imagination [Naussbaum]. Her ‘ethics’ focuses on the moral actions and not on the morality of the agent; the morality of these actions provides for moral character .

  • How a literary piece explores an individual’s/ author’s/ character’s range of choices and how these can impact other people at any point in time.


“All forms of human behavior may be assessed within a holistic  view of lived experience...Literacy and reading contribute intrinsically towards a unity of human character and a capacity for human flourishing."

  • How the aesthetics of style promotes the “Literary works … as artificial construction of some crucial elements in a norm of public rationality, providing ethical instruction for civil responsibility, valuable guides to correct responses.”

The finest ethical texts has literature’s unique capacity to replicate the multi-fold dimensions of its represented world. How a literary text “transports us into the lives and experience of others, provides a world of people living out human universals, a world into which the reader brings committed empathy while maintaining distance or detachment necessary for moral evaluations.” It is in the identification and mirror alignment of subjectivities that the reader enters into an exploration of morality that is character building. The moral exemplars of didactic and epistolary form are less persuasive but both these work together towards the social purpose of literature as an adjustment value of personhood."  This ethical stand opens up the canon to minority and marginalized voices…in the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person, and by their inclusion to address particular cultural blind spots.


Popular neo-humanist approach is limited to defense, criticism and opposition rather than enabling radical critique and systematic change. Naussbaum’s ethics of reading nowhere allows for an altogether OTHER; rather it looks for a reciprocity of the same humanism as she has it already proscribed.

And yet to be truly responsible to our humanity, it is necessary to recognize that what is fundamentally at stake in the inter-human encounter is the possibility of personal transformation and radical accountability.

Even before a person’s face appears before us, our responsibility is already there, passive but sure to respond. In acknowledging their total difference from us, we have an ethical relation that surpasses that difference.Another human being’s face speaks before us even without a situation of need, he is there, present, a being, and were responsible.


In Levinas Ethical thought language is so structured that it brings neighbors into a relation with each other.The ‘underlying intention of language,’ is the ethical event. “The ethical saying of language ‘accomplishes a relation such as the terms are not limited within this relation’ and that the other ‘despite the relationship with the same remains transcendent to the same.’"

With Martha Naussbaum’s Ethical Thought, our ‘narrative imagination’ is spurred by Literature. We identify with another human being. With Levina’s ethical thought, we will never be able to identify with another human being because another human being is radically different from us.  But our ethical responsibility stems precisely from this reality. Levina‘s approach ‘prioritizes whatever in the text resists assimilation to the same.’

  • How a literary text explores and /or interrogates views/ characters/ movements/ times and spaces / signs and symbols / metaphors etc. that resist hegemony or totalizations .


  • Derek Attridge: “There is an ethical dimension to any act of literary signification.”
  • Carla Serpel: “Literature is structurally suggestive: it affords certain ways of reading, and these movements of reading – a projection onto, a movement into the self/other relation – are its ethical modes”
  • “Tobin Seibers has focused on community, Derrida on textuality, Focault on the socio-political, Levinas on the Other
  • “Naussbum’s ‘cognitive-evaluative’ conception of ethics positions ‘fancy’ – the ability to see one thing as another and one thing in another – at the heart of the ethical life.


It has been the mission of creative experimentations of narratology and literary form to open up the precincts of language and to challenge the reader to embrace more radical subjectivities. “Reading becomes an act of conscienceful listening...Ethical criticism ultimately serves the task of breaking through sedimented codifications.”