Does Great Literature Make Us Better?


Gregory Currie in The NYT's The Stone:

Here, quickly, is a reason we already have for thinking the idea of moral and social learning from literature may be misguided.

One reason people like Martha Nussbaum have argued for the benefits of literature is that literature, or fictional narrative of real quality, deals in complexity. Literature turns us away from the simple moral rules that so often prove unhelpful when we are confronted with messy real-life decision making, and gets us ready for the stormy voyage through the social world that sensitive, discriminating moral agents are supposed to undertake. Literature helps us, in other words, to be, or to come closer to being, moral “experts.”

The problem with this argument is that there’s long been evidence that much of what we take for expertise in complex and unpredictable domains – of which morality is surely one – is bogus. Beginning 50 years ago with work by the psychologist Paul Meehl, study after study has shown that following simple rules – rules that take account of many fewer factors than an expert would bother to consider – does at least as well and generally better than relying on an expert’s judgment. (Not that rules do particularly well either; but they do better than expert judgment.)

Some of the evidence for this view is convincingly presented in Daniel Kahneman’s recent book “Thinking Fast and Slow”: spectacular failures of expertise include predictions of the future value of wine, the performance of baseball players, the health of newborn babies and a couple’s prospects for marital stability.