Science Fiction is Good for You Too: A Reply to Martha Nussbaum's Theory of Literary Engagement
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In this study I examine the arguments made by Martha Nussbaum in Poetic Justice in defence of a positive role for literary engagement in the process of moral and political judgement formation. Nussbaum argues that novel reading offers a unique chance to engage our empathy in morally beneficial ways, because it stands as a kind of practice run for appropriate moral judgement through the adoption of an emotionally engaged yet critically distant “Judicious Spectator” stance when reading. I examine her account of the activity and purported benefits of reading and argue that her use of the Judicious Spectator concept is incompatible with her claims about the structure of novels and the experience of reading. I suggest examining an alternative set of fictions, namely the genre of science fiction and in particular Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness as a means to assess whether Nussbaum’s account plausibly captures the moral value of reading fiction. I argue that even a charitable reading of Nussbaum’s Judicious Spectator concept cannot explain the central thought experiment at the heart of Le Guin’s novel, as it invites readers to contemplate a re-evaluation of their own self-identities or foundational assumptions, allowing them to abandon beliefs and understandings that have perhaps unwittingly coloured their previous moral reasoning without undergoing the scrutiny of justificatory rigour. This resulting type of re-evaluation is, I argue, primarily self-reflective in nature and not externally directed to programmatic outcomes like the possible interpretations of the novel available to Nussbaum. This good, which I label ‘appropriate doubt’, is defended as a general feature of certain kinds of novel reading, and as worthy of moral attention. I conclude that this shows Nussbaum’s account of engagement with fiction to be at best, incomplete.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
CommitteeDayton, Eric; Buschert, William
Copyright DateMarch 2015
Ursula K. Le Guin