Reading Beyond the Lines: Can Fiction Be a Source of Moral Knowledge?

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From a young age, children are exposed to various rights and wrong through fables, while religions preach their standards of morality through parables. This indicates that through works of fictional literature, we may extract some moral knowledge or basis upon which we synthesise moral claims. Are we thus able to glean moral knowledge from fictional literature?

Anti-cognitivists argue against fiction as a source of moral knowledge, arguing that fiction fails to convey any non-trivial truths and hence can either only offer trivial moral knowledge, or not warrant any knowledge at all.

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However, I argue that fictional literature conveys its knowledge largely through Justified Experiential Belief which is non-propositional. This may provide an avenue to acquire some moral knowledge from fiction, as it does not necessitate independent truth to acquire knowledge.

In this paper, I shall first discuss 3 main challenges against fiction as a source of moral knowledge. Thereafter, I argue against these challenges and conclude that not only can fiction be a source of moral knowledge, it is a valuable source of moral knowledge.

What is Fiction?

Fiction may be viewed as a construct presenting an alternate reality that is distinct from, yet related to, the reality of ordinary experience. It does not accurately reflect reality; yet, it seems to add to our understanding of reality. In fiction, the alternate reality present is not composed of physical objects. Rather, it is constructed from words. While words in daily life usually correspond to some existing object, words in fiction do not refer to any objects that exist in our reality. To illustrate this, consider this extract from Jack and the Beanstalk, “Once upon a time, there was a boy called Jack. He lived with his mother. They were very poor. All they had was a cow.” Clearly, referentiality in fiction is problematic because it is obvious that neither “Jack”, “his mother”, nor “cow” refer to any actual people or cows in real life.

This problem of referentiality may be further exacerbated by the use of figurative language in fiction. Fiction employs a variety of literary devices (like metaphors) that surpass literal meaning. In the Book of Genesis, God expresses his displeasure towards Cain’s murder of Abel: “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil. And so, cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand.” In real-life, Abel or any other person’s blood is inanimate and incapable crying out, nor is the soil capable of opening its “mouth” to take one’s blood. It was Moses that, through the word of God, personified the blood of Abel that Cain had spilt and the soil of the field in which former was murdered by the latter, and endows it with the faculties of agency and emotion. He refers to blood and soil that do not exist in reality; Referentiality thus becomes non-existent, and knowledge construction is compromised. This problem of referentiality will be a recurring whipping boy for the anti-cognitivists.

Anti-cognitivists argue that the Arts, comprising fictional literature, is unable to give us any meaningful knowledge, let alone moral knowledge.

Jerome Stolnitz concurs with this view, and argues in his article entitled “On the Cognitive Triviality of Art” that Art, including fiction, cannot offer us new insight into things (and thus new knowledge), but merely offers truisms. His main contention with fiction being treated as a source of knowledge is that it is unable to provide us with “truth”. Truths of the world expressed in the arts, he claims, are distinctly banal. In the context of fiction, what Stolnitz is really trying to say is that “truths” acquired from fiction are already known to us from other fields of inquiry. In his opinion, fiction is rigid and schematic with fixed moral messages (if any at all); any underlying moral messages we extract from fiction are simply trivial knowledge claims that we can arrive at in ethical inquiry. This, if we were to accept his argument, would simply entail the application of trivial truisms if we so choose to apply moral knowledge acquired from fiction to real life. This sentiment is echoed by anti-cognitivists and can be surmised as the Triviality challenge.

Additionally, he argues that since the art (and thus fiction) does not have an established method or body of experts available to confer any meaningful truth-value upon knowledge claims, such knowledge claims are devoid of epistemic value. To attempt to illustrate his argument, we consider this: One may read a work of dystopian post-apocalyptic fiction and acquire some “Moral Knowledge” in a dystopian society. However, the “experts” struggle to confer a truth value to that claim; for authors have differing opinions and there is no distinct benchmark or method upon which they can claim that the moral claim is true or false. Therefore, this piece of knowledge would be meaningless. This is a case of the anti-cognitivist Uniqueness Challenge: Even if fiction were to warrant important “true” beliefs, neither the mode of “inquiry” carried out nor the knowledge conveyed is distinct. Therefore, fiction conveys no unique insight into moral knowledge and reasoning.

Furthermore, Stolnitz argues that even we regard fiction as a source of moral knowledge, the vagueness of reference of fiction to both reality as well as itself poses a problem to any knowledge acquired from fiction. His frustration is apparent in his statement: “Do the statements of psychological truth (in fiction) refer to all or most or a few of the flesh-and-blood beings they designate? How can we know? The drama or novel will not tell us.” In the opinion of anti-cognitivists, the problem of referentiality in fiction compromises knowledge construction because fiction does not warrant knowledge. Significant beliefs afforded by fiction do not warrant knowledge because the statements that give rise to these beliefs either lack clear designation, or do not possess any truth value. This last challenge can be surmised as the Warrant Challenge.

With these considerations in mind, we may infer that according to Stolnitz and other anti-cognitivists, moral knowledge acquired from fiction can only be cognitively trivial.

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