Over my (far too) many years of studentship and academic employment, I have bought (far too) many books, (far too) many of which have stagnated on my shelves, growing dusty and churlish from disuse. Among this unedifying lot have never been tomes edited or authored by Peter Singer.
This is not because it is impossible to disagree with Singer, or to occasionally find his fearless exploration of the most complex, sensitive and interesting ethical issues of our times unsatisfying, terse and one-dimensional. But rather because with the exception of de Botton, Singer is without peer when it comes to picking the right topic and penning erudite and accessible prose steeped in casual references to philosophical debates on similar issues dating back thousands of years.
In The Moral of the Story, written in partnership with wife Renata, he does it again, compiling an anthology that students, academic philosophers and writers interested in ethics (and what writer isn’t?) will pull off the shelf to thumb through again and again.
The Singers describe themselves as editors of The Moral of the Story but they are much more. Clearly dedicated readers of quality fiction, they do a superlative job at what I’m sure was the humbling task of selecting - then editing for purpose and sense - the backlist of western civilisation. Having been refused permission by a number of authors, including American Psycho author, Bret Easton Ellis, to anthologise their work in the collection, they ultimately settle on 79 excerpts by 61 authors. These include pieces from Genesis, Sophocles, Shelly, Ibsen, Dickens, Arna Bontemps, James Baldwin, S.Yizhar, Ursula Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Kathy Lette and the comic writer Douglas Adams.
I was familiar with about one quarter of the material, though interestingly I found this neither diminished (through repetition) nor enhanced (because of my stored bank of additional knowledge of character and plot) my enjoyment of the material. Instead, the pruning of each selection and its filing under a particular section heading (as a story exploring “Duties to God” or the moral issues that arise around paid “Work” or “War”) refocused my attention on a previously unconsidered aspect of a particular tale, giving the story - no matter how familiar - new life.
But the real value-add comes in the preface to the collection, and the Singers’ introduction to each of the book’s 15 sections. Here they set the ethical scene, introducing the issues in play and the conflict of values that typically arise when considering, say, “Duties to kin”, “New life forms” or “Animals and the environment”. As well, those interested in using the book’s fictional excerpts as a teaching aid will find a range of issues and pertinent questions arising from each selection compiled at the back.
Some of these introductions are done extremely well. I was particularly impressed with the one on “Love, marriage and sex”, in which the authors observe that while the decision of whether to and whom to marry will “have more impact on our lives than most other decision we make”, there has been “relatively little serious discussion about the values underlying the choice of mate”.
They then briefly explore the various literary models of the ideal romantic relationship: Shakespeare’s depiction of sudden passionate love in Romeo and Juliet; de Maupassant’s contention that lasting love requires a “deeper union of the minds” in The Model, Seth’s suggestion, made through Lata’s ultimate choice of Haresh for her husband in A Suitable Boy, that arranged marriages based upon common values provides the firmest foundation for mature love to eventually flourish.
Unfortunately, other such pre-emptory remarks are less consistent with the spirit of inquiry, rather than argument, that rightly characterises an exploration of ethics through literature. Indeed, what the authors seem to miss in their early discussion of the key differences in the way literature and philosophy approach ethics is ultimately the different aims of each for doing so.
The aim of philosophical argument is to prove the rightness of one’s own claims, in part by exposing the flaws in our opponents’ arguments. In contrast, the best books and plays resist the temptation to argue conclusively for a particular point of view. Instead, they seek to deepen our emotional understanding of the complexity and profundity of particular value conflicts by putting the sharpest most persuasive arguments in the mouths of the characters on both side of the case. This not only sharpens the value conflict and consequently the drama, but grants legitimacy to the existence of the conflict in the first place.
“There’s no need to fight about these things,” says the philosopher. “This argument proves conclusively that the others are wrong and I am right.”
“Of course we must fight about these things,” counters the writer. ”Who but God could witness such a contest and have any idea who is right?”
To avoid the emotional retreat and defensiveness that many have to philosophical preaching, novelists draw us into a conflict by emphasising its acuity and the lack of certainty even very good people can feel about the right thing to do. Ironically, this suggests that the road to a deep and full understanding of the nature and meaning of a moral dilemma also leads to moral relativism.
Now there’s a conundrum on which I would have like to have heard the Singers pronounce.