Ethics, Evil, and Fiction

By Colin McGinn

21 ratings - 3.9* vote

McGinn's latest brings together moral philosophy and literary analysis in a way that illuminates both. Setting out to enrich the domain of moral reflection by showing the value of literary texts as sources of moral illumination, McGinn starts by setting out an uncompromisingly realist ethical theory, arguing that morality is an area of objective truth and genuine knowledge McGinn's latest brings together moral philosophy and literary analysis in a way that illuminates both. Setting out

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Book details

Paperback, 256 pages
August 12th 1999 by OUP Oxford

(first published 1997)

Original Title
Ethics, Evil, and Fiction
0198238770 (ISBN13: 9780198238775)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Carmilla Voiez

This is the second of McGinn's non-fiction books that I've read and I found it very easy to engage with. I've felt for many years the importance of fiction with regards to both empathy and connecting deeply with moral questions. This book articulated what I felt and backed it up with evidence.

The paragraphs and lines that really spoke to me and I felt encapsulated McGinn's arguments best are -

"The fictional work can make us see and feel good and evil in a way that no philosophical tract can."
"A tremendous amount of moral thinking and feeling is done when reading novels (or watching plays and films, or reading poetry and short stories). In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that for most people this is the primary way in which they acquire ethical attitudes, especially in contemporary culture."
"An effective work of fiction is precisely the refashioning of the obvious in such a way that we are enabled to experience it afresh."
"The monster is evil write palpable, and hence more easily grasped and detected. Monsters exist, in effect, because of the psychic entrenchment of the aesthetic theory of virtue. They are a reification of the soul made ugly through vice and innate depravity."
"For social animals like ourselves, there is pleasure in co-operation, in coordinating our actions with those of others. But this pleasure can exist even when what is done is evil ... doing evil things in groups is bound to set up an association between pleasure on the part of the members of the group and the suffering of the victim."
"The sadist's project can act as a radical antidote to deep existential envy, and even milder forms of cruelty can serve to alleviate the pangs of envy."

Tiago Filipe Clariano

A questão do bem e do mal que sempre me pareceu ultrapassada é apresentada por Colin McGinn de vários modos. O autor começa por abordar a ética e as suas perspectivas acerca do bem e do mal, de bom e mau carácter e o que define cada um deles. Nesta obra, ético e estético surgem de mãos dadas para procurar entender os conceitos em questão, que são postos em perspectiva epistemológica, será o bem ou o fazer bem como uma cor? Terá um correlato palpável a que acedemos quando o referimos linguisticamente? E qual é a relação para com a ideia de dever?
No quarto capítulo, de modo a explicar o "mau carácter", faz-se um exercício de imaginação do mundo dividio entre uns seres que encontram prazer no prazer dos outros e dor na dor dos outros e outros que encontram dor no prazer dos outros e prazer na dor dos outros. Assim os conceitos são parabolizados de um modo minimalista, de fácil entendimento, mas também para dar a entender que é de puro mal que se fala e não de mal instrumental (um mal feito com finalidades para o praticante).
Os últimos dois capítulos situam-se entre o ético e o estético por excelência na ficção do «Retrato de Dorian Gray» e «Frankenstein», onde aparência e essência são eximiamente postas em tensão sobre o denominador da "Alma Bela". Surge também uma "Teoria Estética da Virtude" onde a virtude se faz coincidir com a beleza da alma e o vício com o feio. Dorian Gray vê os seus pecados surtir um efeito estético no seu retrato, mas não no seu corpo (e a abordagem do último capítulo é um plottwist excelente), enquanto que o Monstro de Frankenstein, apesar de conter as melhores intenções, tem um invólucro que surte efeitos repelentes nos que o encontram (a excepção do pai de família cego).
A conclusão retoma a linguagem e os modos de moralização antigos: os mandamentos e as parábolas, preferindo as parábolas, mas concedendo a iluminação dada pelos mandamentos à moral.

"To be thrust into the world of hunger and fear and death and then to be treated as a burden by the perpetrators - that must seem the very height of injustice."


This book puts forth the somewhat novel thesis for a philosopher that we can learn something about ethics by looking at fiction. The first half of the book reads like typical Oxford philosophy: discussions of Goodness, Ethics, Morality and how we know them. He then gives a quite original analysis of the Evil Character, laying waste to a number of prominent theories, and touching on Billy Budd and Shakespeare's Iago in the process. Ultimately though, he weds evil with pleasure, stressing that any theory that doesn't acknowledge "how good it feels" will make no headway towards eradicating evil. Next he takes on a sliver of aesthetics by looking at the "Beauty of Soul," using Nabakov's views on aesthetics, and Nabakov's character Humbert Humbert from Lolita as a foil for Thomas Reid's theory of aesthetic value. McGinn's basic point is that we view the world through aesthetic eyes, can't otherwise do so, and that it does make sense to describe people's (and character's) inner lives as beautiful or ugly. With all the groundwork in place, McGinn then launches into an analysis of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Frankenstein, showing how ethical analysis can be applied directly to fictional characters. In his concluding chapter, McGinn argues that philosophers of ethics have focused too much on commandments and not enough on narratives when it comes to looking at moral instruction. He argues that fiction (as well as other narratives) is a great place to see how ethical ideas "play out" because you have specific characters within specific contexts. A notch below discussing real people in real situations, perhaps, but certainly a notch above discussing the abstractions of "is" and "ought" and the application of commandments without context.