The Moral Value of Surprise: Lessons from Literature for a Fracturing Country

March 19, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 3 5 min read

As I’ve watched the contraception debate unfold over the last couple months, I’ve been surprised by the breadth of agreement there seems to be in America about access to birth control. With the exception of remarks from a certain chubby radio host and the requisite pandering from the Republican presidential candidates, the conversation has largely reflected the view of conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer who wrote about contraception, “It’s a settled question. The country has no real desire for cringe-inducing admonitions from politicians about libertinism and procreative (vs. pleasurable) sex.”

cover This relative accord is particularly striking given that it comes at a time when the divisions in American life are greater than ever.  To wit: the 99 percent and the 1 percent, the trap of the Filter Bubble, the polarizing influence of gerrymandered Congressional districts, and the recent book by conservative polemicist Charles Murray, Coming Apart, which details the widening cultural gap between the white working class and the white middle class.

So what does it mean for the country that our cultural common denominator is shrinking? That increasingly Americans have very little experiences through which to understand the lives of our fellow citizens? And why, in the midst of these trends is there general agreement on an issue as potentially flammable as contraception? Recently I found good answers to these questions in an unexpected place — in an essay on literature and ethics that provides a convincing account of the rock bottom consequences of a fractured population.

The essay is called “Perceptive Equilibrium: Literary Theory and Ethical Theory,” and it was first given as a talk by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum 25 years ago. The purpose of the paper was to merge literary theory with ethical theory — to show how forms of art like the novel can help us answer arguably the two most fundamental philosophical questions: How should I live my life? How should we live together? Here is Nussbaum describing the centrality of literature to ethics:

One of the things that makes literature something deeper and more central for us than a complex game, deeper even than those games, for example chess and tennis, that move us to wonder by their complex beauty, is that it speaks like Strether. It speaks about us, about our lives and choices and emotions, about our social existence and the totality of our connections.

cover The Strether that Nussbaum refers to is a character in Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors and indeed much of Nussbaum’s paper is devoted to explicating that novel — to using it a test case for how literary theory and ethical theory might complement each other.

As Nussbaum sees it, James’s novels were a form of applied philosophy.  She sees the interplay between James’ characters as a debate about how best to live in the world. On one side there is the stolid Mrs. Newsome who holds unswerving ideas about right and wrong and is not open to reconsidering her views in light of new information. On the other side there is Lambert Strether, Mrs. Newsome’s fiancé, a seeker in the world who continually revises his convictions in response to the knowledge he gains through new experiences.

About Mrs. Newsome, Nussbaum writes, “We notice first and most obviously her moralism, her preoccupation with questions of moral right and wrong, with criticism of offense, with judgment upon vice.” A key aspect of Mrs. Newsome’s worldview, Nussbaum argues, is that it judges people irrespective of the contexts in which they act. Take for example childbearing outside of marriage. Mrs. Newsome would consider it to be an absolute wrong. To her, explanations for unmarried sex that turned on cultural differences or economic opportunity would be merely feckless justification for bad behavior.

Overall Mrs. Newsome has no patience for details or circumstance. She doesn’t need or want to know other people’s stories. “Her rules of right admit of no softening in the light of the present circumstance, of the individual case,” Nussbaum writes. Mrs. Newsome is not interested in learning new things, being surprised or jolted into reconsidering her views. Rather, she is a rock, impervious to modification by worldly experience.

Nussbaum is not entirely critical of Mrs. Newsome’s moral disposition. She says that it confers dignity on people by respecting every individual, regardless of circumstances, as capable of using will and reason to make good decisions. But overall she thinks Mrs. Newsome’s approach is impoverished and prone to error. For one, Nussbaum thinks it defeats the best parts of being alive — “This sense that life is an adventure, and that part of its joy precisely is the confrontation with the new.” And for two, Nussbaum argues that when we apply blanket principles to people we don’t know, more often than not our judgments turn out to be wrong.

Lambert Strether approaches life differently. Strether serves as Mrs. Newsome’s TK, but part of him desires to escape the closed confines of Woollett TK. Nussbaum figures Strether as a “perceiver” — someone who longs to drink in the multiplicity of the world, to approach experience like a toddler, “eyes wide open, vulnerable, wondering at each new thing.”

Nussbaum credits this as a good way to live a life — both because it’s more personally fulfilling and because it leads to more accurate judgments. “It is somehow a key to all the rest,” Nussbaum argues, “that a willingness to surrender invincibility, to take a posture of agency that is porous and susceptible of influence, is of the highest importance in getting an accurate perception of particular things in the world.” She follows Aristotle who believed that the way to arrive at good judgments was to circle in on the truth: to revise old views in light of new information while striving to preserve “the greatest number and the most basic” of the original beliefs. Nussbaum calls the end point (or resting point) of this process the state of “perceptive equilibrium.”

Nussbaum argues that literature is particularly good at driving us towards perceptive equilibrium. Literature, she writes, “searches for patterns of possibility – of choice, and circumstance, and the interaction between choice and circumstance – that turn up in human lives with such a persistence that they must be regarded as our possibilities.” Put another way, literature presents us with the options by which we might live our own lives — and it teaches us to go beyond superficial judgments in order to try and imagine the interior lives of other people.

But literature is not a panacea. As Nussbaum notes, it’s easier to engage with the moral life of a character than it is to get to know a real human being, which brings me back to the trends segmenting American society today and to contraception in particular.

The contraception debate — and relative détente — reflects contributions from both Mrs. Newsome’s perspective and Strether’s perspective. Consider just one piece of that debate, the issue of teenagers having sex. On the one hand most parents are against teenagers having sex, because they think it’s wrong or risky. On the other hand, most parents also take a pragmatic Stretherian perspective developed from their own experiences: Given that kids are going to have sex, let’s help them do it as safely as possible.

The fusing of these views — the moral and the practical — is possible because parents and teenagers know and (for the most part) understand each other: They live in the same homes and all parents were once teenagers themselves. But now imagine how the contraception conversation would be different if all parents lived on the West Coast and all teenagers lived on the East Coast, or if no parents had ever been teenagers themselves. The circumstances of people’s lives would preclude the possibility of Stretherian wisdom, developed over time and through experience. Mrs. Newsome’s perspective would dominate the conversation.  Mutual misunderstanding and stridency would abound.

Teenagers and parents aren’t divorcing anytime soon, but on many other demographic and cultural axes Americans have already become strangers to each other. The result, I think, is that we all become a little more like Mrs. Newsome and a little less like Strether than perhaps we’d like to be. In the absence of surprise it’s very hard for even the best intentioned among us to see the colorful world in anything but black and white.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.

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