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Does Reading Literature Make You More Moral?

5:30pm on Thursday, February 6, 2014 At Koret-Taube 130
Thu 6 Feb

Event Overview

We read novels for many reasons: for interest, to learn about writing techniques, to be intellectually challenged, for sheer pleasure. Some have speculated that reading novels also serves moral purposes. For example, in his book The Better Angles of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker speculates that the rise of literacy and the reading of novels extended empathy more broadly and led people to inflict less violence on their peers. How might reading novels help people better understand the moral issues that they face in their everyday lives? Or to put the question more starkly: if I am interested in learning about what are right and wrong actions, what human ends are worth pursuing, or what are virtues of character, why would I turn to literature at all?

As part of the Center for Ethics in Society's 25th anniversary celebration, a reception will follow this event. All are welcome.

View photos from this event.


Joshua Landy is the Andrew B. Hammond Professor of French and Professor of Comparative Literature; he also co-directs Stanford's Initiative in Literature and Philosophy.  His books include Philosophy as Fiction: Self, Deception, and Knowledge in Proust (Oxford, 2004), How to Do Things With Fictions (Oxford, 2012), and (as coeditor) The Re-Enchantment of the World: Secular Magic in a Rational Age (Stanford, 2009).

Paula Moya is Associate Professor of English and, by courtesy, of Iberian and Latin American Cultures, and Director of the Program in Modern Thought and Literature at Stanford University. Moya’s teaching and research focus on twentieth-century and early twenty-first century literary studies, feminist theory, critical and narrative theories, American cultural studies, interdisciplinary approaches to race and ethnicity, and Chicano/a and U.S. Latina/o studies. Moya is the author of Learning From Experience: Minority Identities, Multicultural Struggles (UC Press 2002) and has co-edited three collections of original essays, Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century (W.W. Norton, Inc. 2010), Identity Politics Reconsidered (Palgrave 2006) and Reclaiming Identity: Realist Theory and the Predicament of Postmodernism (UC Press 2000). She is a recipient of the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, a Ford Foundation postdoctoral fellowship, the Outstanding Chicana/o Faculty Member award, a Brown Faculty fellowship, and a Clayman Institute fellowship. She is currently at work on a manuscript entitled: The Social Imperative: Race, Close Reading, and Contemporary Literary Criticism.

David Kidd is currently a PhD candidate at The New School for Social Research in New York City. He has worked on projects to better understand the empathic and emotional processes underlying the avoidance or maltreatment of people with mental illnesses and survivors of sexual violence. Also, he has conducted research examining how social rejection can promote existential anxiety. Most recently, he has drawn from his experiences studying the humanities as an undergraduate and training as an experimental social psychologist to focus on developing empirically grounded theories of how engagement with the arts and other cultural products influence utilization of different social psychological processes. Currently, this work centers on understanding how reading literary fiction impacts understanding of others mental states. 

Debra Satz, a philosophy professor, is the Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts and the Martha Sutton Weeks Professor at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Her research focuses on the ethical limits of markets, the place of equality in a just society, theories of rational choice, democratic theory, feminist philosophy, ethics and education, and issues of international justice. Satz also co-founded the Hope House Scholars Program, which pairs volunteer faculty with undergraduates to teach liberal arts courses to residents of a drug and alcohol treatment facility for women. In 2004, Satz received the Walter J. Gores Award, Stanford’s highest teaching honor. Satz has written and edited three books as well as dozens of articles, essays, and book reviews.

Event Location

Koret-Taube 130
366 Galvez Street, Stanford, CA 94305-6015

Featured in Boston Review

Read about the Boston Review's discussion of this event.


By Justin Tackett on February 21, 2014

The last time you finished a novel or short story, your emotions might have been stirred, your intellect exercised, or your curiosity disappointed. But were your morals improved? The relationship between literature and morality – and the proper role of both – has long engaged philosophers, critics and writers. But at a recent event hosted by the Stanford McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford humanities scholars said that while literature is capable of providing new perspectives and challenging our assumptions, imparting morality might not be one of its strong suits.