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The ethical value of literature

Literature and art can help us out of anger and frustration and towards a greater understanding, says Martha Nussbaum. 

Martha Nussbaum:
The Ethics of Literature
Pax Publishers, 2016

Martha Nussbaum:
Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice
Oxford University Press, 2016


The most important art can do for us, says Martha Nussbaum, is to give us access to the reality of others. When we live in the experiences of others, we are also transported to a place where we are more easily enabled to understand people we would not otherwise understand. It is also this framing and anchoring of the empowerment that connects to the empathic and potentially solidarity thread in literature and the arts.

This simple, yet basic, insight into the social value of art is valuable. Not least today, where there are just so many others we do not immediately understand.

walnutBrotherly leap. Reading Nussbaum is a useful medicine against formalist-oriented view of art, which in the wake of Kant has argued that interest and practical benefit destroy the real art experience. There is no doubt that there are formal aspects of aesthetic experience – nor that they affect and shape the functional aspect – but that it is usefulness which is the most important, for example as an empathy-forming and empathetic medium, is obvious. «Differences related to religion, gender, skin color, class and nationality make it more difficult to understand others, since these differences not only determine the practical choices people make, but also shape their inner selves, their desires, thoughts and views. . .

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Kjetil Røed
Freelance writer.

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