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Why ethicists should read Middlemarch and despise Simon Cowell

There are a few ethicists who are interested in encouraging right behaviour, rather than simply discussing it.

Here is something for them from A.L. Kennedy:

As Vonnegut mentioned, Nazi Germany trained a population to be blind to the dignity and humanity of some others. A diet of soft porn, cheap sentimentality and hate proved effective. Radio Mille Collines pedaled fear, poisonous pop music and a sense of unhinged communal power – it helped to push Rwanda into the abyss.’ 1

We are what we eat. Our cultural diet conditions everything about us, including our ethics. I’m not sure whether this is too trite to be worth saying, or too politically incorrect and/or controversial to be said safely. For the purposes of this piece I’ll assume that it is self-evident. The only surprising thing is how very resistant humans are to the moral effect of their culture: they can eat vast quantities of highly toxic rubbish and still remain kind, altruistic and reflective. That resistance, though, shouldn’t make us complacent about the toxicity. All other things being equal (and, yes, it’s an absurd thought experiment when applied to infinitely various, complex humans), a person who’s had George Eliot at every meal since infancy will be more moral (whatever that means) than one who’s been fed undiluted Simon Cowell. Or at least (and it may or may not be the same thing, or correlate with it) the Middlemarch readers will respond more quickly and forthrightly to the appearance of moral malignancy. Their ethical immune systems are in better condition.

Howard Jacobson fulminates against libraries filled with ‘potboilers and that genre of contemporary literature described as crossover because it crosses us over from maturity to infancy’, and more generally against the ‘detritus of popular entertainment, which leads neither to wisdom nor to madness, only to terminal triviality….’ For him, what is at stake is metaphysical – and hence (although he doesn’t expressly make the connection), ethical: ‘The issue is the trivializing of the human soul’. Trivialising is morally very dangerous.2

This is an embarrassing, uncomfortable and unfashionable conclusion. It smacks of the sniffy sanctimoniousness of the Victorian middle class – a middle class that denounced the ‘lower orders’ for ‘moral degradation’ caused by poverty that the middle class had itself created and sustained. But this isn’t anything whatever to do with class or wealth. It costs a lot less to read Shakespeare than it does to run a TV or a mobile phone. It’s to do with agency and its incremental truncation by the zeitgeist. You can choose a sustaining, organic, free-trade cultural diet. It’ll cost you, in money, a lot less than the junk food alternative. If you opt for the junk you’ll find it increasingly hard to give it up. And you shouldn’t be surprised if it has an effect. Isn’t that all very obvious?

Yet ethicists don’t like to say this sort of thing. There are, I think, three reasons.

The first is a fear of being seen as stuffily elitist. Ethicists, by and large, are Left-ish, right-on, be-denimed, inclusivist creatures, who need, for their grant proposals and their own consciences, to be seen as ‘relevant’. And bizarrely, relevance is seen as an eschewal of ‘high’ culture: as a preference for literary Big Macs over foie gras.

Which brings me to the second reason: a desire not to be seen as trespassing outside their own sphere of expertise. We are philosophers, they say, not politicians or sociologists, and we can’t comment on the social milieu in which ethical decisions are made – only on the criteria that should inform those decisions, wherever they are made.

That reason relates to the third, which is, again, related to ethicists’ perceptions of their legitimate sphere of influence and expertise. It is that it is not their business to achieve a particular outcome. Their business is simply to identify the criteria for correct decision-making and the correct procedure for using those criteria. They may have personal views about what should be done; indeed they contend loudly, with footnotes, for a particular course of action. But the business is the contention, not its adoption.

Behind such ethicists’ contentions are two presumptions, both of which are ludicrous. Presumption (a) is that the people who are the object of their moral urgings are morally and intellectually virginal; without presumptions or context; ethically pristine beings floating in the ether; perfectly objective creatures who will listen with dispassion to the arguments and make up their minds on the basis of the adequacy of the argument. And of course the footnotes. Presumption (b) is that if the argument is rejected, that’s fine: the big thing – the only real thing – is to have put the argument well. This presumption is based on a respect for autonomy, which is fair enough; a belief that all outcomes are equally good, which is not; and a fastidious academic distaste for activism and exhortation, which also is not. When philosophy was being invented in Athens they argued like fury, because it mattered. Philosophy was a matter of life and death. They didn’t leave the arguments on their desks when they went home at the end of the day.3

There are some ethicists out there, though, who are passionate about human flourishing and see it as their job to advocate modes of ethical behaviour that maximize flourishing. Yet even they feel inhibited –probably for a combination of reasons 1 and 2 – about advocacy of high or higher culture. To them I’d say: don’t be silly. You want ethical behaviour to grow. A gardener who said: ‘I love to see healthy, productive plants, but the soil isn’t my business’, would rightly be regarded as insane.

Advocacy of Middlemarch and denunciation of Britain’s Got Talent are the philosophical equivalent of looking after the soil.


  1. To Save our Lives’, in On Writing, Vintage Books, 2014
  2. Libraries’, in Whatever it is, I Don’t Like it, Bloomsbury, 2014
  3. I’ve written about this before on this Blog: see here
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17 Comment on this post

  1. I read Middlemarch over the winter — it’s free for Kindle., BTW. Tough going at first, with the flowery language, but definitely a book that all students of contemporary society — especially those involved in the struggle to advance progressive ideas — should read.

  2. Firstly, I’m not sure you can just take that statement to be self evident. The most likely explanation of the success of using soft porn/ pop music to peddle hateful messages is that a large number of people are attracted by soft porn and pop music. People have to hear a message to be persuaded by it and those two things are certainly crowd pleasers. The more people hear, the more effective the propaganda. Indeed, as a counter example, the Nazis also formed orchestras to play classical music in the midst of the horrors of their concentration camps. There seems to be little obvious causal effect .

    Secondly, even if it were true, I think your comparison of the relative costs is superficial. The enjoyment of your preferred entertainments is usually (though of course not always) facilitated by education. Education is an expensive investment of time and money- especially the kind that is not directed towards a particular vocation/ skill.

    Finally, I’m not sure George Eliot would agree with you either: Casaubon has high tastes but is a failure in human terms. Other characters like Celia would no doubt watch X-Factor but are much better people. It might be ideal to be Will/ Dorothea and have both, but I know where I would rather compromise.

  3. Anthony Drinkwater

    Thanks for this, Charles !
    Interesting that many who are happy to support campaigns against “junk food” feel so uncomfortable in criticising junk culture. I agree with your implied view that the latter is far more dangerous.
    I would suggest a fourth (related) reason to your three : a simplistic notion of cultural relativity, which prevents many from arguing that something in the domain of culture could be better than another.
    I’m not however convinced that this is an exclusively leftish point of view – as P Bourdieu’s interesting work demonstrates.

    To Sarah’s counter-example : Hitler may have been a non-smoking vegetarian who loved dogs, but this doesn’t in itself invalidate arguments for vegetarianism or against smoking (or even discomfort dog-lovers).

  4. It is worth noticing that government fostering hate and dehumanisation of different groups often seem to do it based on moral considerations than trivializing morality. There are many nazi speeches where the troops are told that the the atrocities they are about to committ are distasteful or even horrifying, but they are for a good, moral cause – to *not* slaughter these people is to give in morally. Current Russian anti-homosexual propaganda focuses on preserving good moral family values against the relativist non-Russian Other.

    Sometimes these messages are packaged slickly (IS seems to be good at media) or through trivial entertainment (consider Hamas use of Mickey Mouse (!) in children’s shows to hammer in the evil of jews). It is not the form that matters, but the content – especially since many worldviews are self-assembling from many little parts. The nazi worldview had reinforcing sources both in sappy schlager songs, naturism, environmentalism, erudite theses on racialism, novels tinged with racism (of all levels of quality), direct propaganda, approved art and lectures from eminent philosophers. It did not rely on just the low culture – it relied on telling its story using any available medium. Pervasiveness was more important than how clever the message was.

    This is why I think maintaining good media hygiene is problematic as an antidote to bad ideas: you can get them from the high-brow, nuanced stuff too. Maybe fewer per page, but they are still there. A more media-savvy or critical population is safer, but developing critical perception of media can be built from participating in tvtropes too.

  5. Unintended consequences provide a reason why it actually may be better for ethicists to confine their suggestions to the sterile ground of the specialist literature. Many climate change scientists are fiercely activist in arguing for what they think is best. On the whole, these interventions are counter-productive just because we lack the philosophers’ humility regarding the acceptance that we are “not politicians or sociologists, and we can’t comment on the social milieu in which ethical decisions are made”. On the contrary, we tend to think that since we’re scientists we (intellectually) outrank mere politicians and sociologists, and that our interventions completely transcend the social milieu (which should of course bow before us). This has gone very badly for us. I see other scientists in other arenas do the same thing.

    I like the fact that philosophers have the humility to see their interventions as an interesting, potentially valuable technical input, not a social imperative. I like the fact that philosophers say things like this: “No one needs academic theorists to tell them what is right and wrong. On the contrary, judgments about what is right and wrong are best made by ordinary people whose own experiences of the struggles of life give them understanding of realities and empathy with others. Theorists can make two modest contributions. […]” (From the start of a UNFCCC briefing from Henry Shue.)

  6. What?!

    Hidden premise (1): Good literature is more moral than trash pop culture. Or some cognate thereof.

    But this hidden premise doesn’t stand up at all. Not having read Middlemarch, I have no idea what it’s like, ethically, but there is simply no correlation between literary/artistic quality and moral goodness. This is a conclusion that generation after generation of critics have come to, and philosophers would surely do well to listen to the subject experts.

    I think the best you can do if you want to argue in this area is something like:
    a) Good art/literature is a better mirror to human life/the human soul than bad art
    b) Human lives/souls are ethically very complex
    c) Other human inventions tend to be simple
    d) Good art/literature is therefore more ethically complex than bad art
    e) Exposure to large amounts of good art/literature therefore tends to broaden and deepen one’s ethical views
    f) Those with broader and deeper ethical perspectives are less likely to be convinced by simplistic ethical propositions

    I’m not convinced by (e) or (f); and even if you can get (f), I’m not convinced that it makes you a better person.

  7. “Advocacy of Middlemarch and denunciation of Britain’s Got Talent are the philosophical equivalent of looking after the soil.”

    Do you really think that the fans of Britain’s Got Talent are likely to pay a blind bit of notice to an ethicist telling them they shouldn’t be watching it?

    I’d imagine you’d merely be dismissed as a narrow-minded busybody.

    1. I can’t answer for Charles, but my answer to your question would be “no” : I don’t believe for a minute that BGT fans will take the slightest notice.
      Besides, I don’t think he actually wants to prevent people watching BGT (any more than I do) : but it’s possible to denounce something without wanting to ban it.

  8. Many thanks to all for your comments. Just a couple of responses:
    (a) Anthony perfectly anticipates most of my response to Nikolas. I’d just add that if the criterion for thinking hard and writing about ethical questions is whether watchers of BGT are likely to be affected directly by it, we should all give up. My advocacy of Middlemarch over Simon Cowell is no different in that respect to, say, advocacy of any serious thinking about abortion or euthanasia. I doubt that Nikolas would say that we should down tools on that work.
    (b) Phil H accuses me of a hidden premise: ‘Good literature is more moral than trash pop culture. Or some cognate thereof.’ Sarah comes close to the same accusation. Not guilty. You mistake me. I’m not saying that you should look to Middlemarch – or any other monument of ‘high culture’ for direct ethical guidance. ‘Thus Spake Zarathustra’ is certainly high culture, and is ethically malignant. Look again at my gardening metaphor. I’m contending that you’re more likely to get good ethical flowers from well tilled soil. The soil itself is neither ethical nor unethical – any more than actual soil is flowers.

  9. Charles, I’m just a bit puzzled in regard to what you’re actually advocating. If we’re not to be actively exhorting people to stop watching Britain’s Got Talent, what do you mean by “activism and exhortation” in this context? I’m happy to denounce rubbishy culture as rubbish, but I have two reservations:

    a) Many examples of pop culture might be of poor general quality but nonetheless ethically harmless, or even laudable in some instances.
    b) Many of the people who enjoy poor quality pop culture might well be fully aware that it’s of poor quality, but enjoy it anyway. Or in some cases, enjoy it precisely because of its poor quality – look at the cult following of various notoriously bad films. Or look at the cult following of the Eurovision Song Contest. I’d imagine very few people who enjoy that that would be under any illusion that they’re listening to fine serious music.

    I suspect that if you were to conduct a survey of the regular viewers of BGT, and ask them to rate it as either JUNK TV or HIGH QUALITY TV, the majority would cheerfully concede that it’s junk.

  10. Nikolas: thank you. But I’m puzzled about your puzzlement. Of course we should actively exhort people to stop watching BGT. But, like you, I’m pessimistic about the chances of that exhortation making a difference. As to your (a) and (b): quite right, but they don’t at all affect my argument.

    1. We should actively exhort our subsidised broadcasters to spend our money only on HIGH QUALITY TV rather than JUNK TV. This would not mean preventing the market from providing the junk, but it would entail the state exercising some moral courage. T. S. Eliot: ““The culture of a people is not a construction, but a growth. Like agriculture, it is something formed over a long period of time by co-operation of man with his environment–not by exploitation of the soil”, Civilization: The Nature of Cultural Relations (1943).

  11. Hi, Charles. Thanks for the response. But if you don’t have that hidden premise, then I don’t see any argument at all. It’s certainly not “obvious”, and it does indeed look very much like stuffy Victorian cultural prejudice.

    You use two metaphors: gardening and diet. The gardening metaphor: sure, good soil gives you better flowers. But it also provides rich nutrients for weeds. The diet metaphor: sure, eating healthy is better for your body than eating processed junk. But we know that because we know about the causal pathways. Sugars. Fats. Vitamins. Roughage. Eating healthy does not make you more moral; and until you give us some theory of the causal pathways between Eliot and moral conduct, I see no reason to believe that media choices make us either (a) more moral; or (b) more likely to become more moral (better “soil”).

    I guess this wasn’t the focus of your post, which was more about the failings you perceive among ethicists. But if you wanted to get our assent, in passing, for the ethical position you proposed, then you’ll have to provide us with some argument. I’m sure Eliot is aesthetically better than talent shows – I do believe in aesthetic quality, and I think it can be related to moral character, as I suggested above – but to make the leap from aesthetically better to morally better, I’d need more than just the word “obvious”.

  12. Thank you, Phil. I didn’t address that point in any detail because it wasn’t the subject of the post. But do you contend that cultural diet is irrelevant to ethics? Do you think that A.L. Kennedy and Howard Jacobson are neurotic and/or governed by a self-serving, contemptibly patrician attachment to high-brow culture? I think that any of those propositions would be more controversial than the proposition I suggested was self-evident.

    1. Ha, pause for thought while I go and read those two! I note that you’ve thrown the burden of proof back to me in a rather silly way. Of course I hold no opinion about whether philosophers I’ve never read are neurotic or not. The opinion I hold is this: there is no correlation between the quality of a person’s moral character and the type of books/movies/whatever that they consume. I hold that position as a kind of null hypothesis. There’s a prima facie strike against it in the form of our education system – presumably people teach good books for some reason. But there’s a prima facie strike for it in the form of common sense – it’s just not obviously true that well educated people are better than poorly educated people. Given that, I stick with it and await more empirical confirmation and better argumentation.

  13. Can’t get either of those books easily where I live, so I will have to content myself with noting that your arguments don’t seem to make much sense.

    “Nazi Germany trained a population to be blind to the dignity and humanity of some others. A diet of soft porn, cheap sentimentality and hate proved effective.” It might have been the soft porn. But I’m guessing the relentless anti-semitic propaganda was the key component. (Remember, Germans’ moral senses weren’t only dulled. In some ways they were sharpened and weaponised: the revival of the blood libel was to make Germans think of the Jews as guilty, deserving of punishment.)
    “Radio Mille Collines pedaled fear, poisonous pop music and a sense of unhinged communal power…” and, according to Wikipedia, “racist propaganda”. Again, if someone screams, “Kill the Tutsis! Look at these tits!” it seems rather obtuse to view the second part of that message as the dangerous bit.

    For me, Harold Bloom seems to have a much stronger, more coherent vision of what good reading is than anything you suggest here.
    “Reading the very best writers—let us say Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy—is not going to make us better citizens.” “The study of literature, however it is conducted, will not save any individual any more than it will improve society. Shakespeare will not make us better and he will not make us worse…”

    that’s the refutation of any claim that good lit can make us better.

    “…but he may teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves.”

    And this is the more subtle view of what reading might do, and how it might be worth it.

    Anyway, I think this was a poor hook on which to hang your critique of ethicists for not doing more practical lobbying. How about vegetarianism? It is my impression that many more ethicists are vegetarians than in the general population. Presumably that is an indication that deep thinking about ethics leads to the conclusion that not eating animals is right (much more so than reading good books makes you more likely to be good). That would be a worthy project, surely? And if you don’t fancy it, perhaps because you’re not a vegetarian yourself, then you ought to consider: are you really concerned with building a stronger notion of the role of ethicists, or simply in promoting some of your own social views?

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