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About whether reading makes us better people

A few months ago, the philosopher Gregory Currie published an interesting article in The Stone, an opinion blog in the New York Times, in which he wondered if it really read “great literature” makes us better people.

Currie claimed that despite being a widespread belief, the evidence in favor of this idea is rather poor. The philosopher I mentioned that there are studies, in the laboratory, show that reading excerpts of fiction improves scores on tests that measure empathy of the participants. But that evidence, says Currie, is far from to show that reading makes us better people:

Most of the studies undertaken so far don’t draw on serious literature but on short snatches of fiction devised especially for experimental purposes. Very few of them address questions about the effects of literature on moral and social development, far too few for us to conclude that literature either does or doesn’t have positive moral effects.

The reactions that led to the article Currie, I highlight the article by Annie Murphy Paul for Time Ideas. Murphy Paul says that, in fact, studies carried out by psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley confirm that frequent readers of fiction are better at understanding other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective.

A recent experiment seems to result in the idea that reading makes us better people. According to the results, read “great literature” (represented by authors such as DeLillo, Woolf, …) improves the results of tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. In this sense, the headlines of the news media that outline the experiment tend to be unanimous: “the science shows that reading makes us better people.”

As can be seen, it appears that, for a good number of media and analysts to be “a good person” is equivalent to “have empathy”, or to have other capabilities related to empathy. In my opinion there is a work that has given much to talk about in the last two years, and that shows that developing empathy through the literature of fiction is necessary, but not sufficient, to be what today we call a “good person”. I speak of the work of Steven Pinker The better angels of our nature (translated into English as The angels that we carry within).

The book Pinker is a monumental review of the evidence and arguments that show that violence, in all its forms, has declined paulativamente throughout human history. Pinker points out some of the historical moments that represent milestones in this decrease of violence. One of these milestones is what the author calls the “revolution humanitarian”, which Pinker situated between the SEVENTEENTH and EIGHTEENTH centuries.

During these hundred years was abolished a good number of violent practices that were part of humanity for millennia. What sparked this change? Pinker says that an explanatory factor may be the change of sensitivity toward the suffering of others which favored the explosion of the reading, in particular fiction literature. Reading, says Pinker, is an ideal mechanism for the exercise of perspective-taking, that “put themselves in the place of the other” that is fundamental to the exercise of empathy.

But the reading and the change in sensitivity does not explain everything. The revolution humanitarian took advantage of another phenomenon caused by the explosion of reading: the emergence of humanism illustrated. Under this appellation is usually to group the set of theories, works and ideas expressed by characters such as Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, David Hume, Adam Smith,… to which place the life and liberty of the individual over institutions such as the church, tradition or the state.

Humanism illustrated was possible, says Pinker, thanks to two guiding principles: skepticism and the use of reason. And that was the reason that enabled these authors to articulate a vision of the world that cause according to what suffering to another human being was completely unjustified. The use of reasoning allowed us to infer that, despite superficial differences such as gender, race or culture, people are equal in fundamental aspects. Pinker picks up on a phrase of Shylock, a character from Shakespeare’s The merchant of Venice, which perfectly sums up this idea:

How is that a jew not have eyes? How is that a jew has no hands, organs, proportions, senses, affections, passions? How is that not feeding the same food, hurt by the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same summer and the same winter a christian? If we pincháis, do we not bleed? If we’re doing tickled, do we not laugh?, If we envenenáis, do we not die? And if we ye will arevile against, do not we will avenge?

In short: the revolution humanitarian of the speaking Pinker was the product of a change in the sensitivity-enhanced and favoured by the use of reason, which aimed to articulate a new philosophy of life, the so-called classical liberalism.

This relationship between morality and reason is more exposed if it is when Pinker discusses the role of reason as a factor in reducing violence in our days. The author devotes some pages to the so-called Flynn effect, the observed increase in the iq of the inhabitants of various nations in the last decades. This increase has not been general in all areas of intelligence. In fact, it seems that there has not been a significant increase in factors such as vocabulary or arithmetic. On the contrary, the Flynn effect has been concentrated in abstract reasoning. And Pinker says that abstract reasoning is an ability essential to the decision of perspectives that involves empathy: the abstraction allows us to imagine hypothetical scenarios, far from our reality and our circumstances, which we take into account the needs and feelings of others.

In fact, without the control of abstract reasoning, empathy, not only can not make us better people, but that can unleash the worst in us. And is that, as argues Paul Bloom in The New Yorker, empathy can also be parochial and short-sighted, attentive only to the needs of those who we consider our equals, or to those who only belong to our group.

There is an interesting idea that runs through the book of Pinker: those historical milestones that have led to the decline of violence have been incorporated in such a way in our daily lives, to our culture today, that have become invisible to us. Well, says Pinker, in the same way that today it is scandalous the idea of smoking in an office, we also find it scandalous (though very different) the idea of burning heretics at the stake, or of persecuting and torturing dissidents, ideological. But just four centuries ago these facts, and others, worse, were common currency in Europe. To show prejudice, the cruelty, the ignorance that is held to such practices was not at all an easy job, nor a task obvious.

Something similar has happened with the Flynn effect. Very probably, the widespread education in our societies, and the continuous exposure to abstract concepts, and related to the world of science have allowed us to improve our skills of abstract reasoning. And have done so continuously for us these capabilities have become almost natural and, therefore, are taken for granted.

Thus, although reading fiction is a good exercise to improve the decision prospects we should not overlook the role that the reasoning has played, and plays, in the ongoing process of creation of that which we call “being a good person.”