Aesthetics,  Education,  History of Ideas

Should We Read Books by Bad People?

I am sometimes asked why we assign readings by people who exhibit bad character or perform immoral acts. Of course, there aren’t any morally perfect writers, but there are plenty who have done or supported pretty terrible things. Why lend their lives credence by exalting one of their works to a list of ‘great’ books?

On one view, certain immoral acts should be condemned by ignoring all the works of those who perform them. After all, works are expressions of the characters of the people who authored them. Consequently, those expressions are as bad as the one who expressed them. Call this the strict censure view. According to this view, if a person commits a sufficiently immoral act, supports others who do, or otherwise displays a consistently vicious character, anything they produce lacks value in any other domain.

There is some intuitive support for such a view. Sometimes it does seem right to reduce one’s positive evaluation of a work based solely on the discovery of a moral flaw in its creator. For example, if one is presented with a painting that one considers to be of a high standard and one finds out that it was painted by Adolf Hitler, it is plausible to think one would not find it as beautiful as one first thought. The same applies principle applies to books.

Of course, it is a further claim to demand some obligation to censor those works from, say, a class focused on the great books. It may follow from a painting being done by Hitler that it ought never be displayed. But the connection requires a further argument. Still, the view, if correct, is sufficient justification for condemning works, especially if the institution in which they are taught is supposed to be a place of moral virtue.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who say that the morality of the author has nothing to do with the works they produce. It is strictly irrelevant to one’s assessment of the work. Such a view supposes that works can’t possess anything one could morally evaluate. A painting can’t be morally responsible for anything. It isn’t an agent. Similarly, books don’t have characters; people do. Hence, there is no reason to evaluate a work by the moral failings of its author.

Neither of these views are particularly satisfying. The strict censure view implies that we ought to regard Aristotle’s contribution to science, philosophy, logic, and a host of other domains as less valuable because he supported slavery. But surely, we think the value of his logical system is derived from its means to preserve truth through a series of inferences not the author’s views on slavery (as wrong as they may be).

On the other hand, the autonomy view asks us to treat our moral evaluations of works as metaphorical at best. We are supposed to say that a book is only metaphorically genteel, sensitive, generous, or compassionate. But this is a strain. Moreover, as Berys Gaut points out, saying that a book is compassionate usually amounts to the claim that the writer has treated his subject compassionately in his writing. As such, moral merits and demerits of an author are relevant to our evaluation of a work.

The last point brings up a conceptual issue, one I’ve confronted in offering advice on the use of first person pronouns. If someone asks me whether they can use first person pronouns in a paper for my class, I say, ‘yes, but with a few qualifications.’ I won’t go into all of them here, but one positive reason for using first person pronouns is that one can attribute actions such as arguing, contending, suggesting and alike to the proper subject. After all, papers don’t argue. People argue by writing a paper. Gaut makes a similar point about people and their works. For example, he points out that, strictly speaking, paintings don’t represent their subjects. Instead, a painter represents a subject by painting a portrait. If so, then, when someone says, “this painting represents the subject graciously,” what is really being said is “the artist represents the subject graciously in this painting.”

One can carry the point further by acknowledging that an author who treats some people poorly in his personal life can nonetheless treat a subject well in a book. The way one acts in one situation does not entail that one will act the same way in every situation. That’s not to say that one ought not act well in every situation. It is merely to acknowledge that it’s perfectly possible for people to be quite inconsistent in the way they feel and behave depending on the circumstances. Nor is it to say that only one of those ways is genuine. It is possible for someone to be genuinely affectionate towards someone in one circumstance and genuinely antagonistic to another person in another circumstance.

Based partly on this distinction, Berys Gaut develops an intermediate view. In his book, Art, Emotion and Ethics, Gaut points out that one and the same person can be different in different contexts. An abusive spouse at home may be a gentle manager at work. One wouldn’t say that because he is abusive at home that he is abusive in the office any more than one would say that he is gentle at home in virtue of being gentle in the office.

This conclusion does not entail that one cannot evaluate the overall character of a person based on one aspect of his life. We’d still say that the person is abusive in virtue of his behavior at home. However, and importantly for our question, what we could claim is that he treated his spouse awfully, but treated his work companions well.

Analogously, a work of a vicious writer may be treated as an action of its writer. Hence, one could say that a writer is of an overall poor moral character (on account of some deficiency in his behavior), but that he treated the subject of his book well. It follows that the act of treating his subject well in his writing does not lose its moral status based on his other actions.

One might wonder whether we ought not be more suspicious of an author who is of poor moral character. Surely such a person’s moral depravity will infect all the work he or she produces. How could we tell whether such infection has taken place?

Gaut points out that there will be some works worthy of demerit due to the character of their creators. However, one can’t move directly from character to work (as we are asked to do by the strict censure proponent). Nor should we merely ignore the character flaws of a creator (as the autonomist recommends). Rather, what one must show is that the deficiency of the author is positively presented in the work. If a work is done by a vicious person and that viciousness is positively presented in a work, one has good grounds to count the work of poor moral value (it may, have other non-moral merits). On the other hand, if the viscous aspect of character is not presented positively in a work, then one has no grounds to infer its demerits on the basis of the author’s viscous character.

[I have left out other grounds for dismissing a work based on the moral character of its author. For example, a living author may profit from the sales of his or her work. Not wishing to financially support a living, immoral author may warrant withholding a work from a curriculum. I have also left out grounds for including a work that positively presents the viciousness of its creator. For example, one might want to examine a morally deficient point of view for some instrumental purpose, or the point of view may have been particularly important to intellectual history.]

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.