The Moral Clout of Storytelling
The Seed (Montreal, Canada)
Storytelling has helped make human beings "a nicer species,"
says Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard
University, in a conversation with Rebecca Goldstein, a visiting
professor of philosophy at Connecticut's Trinity College and the
author of several works of fiction, including "The Mind-Body
Problem." They discuss a variety of topics related to how
science and art are grappling with "substantive questions."
Human behavior has changed in the past millennium, Mr. Pinker
says. "Much of the world has seen an end to slavery, to genocide
for convenience, to torture as a routine form of criminal
punishment, to capital punishment for property crimes, to human
sacrifice, to rape as the spoils of war, to the ownership of
women," he writes. "We are getting less cruel, and the question
Exposure to a wider range of stories has helped people empathize
with groups that they might otherwise have considered
"subhuman," he suggests. "Fiction can be a kind of moral
Ms. Goldstein agrees that storytelling serves a moral purpose.
"To be in the throes of a story, to have one's emotions provoked
by another's story is not quite ethics, but it's kind of the
shadowlife of ethics," she writes. "Storytelling is something
that can awaken attentiveness, engagement, and empathy to a life
that isn't one's own. And to be attentive, engaged, empathetic:
that is moral."
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