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The Moral Clout of Storytelling

The Seed (Montreal, Canada) July/August, 2004


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 is how."

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 technology."

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."

Subjects Covered: education, healing

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