Ethical Perspectives 20 (3):403-426 (2013)

Rafe McGregor
Edge Hill University
In this paper I propose a new argument for moderate autonomism. I call this the ‘critical argument’ to distinguish it from the empirical argument of James C. Anderson and Jeffrey T. Dean, and the no-error argument of James Harold. My strategy is to first employ the criticism of Matthew Arnold and F.R. Leavis to demonstrate the moralist failure to account for the complexity of the relationship between literature and morality, and then offer a more promising alternative. I set out the autonomist, moralist, and immoralist positions in the value interaction debate in §1, and identify problems with classifying the two critics in contemporary terms. In §2 I discuss Arnold’s cultural criticism as both a part of – and a reaction to – the public moralist tradition that dominated Britain in the nineteenth century, drawing attention to his criterion of ‘seriousness’. §3 examines Leavis’ literary criticism, focusing on his conception of the relationship between composition and life, and his criterion of ‘maturity’. Drawing on the similarities between Arnold and Leavis, I demonstrate that their concern with morality differs from that of the contemporary moralists in §4. In §5 I employ John Gibson’s distinction between normative and informative values to complete the argument for moderate autonomism. I test my argument against an extreme case, a hypothetical literary equivalent to The Birth of a Nation, in §6, and conclude that moderate autonomism provides the most compelling solution to the value interaction debate.
Keywords Aesthetic value  Ethical Value  Philosophy of Literature
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