Even though I’ve written about this idea before, I find myself thinking more about that question these days, particularly as I sit and read books with my two boys. They soak stories up like proverbial sponges. And they don’t just soak them up, they think about them. They ruminate on them, like cows chewing their cud. My six-year-old can pop up with thoughts on a story from days and weeks ago, right out of the blue, unexpected, flavored with his own perspective. These stories color his thinking, his perspective, and his mood. They give him tools with which he then uses on his own world.
Writers do have a moral obligation to their readers. I’m prepared to die on my sword for this one. It’s an unambiguous, clear-cut obligation that, at the very least, means that the writer cannot do the reader harm. At the very least.
Hopping out of my shoes for a moment, I’m not sure how you would argue logically against this idea. Is anyone going to buy the proposition that entertainment, light or literary, has zero effect on the audience? Sure, you might make an argument that older adults with entrenched views and morals might be unswayed by what they take in. However, how can a writer (and I suppose I’m using that word interchangeably with “entertainer”) assume that his entire audience is composed of such people. You can’t, so that argument is void.
I guess another argument would come from the naturalistic perspective: morals are relative and negotiable, fluid and changing according to society’s current state; therefore, obligation cannot exist due the essential non-value of morals. Obligation only exists if it has a valuable function. Naturalism can only give it a utilitarian function (survival of the fittest, etc), which doesn’t exactly lend itself to morals. In fact, I don’t see how you can even use the word “moral” in such a context. No, with naturalism, you’re left with the neutered idea that, perhaps, writers have a utilitarian obligation to their readers.
Allow me to return to my own shoes.
So if moral obligation means do no harm in the least sense, what does it mean in the best sense? Ennoblement. Refinement. Prompting the audience to go away musing on one of the cleaner things of life: courage, sacrifice, family, duty, honor, God, excellence, hope, charity.
I realize I am probably coming across like a dinosaur in this age of shock-value and instantaneous cream-puffery for the sake of tantalizing jaded senses. And the dinosaurs died out, yes, I realize that. So what. I will remain a dinosaur (a velociraptor, so don’t get too close).