Do writers have a moral obligation to their readers?

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).

9 thoughts on “Do writers have a moral obligation to their readers?”

  1. Hmm. Do writers have a moral obligation to their readers? My off-the-cuff response is: no.
    Now, before you velocirapt me to pieces, hear me out. My answer has nothing to do with either of the points you’ve made; in fact, I completely agree with you on those. I also hear you on how strongly children are influenced by literature; I’m one of those people who is still fully capable of being traumatized by fiction even now.

    The reason I think writers do not have a moral obliation to their readers is that they have no way of knowing, much less controlling, who their readers are, and what they do with the story. You can’t expect a writer to anticipate all possible situations in which moral judgement might be called for, and cover all those bases in their writing.
    What I do think the writer’s moral obligation is, though, is in letting any potential reader know what to expect. So if your book is going to glorify sex and violence, I want to know that before I start reading it. If people are going to die violent deaths for no apparent reasons, I want to be told that on the cover, so I can avoid becoming a reader in the first place.
    I was traumatized by “Dr Zhivago”, some 20 years ago- the images and storyline of the movie haunted me for years. But I don’t blame the film makers, I blame the people who told me it was a beautiful, romantic movie. The wine maker is not responsible for people getting drunk- but they are responsible for labelling their product as “wine”, so you don’t think you’re consuming apple juice and don’t get drunk unwittingly.

    Come to think of it, the winemaker is also responsible for making sure their wine doesn’t contain methyl alcohol. And I suppose that’s the point of what you were saying.

    1. Velociraptor goggles on.

      The winemaker analogy is interesting. Obviously, they’re responsible for the methyl alcohol absence, but as far as drinkers getting drunk…good point. But, I don’t think it’s a precise analogy.

      You’re correct. There’s no way a writer can know their readers in terms of their individual ghosts, issues, settings, etc. But, I’m not sure if that’s important in this context. I’m fairly certain there are only two ways to view moral obligation (other than the flat-out “it’s irrelevant” view): subjective or absolute morals. If I say the writer has an obligation based on subjective goods, goods that are dictated by the changes in society and individual, then, yeah, I’ll agree with you. If I start with the assumption that there are ideas that exist external to people and are not affected by people in any way (ideas such as courage, honor, sacrifice, charity, etc), then I think I can write without needing to use the weathervane of society as my compass.

      Of course, that then opens up a whole new battlefield over proving the absolutes…

    2. I’m inclined to agree with you here. In my own view art (in our case, prose) does not even exist until it’s passed through the perceptual schema of the observer. Our words are empty and meaningless until read by a thinking mind; this mind imposes its own values, morals, and weight to the words we choose. This is how it should be; writing thus becomes a collaborative process between the writer and each individual reader.

      The question becomes “should we attempt to guide our readers to a moral conclusion”? Isn’t that what storytelling is, the effort to tell a fundamental truth about the way the world — the world of our story — works? Our reader may not get where we tell them to go. They may explore and find a new undiscovered country, one that we had no idea that we were revealing.

      To me there’s an amazing sort of magic in not knowing exactly what it is that we’re creating.

      1. Well…I mostly agree with you. You’re right: our reader may not get where we tell them to go, due to their own personal lens and how it interprets words and what sorts of experiences and assumptions it brings to the reading process. However, I don’t think writing is necessarily empty and meaningless (I’ll agree with you on this if you’re talking about most of the magazines at the supermarket checkout counter) until read by a thinking mind. The writing comes from our own mind in the first place, so it’s imbued with original intent, as well as the historical and cultural luggage that each word carries.

        The whole question of how meaning is communicated and received is a pretty darn fascinating topic. Post-modernity, I think, is always attempting to change the goal posts on that one…

  2. Yes, I think you’re right about the question being one of absolute vs. subjective morals. And also, quite possibly, that this is where our differences of opinion really lie. See, I agree with you, as you know, that there are moral absolutes. However, I have a suspicion that my list of those is considerably shorter than yours (I’m fairly certain, though, that all, or most, of mine are also on yours). I think the very ones you mentioned just now – courage, honor, sacrifice, charity, etc – are open to debate. What’s courage to one might be foolhardiness to another; etc, etc. The battlefield doesn’t even start with proving the absolutes, it starts with agreeing on what even the first one is.

    As far as the writer’s moral obligation – I would say that, perhaps, the writer has a moral obligation not so much to their readers, but to themselves. And it’s the reader’s obligation (especially if they’re a reader-out-loud-er) to choose what they let in the door of their, or their children’s, imagination.

    I just don’t think Stephen King, to name just one popular author whose books I’ll likely never read, is failing in any moral obligation to me.

    1. You’re right: things like courage and honor and sacrifice are open to debate, but isn’t it in terms of their parameters rather than their existence? I mean, who’s going to argue that something like courage doesn’t exist? I would bet that the vast majority of people would agree that courage exists; it’s only in the defining that the discussion starts getting bogged down.

      For the purposes of arguing the existence of absolutes, I’m happy enough to point out that the idea of an absolute exists. If I can prove that something does exist, external to us, like courage or honor or charity, even just one of ’em, then I think the argument is won…(for if one exists, then it stands to reason that a great many more exist as well).

      Why would a writer’s moral obligation to themself be more important than one to their reader?

      1. Yes, agreed. It’s the parameters of the absolutes, not their existence, that are debatable. I was just thinking about that this morning, how the term “debt of honour” was used in the 19th century to denote gambling debts – which, to my mind, have fairly little to do with honour as I understand it. Not doubting the existence of honour, just wondering at a 19th-century gentleman’s definition of it.

        When I say that a writer has an obligation to themselves, I mean that in the same way that every person has an obligation to live an honest life, regardless of any audience they might or might not have. It’s not a matter of more or less importance, because if a writer (or any other artist) creates a piece of art that is true, honest, etc., then they will have fulfilled any potential obligation to their reader/viewer at the same time. And I think if you live a moral life, you can’t help but create moral art; the consideration of an obligation to the reader doesn’t even need to enter the equation. Conversely, if you don’t write good stories for your own sake, the thought of your reader isn’t going to change that.

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