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Looking for real virtue in literature

Fiction should reject solipsistic preoccupations and examine the world at large.

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Since Charles Darwin, scientists have sought to examine altruistic and cooperative behavior as correlates of virtue. Their research suggests that all human motivations are selfish and that cooperative behavior is merely a tool to further human survival. Consequently, unlike literary writers today, the scientists would argue there are no virtuous actions removed from selfish desires to promote individual and group interests.

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Enter Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist who argues in "The Happiness Hypothesis" that moral decisions are based on primitive emotional behavior developed prior to language and reasoned judgment. Consequently, rational analysis is considered only after we have arrived at the emotional outlook that dictates our actions. Mr. Haidt suggests our motives are selfish, although guided by moral norms.

His staggering implications challenge the contemporary liberal assumptions underlying modern civilization: 1) People are fundamentally good-natured, and favor peace and prosperity; 2) Social justice demands equal outcomes for all, even when that strips opportunities from those with more talent.

Haidt suggests that modern Western societies emphasize "do no harm" and "fairness" at the expense of deference, ritual, and group loyalty. These traditional values deter selfishness, integrate people, and formed the foundation of social norms prior to the 1960s.

Modern Western society's reliance on "do no harm" and "fairness" forms the basis for fiction today. The criteria for "great" literature are perverted: a subjective world existing entirely within the minds of characters; impassioned advocacy for the disadvantaged, devoid of economic and social realism; and a denunciation of masculine aggression in favor of idealized femininity and perpetual childhood.

The corruption of these criteria is never acknowledged. Otherwise, publishers might consider fiction that is fully engaged in describing the social and cultural circumstances of our world, rather than an idealized fantasy of love and "virtue" that female readers hunger to read.

The solutions are as apparent as the light of reason. Embrace the neoclassical values of excellence directed toward the pursuit of truth. Strive for exalted standards. Acknowledge science and the less-than-virtuous motivations that influence human actions, but temper this understanding with morality shaped by character and driven to revitalize civilization. And celebrate writers such as Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth, who dare to describe in realistic detail our world so that society may comprehend its failings, endeavor to improve, and aspire to all that is most noble.

Diana Sheets, a novelist, writes literary criticism and political commentary at