I hope you’ve all read the interview with Rebecca Goldstein – because it’s so good, and interesting, and full of ideas. Not my doing, obviously, but Goldstein’s. I’ve been an admirer of her fiction for years – ever since The Mind-Body Problem came out, in fact, I think, which is more than twenty years ago. It’s a brilliant novel. I’ve always thought so, so I was pleased to see Steve Pinker tell her “Your first novel, The Mind-Body Problem, is a classic among people in my field” in that conversation between the two of them I posted in Flashback a few days ago. I hope you’ve also read that, because it’s fascinating. I hadn’t read it before I wrote the interview questions, so I was interested to see Steve Pinker asking some of the same ones. For instance about storytelling and empathy.
SP: We are getting less cruel, and the question is how. The philosopher Peter Singer offers a clue when he notes that there really does seem to be a universal capacity for empathy, but that by default people apply it only within the narrow circle of the family or village or clan. Over the millennia, the moral circle has expanded to encompass other clans, other tribes, and other races. The question is, why did it happen? What stretched our innate capacity for empathy? And one answer is mediums that force us to take other people’s perspectives, such as journalism, history, and realistic fiction.
RG: Storytelling does it.
SP: By allowing you to project yourself into the lives of people of different times and places and races, in a way that wouldn’t spontaneously occur to you, fiction can force you into the perspective of a person unlike yourself, who might otherwise seem subhuman.
RG: There’s a fundamental role that storytelling is always playing in the moral life. To try to see somebody on their own terms, which is part of what it is to be moral, is to try to make sense of their world, to try to tell the story of their life as they would tell it. So in our real life, just in making sense of people’s actions and in seeing them in the moral light, we’re involved in storytelling.
SP: So you agree that fiction can expand a person’s moral circle?
And then – Pinker talked about much the same thing last week on Start the Week. The idea of the expansion of empathy from the immediate circle to include larger and larger proportions of Other People. So, read the interview, read the conversation, listen to Start the Week, and you’ll see how it all joins up.