My colleague Sarah Dillon over in the English faculty recommended Martha Nussbaum’s 1995 Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life to me. We’d been talking about the way narratives have become a thing – for example, the Royal Society’s AI narratives project, or Bob Shiller’s new book Narrative Economics. I enjoyed Poetic Justice, which in a way is making the same point as Adam Smith’s Moral Sentiments: that empathy is an essential part of being able to reason an an impartial spectator. Hence, Nussbaum argues – mainly in the context of the law but also economic welfare – the importance of reading fiction. She uses Hard Times and Native Son and also Whitman’s Song of Myself as her exemplars – Hard Times’s Mr Gradgrind illustrating the limitations of purely ‘economic’ reasoning, the other two texts the importance of being able to stand in other people’s shoes in one’s imagination.
The book argues for the importance of cultivating the imagination for reasons of social justice and sound public reasoning: “I defend the literary imagination precisely because it seems to me an essential ingredient of an ethical stance that asks us to concern ourselves with the good of other people whose lives are distant from our own.” And, not surprisingly, she argues against the utilitarianism that underpins everday economics and its assessment of social welfare, in favour of the capabilities approach.