Since the term “ethical literary criticism” has been launched and is spreading among the world community of humanities scholars, it transparently hides a seed of ambiguity. It is because the adjective “ethical” itself is ambivalent. On the one hand, it denotes activities related to moral or ethical questions. Beyond any doubt, re-orientating cultural and literary research towards discussing questions related to ethics has been the main goal of the recently founded IAELC (International Association for Ethical Literary Criticism, founded in Yichan, China, in 2012).
Yet, on the other hand it has become a commonplace to use “ethical” as a synonym of “correct”, “just”, “righteous” – in the sense of behavior or activity corresponding to certain established and accepted moral norms. A younger scholar belonging to the postmodern generation asked me: “Once you know beforehand what type of criticism and literature is ethical, what is the meaning of such research? Would criticism and literary creation not lose their sense altogether, if the goals are so explicit and transparent?”
It would be in vain to start to explain that the meaning of “ethical” in the sense of “morally righteous” is misleading and erroneous. Once it has been included in most dictionaries and spread in the minds of broader communities, such an understanding must be accepted.
Similar to ethical literary criticism (hereinafter abbreviated as ELC), we cannot ignore ambiguities related to other terms involved in my topic. Thus, comparative literature (hereinafter abbreviated as CL) is more than often understood as aimed at making a comparison between two or more literary works. Or on the contrary, in the recent decade the much-exploited term of interdisciplinary studies seems to denote relating literature and literary studies to other fields of research, such as history, sociology, politics, economics, biosciences, and other issues. As for world literature (hereinafter abbreviated as WL), it has often been imagined as a closed and defined canon established once and forever by the scholars of “major” and “leading” nations. Or, on the contrary, it has been identified with the truly unapproachable corpus of universally created literary, meta-literary, as well as non-literary texts.
We certainly cannot deny anybody the right to understand, interpret and also to question terms that at least to some extent have been consecrated in our containers of knowledge – universal dictionaries and encyclopedias.
The moral function and challenge of ELC, CL and WL
Yet, what we surely can do is accentuate and ground some aspects of the terms and phenomena we consider more important than others. When determining the nucleuses and dominants of the fields of ELC, CL and WL, the first criterion for me would be discerning functions that the mentioned fields could aspire to cover and meet more completely than other branches or areas of research. My personal intuition and experience foretell me that moral function would strongly stand out in this context.
Since 19th-century positivist philosophies, the highest goal of science has been to describe and interpret objectively, starting from concrete and measurable data, the natural world. Any transcendence to God and the supernatural has been denied, while subjective and personal approaches have been criticized from the standpoint of science. The interference of moral criteria has been seen rather as a disturbance, a trouble-maker.
As the natural and technical sciences developed and triumphed, producing miraculous changes in societies, called the “progress of civilization”, the same principle of a claimed objectivity became to be ever more applied to humanities, including history as well as literary history.