Q: How important is the study of literature in individual/ ethical development?
In terms of making individuals aware of the plethora of ideals and values different people have in the world, literature is crucial. For example, Confucian literature defined much of Chinese culture for many years in the past, and even today still has influence over the content in modern day literature. The values presented by Confucius are very well respected, despite the fact that they regarded the women of their time incapable of education. Therefore, the study of literature from different cultures and civilizations in history has opened the doors to a wide range of values that people have held in the past.
However, in terms of actually shaping the individual and making him/her *ehem* “moral”, literature itself does very little. It only provides the reader with the opportunity to embrace the wealth of new information, and accept that this was how a certain group of people thought. The natural reaction to any form of literature that does not “cross our value system filter” of our brain is to denounce the values of the authors, branding them as racist, sexist, selfish, cold etc. For example, if you read about how Confucianism valued men more than women scholars, you could say that he is sexist. Likewise, most people would, if they encountered a modern work of literature that stated “we can assign individuals values, based on his/her contribution to the society, therefore men/women are not all equal”, would probably have a fit on the floor (just as they would have on my post about Steve vs a million people in poverty). The truth is as humans, we don’t like to see opposing values, and when we do we try to destroy it. This is one example. If you look at the comments on my post about Steve vs Statistics, you will see that many people have denounced the view that Steve Jobs is more valuable than 1,000,000 poverty stricken people .
Therefore unless we take into account the reasons for the views taken in literature, we cannot claim that “literature has led to individual development, because now I see these people are cruel and their views are bad”. If we take Steve Jobs as an example, the reason for the view would be: his contributions to our society greatly surpasses that of the contributions of 1 million poverty stricken people, therefore he is more valuable than all of them added together. This is a perfectly valid reason is it not (again up to the individual to decide)? Many might say that “It is immoral to think that people have different values, for all men and women must be equal”. Great, so? This work of literature opposes your view, and has a valid reason, so its “morals” are no less credible than yours. It is unfortunate that this is not the case, for what is moral and what is not is determined by popular views.
On the other hand, we could argue that literature reveals more value systems to the reader. This allows him/her to evaluate the value system, and “assimilate” them if it fits in well with the society the reader is living in. This can be considered as individual development.
Whether or not literature leads to individual and ethical development can be debated “till the universe ends”. I have answered the question by taking a “neutral position” (or so I think). I would say that one must answer these questions impersonally (… Then again people will disagree).
Note that the Steve jobs example may not be a work of literature, but I took it as if someone wrote a book about the value of people, and used him as an example.