While trying to come up with something to post in relation to the recent PEL discussion on Cormac McCarthy’s "No Country for Old Men" I came across an interesting discussion over at the Philosophy Now podcast on literature and philosophy that raises the above questions. The conversation opens by addressing the obvious "What is literature?", going on to explore the role literature plays in relation to philosophy, whether it is a "philosophical enterprise" or could "possibly" contribute to the "philosophical enterprise" (The answer? "Yep.")
What really drew my attention was the question of how literature bears on our understanding of moral reasoning and if literature is a better medium for conveying moral insights. The participants in the Podcast offer some skepticism about whether or not literature can provide philosophical insights that are not obtainable through "standard modes of philosophical argument." They do, however, seem to agree that literature can "inspire us to moral reflection", acting as "...an instance of moral thought." One of the ways that this is done is by "..pushing us to think imaginatively, particularly about possibilities." ("Literature both keeps alive threatened possibilities... and sets forth unanticipated ones".)
Martha Nussbaum, whose thoughts on this topic are addressed several times in this conversation, champions the notion that literature ought to be considered works of moral philosophy as it promotes a more empathetic society. (The question that arises around Nussbaum, "...could you become a more morally sensitive, more morally able person by reading literature?" seems to have been answered in the affirmative.) While philosophy often deals with explicit sets of propositions about this or that moral system in an argumentative, systematic sense, literature addresses the "experience" of being a moral agent by addressing the concrete features of persons and circumstances, provoking the reader to reflect on moral issues in a "different", indirect way. In taking you into a spectrum of different "experiences" as they might be lived by possible people, each iteration adds a facet to our overall notion of what it means to be "human", broadening our ontology of the "human being" (I would think that Wittgenstein's notion of "forms of life" would be relevant here since literature allows us to enter into specific examples of a given "form" and how we might come to an understanding of how different "meanings" and different "moral reasoning" are constituted.)
The claim, raised by Nussbaum and questioned by the participants here, that literature shapes our moral responses is becoming more than mere speculation.
This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.
That we might be less critical of the ideas found in fiction, as opposed to non-fiction, because our "guard is down" raises some dangers about what people come to believe as being "true" (the possibility that our view of the "real world" could be "distorted" or "manipulated" by the ideas we encounter in fiction underlines Plato's criticism of literature). How we interpret a given piece of literature, even without "explicit assertion" of an author's beliefs, can be influenced by the "...authors choice of evaluative vocabulary, which words do you choose to describe the 'goods' and 'bads' of what is going on." This "manifesting" of beliefs can subtly convey (and/or obscure) ideas, whose claims may or may not be challenged by the reader who might "export" those claims from the fiction into their understanding of the "real world" (and here we see a potential strength of moral philosophy, in the proper sense, as an analytic tool in evaluating competing moral claims).
Overall, it seems that "if the author is a decent guide to human psychology" then literature can, on a practical level, "enhance your moral thinking" but we should not consider literature as "moral philosophy" per se. Not that these questions and concerns should reduce Literature to its instrumental value in regards to philosophy as there are aesthetic qualities found in literature that exist independent of their philosophical significance just as there are philosophical works who aesthetic qualities should be acknowledged independent of their philosophical considerations (as Seth does in regards to the prose of Descartes’s "Meditations" or Daniel Horne does when he addresses the "...good emotional turns of phrases" found in Schleiermacher’s “On Religion" which is lacking in "rigor" and "methodology").
Addendum: I also just found a related discussion from 2007 on "Philosophy and Literature" over at Philosophy Talk that you might want to give a listening to.