Literature and its Role in the Cultivation of Ethics in the Business Environment

By Kyle Scott

Literature is, by and large, invaluable in one’s understanding of human nature and the world in general. It serves as a gateway to events of the past and an instrument to grasp different views of reality and to connect with our own humanity. But how can literature help in the cultivation of ethics in the business environment?


In 1957, Russell Kirk wrote, “I mean that American businessmen, like most other Americans, are deficient in the disciplines that nurture the spirit.” A lack of engagement with the humanities-“that great body of literature that records the wisdom of the ages, and in recording it instructs us in the nature of man”-has dire consequences not only for the individual, but for the business he so values.

Engaging great works of literature has instrumental and intrinsic values for those who choose to engage. Engagement with great thoughts and great characters involved in great events shape the minds of readers. Readers of great literary works will be more inclined to act ethically, come up with creative solutions, and have the strength to act on their convictions.



Literature provides us with an awareness of humanity’s depths and heights. Without examples we have nothing to model our own behaviour after or basis on which to identify potentially tragic flaws in ourselves or others. It is helpful to know of people like Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, and Mother Theresa in comparison to Stalin, Hitler or Mugabe.

Fiction reading enhances social cognition through its simulation of social content. This essentially means that fiction enhances the perception, recognition, and understanding of other individuals.

But historical examples have a way of seeming too distant, or their deployment in examples of heroism and evil is so common as to desensitise us from their value.  Literary characters often feel more personal, more visceral, and even easier to connect with. Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, Raskolnikov of Crime and Punishment, and Romeo and Juliet seem closer to us; easier to connect with. Think of the rise in popularity of Alexander Hamilton now with his life story having been dramatised in an award-winning Broadway musical. His writings have been around for over two hundred years and historians have been writing about him for decades, but it is only now that people have formed a real connection with him.

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About the Author

Kyle Scott is an Affiliate Faculty Member at Baylor College of Medicine, Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy. He has held several university teaching appointments and currently serves at the head of international development efforts at a U.S.-based manufacturing firm. He has academic publications in the areas of business ethics and political philosophy. His work has also appeared in popular outlets such as Huffington Post, Houston Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and others.


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