The standard claim made for literary examples in moral philosophy is that they assist moral reasoning by offering appropriately complex descriptions of the conditions under which moral decisions are made or might plausibly be made. This essay offers a critical examination of that claim, exploring the attractions of literary exemplarity for moral philosophy of several kinds since the 1960s but also the constrained terms under which the invitation to deep reflectiveness is permitted to operate. The essay then considers why many recent moral philosophers (with the partial exception of Bernard Williams) have preferred quasi- or faux-literary examples, developing a kind of stripped-down or gestural literariness that offers the benefits of just enough, not too much, complexity.

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