Aesthetics and Ethics: The State of the Art

Jeffrey Dean

Because the poet traffics in mimesis, ungoverned by reason, appealing to the irrational part of the soul, this makes it right for us to proceed to lay hold of him and set him down as the counterpart of the painter, for he resembles him in that his creations are inferior in respect of reality, and the fact that his appeal is to the inferior part of the soul and not to the best part is another point of resemblance. And so we may at last say that we should be justified in not admitting him into a well-ordered state, because he stimulates and fosters this element in the soul, and by strengthening it tends to destroy the rational part, just as when in a state one puts bad men in power and turns the city over to them and ruins the better sort. Precisely in the same manner we shall say that the mimetic poet sets up in each individual soul a vicious currying favor with the senseless element that cannot distinguish the greater from the less, but calls the same thing now one, now the other. – Plato

I spoke of the novel as an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society, and best instructs our human variety and contradiction. – Lionel Trilling

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. – Oscar Wilde


You know you’ve arrived when your likeness appears on The Simpsons or on MTV’s Celebrity Death Match, and while I don’t expect philosophers to show up on either of these shows any time soon (despite the notable publication of The Simpsons and Philosophy), for those interested in the intersection of aesthetics and ethics we have recently seen the next best thing: a survey article by Noel Carroll on art and ethical criticism in the journal Ethics. Of course, any arrival marks the end of an absence, and as Carroll points out in the opening paragraphs of his essay, the recent flood of work on the ethical criticism of art puts an end to a surprising dearth of work on the part of Anglo-American philosophers in this area. Surprising, not only because connections between ethics and aesthetics were central to much philosophy from Plato through the end of the eighteenth-century, but also because outside of Anglo-American academic philosophy, the ethical “interrogation” of art (and artists) has been steadily mounting for much of the twentieth-century. Precisely because it is the work that has seen most development in the last ten to fifteen years, and in order to help make this overview manageable, discussion here will be limited to what I see as the two most robust areas of renewed interest in Anglo-American philosophy of an “analytic” bent: research pertaining to the role of art and aesthetics in the development of moral imagination and understanding; and work on the relationship between moral and aesthetic values.

A great deal of this recent work in aesthetics has emphasized the connection between art and moral understanding, a connection long thought important, but as noted, largely neglected during the better part of the last two centuries. This neglect can be attributed to, among other things, zealous attempts to define and defend the intrinsic value of art, attempts which shun any whiff of an instrumentalism that sites the value of art in its didactic or ethical effects. But as contemporary critics of this approach often stress, the resulting aestheticism, the purpose of which was to save art from moralizing, is itself too often a form of reductive and blinkered formalism. The task some of those working in contemporary aesthetics have set themselves is to understand and characterize the relationship between art and ethics in a way that avoids the weaknesses of both instrumentalism and aestheticism.

In this endeavor aesthetics has been met halfway by ethics. Until fairly recently, the dominant strains in British and American philosophical ethics have been Utilitarian and Kantian. The central debates were over whether ethics should be characterized in deontological or consequentialist terms, with a shared focus on impartial principles designed to regulate self-interest for mutual advantage, and disagreements centered around the structure of moral intentions and obligations and the moral relevance of the consequences of actions.

But more recently there has been a renewed interest in what is commonly referred to as “virtue ethics”. In the tradition of Aristotle, virtue ethics focuses more on the long-term development of moral agency-including character, moral emotions, and the perception of salient details of particular moral contexts-than on finely tuned general principles intended to entail impartial outcomes in particular cases. The difference in approaches is sometimes cast as between an ethics of obligation vs. an ethics of character. This shift dovetails nicely with the recent efforts in aesthetics, since one element central to Aristotelian ethics is precisely what engagement with art has long been claimed to provide: a means to imaginative perception, feeling, and understanding Peter Lamarque provides one characterization of this trend, referring to the Wittgensteinian school of (literary value and) ethics (also represented by D.Z. Phillips and R.W. Beardsmore) as follows:
It is not the central task of ethics to formulate and apply general principles but rather to stress the particularity of moral situations and the idea that profound moral disagreements reside not in a difference of beliefs but in different ways of looking at the world. The argument is then brought to bear on literature with a parallel more or less explicitly drawn between a moral agent on the one hand and a competent reader on the other. The idea is that the moral agent and the reader both in effect confront complex moral situations with both called upon to adopt an imaginative perspective on those situations which should yield in the one case a moral judgement or appropriate action and in the other a moral insight or revised way of seeing. A competent reader might hope to learn from the literary work not by formulating a derived moral principle but by acquiring a new vision or perspective on the world.
The list of recent and contemporary philosophers who stress the close connection between aesthetic and moral perception and understanding is long one, including among many others Wayne Booth, Noël Carroll, Gregory Currie, Richard Eldridge, Susan Feagin, Peter Lamarque, Peter McCormick, Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Frank Palmer, John Passmore, and Hilary Putnam. Most of the discussion by these authors focuses on narrative art, usually narrative fiction in the form of poetry, literature, drama and film. Also common to these accounts is their rejection of a central role for propositional knowledge vis-à-vis the moral relevance of art. Instead, it is claimed variously that art “shows” rather than “tells” us morally relevant features of the world, illuminating the importance of feeling, reflection and the perception of particulars in the moral evaluation of character and situation (esp. Murdoch, Nussbaum, Palmer, and Passmore), is especially well-suited to modifying our moral concepts (esp. Carroll, McCormick, and Putnam), and exercises the very imaginative capacities necessary for making sensitive moral judgments (esp. Booth, Currie, Feagin, and Lamarque). Each of these sorts of claim is intended to highlight ways in which the appreciation of art engages and refines capacities necessary for sound moral understanding and judgment, stressing that what is morally valuable about such art is inherently bound up with its aesthetic appreciation.

While most of the early work in this area tended to valorize the moral benefits of sensitive engagement with works of art, recent work has also stressed the potential dangers of imaginative commerce with art-particularly narrative art-in those cases where the work in question encourages or mandates imaginative identification with, or mental simulation of, morally deficient or pernicious points of view. Although little has been made of this as of yet, taking seriously the morally disruptive or destructive power of art (even while bearing in mind its virtues) may have significant consequences for one’s attitudes regarding censorship and arts education. That is, given the nature of the kinds of views developed and defended in current research, it becomes increasingly difficult to take seriously the ethical benefits of imaginative engagement with art without acknowledging its potential dangers as well. I expect to see increased discussion of this issue in the coming years.

Given that recent efforts have centered on close connections between imaginative engagement with works of art and moral understanding, it is perhaps unsurprising that the other main focus of research and debate has been the relationship between aesthetic and moral value, and by extension, the relationship between aesthetic and moral judgment. The debate here has centered on the question of whether the moral and aesthetic values of works of art are independent, or, alternatively, at least on occasion interdependent.

Consider the case of Marquis de Sade’s Juliette. Here, Sade offers a narrative which appears to endorse the notion that sexual torture is erotic and amusing. In this case, the “successful” understanding of the narrative (in the sense that we see things as the author would have us see them) would entail some distortion or perversion of our moral understanding, on the assumption that sexual torture is not, or at least should not be, either amusing or erotic, and that persons should not be treated merely as means to one’s own sadistic gratification. It may be said, then, that because Juliette prescribes a response to its subject matter that is ethically inappropriate, it is a morally flawed work.

The question then arises whether the fact that Juliette is morally flawed (because it endorses a morally defective perspective which prescribes a morally inappropriate response to its subject matter) in a manner that undermines its narrative intent (morally sensitive audiences should not respond in the manner prescribed by the work) means that it is thereby aesthetically flawed as well (and for that very same reason). The question is a surprisingly difficult one to answer. For, on the one hand, it seems intuitive to say when a work fails to merit a prescribed response, it has to that extent failed aesthetically. Thrillers that do not thrill, comedies that are not humorous, and tragedies that are not tragic fail in some respect, and that failure, given that it is internal to the nature and aims of the work, would appear to be an aesthetic one. Since Juliette fails in a respect internal to the aims of the work, it would also appear to be an aesthetically flawed in this regard. And the explanation for this failure is that the work is morally flawed. So the work is both aesthetically and morally flawed, and for the same reason.

On the other hand, however, a thriller that fails to thrill (say) is aesthetically flawed precisely because of its failure to thrill; why it fails to thrill would seem to be extraneous to the aesthetic issue, viz., that it fails. It may fail to thrill because the pacing is off; it may fail to thrill because the dialog is weak; or it may fail to thrill due to some moral defect, e.g., the putatively sympathetic protagonist is in fact morally repugnant, such that the audience doesn’t have sufficient sympathy with him or his plight to care about what happens to him or take a positive interest in the outcome of the storyline. In each case we have an aesthetic failure-a thriller that fails to thrill-with different explanations for this failure: pacing, dialog, moral misstep. In the latter case, it is mistaken to say that the thriller’s aesthetic defect (its failure to thrill) is “the same as” its moral defect (its prescription to sympathize with a repugnant character). Indeed, it would be mistaken to identify the failure to thrill with any of the explanations for that failure. Likewise, it is mistaken to identify the aesthetic defect in Juliette (its failure to warrant its prescribed response) with its moral defect (its endorsement of and invitation to share a morally corrupt perspective).

It is important to note that whether one supposes that moral and aesthetic values and judgments sometimes overlap, or steadfastly maintains their conceptual independence, there is one thing that most of those currently writing on aesthetics: works of art have multiple dimensions of value, including not only aesthetic and moral values, but historical, sociological, political, anthropological and other sorts of values as well. My own view (a view certainly shared and articulated by others, but not always made apparent in the literature) is that for the sake of clarity, the value matrices that converge in works of art ought to be referred to as artistic value (or “overall artistic value”). Artists are concerned with more than the expression of aesthetic values in their work, and so too are critics and philosophers of art. It is clear, in this sense, that moral values are sometimes artistic values, whether or not they are sometimes aesthetic values (which, as indicated above, is a more vexed question). A work of art that is aesthetically excellent, historically significant, and morally profound is a better work of art, overall, than one which is only some or none of these things (assuming of course that we hold the various achievements in the varieties of value constant across cases). This helps explain, in part, why judgments about artworks are so often contested. When one pays attention to the specifics of criticism or praise, one often finds that disputants are talking past each other: one is touting the excellence of a work while the other is decrying is triviality, but it will often turn out that the former, say, is focused on the work’s historical significance and moral fortitude, while the latter is considering only a specific set of aesthetic values relevant to the genre. Again, whether or not one believes varieties of value may sometimes merge, it is important to be mindful of their differences, so that evaluations are commensurable.

In closing, it should be noted that in addition to the topics discussed above, much interesting work has recently been undertaken on emotional engagement with artworks (including moral emotions), on a variety of relationships between works of art and simulation theory, imagination, and identification (where a great deal of this work has bearing on our understanding of the moral relevance of art), and on a variety of other topics. This is of course only the beginning, but a promising one, and I would wager that interest in the intersection of ethics and aesthetics has not only arrived: it is here to stay.

 

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