Many otherwise admired authors in the Western
tradition (e.g. Plato, Augustine, and Tolstoy) have defended views about the radical
dependence of aesthetic value upon morality that are nowadays regarded with
deep skepticism. In more recent work on the connection between moral and
aesthetic properties, Noël Carroll, Anne Eaton, Berys Gaut, and others have
tried to defend relatively moderate varieties of moralism about art, according
to which the aesthetic value of ethically significant artworks sometimes
overlaps with but might also independently vary from their moral status. Here,
I develop an immoderate species of moralism that
treats the type of ethical knowledge inculcated by good art as a species of
quasi-competitive skill rather than an outcome of perception or inference. Such
a view, I argue, avoids some of the weaknesses that have made earlier
philosophers' claims about the moral significance of art seem excessively
puritanical to contemporary sensibilities.
autonomism; Carroll; didacticism; Eaton;
ethicism; Gaut; moralism; rough heroes; skill knowledge
Malcolm Bradbury's 1975 novel, The
History Man, is a lucidly pessimistic satire of British academic life. Its
protagonist, Howard Kirk, teaches sociology at a provincial university,
emitting a steady stream of self-serving, political bombast in the classroom,
while neglecting his wife, persecuting his colleagues, and seducing his most
vulnerable students. In the context of lauding the work as one of the best
British novels of the late twentieth century, Anthony Burgess describes Howard
as a "detestable character." But he also remarks that the story's "great
aesthetic virtue" is its
objectivity. No judgement is forced, we make up our own minds. There will be
readers capable of seeing Howard Kirk as a personification of all the modern
There is something fishy going on
here. Burgess surely wouldn't have bothered to register his detestation of
Howard unless he thought that it was, in some important way, correct to view
the character as a nogoodnik. But at the same time, he wants to praise Bradbury
for not inducing this very opinion in readers.
If Burgess is correct in his implicit
suggestion that, despite the novel's objectivity, it succeeds to the extent
that one is able to find reasons to find Howard contemptible, this will provide
some support for what is usually referred to in philosophical aesthetics as moralism:
the thesis, that is, that the ethical content of artworks is germane to our
evaluation of them as art, or, to put it a slightly different way, that
there is a significant overlap between moral and aesthetic value. In the recent
literature, this view is usually contrasted with autonomism, the view
that "art is a strictly autonomous realm of practice," or the closely related
view that aesthetic and moral value vary from one another independently.
I shall not be directly concerned here
with defending aesthetic moralism against autonomism. Instead, I want to focus
on the curious ways in which some contemporary aestheticians have tried to
qualify or mitigate their endorsement of the former. I shall argue that the key
to Bradbury's artistic success and to that of many other ethically significant
artworks, in a diverse range of genres and media, is the way that they set a
specific kind of challenge for the reader, the overcoming of which generates a
distinctive variety of ethically salient skill-knowledge. Somewhat ironically,
it has been the failure of philosophers to recognize the moral threat that so
much good art presents us with that has led them to make ultimately implausible
exceptions to the general principle that aesthetic value is a subspecies of
moral value. But I shall try to demonstrate that, once one appreciates the
fundamentally agonistic orientation of mind that ethically significant art
requires of its audiences, one has grounds to be significantly more immoderate
and unqualified in one's moralism. The value of such art is always to some
extent dependent upon the effectiveness by which it provokes audiences to
develop a keener capacity for distinguishing between what is genuinely
ethically admirable and what might be attractive to them for other reasons.
Such an attitude toward the
relationship between art and morality has had plenty of eloquent supporters
throughout the history of aesthetics, from Plato and Augustine to Leo Tolstoy
and Roger Taylor. But philosophers in this longstanding tradition have usually
defended uncomfortably monistic conceptions of morality that are these days
widely perceived as undermining the plausibility of their views about aesthetic
value. Although I shall not offer anything like a full defense of so-called
radical moralism in the philosophy of art, I shall suggest that the more objectionable
aspects of such a view can be mitigated to the extent that one acknowledges a
greater separation between the form and the content of morality, as it is
effectuated by the consumption of artworks.
Most of the specific examples discussed
will be works of narrative literature, but I shall conclude with a few very
brief and tentative suggestions about how the style of agonistic moralism that
I defend might have broader application in philosophical aesthetics.
2. What we don't learn from rough
A lot of the most intense skepticism
about moralism arises from the suspicion that its defenders conceive of the
value of art entirely in terms of its capacity to impart edifying doctrine.
This is an entirely just complaint against some earlier proponents, such as Plato
and Tolstoy. But the thesis, as it has been defended more recently, has a lot
less to do with affording any sort of privileged status to overtly didactic art
and is for this reason susceptible to much more interesting variation.
In her influential 2012 paper, "Robust
Immoralism," A.W. Eaton makes some fascinating observations about the class of
narrative artworks that represent particularly morally distasteful characters
to their audiences in ways that she thinks are both ethically and aesthetically
significant. Eaton unequivocally endorses the basic intuition that artworks qua
artworks are "candidates for moral assessment." She agrees with orthodox moralists,
such as Noël Carroll, that, when a story adopts a perspective that prompts us
to applaud acts of racially-motivated violence, say, or the sexual conquests of
a fictional child molester, there are likely to be good reasons to change one's
opinion of its aesthetic merits on account of this fact. But she also suggests
that some artworks can have a greater aesthetic value than they would otherwise
possess by virtue of adopting immoral perspectives upon the characters
The examples that she provides to
support this claim are narratives that depict the actions of "rough heroes," a
term she borrows from David Hume. Fictional protagonists such as Milton's
Satan, Tony Soprano, and Humbert Humbert appeal to us not just in spite of
their ethical flaws but to a large extent because of them. These characters,
Eaton claims, are different from mere antiheroes -Don Quixotes, Becky
Sharps (Vanity Fair), and Tyler Durdens (Fight Club)- because
we view the sympathetic features of the latter as exculpatory. The spectacle of
Don Quixote's courage and vigor prompts us to forgive his stubbornly delusive arrogance.
But Satan's charisma and stoic resoluteness in Paradise Lost are far
from sufficient excuses for his misotheism or his gratuitous malice. Eaton
suggests that the unresolved tension we experience when confronted by the
virtues and vices of rough heroes makes it especially difficult to glean any
positive moral lesson from the works that prompt us to admire such characters.
A number of other contemporary
philosophers have tried to explain the effects of such artworks via an approach
that Eaton dubs "cognitive immoralism." Matthew Kieran, the most straightforward
defender of this type of view, claims that what makes immoral artworks valuable
is the way in which they "deepen our understanding." Such works can, he thinks, provide us
with otherwise unobtainable insight into esoteric forms of human motivation. Noël Carroll makes the similar
proposal that works with rough heroes only elicit sympathy for evil characters
for "the purpose of ultimately inviting us to reflect upon our own moral
weakness, a moral purpose if there ever was one." And in his influential 1997 paper, "In
Praise of Immoral Art," Dan Jacobson remarks that "evaluative discourse in a
pluralistic society" requires us to "see the world as…others do," even when
their perspectives prove to be systematically distorted. Immoral art, Jacobson
suggests, might provide us with the only way to do this from something other
than a "wholly external position."
In opposition to these upbeat
prognostications, Eaton very sensibly protests that treating the value of such
works as though it were always intrinsically connected to the edification of
audiences "saps immoral art of its threat and menace." Just as any real life act of violence
or degradation can be extrinsically beneficial if the whims of fate are kind -
recall familiar thought experiments about Hitler being strangled in his crib -
so any narrative artwork that does not destroy us might conceivably make us
mentally stronger, perhaps in an otherwise unattainable way, even though it
adopts an unambiguously immoral perspective upon the characters it portrays.
But it by no means follows from this that deriving such epistemic benefits is a
necessary condition for appreciating the relevant works as art.
When it comes to describing what it is
about narratives depicting rough heroes that makes their specific type of
ethical toxicity aesthetically praiseworthy, however, Eaton's remarks are somewhat
elliptical. First, she says,
rough hero type sets up and then skillfully solves an ambitious and
artistically interesting problem...The target audience is one who would be
strongly reluctant to direct evaluatively positive affective states toward a
morally undeserving character...The challenge that works with rough heroes set
themselves, then, is to overcome this substantial imaginative resistance and
make the audience feel something that it resists feeling on moral grounds.
These remarks are intriguing and
suggestive as far as they go. But it is surely also clear that, while there is
always the possibility of some overlap between other types of value and the aesthetic,
not every type of problem-solving is aesthetically significant. We tend to
admire devious crossword puzzles and fuel-efficient cars for different reasons
than we admire the works of poets, painters, and novelists. For Eaton, the
aesthetic problems solved by artworks with rough heroes are distinctive insofar
as these works bring about some state of internal conflict or tension in their
audiences that they would otherwise be relatively unlikely to undergo. But why
is this enough, by itself, to endow such works with distinctively aesthetic
rather than, say, merely therapeutic or hedonic value?
Eaton is aware of this lacuna. "We do
not just evaluate works based on whether they solve their problems," she
observes, "we evaluate the problem itself." Questions she thinks we should ask
include the following: "Is it an interesting problem? Does it constitute a
genuine challenge? Is it a problem worth solving?" While a "yes" answer to any of these
questions would certainly indicate that the work had some kind of value, she
leaves it unclear exactly how they are all supposed to add up to a recipe for
specifically aesthetic value.
Can such criteria be provided? Probably
not in an entirely decisive way, at least not without also developing a more
general account of the nature of the aesthetic, a task that far exceeds my
ambitions here. What I shall attempt to do instead is rely upon a mostly
unexamined, rough-and-ready understanding of the distinction between artworks
and other potential objects of appreciation (e.g. police reports, political
slogans, and religious dogmas) in order to describe how the competent
appreciation of just any work of art might be viewed as involving a single
discrete, albeit very general, type of problem-solving activity, one that
furthermore plays a constitutive role in human moral development. By taking
this approach, I shall remain agnostic on the question of whether this sort of
activity might be involved in all forms of aesthetic experience or just the
type that we associate specifically with the appreciation of artworks.
Before I expand upon this hypothesis
about the role played by good art in moral development, however, it will prove
useful to reflect a bit more carefully about exactly what conceptions of morality
are in the offing when philosophers discuss its connection with aesthetic
3. A plea for broadness
In Art, Emotion, and Ethics,
Berys Gaut refers to himself as an 'ethicist' rather than a moralist about art,
at least partly because he wants his own belief in the connection between
aesthetic and moral value to seem less qualified than those defended by Carroll
and Eaton. But he also distinguishes between "overall" and "pro tanto" versions of ethicism and only endorses the latter.
To be an ethicist, as Gaut uses the term, is to believe that whenever an
artwork has positive or negative moral value in an aesthetically relevant way
it always also possesses the corresponding valence of aesthetic value.
But this very general principle must be interpreted as merely pro tanto
because some artworks might only be susceptible to ethical improvement at the
expense of what makes them successful aesthetically. In Camus' L’Etranger, for
example, the protagonist, Meursault, is casually racist in a way that
the novel somewhat culpably never treats as problematic. But if Meursault's
inner life were presented more hygienically, the novel would be a less powerful
and revealing depiction of a truly alien psychology. Likewise, Lars Von Trier's
film Dogville would lose its vital political subtext if the otherwise
sympathetic protagonist, Grace, chose to forgive the inhabitants of the village
that held her captive rather than having them slaughtered. And Nabokov's Lolita
would be barely recognizable if it were never intimated that Lolita and Humbert
Gaut elaborates upon his position by
drawing a distinction between what he calls "broad" and "narrower" conceptions
of the ethical. According to the former, "any good or bad aspect[s] of
character," from sincerity and patience to the ability to write well, may be
characterized as ethical qualities. The problem with adopting this view in the
context of debates about aesthetics, Gaut suggests, is that it would "afford an
easy, though entirely trivial, victory for ethical criticism." For, according to Gaut, it is surely
beyond dispute that one has accomplished at least something good when one has
managed to correctly discern a work's aesthetic value. Aestheticians should
therefore confine themselves to a more narrow or restrictive conception of the
ethical, according to which its content is strictly limited to "the kinds of
motivations and feelings" that "we have toward other people." Gaut also denies that ethical
judgments, considered narrowly, possess any claim to overridingness. The question of whether we should, "all things considered," act upon our specifically ethical obligations should
always be viewed within the context of aesthetics as "a non-trivial query."
Gaut's suggestion that the ability to
recognize aesthetic value always represents the manifestation of some admirable
character trait or other is dubious at best. Why mightn't this ability often,
perhaps even always, be merely a desirable side-effect of some broader
disposition that is, in itself, unequivocally malign? An awareness of this dim
but disturbing possibility is surely part of the reason why many are so
horrified when they hear about Nazi officers weeping at Schubert recitals. Gaut
also acknowledges that regarding the scope of the ethical as limited to
specifically other-regarding obligations represents a distinctively modern
perspective upon the nature of morality. But many philosophers of the past
half-century have, in fact, endorsed the view that ethics is only
distinguishable from other forms of philosophical enquiry to the extent that it
addresses the utterly self-regarding question, "How should I live?"
As for Gaut's insistence upon the non-overridingness
of moral judgments, while this view derives some surface plausibility from the
fact that almost any grammatically well-formed question can be made to look
non-trivial from a sufficiently esoteric point of view, I also suspect that
most speakers of ordinary English would be pretty flummoxed if they were asked
whether one really should do something that was uncontroversially required by
morality. Such intuitions might perhaps be less robust if the judgment were
being made about a fictional character's obligations rather than one's own. But
this latter fact does not, by itself, seem to provide any special reason for
thinking of these topics more narrowly in philosophical aesthetics than
To the extent that one is prepared to
countenance a broader conception of morality in aesthetics than Gaut allows
for, can one also defend a more robust (but still non-trivial) version of
moralism? In what follows I shall provide a brief outline of just such an
immoderate species of moralism and try to anticipate a few of the most serious
objections that could be brought against it. Its ultimate plausibility, I shall
argue, depends upon the extent to which aesthetic appreciation can be
understood as a fundamentally agonistic orientation toward the specific type of
psychological challenge that is presented to us by ethically significant art.
4. Aesthetic appreciation and ethical
It is supremely unlikely that consumers
of art will learn the truth of principles such as "murder is bad" or "intellectual
honesty requires self-sacrifice" as the result of their aesthetic experiences,
even when the artworks under scrutiny may be taken to implicitly endorse these
claims. Such moral knowledge simply does not appear to come to us fresh via the
medium of art. As Noël Carroll observes, the belief that murder is bad is
something more like "a presupposition that the reader must bring to Crime
and Punishment in order to understand it." Carroll tries to defend the idea
that some works may have a more limited role to play in moral education by
teaching their audiences "how to apply…precepts to situations." But even this view of the ethical
content of art is difficult to sustain when one considers how few of the
situations depicted in works like Dostoyevsky's novel are likely to bear a
sufficiently close similarity to real events in the lives of their readers.
Coming to understand how one should best proceed upon being tempted to kill
one's pawnbroker with an axe does not seem to have the sort of direct practical
applicability that we associate with genuine ethical knowledge.
But the broader character-based
conception of ethics that Gaut thinks aestheticians would be better off
ignoring has traditionally been associated with an understanding of ethical
knowledge that emphasizes its similarity to perception over its derivability
from highly abstract principles, such as the Categorical Imperative or the
Principle of Utility. As Aristotle famously put it, the discovery of the most
basic goods is like "the knowledge whether this is a loaf [of bread] or is
cooked the right amount;" it is too tied to specific situations to be the
outcome of a self-consciously inferential process.
Consider the following example of a
situation of everyday moral deliberation. A teenager hired as a babysitter is
watching television and working on homework when, at about the same time, the
telephone starts ringing and the toddler in the next room starts frantically
screaming. At this moment, the teenager is subject to a number of discrete
normative demands. The precepts of academic diligence require the math problem
to be finished, whereas etiquette demands that the phone be answered before it
rings too many times. The babysitter also clearly has, at the very least, a
fiduciary obligation to his or her employers to check up on the child. Most of
us would feel that there is no real contest amongst these obligations when it
comes to determining which is the most pressing; the babysitter should first
look in on the toddler. But we might find it at least a bit harder to formulate
a principle explaining why this responsibility overrides the others. And if our
hypothetical babysitter succeeds at checking on the infant before performing
the other two tasks, we would surely not fault the babysitter much if he or she
was unable to articulate why he or she made this decision.
We view the capacity to detect
overridingness amongst the various types of obligations that present themselves
to us as a type of skill-knowledge, something that is possibly aided by, but
not necessarily equivalent to, a belief in any particular theory of morality.
It is something more like a highly context-sensitive type of receptivity to the
features most salient to action in one's present environment.
What I want to suggest is that for
many, if not most, narrative artworks, to appreciate them aesthetically
requires the same type of mental act involved in apprehending the property of
overridingness itself, considered as a general feature that is shared by all
genuine moral obligations, regardless of how they might otherwise differ in
their specific prescriptive content. And the ability to do this reliably is a
very general type of skill or virtue that most, if not all, good art can help
When Burgess expresses admiration for
the The History Man because "no judgment is forced" about the
protagonist's moral character, he surely does not mean that the book completely
avoids didacticism, nor that it adopts a laudably neutral perspective upon the
events that it chronicles. What he commends, rather, is the fact
that solving the work's central puzzle, by figuring out what's truly important
about the shabby treatment Howard Kirk doles out to his family, students, and
colleagues, is not made too straightforward or facile an undertaking for the
reader. For, to the extent that it presents him or her with a genuine challenge, the
reader will develop, at least temporarily, an increased capacity to distinguish
what in human nature is merely attractive from what is genuinely worthy of
If the distinctive type of value
possessed by ethically significant artworks is instrumental in the way just
described, it should furthermore be expected to increase in proportion to the
difficulty of the problems that audiences must solve in order to properly
appreciate those works. It is in this specific sense that the thesis I wish to
defend about the nature of aesthetic value deserves to be called agonistic
moralism, hereafter AM. AM provides a neat elucidation of what Eaton might mean
by her remark that the artworks she discusses must somehow address themselves
"to a problem worth solving." For the type of value just described seems to me to
be exactly the distinctive species of merit that is exhibited by artworks with
Humean rough heroes. The psychological tension between sympathy and revulsion
that Eaton describes such narratives as provoking in their most receptive
audiences could not be achieved unless these works made it simultaneously
possible to admire some features of a rough hero's personality and to sense
that the considerations that have prompted one's esteem are not genuinely
overriding. Fans of The Sopranos or Lolita who find themselves
experiencing a troubling degree of sympathy for Tony or Humbert haven't
necessarily arrived at the level of moral achievement reached by our hypothetical
babysitter and may not have learned any especially important truths about
either the principles of morality or the idiosyncrasies of human motivation.
But they will at least have gotten some practice at exercising a crucial mental
ability that serves as a prerequisite for both such accomplishments- a type of
moral perceptiveness, to use the idiom favored by contemporary Aristotelians.
This is a considerably more modest
claim than the cognitive immoralist's proposal that works containing rough
heroes should be valued for the psychological knowledge they make available to
us about our own ethical vulnerabilities or the otherwise inscrutable
motivations of the wicked. And it is perfectly compatible with Eaton's proviso
that such works pose a certain "threat and menace" to their audiences. For
clearly, in art just as in life, sometimes failing to solve a puzzle or
overcome a challenge is far worse than never having tried at all. We should
also concede the Kantian point that no type of discriminatory skill (other than
phronesis itself perhaps), however necessary its possession might be to
competent moral deliberation, is so immune from perversion that it could not be
put to ill use. That having been said, it does strike
me as a subtle misrepresentation to suggest that audiences who identify
unreservedly with characters such as Tony Soprano or Milton's Satan, without
any trace of accompanying discomfort with themselves for doing so, might
nonetheless have fully apprehended the aesthetic value of the works in which
these characters appear.
What about the types of artworks that
motivate Gaut's retreat to pro tanto ethicism on the grounds that they
could not be purged of unethical content without also making them less aesthetically
admirable? It seems to me that such works will be singularly useful for
inculcating the ability to detect the overridingness of moral considerations
precisely because of the fact that their ethically dubious characteristics are
so difficult to separate from what gives them their distinctive value. When one
has achieved a deep enough appreciation of the aesthetic merits of works
such as L’Etranger or Lolita, and thereby necessarily finds
oneself unable to imagine them transformed in such a way as to render
them aesthetically undamaged but morally unobjectionable, this will surely do
at least something to increase one's sensitivity to unresolved
tensions and instabilities within his or her own moral sensibility.
The plausibility of the claims just
made depends upon the possibility of drawing a principled distinction in ethics
between propositional knowledge and the knowledge that is embodied in certain
sorts of practical skills. Some philosophers have argued for the
intellectualist hypothesis that knowledge-how, in general, is either reducible
to or just one species of knowledge-that. But I do not think that any of these
arguments undermine the plausibility of my claim that aesthetic value should
(often, at least) be understood as the capacity of artworks to produce a particular
type of skill-knowledge in their audiences. For it seems to me that the ability
to detect overridingness amongst all of one's various reasons for action is
more accurately thought of not as a type of know-how at all but rather as an
instance of what David Wiggins describes as "knowing to." A person might know
how to ride a bicycle while also knowing to stop riding if his bicycle
gets a flat tire. Wiggins points out that the latter idiom, while perhaps less
common in English than the former, is perfectly grammatical. Knowledge-to does not seem to be susceptible
to the type of analysis of know-how favored by intellectualists, according to
which the latter type of knowledge is paradigmatically expressed by declarative
responses to wh-questions. But even if the psychological
difference between these two types of states, know-how and knowledge-to,
deserves to be regarded as negligible, they certainly do appear to differ in
normative kind, in the sense that attributing know-how to someone
indicates merely that he or she has the ability to successfully perform some
action X, whereas attributing knowledge-to indicates that he or she also
has the capacity to discern when doing X is optimal relative to any
other available option.
The case for AM could be strengthened
considerably if it were possible to find some empirically independent basis for
believing in the distinctive type of ethical skill-knowledge that I have associated
with the appreciation of ethically significant artworks. Unfortunately, I think
that any attempt to present direct evidence for the existence of this sort of
psychological trait, however apparently well-grounded in the methods of
experimental psychology, would be bound to come across as question-begging. For
in order to treat AM as a testable hypothesis, one would have to start out not
only with some antecedent conditions for when a person counts as a competent
appreciator of suitably serious artworks, but also with clear criteria for what
sorts of behaviors would qualify as manifestations of the relevant moral skill.
Perhaps the first task is not so difficult. The mere decision to spend one's
time consuming art, as opposed to, say, watching sports or getting drunk,
surely counts for something, and such patterns of consumer behavior are fairly
easy to track. The second task is more problematic, though. Until the
experimentalist has committed to a particular moral theory -Kantianism or
Utilitarianism, say- and thereby decided what sorts of substantive reasons for
action really should be counted as overriding, it would be impossible to
determine whether the artworks under examination really brought about ethically
significant changes in character or attitude. Recent research by psychologists
that has identified a correlation between the reading of literary fiction and
the development of empathy and theory of mind is certainly encouraging. But it cannot be taken as providing
direct support for AM, since neither species of psychological trait may be
regarded as just self-evidently beneficial to an individual's moral
One species of artworks does provide a
more serious challenge to the universal applicability of AM. Certain narratives that represent an
intriguing subclass within the broader category of tragedy seem designed to
give rise to the conviction in their audiences that, in some circumstances,
there is simply no unambiguously overriding reason to pursue any determinate
course of action. In the first half of Sophocles' Antigone, when Creon
chastises the heroine for disobeying his edict not to bury her brother, one is
left with a much stronger sense of the inevitability of their mutual
destruction than of either party's unequivocally being in the right. And in
Martin Scorsese's 2006 film The Departed, after a pair of otherwise
sympathetic characters decide to betray the competing organizations they work
for (the police force and a criminal syndicate), power relationships become so
convoluted that one is left radically uncertain whether either had a plausible
ethical basis for choosing between loyalty and duplicity in the first place.
The tragic situations that these works
depict seem to be explicable only in terms of the unavailability of such
reasons to the characters in the narrative. For this reason, I do not think it
is plausible to say of these works that their aesthetic value consists in the
inculcation of a skill at discerning overriding reasons for action.
The extent to which this is a problem
for AM will depend upon rather delicate considerations about the scope and
limitations of morality in general. In spite of certain perennially attractive
intuitions to the contrary, for example, that 'ought' implies 'can,' it seems
to me undeniable that sometimes morally good actions are performed by an agent
as the result of external intervention in that agent's activities or
deliberations, and sometimes morally bad actions are performed by agents for
whom no better option was available. Other philosophers who have defended the
possibility of this type of moral good or ill luck have characterized the
real-life circumstances in which it occurs as being themselves fundamentally
tragic in nature. So this special type of narrative
artwork only qualifies as a genuine counterexample to AM to the extent that its
defenders would also be prepared to deny that the deliberations of unlucky
agents depicted therein have any ethical significance whatsoever. But such
tragic works do also represent a small embarrassment for the defender of AM,
even if he or she does believe in moral luck, insofar as the ethical
knowledge that they convey cannot be explained in terms of the inculcation of a
practical skill but has to do with the nature of morality itself.
5. A postscript on formalism
AM treats the apprehension of aesthetic
value as involving detection of the property of overridingness that is shared
by all truly ethical obligations, without attempting to specify what any
of those obligations actually are. This sets AM significantly apart from the
types of radical moralism defended by authors such as the Tolstoy of "What is
Art?" and the Plato of the Republic, who derive their views about the
value of art from substantive assumptions about what morality dictates.
AM is closer in spirit to a view that
Iris Murdoch defends in The Sovereignty of Good. Murdoch characterizes
art as a means to virtue on account of its capacity to "enlarge the sensibility
of its consumer" and thereby achieve "a kind of goodness by proxy." She takes this view to be implicit in
Plato's discussion of the nature of beauty in the Symposium, from which
she also derives the suggestion that moral ideas "are perhaps most clearly seen
in the context of the technai." Here she is referring not only to the
technical capabilities of artists but to all forms of sufficiently rigorous and
abstract study, including even mathematics.
These remarks suggest that there might
be an interesting sense in which a view like AM deserves to be classified as a
type of formalism about aesthetic value. Yet the most influential types of
aesthetic formalism in modern aesthetics are widely regarded as being starkly
incompatible with even the most moderate species of moralism. While I lack the
space to investigate the reasons behind this view in any detail, I think that
this is at best a crude oversimplification.
To consider just one famous example,
Clive Bell's characterization of the aesthetic value of paintings in terms of
their significant form, which he usually associates with physical patterns in
the distribution of color and geometrical composition, doesn't seem to have
much to do with the types of value-claims that aesthetic moralists normally
make. But in a famous remark that addresses the issue directly, he says, "Once
we have judged a thing a work of art, we have judged it ethically of the first
importance, and put it beyond the reach of the moralist." What he means by
distinguishing the ethical from the moral in this way becomes clear in a much
less well-known passage from Art, where Bell remarks that to classify
something as a genuine artwork is "to credit [that] object with being so direct
and powerful a means to good that we need not trouble ourselves about any other
of its possible consequences." This indicates that, while he might
have balked at the sort of overtly instrumentalist account of aesthetic value
implied by AM, his otherwise infamously elusive notion of aesthetic 'significance'
could plausibly be construed in a way that harmonizes with moralism. I suspect
that a similar treatment might be available of the otherwise rather murky
notion of 'formal purposiveness' that Kant associates with judgments of beauty.
What is less easy to extract from the
work of either of these authors, though it is hinted at in a few of Kant's
remarks about the sublime, is the idea, central to AM, that the detection of an
artwork's value through the apprehension of its form arises from something like
a contest or some interplay of challenge-and-response between the artwork and
its audience. I hope to have shown how such a view
might help to solve puzzles that arise in the interpretation of some narrative
artworks that do not at first glance seem to provide particularly robust
support for moralism.
To what extent can AM be generalized to
other forms or species of art? Works that are conventionally classified as
abstract, absurdist, or (in the case of music) 'pure,' frequently evoke only the
very most ephemeral of ethical judgments from even their foremost devotees.
There certainly does not seem to be a great deal of similarity between the
experience of, say, listening attentively to a Bruckner symphony or confronting
the spectacle of a Dadaist assemblage and the dawning awareness of an
overriding reason to perform some ethically significant action. Noël Carroll
describes his particular version of moralism as moderate partly because he
thinks it is just obvious that these and similar works "have no moral dimension"
But such intuitions have been held much
less universally at other points in the history of aesthetics. Consider
Schopenhauer's account of the capacity of all music, pure and otherwise, to
induce a state of ethically beneficent self-transcendence. Or consider Walter
Benjamin's characterization of the type of moral shock effect provoked by
Dadaist paintings and poems as intimating a "sacrifice of market values." Both of these authors clearly conceive
of the types of aesthetic experiences that such works bring about in both
moralistic and agonistic terms. For Schopenhauer, music challenges the listener
to achieve a profound knowledge of the inner nature of the world that can never
be attained while one's attention is focused on the subordinate expressive or
imitative properties that it always also to some extent possesses. And for Benjamin, Dadaist art prompts
a struggle within its audiences to resist adopting the default attitude of mere
detached contemplation toward artworks, which he regards as a symptom of "the
decline of middle-class society." Such interpretative strategies might
strike many as forced or excessively ideological but the mere capacity to
prompt them serves as a sign that even the sorts of artworks Carroll deems
beyond the scope of moral assessment can, when placed in the right environment,
serve to challenge, puzzle, or confound us in ways that might make us into
better audiences and better people.
It is a philosophical commonplace that
part of what makes aesthetic experience distinctive is some sort of active
engagement with its objects rather than the type of mere passive receptivity
characteristic of ordinary sense perception. I have argued for the less widely
accepted thesis that what makes many, if not most, aesthetic experiences
valuable is the role that they play in the development of a type of
discriminatory skill, a skill that also happens to be a prerequisite for
successful moral deliberation. The sorts of artworks that Carroll, Eaton, and
Gaut appeal to in defense of 'moderation' are, in fact, better viewed as having
just this type of instrumental value. It is only once we have taken up the
challenge offered by artists as diverse as Milton, James Gandolfini, Vladimir
Nabokov, and Malcolm Bradbury to elevate to consciousness the morally perilous
deliberative tensions their works are designed to provoke that we may apprehend
these works in all of their aesthetic profundity.
Mark Silcox is Chair of the Department of
Humanities and Philosophy at the University of Central Oklahoma. His main
interests are aesthetics, political philosophy, the philosophy of language,
and the philosophy of games. His book A Defense of Simulated Experience: New
Noble Lies will be published by Routledge in 2019.
Published on September 18, 2018.
 Anthony Burgess, Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since
1939 (London: Allison and Busby, 1984), p. 11.
 See Noël Carroll, "Moderate Moralism," British Journal of
Aesthetics, 36 (1996), 223-8; ref. on 224.
 A.W. Eaton, "Robust
Immoralism," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 70 (2012), 281-92, ref. on 282.
 Matthew Kieran, "Forbidden Knowledge," in Art and Morality,
eds. J. Bermúdez and S. Gardner (London: Routledge, 2003) pp. 66-7; ref. on 58.
 Kieran also asserts, perhaps somewhat more tendentiously, that "we
must have experienced, in some sense, the bad in order to understand the good."
See Kieran, "Forbidden Knowledge", pp. 66-7.
 Noël Carroll, "Rough Heroes: A Response to A.W. Eaton," in The Journal
of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 71 (2013), 371-5; ref. on 373. Carroll
does not, in fact, classify himself as an immoralist at all, but in this
response to Eaton he seems to wander closer to this sort of position.
 Daniel Jacobson, "In Praise of Immoral Art," Philosophical Topics,
25 (1997) 155-99; ref. 193-4. Jacobson has more recently expressed reservations
about this humanist understanding of the ethical significance of immoral art.
See Daniel Jacobson, "Ethical Criticism and the Vice of Moderation," in Contemporary
Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, ed. Matthew Kieran
(Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), pp. 342-55; ref. on p. 353.
 Eaton, "Robust Immoralism," 289.
 For a plausible defense of the view that the former type of
experience is considerably more widespread than the latter, see Yukio Saito, Everyday
Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 Gaut briskly dismisses the intuitions that motivate Eaton's
commitment to immoralism. When a work of art succeeds at presenting an
ethically flawed character sympathetically, he claims, it is merely employing a
'seduction strategy,' the goal of which is "to show the audience how easily it
can be seduced into false, idealizing, morally tainted, or even plain evil
views of what is going on in the work." See Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion, and
Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 192.
 Of course, these three examples are only illustrative of Gaut's
position to the extent that one suspects any of them might really be as
ethically problematic as their critics have claimed.
 Gaut, Art, Emotion, and Ethics, pp. 41-2.
 The concept of overridingness was introduced into the lexicon of
philosophical ethics by Samuel Scheffler, who characterizes it as follows: "if
there is a consideration supporting the conclusion that one ought to do A, but
a weightier consideration supporting the conclusion that one ought to do B,
then it is natural to speak of the second claim overriding the first." See Samuel
Scheffler, Human Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) p.
 See, e.g., Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy
(Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985) pp. 1-4, Christine Korsgaard,
The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press,
1996) p. 16, and Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1999), p. 17.
 Carroll, "Moderate Moralism," 229.
 See Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Terence Irwin
(Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985) pp. 63-4. See also Iris Murdoch's discussion of
moral perception in The Sovereignty of Good (London: Routledge, 1970),
 It should perhaps be remarked I am using the term 'didacticism' in a
non-pejorative sense here, since it seems to me that part of what any form or
moralism in aesthetics entails is that it is not always an unequivocally bad
 See Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals,
trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1959), p. 9.
 David Wiggins, "Practical Knowledge: Knowing How to and Knowing
That," Mind, 121 (2012), 97-130; ref. p. 113.
 See Jason Stanley and Timothy Williamson, "Knowing How," The
Journal of Philosophy, 98 (2001), 411-444.
 See R.A. Mar, K. Oatley, and J.B. Peterson, "Exploring the link
between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and
examining outcomes," Communication, 34 (2009)
407-28 and D.C. Kidd and E. Castano, "Reading Literary Fiction Improves
Theory of Mind," Science, 18 (2013), 377-80.
 For a thoughtful critique of the view that empathy is always an
unambiguous moral asset see Michael Stocker, Valuing Emotions
(Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996). For a discussion of the
extent to which moral philosophy can proceed without assuming that moral agents
must possess a theory of mind, see Alvin Goldman, "Empathy, Mind, and Morals,"
in Mental Simulation: Evaluations and Applications, eds. Martin Davies
and Tony Stone (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 185-208.
 The concerns addressed in the next few paragraphs were first brought
to my attention by James Shelley, to whom I am extremely grateful.
 See, e.g., Rosalind Hursthouse, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999).
 It is worth remarking that not all moral philosophers share this view
that morality, or any single, identifiable class of obligations, should be
viewed as overriding. See, for example, Susan Wolf, "Moral Saints," The
Journal of Philosophy,79 (1981), 419-439 and Donald C. Hubin, "The
Groundless Normativity of Instrumental Reason," The Journal of Philosophy
 Iris Murdoch, The
Sovereignty of Good (New
York: Schocken, 1971), p. 87.
 Clive Bell, Art (Scott's Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2013), p. 42.
 See Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. J.H. Bernard (New York: Hafner Press,
1951), p. 62.
 Part of what makes an artwork or a natural object sublime,
Kant observes, is the way that it "discover[s] in us a faculty of
resistance…which encourages us to measure ourselves against the apparent
almightiness of nature." See Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 100-1.
 Carroll, "Moderate Moralism," p. 229.
 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction," in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. H Zohn (New
York: Schocken, 1969)
pp. 217-252; ref. p 238.
 See Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation,
trans. E.J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969), pp. 261-267.
 Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,"
 An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 72nd Annual
Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in 2014. I am grateful for the
extremely helpful and constructive feedback I received there, as well as for
the thoughtful comments of an anonymous reviewer for Contemporary Aesthetics.