Kendall Walton, "Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality"
- Sometimes we disagree with the content (moral or factual) of a work and this ruins our pleasure and we take
it as grounds for judging the work negatively
- E.g., A historical novel about Paul Revere has him walking house to house instead of riding.
- E.g., A historical novel about Abraham Lincoln suggest he was wrong to free the slaves
- **We tolerate subversion of facts
to a much greater extent than we do the subversions of morality
- A main point of article (see discussion at the end)
- David Hume (18th century empiricist) claims this
- Says we are (relatively) happy to overlook factual mistakes (in fiction)
- But should not tolerate repugnant ideas of morality and decency
- "Were vicious manners are described w/o being marked with proper characters of blame and disapprobation, this must be allowed to disfigure the poem and be a real deformity"
- Morally reprehensible ideas constitute deformities in the work (says Hume)
- Are these deformities moral and/or aesthetic (and are they aesthetic defects because they are moral defects?) (See below)
- Note: To describe/portray morally evil things is not necessarily
to condone or advocate them
- Art may "deal with" evil/immoral subjects and not itself be evil or immoral
- E.g., A movie that depicts rape, need not be a bad movie because its subject is an evil act
- Hume thinks that the immoral material must be "marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation" or the work is bad (morally? aesthetically?)
- Might one argue that portraying evil things "neutrally" (w/o blame/disapprobation) is not the same as condoning or advocating them?
- E.g., The mere fact that the horror movie "Hostel" depicts torture, does not mean it is an evil movie
- It is not an evil movie because its subject matter is evil
- But the mere fact that the evil doers in the movie get their just deserts (and in this sense, "are marked with proper characters of blame and disapprobation") is not sufficient to inoculate it against all moral objections
- (Perhaps Hume's is a necessary but not sufficient condition for avoiding the charge of immorality)
- It may be morally bad for different reasons:
- Perhaps it caters to (unhealthy? sick? morally wrong?) viewers' desires to watch the infliction of suffering on others
- Do folks who watch this film "enjoy" watching it? Or do they "suffer through it?"
- But if taking aesthetic pleasure in tragedy is permissible, why isn't this also permissible?
- Describing "vicious manners" in a story need not always to condone them, but sometimes in certain stories it is.
- Many works contain morally repugnant ideas without going so far as to assert or advocate them
- A story might encourage appreciator to imagine taking up a certain moral perspective (by sympathetically portraying a character who accepts the immoral perspective)
- But this story might at same time encourage readers to disagree with the character; author makes it clear in the story that she rejects the moral views of her character
- But if we find the perspective immoral enough, we object even to imagining taking it up.
- Should we accept an invitation by an artist to imagine what it is like to enjoy molesting children?
- Why resist imagining believing in a moral perspective we consider offensive?
- One reason: Because doing so might encourage one to actually subscribe to it.
- Rooting for a team example: Start rooting for a team you don't care about and eventually you will start caring about them
- Imagining believing, desiring, feeling immoral things will over time lead to the real thing
- This, if true, could be part of a justification for censorship.
- Advertisers and political propagandists know getting people to imagine believing facts can nudge them toward believing them
- Two: Might encourage one to unthinkingly act that way
- Even when we have firm beliefs/convictions and are not in danger of having them overturned, we may strenuously resist imagining beliefs we think are mistaken.
- While not changing our beliefs, such imaginings can change our orientation, instincts and how we would act when we have to act w/o thinking
- Direction orientation example
- Three positions (at least) about relation of morality and aesthetics
- One: Apartheid--One may not judge artworks with moral criteria
- Two: Autonomy--One may judge artworks as moral or immoral, but this does not
affect the aesthetic value of the work:
- Moral defects are not aesthetic defects
- Three: Integration/interaction-The immorality (or morality) of an artwork can affect its
- Moral defects can be aesthetic defects (and perhaps vice versa)
- Some have argued for "immoralism": the view that moral defects in a work can be conducive to the positive aesthetic value of such works
- Advocates of apartheid argue that:
- Art is amoral (neither morally good nor bad)
- It is a mistake to apply moral norms to art in any fashion
- Oscar Wilde: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." (From the Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray")
- Things clearly wrong when done in real world, not wrong when done as art?
- In addition, apartheid might argue that not only art, but artists as artists are beyond morality (and the law?)
- Examples to consider when evaluating apartheid:
- Spencer Tunick's mass nude photography?
- Sculptor Tom Otterness' Shoot Dog Piece (p. 116, Fisher) :
- "It was an execution and "it presents itself
- An argument against apartheid:
- If we object to immorality outside of art, why not also in art?
- We object (and perhaps respond with disgust) when
- Someone advocates a moral position that is reprehensible
- Tries to get us to feel or act in ways that violate our morals
- Such (immoral) assertions or requests can come in a friend's statement,
lecture, sermon, newspaper editorial, and also in art
- Can make reprehensible claim or requests by writing poems or
telling stories, or creating fiction
- Story where the practice of genocide or slavery is deemed morally
acceptable, or where we are asked to accept that it is evil to associate with
- Whether in a newspaper editorial or a novel or a movie
- This will arouse disgust and we will judge it negatively
- Most would agree that there are examples of moral defects in the artworks
- That artworks sometimes can be properly judged to be immoral (or morally praiseworthy)
- This rejects apartheid
- Becomes autonomism: If the moral defect is autonomous from the aesthetic value
- Becomes integrationist: If the moral defect is an aesthetic defect
- Reasons to question autonomism and consider interataction/integration:
- Morally repugnant ideas may so distract or upset us that we are unable
to appreciate whatever aesthetic value the work possesses
- Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl
- Documentary of Hitler's Germany
- One of the most important films in cinematic history
- Propaganda for immoral cause
- A celebration of the Nazi Party and its values
- Associates Hitler and Nazis with power, virility and purity
- "Beautiful" "cinematic or formal beauty" shots of Hitler's airplane flying though the clouds
- Our disgust may prevent us from appreciating or even noticing film's cinematic "beauty"
- Good meal baked by a Nazi? Appreciate its taste?
- Is this an aesthetic defect in the work or just a hiding of aesthetic value?
- Integrationism claims it is an aesthetic defect:
- One of the goals of an artwork is to create a positive aesthetic response to it, and when the immorality disables this response, that is a defect in this artistic goal of the work (an aesthetic defect)
- If one defines aesthetic value as the capacity to deliver aesthetic experience to those who understand the artwork, then
- An artwork that is so immoral that it loses this capacity, has as aesthetic defect
- Autonomism would claim that the beauty is there nonetheless and the work's moral failings merely interferes with accessing and/or enjoying the beauty, it does not degrade or eliminate it
- If aesthetic and moral value can be put on same scale, autonomism might ask if its
negative moral value outweighs its positive aesthetic value (or vice versa) (Here moral and aesthetic value are still distinct)
- Should we ignore immorality to get at the aesthetic value?
- Should we think it unfortunate that we are psychologically unable to bracket
our moral concerns in order to appreciate the work aesthetically?
- Issue is whether or not our aesthetic reactions should ever be governed,
constrained or influenced by our moral reactions
- Often we don't take this attitude
- We don't want to appreciate the immoral art
- We don't want to profit (aesthetically) from work's moral depravity
- Unwilling to look beyond moral concerns to enjoy work's beauty, as
though the beauty is itself tainted (sounds like interactionism)
- Saito's argument against aesthetically appreciating events that cause great human suffering
- We should not ignore our moral concerns:
- "The same moral considerations that question the appropriateness of our aesthetic appreciation of the [atomic bomb] mushroom cloud, I believe, are also applicable to the possible aesthetic experience of natural disasters which cause people to suffer . . . our human-oriented moral sentiments do dictate that we not derive pleasure (including aesthetic pleasure) from other humans’ misery, even if it is caused by nature taking its course. . . .[Natural disasters’] potential aesthetic value is held in check or is overridden by our moral concern for the pain, suffering and difficulties that these phenomena cause for human beings (1998, pp. 108-09)."
- Davies examples of "action films" and Westerns where he thinks we should overlook the immoralities embraced by the film in order to aesthetically enjoy the story.
- Walton: The more the moral depravity contributes to our aesthetic enjoyment, the
more we may not want to embrace the aesthetic value
- Is the beauty of Hitler's plane flying in the clouds entirely
independent of the moral depravity of Riefenstahl film?
- Racist jokes may be cases where the moral depravity is essentially tied to the aesthetic value (the humor)
- Racist joke example:
- Are they funny? (Consider mean ones, told to us by strangers)
- Is their aesthetic value (humor) untouched by their moral depravity?
- We insist it is not funny, precisely because its message is offensive
- To laugh at it is to endorse the message, so we refuse to laugh
- Even judging it to be funny may seem like expressing agreement with the offensive message
- Walton thinks there are cases where we still regard work as possessing aesthetic value,
despite moral depravity
- Did the depravity decrease its aesthetic value?
- But also cases were we deny a work possesses aesthetic value because of
its moral failings
- Walton thinks there are cases were no amount of squinting or compartmentalization could make
appreciation of the aesthetic value MORALLY acceptable
- If work's obnoxious message does not destroy or lessen its
aesthetic value, it renders this value morally inaccessible
- Actually inaccessible or normatively inaccessible (unable or unwilling to appreciate it?)
- This may count as an aesthetic defect as well as moral one
- Perhaps because works aesthetic value should be accessible
- Artist has failed if she want the audience to sympathetically take
up this world and the audience can't because of its immoral
- ASYMETRY BETWEEN OUR REACTIONS TO GETTING MORALS WRONG AND GETTING FACTUAL MATTERS WRONG
- While we sometimes do object to falsehood in fiction (e.g., complain if a historical novel gets facts wrong)
- We are less willing to allow a work's fictional world to deviate from the
real world in moral respects than in nonmoral one
- Narrators and artists can stipulate what goes on factually in a fictional
world, but not what is morally the case in a fictional world
- Authors do not have the same freedom to manipulate moral
characteristics of their fictional world that they have to alter
- Walton: There can be science fiction, but there can't be morality fiction
- The narrator can indicate that she thinks interracial marriage is
wrong and the artist can describe a character who believes it is wrong
- But neither of these is the same as making it true that it is
fictionally the case that interracial marriage is wrong.
- We are free to use our own judgment on the matter.
- What does it mean that there is a truth about morality in the fictional world, beyond what artists intend?
- Reply: Artist's intention does not constitute entire nature of the work (the fictional world)
- This is a great example of anti-intentionalism: Where the meaning of the artwork is not a function of the author's intention.
- So it being fictional-how things go in the story-is not the same as how the author thinks or intends them to go, or how the narrator thinks they go, at least about moral matters.
- Author can make factually untrue things true in fiction
- Author can't make immoral things moral in fiction
- We will go with a medieval storyteller's (false) belief that
bloodletting cured the character
- But we will stick to our guns in moral matters
- Author writes that in killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing, or the village elders did their duty by forcing the widow onto her husband's funeral pyre
- Readers are not obliged to accept it as fictional that these are proper ways of acting
- We still say that "in the story, so and so was a jerk," even if the author is trying to get us to accept this evil character as good
- We don't say "in the story, so and so, was not a wizard but an ordinary boy" when the author describes him as a wizard
- Judge fictional characters and events by moral standards one accepts in real world
- If the author gets the morals wrong, then the author is wrong about the
morals of her story (while this is not true if she gets the facts wrong)
- Walton thinks that fictional worlds cannot differ morally from the real
world (or this does not happen easily or often)
- Humor in fiction works the same way as morality in fiction
- **Humor--like morality--can't be stipulated in fiction in a way radically
divergent from the real world
- Dumb jokes
- like: Knock, Knock, Whose there? Robin. Robin who?
Robbin you, stick'em up!
- Can't be hilariously funny in fictional worlds
- Just as a none-joke "a maple leaf fell from the tree" can't be
- If author or narrator suggests it is funny in the fictional world, we
judge she has a juvenile sense of humor or is crazy
- This is not to say that author can't stipulate that fictional
characters thought it was hilariously funny
- Funny for them, yes, but theirs is an inappropriate reaction
- Walton's guess about why we refuse to allow immoral activities or foolish jokes
to be moral/funny in fictional worlds
- Because we can't imagine this.
- Unable to fully understand what it would be like.
- (Davies: Its a conceptual confusion to think of slavery as good, because evil attaches to slavery)
- If we abhor slavery we can't imagine it to be right
- In contrast we can imagine wands and invisibility cloaks
- How audience refusal to accept that immoral ideas are moral in a fictional story can indicate an aesthetic defect in the work
- If author meant this to be fictional
- Her failure to bring this about may be a defect in the work
- She tried to do something she can't bring off and it is clear from the work she tried and failed
- If other things in work depend on belief that immoral things are moral, she fails in this too
- May not be able to regard the character as heroic or his downfall tragic, if we (contrary to author's intention) judge him to be morally despicable
- Can destroy the story's excitement and dull our interest and ruin the plot
- All these are aesthetic defects in the work
- MISCELLANEOUS (Can ignore)
- Reality principle: We should construe fictional worlds as being as much
like real world as possible, consistent with what the work directly indicates
- This principle often does not apply
- Does embracing the aesthetic value involve embracing the moral value?
- To allow ourselves to enjoy the aesthetic value of Triumph of the Will may be to endorse its message and enter into the pro Nazis sentiments of the film
- Might express unwillingness to do this by saying film is not beautiful
- Sounds like it really is beautiful, but we refuse to appreciate it and or even to acknowledge that it is
- But can't we say it is beautiful and we are unwilling (though perhaps able) to aesthetically appreciate it
- So not just that our disgust at message makes us unable to appreciate it aesthetically
- Could hold racist joke and pro-Nazi film are funny/beautiful, and also that admitting this and allowing ourselves to enjoy the beauty/humor involves subscribing to its evil message
- Is the view here that we think it is beautiful, but refuse to acknowledge it? Is this self-deception?
- Title of a painting of an interracial couple walking holding hands is '"Shame!"
- Fictionally there is nothing shameful in what the couple is doing
- The title amounts to an interpretation of the picture which we are free to disagree with, not an authoritative pronouncement establishing a feature of the fictional world