Kendall Walton, "Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality"
- 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
- **We tolerate subversion of facts
to a much greater extent than we do the subversions of morality
- David Hume (18th century empiricist) claims this
- Says we are 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?)
- 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 charaters of blame and disapprobation" or the work is bad (morally? aesthetically?)
- But one might argue that portraying evil things "neutrally" is not the same as condoning or advocating them
- 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
- Object to immorality in and out of 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
- This (immoral) assertion or request 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 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 them negatively
- An argument against "apartheid": If we object to advocacy of morally obnoxious ideas outside of art, we should be able to object to their advocacy inside art.
- Most would agree that this is a moral defect in the work
- Not Oscar Wilde ("There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. that is all." From Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray")
- Advocates for apartheid:
- Only some think it is an aesthetic defect (as well as--and because it is--a moral defect)
- Morally repugnant ideas may so distract or upset us that we are unable
to appreciate whatever aesthetic value the work possesses
- This seems like the idea that the object may have aesthetic value (and
that the immorality does not detract from it), but the immorality
makes aesthetic appreciation of the aesthetic value not possible
- But if this is the case and one of the goals of a work is to make
appreciation of artwork possible, or to create a positive aesthetic
response to it, then the immorality would be a defect in this
dimension of its artistic/aesthetic value
- Stecker defines aesthetic value as the capacity to deliver aesthetic experience to those who understand the artwork
- Thus an artwork that is so immoral that it loses this capacity, has as aesthetic defect
- Pyramids example: Realization that pyramids were built by slave labor may ruin one's enjoyment of them?
- Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will
- Documentary; 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
- Maybe the beauty is there nonetheless and the work's moral failings
merely interfere with enjoyment of the beauty
- If aesthetic and moral value can be put on same scale, perhaps its
negative moral value outweighs its aesthetic value
- Or perhaps not; here moral and aesthetic value are still distinct
- "Independent interaction" view from above
Should we ignore immorality to get at aesthetic value?
- Should we think it unfortunate that we are psychologically unable to bracket
our moral concerns in order to appreciate the work aesthetically?
- Too bad awareness of one interferes with awareness of other?
- Morally unfortunate (no), aesthetically unfortunate yes, perhaps
- Issue is whether or not our aesthetic reactions should be governed,
constrained or influenced by our moral reactions
- Is this a moral should? Or aesthetic should?
- Moral should: how one should act, what one should do
- Aesthetic should: ?What serves the goals of proper aesthetic appreciation
- We often don't take this attitude
- "Too bad I can't get past the obnoxious
moral views and appreciate the great value of the work"
- We don't want to appreciate the immoral art
- Unwilling to look beyond moral concerns to enjoy work's beauty, as
though the beauty is itself tainted
- We may not want to profit (aesthetically) from work's moral
- The more the depravity contributes to our aesthetic enjoyment, the
more we may not want to embrace it.
- Notice that beauty of Hitler's plane flying in the clouds may be entirely
independent of film's moral depravity?
- There are cases where still regard work as possessing aesthetic value,
despite moral depravity
- But did the depravity decrease its aesthetic value?
- But also cases were we deny a work possesses aesthetic value because of
its moral failings
- Racist joke example: we insist is not funny, precisely because its message
- 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
- 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 perhaps even acknowledge that it is
- But can't we say it is beautiful and we are unwilling (though perhaps able)
to aesthetic appreciate it but refuse to do so.
- So not just that our disgust at message makes us unable to appreciate it
- 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?
- There is a closer connection between moral and aesthetic value than some allow
- 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 (should be unable or unwilling to appreciate it)
- This may count as an aesthetic defect as well as moral one
- Because works value should be accessible?
- Artist has failed if he want the audience to sympathetically take
up his world and the audience can't because of immoral
- Might it be the case that aesthetically one should (an aesthetic
should) ignore the immoral character so as to better appreciate the
- Are there aesthetic shoulds?
- One (aesthetically/artistically) should pay attention to the work
if one wants to properly appreciate it (aesthetically).
- If the focus on aesthetically appreciate is to ignore all other
dimensions of the work, then yes moral concerns should be left
- 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 story she rejects the moral
views of her character
- But if we find the perspective immoral enough, we object even to
imagining taking it up.
- Imagine what it is like to be a enjoy molesting children?
- Why resist imagining believing in a moral perspective we consider
- One reason: Because doing so might encourage one to actually subscribe
- 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 not 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
- Asymmetry in our reactions to getting the morals wrong in an artwork
and getting factual matters wrong.
- While we sometimes do object to falsehood in fiction
- Complain if a historical novel gets facts wrong
- Assertion of factual falsehoods in a story may distract us from
appreciating the work aesthetically
- Can imagine lots about fairies, goblins and time travel w/o worrying
about factual orientation
- We are less willing to allow a work's fictional world to deviate from the
real world in moral respects than in nonmoral one
- Walton claims that:
- 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 just do not have the same freedom to manipulate moral
characteristics of their fictional world that they have to alter
- Of course, 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 be the case that it is
fictionally the case that interracial marriage is wrong.
- This is a hard concept to get; What does it mean that there is a truth about morality in the fictional world, beyond what artists intends?
- Reply: Intention does not constitute entire nature of the work
- We are free to use our own judgment on the matter.
- Can't make immoral things moral in fiction; can make factually untrue things true in fiction
- While we will go with a medieval storyteller's (false) belief that
bloodletting cured character
- We will stick to our guns in moral matters
- Judge characters by moral standards one accepts in real world
- Condemn characters who abandon their children
- Don't change mind if learn the author considered this morally
acceptable and expected readers to think this is so in the world of the
- 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
- If the author gets the morals wrong, then the author is wrong about the
morals of his story (while it is not true if he gets the facts wrong)
- In contrast, we are willing to accept a medieval author's dictate that in the world of
the story bloodletting cures the disease.
- Walton thinks that fictional worlds cannot differ morally from the real
world (or if they can, this does not happen easily or often)
- Walton thinks that while there can be science fiction, there can't be
- Example: 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
- 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.
- This becomes much less of a puzzle when one rejects intentionalism about work meaning
- If it was fictional that immorality was good (that infanticide for sexual
selection was praiseworthy)
- Readers would be asked to imagine that she did the right thing
- They would be barred from imaginatively condemning either her or
- Just as we are barred from rejecting that someone time traveled in
fiction, because we know this is not possible
- Can accept narrator's authority that there are fairies or witches in this
fictional world but not that in that world it is right to kill babies for their sex
- Title of a painting of an interracial couple walking holding hands is
- 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
- This is a great example of anti-intentionalism:
- Where the meaning of the artwork is not a function of the author's
- Fictional statements = true in the world of the story = statements the
readers of the story are to imagine
- Why can't we recognize that the story calls on us to imagine that
Hitler was a great and good man
- And we refuse to do the imagining
- **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 as 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
- Explanation of this peculiar fact
- What is funny or moral depends on natural characteristics/relations
- Certain properties determine other properties and one can't violate
this in fiction
- For example, evil attaches to slavery
- How 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 him
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
- Walton's guess about why we refuse to allow immoral or foolish jokes
to be moral/funny in fictional worlds
- Because we can't imagine this.
- Inability to fully understand what it would be like.
- In contrast we can imagine wands and invisibility cloaks
- If we abhor slavery we can't imagine it to be right
- We can imagine believing this
- We can't imagine it being the case
- 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