Matthew Kieran, Art, Morality and Ethics:On the (Im)Moral Character of Art Works and Inter-Relations to Artistic Value


1.      Is morality relevant qua art?

         a.      Should the moral attitudes in art be considered when we evaluate the artwork as art?

         b.      Instead of question: Is morality relevant to aesthetics?

         c.      What is and is not relevant when considering an artwork as art.

                   i.       Is morality relevant to the artistic value of art?


2.      Autonomism/Aestheticism (Gaut’s amoralism)

         a.      No “internal relations” morality and art

                   i.       Moral character of a work is strictly irrelevant to its value as art

         b.      Art’s

                   i.       Fictional status

                   ii.      Cognitive content

                   iii.     Instructional values

                   iv.     Moral status

         c.      Conceptually distinct from aesthetic features like

                   i.       Work’s harmony, complexity, intensity, imagery, style

         d.      Art can enhance or impede our moral understanding, but that is irrelevant to their value as art


3.      For aestheticism, morality (and other practical aspects) of art can “intrude” on aes features

         a.      It might undermine complexity or coherence of a works themes or imagery

         b.      But this affects work only as “indirect side effect”

         c.      No internal relations morality and art

         d.      Never moral character of work as such that affects its artistic value

4.      Laptop analogy

         a.      Whether a laptop is a good laptop does not depend on if it is beautiful or ugly

         b.      Its beauty might interfere with its functionality

         c.      But that does not mean its aes value is conceptually related to its functionality--it’s being a good laptop

         d.      Would not say that an ugly laptop is not as good as a laptop as a beautiful one

         e.      Similarly an immoral art work is not any worse as art than a moral artwork (simply in virtue of being immoral) –though the immorality may in someway interfere with its functioning as art


         f.       One might look at the notion of a good laptop broadly and include its aes value along with its functionality as part of being a good laptop

         g.      So too one might look at an art object broadly and include its moral status along with its aesthetic qualities as part of being good art.


5.      Points in support of aestheticism

         a.      Practice of criticism (what art critics say about art) sets aside direct evaluation of morality in artworks

                   i.       Critics praise works despite or independent of their moral attitudes

                   ii.      Reply: Critics may simply be focusing on other artistic features

                            (1)    Also many critics do focus on moral character

         b.      We might praise as equally good moral and immoral artworks–so we must be setting aside worries about moral character

                   i.       Reply: If could be that they differ in other artistically relevant ways that make the overall judgments come out even


6.      Cognitive value of art argument against aestheticism

         a.      Art has cognitive value:

                   i.       We sometimes appreciate and value artworks because of their insights and understanding

                   ii.      Learning from art is central to art

         b.      Moral understanding is one type of cognitive value

         c.      Aestheticism asking us to disregard a core and recurrent goal of art

7.      Aestheticim’s reply: Cognitive value not central to art qua art, but is a central aim many artists put art to

         a.      Analogy: Many put educational institutions to the task of training students for the marketplace

                   i.       But that is not central to the university as such–its central goal is education not training for jobs

                   ii.      University education has internal goals of affording knowledge and developing intellectual virtues, and as a side effect this makes people more fit for jobs

                   iii.     Training is not central to university education, despite fact many use it as that


8.      Cognitive value of art internal to artistic value

         a.      When a work of art uses artistic means to convey insight or get us to understand something (including moral ideas) this cognitive content seems relevant to its artistic value


9.      Response elicited argument

10.    Works of art solicit responses from audience

         a.      For a work to succeed it must elicit emotions/feelings essential to realization of its artistic goals

         b.      For a tragedy/horror to work as tragedy/horror must feel sympathy for central character/feel suspense, fear

         c.      E.g., sympathy for a character may depend on moral assumptions concerning him/situation

         d.      So moral character is (in this case) connected to artistic value


11.    Gaut’s Ethicism

         a.      When moral character of work relevant to its artistic value

                   i.       Examples of when it is and when not?

         b.      Any moral flaw in work makes it of lesser value as art

         c.      Any moral virtue in work enhances its value as art

12.    Two arguments for ethicism

13.    One: If cognitive value internal to artistic value (and employs artistic means), then ethicism follows

         a.      If one misrepresents moral features, solicits morally inappropriate responses or has us commend what should be condemned

         b.      This involves a misunderstanding of how we should perceive, react or what our attitude should be

         c.      And such a misunderstanding is a cognitive flaw (it takes us away from truth and understanding and knowledge)

14.    Two: Merited response argument

         a.      Whether we should respond as art asks us to depends on if the response is merited

         b.      If horror movie solicits fear, whether response merited depends on our judgment of is the monster scary

         c.      If art solicits admiration for character in virtue of killing someone, then whether such a response is merited depends in part on our moral judgment of whether this was justified.


15.    Alternative to Ethicism

16.    Moderate moralism (Carroll): Moral character of work is sometimes relevant to its artistic value

         a.      E.g., morally sensitive audience fails to respond as solicited by work due to its defective moral character

17.    Work’s morally defective character can

         a.      Sometimes mar its value as art (and sometimes not)

         b.      But it can never enhance its value as art (denies immoralism)

         c.      Similarly, works morally admirable character can sometimes enhance its value as art and sometimes not.

                   i.       ?But never detract from its aes value


18.    Kieran’s (immoralism): Artwork may be better as art in virtue of its immoral character

         a.      Immorality of art can enhance its value as art

         b.      Why assume that moral relation to artistic character always goes in one direction?


19.    Postman Always Rings Twice example

         a.      Drifter turns up at a diner, seduces owner’s wife and they kill the well meaning older Greek husband for sake of their love affair; eventually during police inquiry the “couple implodes amidst acrimony, jealousy and distrust”

         b.      For the narrative’s suspense to work, we must sympathize with the murderous couple

         c.      Mark of novel’s success that it manages to get us to do so

                   i.       So that the novel can get us to hold immoral feelings makes it better art?

                   ii.      A hard thing to get people to give up their moral attitudes and take on others and this art object succeeds in doing that difficult task


20.    Perhaps what matters is not if the response is merited

         a.      But if it is intelligible

                   i.       Or psychologically close to us

                   ii.      Art is particularly good at doing this

                            (1)    Taking up attitudes that we ordinarily would never have

         b.      Or perhaps it can be merited on some grounds other than moral




22.    Reject’s idea that how we should respond in real life should govern how we respond to analogous situations in art

         a.      In real life we would not sympathize with murderous couple who killed the old Greek husband

         b.      In real life we would not root for Michael Corleone in The Godfather

         c.      In real life, we do not listen happily to gangsta rap music stories

                   i.       E.g., Eminem’s and Rihanna’s “Love the way you lie”

         d.      We allow the force of our internalized moral prohibitions to slacken and go with the response sought from us

23.    Permissible difference between attitudes we allow ourselves to take up in our imaginative activities and those we allow ourselves to have toward the real world

         a.      E.g.,

                   i.       Sexual fantasies

                   ii.      Violent attitudes in video games

         b.      Involve actions, responses and attitudes we would not wish for or enact in real life

24.    *Can be some slippage or interaction between the two


25.    Somethings being fiction sets up an “aesthetic distance” between us and what work portrays

         a.      Knowing something is fiction makes a crucial difference to way we respond

                   i.       Consider a documentary or a fictional film about same event

         b.      Because of “artistic devices mediating representation” (because its not a straightforward representation of events?)

         c.      And because we cannot intervene (as with past events too)

         d.      Allows us to respond to morally problematic attitudes in ways would not (should not) in real life



27.    True sometimes our ordinary moral attitudes in real life prevent us from taking up those immoral attitudes in fiction

28.    Also artistic cultivation of perception, imagination and feeling allow artworks to develop our moral character

         a.      A causal thesis

         b.      Can not only give us moral knowledge, but train our capacities for apprehending and responding to morally relevant features

         c.      When a work does this in virtue of its artistic mediation, it’s a virtue of work as art

29.    Tempting idea: where a work effectively seeks to coarsen or distort our moral capacities, this constitutes a defect in it as art

         a.      Our reluctance in certain cases to indulge in responses we take to be immoral can be explained by our not wanting to have our moral competencies undermined


30.    Go with immorality only if there is a sufficient payoff

         a.      Kieran argues that whether we are willing to enter into moral responses in fiction (or laugh with jokes) we take to be deeply morally problematic in real life depend on if we think there will be some kind of pay off from so doing

         b.      We sometimes can (and should?) allow our moral scruples to go on holiday where we judge there will be a sufficient payoff in terms of appreciation or understanding

         c.      This seems a dangerous enterprise!


31.    Cognitive immoralism (cases where immorality justified by cognitive payoff)

         a.      Where moral character of work tied to its cognitive value, that moral character is relevant to value as art

         b.      The link in “many such cases” is as ethicism says

         c.      But “in quite a few cases” the link is inverted

         d.      “Works that solicit responses/attitudes we judge not to be merited can–given how they do this–enhance our understanding”

         e.      **Where cognitive payoff due to immoral character of a work

                   i.       And this is sufficient to outweigh our reluctance to indulge in the response sought

                   ii.      Then this immoral character is an artistic virtue rather than vice.

         f.       Morally problematic work can redeem itself artistically

                   i.       Does this accept ethicism’s idea that its immorality lessens its artistic value,

                   ii.      But here that same immorality brings with it greater cognitive value

         g.      Immoral or morally problematic aspects of a work where they cultivate understanding can contribute to works’ artistic value


32.    Man bites dog example:

         a.      Camera crew follows serial killer

         b.      He’s funny, charming (talks about difficulties in getting rid of dead bodies, especially midgets)

                   i.       Loves his girlfriend, respects his family, and worn down by mundane aspects of his “job”

         c.      Then camera crew gets drawn into a vicious rape

         d.      People laughed at beginning and then deadly silence

33.    Film shows

         a.      How being fascinated by and laughing at screen violence both manifests and perpetuates the brutalization of society

         b.      Shows how media and we ourselves may be complicit in things we condemn

         c.      Shows we can be seduced into responding to violence in ways we should not

         d.      Audience experiences how easily they can be seduced into laughing at actions that delight in extreme violence.

         e.      We learn about ourselves

         f.       We treat more seriously the possible links between our responses to fiction and to real life

         g.      For film to work–get cognitive gain–we must respond in way solicited, which is unmerited in real life

         h.      Note that the film’s overall attitude is a good moral one and that it in the end condemns the attitude it ask the audience to take up

                   i.       But it does ask and get us to take up an immoral attitude


34.    Art enables us to explore attitudes and responses we would try not to have in real life, given our moral prohibitions

         a.      We might only learn how we might respond to the appeal of violence, allure of adultery though works that speak to those desires


35.    Kieran thinks needs to be more discussion about what the moral character of a work consists in

         a.      That intended by author?

                   i.       But unintended aspects of work may undermine author’s intentions for it

                   ii.      Might really be a racist book even though intention was to promote equality of whites and blacks

         b.      What a informed audience would say