Kendall Walton, "Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality"



2.      Do morally reprehensible ideas constitute deformities in the artwork?

         a.      David Hume (18th century empiricist) claims sometimes yes

         b.      Hume: "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"

3.      Hume thinks that the immoral material must be "marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation" or the work suffers/is poorer

         a.      A question we will ask is whether it is

                   i.       Morally poorer (a moral defect)

                   ii.      Aesthetically/artistically poorer (an aesthetic/artistic defect)

                   iii.     Or both

                   iv.     Or neither

4.      Art can describing evil or immoral things

         a.      Neutrally, w/o commenting

                   i.       Example? Detroit rapper Invincible’s song “Ropes” is about suicide (which is not the same as condoning it). Her goal was to get people to think about and deal with this important issue. It was accepted by MTV content department and then rejected by its standards department because it was “too problematic” with its “suicidal undertones.” Story

                   ii.      Hume thinks defect in work (?)

         b.      Critically, while criticizing them (“marked with proper character of disapprobation”)

                   i.       Example: A movie that depicts rape/torture, (e.g., The Accused) might be highly critical of it and very effective at showing how evil it is

                   ii.      Hume thinks no defect in work

         c.      Supportive, condoning/advocating them

                   i.       Example? Rihanna’s “Love the way you lie lyricsSong

                   ii.      Hume would think defect in work

                   iii.     Many would argue that not only do such works describe immoral things, but they themselves are immoral for advocating them

                            (1)    Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (which glorifies Hitler)

5.      Many works contain morally repugnant ideas without going so far as to assert or advocate them

         a.      A story might encourage appreciator to imagine taking up a certain moral perspective (by sympathetically portraying a character who accepts the immoral perspective)

         b.      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



7.      Why resist imagining believing in a moral perspective we consider offensive?

8.      Sometimes a perspective is immoral enough, we object even to imagining taking it up

         a.      Should we accept an invitation by an artist to imagine what it is like to enjoy molesting children?

9.      One reason: Because doing so might encourage one to actually subscribe to it

         a.      Rooting for a team example: Start rooting for a team you don't care about and eventually you will start caring about them

                   i.       Imagining believing, desiring, feeling immoral things can over time lead to the real thing

                            (1)    A problem with violent video games?

         b.      Advertisers and political propagandists know getting people to imagine believing facts can nudge them toward believing them

                   i.       If true, could function as part of a rationale for justifying censorship

10.    Another reason: Might encourage one to unthinkingly act that way

         a.      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

                   i.       Direction orientation example

                   ii.      Might acting (imagining acting) a certain way in a video game not change one’s beliefs about the right way to act but lead one to unthinkingly act that way?



12.    One: Apartheid: One may not judge artworks (as artworks) with moral criteria

         a.      Morality should play no role in evaluating art as art

13.    Two: Autonomy: One may judge artworks as moral or immoral, but this does not affect the aesthetic value of the work

         a.      Moral defects are not aesthetic defects

         b.      When evaluating art as art, its moral/immoral nature does not affect its other characteristic as art (aesthetic or other artistic values)

14.    Three: Integration/interaction: The immorality (or morality) of an artwork can affect its aesthetic and non-moral artistic values

         a.      Moral defects can be aesthetic/artistic defects (and perhaps vice versa)

         b.      Note: Some have argued for "immoralism": The view that moral defects in a work can be conducive to the positive aesthetic/artistic value of such works

                   i.       Here moral defects are aesthetic/artistic perfections

                   ii.      This is also a type of interaction

         c.      Example of immoralism: Davies suggestion that The Accused might have been an even better movie if it had been more ambiguous about whether or not the rape depicted was morally wrong.


15.    One: Apartheid: Advocates of apartheid argue

         a.      Art–appreciated as art--is amoral (neither morally good nor bad)

         b.      It is a mistake to apply moral norms to art in any fashion

         c.      "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all." (Oscar Wilde, from the Preface to "The Picture of Dorian Gray,” 1890)

         d.      Things clearly wrong when done in real world, not wrong when done as art?

         e.      Advocates of apartheid might argue, in addition, that not only art, but artists--as artists--are beyond morality (and the law?)

16.    Examples to consider when evaluating apartheid:

         a.      Spencer Tunick's mass nude photography

                   i.       17,000 nude Mexicans

         b.      Sculptor Tom Otterness' Shoot Dog Piece

                   i.       Adopting a dog, filming the shooting of it with a rifle, playing it on public access cable in NY city

                   ii.      Asked about it: "It was an execution” and "it presents itself” (p. 116, Fisher)

         c.      Chris Burden’s performance art: Shot himself, shot at airplane, endangered himself and colleagues with high voltage electricity, taken TV show hostage a knife point as a work of art

         d.      Jonathan Yegge's Art Institute of San Francisco performance (Art class sex and feces in the name of art)

17.    An argument against apartheid

         a.      If we object to immorality outside of art, why not also in art?

         b.      We object (and perhaps respond with disgust) when

                   i.       Someone advocates a moral position that is reprehensible

                   ii.      Tries to get us to feel or act in ways that violate our morals

         c.       Such (immoral) assertions or requests can come in a friend's statement, lecture, sermon, newspaper editorial, and also in art

         d.      Can make reprehensible claim or requests by writing poems or telling stories, or creating fiction

         e.      Example: Story asks us to accept that it is evil to associate with other races

                   i.       Whether in a newspaper editorial or a novel or a movie

                   ii.      This will and should arouse disgust and we will judge it negatively

18.    Rejecting apartheid: Artworks sometimes can be properly judged to be immoral (or, note!, morally praiseworthy)


19.    Two: Autonomism: Art’s moral value (if any) does not affect its aesthetic/ or other non-moral artistic value

         a.      Art’s moral merits/demerits don’t affect its aesthetic/artistic merits/demerits

20.    Arguments for autonomism

         a.      Aesthetic/artistic value and moral value are different types of value and they do not interact

         b.      Believing that one affects the other confuses the two types of value

         c.      Examples:

                   i.       The Egyptian pyramids were built by slave labor does not mean they are aesthetically/artistically poor or worse

                   ii.      That the Roman Coliseum was a place where humans fought to the death does not lessen its architectural value

                   iii.     That a murderer cooked your meal does not mean it tastes bad

         d.      Aesthetically/artistically poor art may be morally good

                   i.       Boring or childish supermarket novel may have a good moral message

         e.      Morally evil art may be aesthetically/artistically excellent


21.    Consider: Leni Riefenstahl film Triumph of the Will

         a.      One of the most important films in cinematic history

         b.      Documentary about Hitler's Germany

         c.      A celebration of the Nazi Party and its values

         d.      Associates Hitler and Nazis with power, virility and purity

         e.      E.g., "Beautiful" "cinematic or formal beauty" shots of Hitler's airplane flying though the clouds

         f.       Propaganda for immoral cause


22.    Three: Integration/interaction: Art’s moral and aesthetic/artistic value can interact

         a.      E.g., A moral defect can be an aesthetic/artistic defect

         b.      Extreme version: Bad or wrong art is ugly art

         c.      Immoralism: a moral defect can be an aesthetic/artistic perfection

23.    Reasons to question autonomism and consider interaction/integration

         a.      Morally repugnant ideas may so distract or upset us that we are unable to appreciate whatever aesthetic value the work possesses

                   i.       E.g., Our disgust with glorifying Hitler’s Third Reich may prevent us from appreciating or even noticing film's cinematic "beauty”

                   ii.      Is this an aesthetic/artistic defect in the work or just a hiding of aesthetic value?

                            (1)    But that its aesthetic/artistic value is hidden by certain features of the work might itself be an aesthetic/artistic defect

         b.      One of the goals of an artwork is to create a positive aesthetic/artistic response to it, and when the immorality disables this response, that is a defect in this artistic goal of the work (an aesthetic/artistic defect)

                   i.       Artist has failed if she want the audience to sympathetically take up this world and the audience can't because of its immoral character

         c.      Example of moral defect causing artistic defect

                   i.       E.g., For a work to succeed, the audience must feel sympathetic toward a character. But the author describes the character in a way that shows he’s an intolerant racist (the author thinks this is endearing). This prevents the audience from feeling the required sympathy for the character, so the work fails. The moral defect causes an aesthetic/artistic one.

24.    Are pollution sunsets beautiful?

         a.      Autonomism: Sure its beautiful, just harmful (morally bad)

         b.      Interactionism/integration:

                   i.       The proper aesthetic judgment about the pollution sunset is that it is not beautiful (i.e., not aesthetically positive all things considered), or, at least, less beautiful

                   ii.      With the knowledge that it was caused by pollution, the aesthetic delight should either be dampened or removed entirely

                   iii.     Once we move beyond a narrow formalistic appreciation of the pretty colors and interesting patterns of the pollution sunset, we get more negative connotations

                   iv.     What we are seeing is in part harmful particles expelled by industry that damage lungs, send children and the elderly to the hospital, and acidify lakes

                   v.      We might imagine dead fish and hear the wheezing of vulnerable people who are breathing the polluted air

                   vi.     Our emotions become (or should be) engaged and we feel disgust at the thought of the dead fish, sympathy for those whose breathing is made more difficult, and anger toward both the industry executives who profit by externalizing their costs onto others and the regulators who fail to do their jobs.

                   vii.    While the colors and the patterns may still be pretty, the aesthetic delight and peaceful feelings that sunsets normally deliver are (or should be) absent or radically diminished.

25.    Should we ignore the immorality to get at the aesthetic value?

         a.      Is it too bad we are psychologically unable to bracket our moral concerns so we could appreciate the work aesthetically?

         b.      Davies (in Ch. 8) gives 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

         c.      Often we don't take this attitude

                   i.       We don't want to appreciate the immoral art

                   ii.      We don't want to profit (aesthetically) from work's moral depravity

                   iii.     Unwilling to look beyond moral concerns to enjoy work's beauty, as though the beauty is itself tainted (sounds like interactionism)

26.    Argument against aesthetically appreciating events that cause great human suffering (Hurricane Katrina, Atom Bomb Mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, Japan)

         a.      "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 " (Yuriko Saito, 1998).

27.    Walton: The more the moral depravity contributes to our aesthetic enjoyment, the more we may not want to embrace the aesthetic value

                   i.       Racist jokes yes, Hitler plane flying in the clouds no.                              

28.    Are racist jokes funny?

         a.      (Consider mean ones: Q: What do you throw a ________when he's drowning? A: His wife and kids.)

         b.      Is their aesthetic value (humor) untouched by their moral depravity?

         c.      Here the moral depravity seems closely tied to the aesthetic/artistic value (the humor) and this makes a stronger case for interaction

         d.      Walton’s claims:

                   i.       “We insist it is not funny, precisely because its message is offensive”

                   ii.      “To laugh at it is to endorse the message, so we refuse to laugh”

                   iii.     “Even judging it to be funny may seem like expressing agreement with the offensive message”



30.    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

         a.      Factual disagreement: A historical novel about Paul Revere has him walking house-to-house instead of riding

         b.      Moral disagreement: A historical novel about Abraham Lincoln suggest he was wrong to free the slaves

31.    *We tolerate subversion of facts to a much greater extent than we do the subversions of morality (both Walton and Hume accept this)

         a.      We are more willing to allow a work’s fictional world to deviate from the real world in non-moral (e.g., factual) respects than in moral one

32.    Narrators and artists can stipulate what goes on factually in a fictional world, but not (so easily) what is morally the case in a fictional world

         a.      Author can make factually untrue things true in fiction

                   i.       People in the fiction can fly on broom sticks

         b.      Author can't make immoral things moral in fiction

                   i.       People in the fiction who beat up children are not good people, even if the story says they are

         c.      Authors do not have the same freedom to manipulate moral characteristics of their fictional world that they have to alter other aspects

33.    There can be science fiction, but there can't be morality fiction

34.    We will contradict the author’s immoral claims, not her claims about what happens in the story

         a.      We will 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

         b.      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

35.    Judge fictional characters and events by moral standards one accepts in real world

         a.      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)

36.    Walton thinks that fictional worlds cannot differ morally from the real world (or this does not happen easily or often)

37.    Interracial marriage example

         a.      The narrator can indicate that she thinks interracial marriage is wrong and the artist can describe a character who believes it is wrong

         b.      But neither of these is the same as making it true that it is fictionally the case that interracial marriage is wrong

         c.      We are free to use our own judgment on the matter

38.    This means that there is a truth about morality in the fictional world, beyond what artist intend

         a.      Artist's intention does not constitute entire nature of the work (the fictional world)

         b.      **A great example of anti-intentionalism: Where the meaning of the artwork is not (solely) a function of the author's intention.


39.    Humor in fiction works the same way as morality in fiction

         a.      Humor--like morality--can't be stipulated in fiction in a way radically divergent from the real world

         b.      Dumb jokes like: Knock, Knock, Whose there? Robin. Robin who? Robin you, stick'em up!

         c.      Can't be hilariously funny in fictional worlds

         d.      Just as a none-joke "a maple leaf fell from the tree" can't be funny

         e.      If author or narrator suggests it is funny in the fictional world, we judge she has a juvenile sense of humor or is crazy

                   i.       The author can stipulate that fictional characters thought it was hilariously funny

                   ii.      Funny for them, yes, but theirs is an inappropriate reaction


40.    Walton's suggestion about why we refuse to allow immoral activities or foolish jokes to be moral or funny in fictional worlds

         a.      **Because we can't imagine this

         b.      Unable to fully understand what it would be like

         c.      (Davies: It’s a conceptual confusion to think of slavery as good, because evil attaches to slavery, and we can’t imagine conceptual confusions)

         d.      If we abhor slavery we can't imagine it to be right

         e.      In contrast we can imagine people flying around on broom sticks


41.    How audience refusal to accept that immoral ideas are moral in a fictional story can indicate an aesthetic/artistic defect in the work

         a.      If author meant this to be fictional

         b.      Her failure to bring this about may be a defect in the work

         c.      She tried to do something that she can't bring off and it is clear from the work she tried and failed

         d.      If other things in work depend on belief that immoral things are moral, she fails in this too

                   i.       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

                   ii.      Can destroy the story's excitement and dull our interest and ruin the plot

         e.      All these are aesthetic/artistic defects in the work

Study questions for Walton, Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality

1.      Distinguish between three positions concerning the relation between morality and aesthetics: Apartheid, autonomy, and integration/interaction. Using the example of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, explain each position and show how they are different.

2.      Can a racist joke be funny? Explain how this question can be explored by using the above three positions.

3.      Walton provides a argument against apartheid. State, explain and assess this argument.

4.      Describe an example explaining how a moral defect in an artwork might also constitute an aesthetic/artistic defect.

5.      Should one ignore the moral failings of a work of art in order to appreciate that work of art aesthetically? Using examples, argue for each response to this question.

6.      Walton gives an argument to explain why we might be worried about “imagining believing in a moral perspective we find offensive.” What is this argument and is it a strong one?

7.      Walton argues that there is an “asymmetry” in our reactions to a work of fiction getting the morals wrong and to it getting factual matters wrong. Using concrete examples, describe this asymmetry. Do you think he is right that this asymmetry exists. How does he propose to explain this asymmetry? Walton argues that humor and morality work the same way in terms of this asymmetry. Explain what he has in mind. Do you agree with him?

8.      How does this asymmetry provide evidence for anti-intentionalism about the meaning of art?