Kendall Walton, "Morals in Fiction and Fictional Morality"



2.      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

3.      *We tolerate subversion of facts to a much greater extent than we do the subversions of morality (both Walton and Hume accept this) (See discussion below #25)

         a.      David Hume (18th century empiricist) claims this

                   i.       Says we are (relatively) happy to overlook factual mistakes (in fiction)

                   ii.      But should not tolerate repugnant ideas of morality and decency

                   iii.     "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"



5.      Hume: Morally reprehensible ideas constitute deformities in the artwork

         a.      Are these moral defects also aesthetic/artistic defects (see below)

6.      Hume thinks that the immoral material must be "marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation" or the work is bad (morally? artistically/aesthetically?)

         a.      Portraying evil things "neutrally" (w/o blame/disapprobation) is not the same as condoning or advocating them, but Hume presumably would still object?

7.      To describe/portray morally evil things is not necessarily to condone or advocate them

         a.      Art can "deal with" evil/immoral subjects and not itself be evil or immoral

                   i.       E.g., A movie that depicts rape/torture, need not be a morally bad movie because its subject is an evil act

                            (1)    It could be a morally good movie by getting us to address these issues

                   ii.      Detroit rapper Invincible’s song “Ropes” about suicide; not same as condoning it. Story Song

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

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

                   ii.      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


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

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

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

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

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

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

                            (1)    A problem with violent video games?

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

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

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

                   i.       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

                   ii.      Direction orientation example



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

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

         a.      Moral defects are not artistic/aesthetic defects

12.    Three: Integration/interaction: The immorality (or morality) of an artwork can affect its aesthetic/artistic value

         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


13.    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?)

14.    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: 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 example (sex on stage in the name of art)

         e.      Serrano's "Piss Christ" (crucifix in urine)

         f.       Chris Ofili's Holy Virgin Mary (including dried elephant dung)


15.    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

16.    Rejecting apartheid: Artworks sometimes can be properly judged to be immoral (or morally praiseworthy)


17.    Autonomism: Art’s moral value (if any) does not affect its aesthetic/artistic value

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

18.    Arguments for autonomism

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

         b.      Saying 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 poor

                   ii.      That the Roman Colosseum 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 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


19.    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


20.    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

21.    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)    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.

22.    Are pollution sunset 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 the very 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.


23.    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)

         d.      Argument against aesthetically appreciating events that cause great human suffering (Hurricane Katrina, Atom Bomb mushroom cloud)

                   i.       "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).

         e.      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 flying in the clouds no.


24.    Are racist jokes funny?

         a.      (Consider mean ones: Q: What do you throw a ________when he's drowning? 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”



                   i.       We tolerate subversion of facts to a much greater extent than we do the subversions of morality

         b.      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

         c.      Narrators and artists can stipulate what goes on factually in a fictional world, but not what is morally the case in a fictional world

                   i.       Author can make factually untrue things true in fiction

                            (1)    People in the fiction can fly on broom sticks

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

                            (1)    People in the fiction who beat up children are not good people, even if the story says they are

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

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

27.    We will contradict the author’s moral 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

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

29.    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)

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


31.    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

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

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

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

                   i.       So it being fictional--that is, 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


32.    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? Robbin 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


33.    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


34.    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 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?