Aesthetics and Morality

The following was my philosophy capstone project I wrote senior year at Stanford. It is on the topic of the role of morality in aesthetics. Because I’m now in art school, I’ve found this essay to be very relevant to the work I’m creating and consuming on a daily basis. In the essay, I argue that 1) morality is an element of aesthetic inquiry and 2) the moral content of art will improve its subjective aesthetic quality if it aligns with the pre-existing moral disposition of the viewer. Both of these claims are bold and I’m ultimately unsure of whether they’re true; however, this essay is a good place to start the ongoing inquiry into these important questions.

Bridging Formalist and Moralist Aesthetic Evaluation

The question of how to aesthetically evaluate art is a very complicated one. What someone believes to be good art, someone else may believe to be bad art. Additionally, art is complex and there is no singular metric by which a work’s aesthetic quality can be objectively judged. Understanding how to comprehensively assess an artwork’s overall quality likely involves a variety of analyses, which may or may not be related to one another. At the most superficial level, one could assess art’s aural quality or cosmetic appearance. He or she could attempt to evaluate a piece of art on the basis of his or her visceral response to its basic sensory data. However, can one definitely assert that such an evaluation is not impacted by any additional characteristics of the artwork (e.g. the message it is communicating)? There is debate among philosophers about whether a piece of art’s message, and its associated morality, impacts or should impact its aesthetic evaluation. The following essay will briefly examine two positions on this topic before evaluating them using examples of art that have been accused of having ‘immoral’ messages. It will then advance an argument that draws upon elements of both theories to claim that art’s moral content plays a definitive role in aesthetic assessment, but only a partial role.

Formalism & Moralism

On one side of the debate about the role of morality in aesthetic inquiry is formalism. Among other tenets, advocates of formalism, including José Ortega y Gassett and Arnold Isenberg, argue for “Bifurcation: The sharp and invidious distinction between Form, which is held to be aesthetically relevant, and Content, which is not” and “Autonomism: The thesis that the “ulterior” values of art, such as its moral and cognitive value, are irrelevant to its aesthetic value” (Jacobson 157). A formalist might align themselves with the slogan, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, meaning that art need not serve any ulterior function aside from ‘being art’. Compelling arguments can certainly be made for formalism. One can cite seemingly meaningless paintings devoid of any apparent moral content that they nonetheless derive visceral enjoyment from looking at. Additionally, most people could cite morally problematic books or films that they have enjoyed. Given these examples, it does not seem preposterous to assert that formless content has the potential to be aesthetically valuable.

On the opposite extreme is moralism, which Daniel Jacobson describes as “the tendency to let moral considerations take over the entirety of evaluative space” (Jacobson 156). Two foundational moralists are Plato and David Hume, whose conceptions of the idea differ immensely. To Plato, “aesthetic strength is often morally dangerous” (Jacobson 156) because “dramatic portrayal makes vice, not virtue, inherently attractive” (Jacobson 164). Hume makes the claim “that all moral defects in a work of art are aesthetic defects as well” (Jacobson 156). This is in part due to a concept Richard Moran describes as ‘imaginative resistance’, “a form of imagination in which we are unwilling to engage” (Moran 95). A Humean moralist may levy the claim that when people read a story that conflicts with their moral beliefs, they will resist imaging such a world, resulting is a compromised aesthetic experience. One might extend this claim to assert that if a piece of art has a moral message that aligns with someone’s viewpoint, his or her aesthetic experience of the artwork will be improved. Although cases can be made for both Platonic and Humean moralism, this essay will focus on Humean moralism, a theory I find to be more compelling on the basis of my personal experiences with art.

Insights from ‘Immoral Art’

In order to assess the legitimacy of the claims made by formalists and Humean moralists, I will now describe my aesthetic experiences of engaging with three examples of art that have been accused of being immoral: Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century play, The Jew of Malta, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary, Triumph of the Will, and John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella, Of Mice and Men. Although my subjective aesthetic evaluations of these works are by no means universally generalizable, I nonetheless believe that they can inform a working model of the relationship between morality and aesthetic inquiry.

Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta tells the story of Barabas, a greedy, murderous, conniving Jewish man who lives on the island of Malta. The play follows Barabas as he lies, poisons, and schemes his way into keeping his wealth, exacting revenge, and rising to the position of Malta’s governor. The Jew of Malta has been criticized of being anti-Semitic for centuries and the reasons for this are very apparent upon reading the play. Marlowe employs traditional Jewish stereotypes to categorize the villainous Barabas including referring to him as “rich Jew” (Marlowe 32), “bottle-nosed knave” (Marlowe 58), “wicked Jew” (Marlowe 70), “base Jew” (Marlowe 104), among countless other insults. The play ends with the Christians and Turks watching Barabas burn to death. Despite the fact that Barabas’ evil is often times attributed to his Judaism, the play was nonetheless entertaining, included poetic justice, and the play’s allusions to Machiavelli were very thought provoking. For these reasons, I still somewhat enjoyed reading the play; however, I did not enjoy its blatant anti-Semitism. In this way, the immoral component of the play was an aesthetic blemish, but it did not ruin the other aspects of the play that I did enjoy.

Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Willis a Nazi propaganda film that showcases the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg. It features impressive cinematography with aerial footage of Adolf Hitler’s plane passing through the clouds and into Nuremburg, triumphant music, extreme wide shots of enormous rallies, and dignified low-angle shots of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. I was initially very impressed with the cinematography; however, found the film to be extremely repetitive after the first hour or so. Given my basic historical understanding of Nazi Germany, hearing Hitler espousing his ideology was very interesting, but hard to take seriously. For example, when Hitler claims, “It is our will that this state shall endure for a thousand years. We are happy to know that the future is ours entirely” (Riefenstahl), I could not help but roll my eyes. Additionally, the messages the film espouses like that of Julius Streicher that “a people that does not protect its racial purity will perish” (Riefenstahl) is just one of many morally problematic statements that the film authentically endorses. My overall aesthetic evaluation of the film was not very high given that I did not find either the form or the content of the film to be especially impressive. However, I certainly appreciated aspects of the cinematography.

John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, tells the story of George and Lenny, two workers on a farm who dream of one day owning their own land. Unfortunately, after the mentally challenged Lenny accidentally kills the farm owner’s son’s wife, George is forced to kill Lenny. Although the book is an American classic, the book could be interpreted as being racist. For example, Crooks, the black stable-hand, is frequently referred to as “nigger”. For example, after Crooks talks back to Curley’s wife, she snaps, “Well you keep your place then, Nigger. I could get you strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny” (Steinbeck 40). This quote is clearly racist. However, I nonetheless find Of Mice and Mento be of very high aesthetic quality. This is because the story is well written, deeply engaging, and I do not interpret it as genuinely advocating for racism despite the presence of racist content. Now that a repertoire of art from which to draw from has been presented, I will now outline an argument for the relationship between art’s aesthetic value and moral content.

The Artistic Multi-Dimensionality Theory of Morality and Aesthetics

My assessment of the aesthetic quality of the examples of ‘immoral art’ above leads me to hypothesize that both formalism and Humean moralism are at work in the aesthetic evaluation of art. However, due to their conflicting nature, I cannot describe my argument as being either formalist or moralist. Instead, I will refer to it as the artistic multi-dimensionality theory. This theory synthesizes a number of pre-existing ideas discussed by Daniel Jacobson and posits an additional premise I will present at the conclusion of the argument. The argument is as follows: morality cannot be separated from aesthetic value; however, aesthetic value can be separated from morality. Immorality invariably serves as an aesthetic blemish while morality serves as an aesthetic virtue; however, due to the independent existence of aesthetic value and the multi-dimensionality of artwork, the holistic aesthetic evaluation of a piece of art will not be determined by morality alone. This next section will present the argument for this theory.

The first consideration for this theory is to figure out what can be classified as truly ‘immoral art’. Jacobson derives a helpful definition from Hume: “An immoral work of art is one that expresses a pernicious ethical perspective, which condones or winks at vice—especially by calling for emotional responses to its characters and events which it would be wrong to provide” (Jacobson 168). This definition contains some very important nuances. Because a “pernicious ethical perspective” is a necessary attribute, the presence of vice in a work does not make it immoral. Rather, the art must advocate for the vice being presented. This idea is summed up by Wayne Booth who claims, “No matter how offensive such views [as are expressed in a work] seem, they cannot prove [the work] offensive unless we discover that, in context, they seem to us intended as the views of the implied author (or—what amounts to the same thing—they remain uncorrected… by the rest of the book)” (Jacobson 167). This idea expresses why I may have found the immoral content of The Jew of Malta andTriumph of the Will to be aesthetically compromising where as the immoral content in Of Mice and Men not to be. Of Mice and Men did not seem to be genuinely advocating for racism as evidenced by the fact that one of the book’s main antagonists was the one who said the racist quote referenced above. Steinbeck was using racism to negatively portray a character rather than make the claim that racism is good. Based on my reading of The Jew of Malta, it seemed to be genuinely advocating for anti-Semitism while Triumph of the Willwas genuinely advocating for fascism and racial purity. This idea can be boiled down the idea that, “you cannot judge a work of narrative art’s aesthetic value without interpreting it properly” (Jacobson 165). Only with proper analysis can art be deemed moral or immoral; insufficient inquiry may lead to a false answer to this question.

The next consideration has to do with the morality of art’s viewers. Jacobson sums up this idea by stating, “if we differ over whether a given perspective is pernicious, we will differ over what art is immoral; but we can expect no more agreement about immoral art than there is about morality” (Jacobson 167). It goes without saying that people have varying moral dispositions. This premise is essential because it illustrates that the morality that an artwork is advocating for may be immoral; however, our own morality may be immoral as well. Making an argument for what is the correct conception of morality is beyond the scope of this paper; however, it is important to note that moral beliefs are subjective. My moral beliefs are that anti-Semitism is wrong, fascism is bad, and racism is also wrong and I would like to assume that these are ‘correct’. However, there are certainly people out there that would disagree with me. For them, their aesthetic assessment of the works of art mentioned above would be entirely different than mine.

At this point, two variables are at work. The first variable is the genuine moral statement of the artwork, or if the viewer has an incorrect interpretation, the perceived moral statement of the artwork. The second variable is the subjective morality of the viewer. In order to determine whether or not the moral message of the artwork will contribute positively or negatively to its overall aesthetic evaluation is dependent upon whether these two variables align. This can be illustrated using the equations below:

  • Moral art + moral viewer = positive aesthetic experience
  • Moral art + immoral viewer = negative aesthetic experience
  • Immoral art + moral viewer = negative aesthetic experience
  • Immoral art + immoral viewer = positive aesthetic experience

These claims are rooted in the notion of imaginative resistance, which we will now discuss in greater detail. Tamar Gendler describes imaginative resistance as, “our comparative difficulty in imagining fictional worlds that we take to be morally deviant” (Gendler 56). This idea is rooted in Hume’s claim that, “a very violent effort is required to change our judgment of manners, and excite sentiments of approbation or blame, love or hatred, different from those to which the mind from long custom has been familiarized” (Gendler 56). There is a great deal of debate among followers of Hume regarding the mechanism underlying this phenomenon. Someone like Moran would argue that we have an inabilityto imagine a morally conflicting perspective as opposed to exercising a hypothetical circumstantial scenario claiming, “it is a simpler thing merely to entertain some proposition hypothetically than it is to change one’s actual judgment about anything, whether it be ideas of morality and decency of speculative opinion” (Moran 104). Gendler, on the other hand, argues that we are actually unwillingto imagine a morally distinct world. She believes that we have, “a general desire not to be manipulated into taking on points of view that we would not reflectively endorse as authentically our own” (Gendler 56). It is ultimately difficult to definitively say what causes our imaginative resistance to art that conflicts with our moral viewpoints. However, Hume, Moran, and Gendler would certainly agree that imaginative resistance is a real phenomenon. Additionally, by plugging my experiences into the equations above, it is apparent that imaginative resistance is at work in my aesthetic assessments of The Jew of Malta, Triumph of the Will, and Of Mice and Men.

So far, these premises have shown that morality impacts the aesthetic quality of art. However, it is important to consider an important counterargument to the concept of imaginative resistance connecting morality to aesthetic value. Jacobson makes the very compelling point that, “while the moral inaccessibility of artwork is some kind of defect in it, it is no blemish or aesthetic defect, properly speaking” (Jacobson 190). In saying this, he is asserting that because of imaginative resistance, we resist taking in the aesthetic value of a piece of art. However, that does not mean that it is not there. Rather, it may still exist independently of whether we are willing (or able) to perceive it or not. Jacobson is asserting a more objective notion of aesthetics. To further illustrate this point, he provides the example of “a Monty Python routine about a joke so funny that it kills the hearer… If such a joke existed, it would be as inaccessible as can be, both morally and prudentially. It would be quite odd, though, to adopt a philosophical theory which forced us to conclude that this quality makes the joke any less funny” (Jacobson 190-191). Without a compelling counterargument to this point by Moran, a Humean moralist might be forced to reconsider whether or not imaginative resistance is truly proof of the interconnectedness between morality and aesthetics.

One could respond to this counterargument of Jacobson’s with an argument rooted in the concept of epistemic uncertainty. Epistemic uncertainty gets at the problem that imaginative resistance causes: given that our moral viewpoints may be wrong, if we resist art that contradicts our moral viewpoint, we will not grow. As Jacobson explains, “the danger of ethical criticism is that it encourages us to ignore what might be learned from ethical perspectives which distort the world in important ways” (Jacobson 169). The art of the utmost aesthetic quality is that which is capable of transcending the problem of epistemic uncertainty. It can present ideas in such a subtle and nuanced way that it can actually allow us to grow. In this way, the best art will not elicit imaginative resistance. The fact that art elicits any imaginative resistance at all is indicative of an aesthetic blemish. An additional way to argue against this claim levied by Jacobson is to deny aesthetic objectivity. This is another debate that is beyond the scope of this paper; however, Jacobson’s counterargument rests upon the premise that aesthetics is not entirely subjective, a highly questionable premise.

At this point, this argument has not yet deviated from Humean moralism. All that has been established is the connection between the moral content of art and art’s aesthetic value. This is nothing new. Where the argument gets interesting is asserting that although, as Hume argued, morality is intimately tied to aesthetic value, that aesthetic value is not necessarilytied to morality. Hume would disagree with the latter claim. Jacobson asserts, “Hume goes so far as to suggest that the moral defects of art often totally efface their aesthetic value” (Jacobson 181), a claim Hume’s followers like Matthew Kieran would likely agree with. Kieran even claimed, “though it is of artistic value, Triumph of the Will cannot be a truly great artwork” (Jacobson 181) due to the fact that is entirely tainted by its moral content. Based on my aesthetic evaluations of The Jew of Malta, Triumph of the Will, andOf Mice and Men, I would have to disagree with this argument. Here is where my argument splits paths with that of Hume. Again, in The Jew of Malta, I genuinely enjoyed the play for a variety of reasons despite its deplorable moral message. Likewise, I still greatly appreciated the cinematography in Triumph of the Will.These considerations factored into my overall aesthetic assessment of these pieces of artwork. They were not entirely tainted by their respective immoral content.

In this way, my argument may appear to be contradicting itself. It is advocating for components of two conflicting theories about aesthetics. On the one hand, it seems like Humean moralism in the sense that it says the moral content of artwork has an aesthetic impact. On the other hand, it seems formalistic to claim that form alone can influence our aesthetic evaluations. In order to truly bridge these two theories in a non-contradictory manner, I speculate that an additional premise must be asserted: the multi-dimensionality of art. By this, I mean that aesthetic evaluation is not black and white. While we may say a piece of art is good or bad, there are numerous evaluative metrics that must be considered in order to conclude whether it is one or the other. It is not a binary function; countless decimals propel the assessment either closer to one or closer to zero. Like a diamond, art has many facets, including both the aural form and content-based form, all of which are worthy of individual evaluation. In order to truly assess art, all aesthetic dimensions must be considered and evaluated holistically.

Works Cited

Gendler, Tamar Szabó. “The Puzzle of Imaginative Resistance.” Intuition,

Imagination, and Philosophical Methodology, Jan. 2010, pp. 179–202.,

doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199589760.003.0010.

Jacobson, Daniel. “In Praise of Immoral Art.” Philosophical Topics, vol. 25, no. 1,

1997, pp. 155–199., doi:10.5840/philtopics199725123.

Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. 1589.

Moran, Richard. “The Expression of Feeling in Imagination.” Oxford Scholarship

Online, 2017, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190633776.003.0001.

Riefenstahl, Leni, director. Triumph of the Will. 1935.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Covici Friede, 1937.

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