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MODERATE MORALISM VERSUS MODERATE AUTONOMISM.

Things are heating up among the moderates. First I published `Moderate Moralism' (British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 36, no. 3, July 1996). Then James Anderson and Jeff Dean published `Moderate Autonomism' (BJA, vol. 38, no. 2, April 1998) which, among other things, is meant to refute moderate moralism. Now it falls to me to meet their challenge, which I hope to do, albeit moderately.

I do not want to quibble--except moderately--with their interpretation of my position. Overall it is a fair account. The major aspect of their exposition with which I disagree is their tendency to regard my moderate moralism and Berys Gaut's ethicism as pretty much the same. I think this is a mistake. Gaut's arguments on behalf of ethicism are much more ambitious than my arguments for moderate moralism. I say this not because I am unsympathetic to Gaut's view, but only to acknowledge that my case is more limited in scope than Gaut's. Gaut seems willing to consider virtually every moral defect in a work of art an aesthetic defect, whereas I defend a far weaker claim--namely that sometimes a moral defect in an artwork can count as an aesthetic defect, or, as Hume would say, a blemish. Thus you can see that ethicism is a very strong position, while mine is, well, moderate.

Moderate moralism maintains that in some instances a moral defect in an artwork can be an aesthetic defect, and that sometimes a moral virtue can count as an aesthetic virtue. This opposes the view of moderate autonomism which admits that artworks can be morally defective and morally bad for that reason, but then goes on to say that the moral badness of a work can never count as an aesthetic defect. Nor can the moral virtuousness of an artwork ever count toward anything more than the moral goodness of the work. A moral virtue in an artwork never adds to the aesthetic merit of the work.

I came to moderate moralism by the following route. Artworks are incomplete structures--at least in the special sense that they need to be filled in by audiences. No novel, for example, says everything there is to say about its fictional world. In reading a novel, the audience needs to fill in the gaps, such as the unstated presuppositions. Tolstoy does not say that Natasha has a liver. Instead the audience presumes it. An author assumes many presuppositions in telling her tale and anticipates that the audience will supply them, using, among other things, their ordinary beliefs about the world, including their pre-existing schemes for persons and events, what they know about the genre to which the novel belongs, and what they know about the culture in which the novel was written.

But novels require not only that audiences mobilize their cognitive stock in order to follow a novel correctly. Audiences must also fill in the novel with the appropriate emotional responses, if they are to follow it correctly. That is, if a novel is to succeed on its own terms, then the audience must fill it in in the right way, where the `right way' with regard to the emotions is in terms of the emotions the work aims to elicit. For example, if Aristotle is right, for tragedy to work as tragedy--to work on its own terms--it must elicit pity and fear from the audience. Failure to elicit pity and fear is a failure of tragedy qua tragedy, an aesthetic failure, a failure in the design of the work.

Because artworks are incomplete structures, they must be made so that they address the audience in such a way that the audience fills them in or responds to them in a manner that facilitates the aim of the work. That address--including its emotional address--is part of the design of the artwork. The address is a structural element of an artwork that invites the audience to fill it in in order to complete it. The address of the work, ideally, must secure uptake in the right way for the work to succeed. Thus, in large measure, the aesthetic success of an artwork is response dependent, i.e. the work depends on eliciting certain mandated responses, if it is to succeed on its own terms.

Now, as I have already said, in many cases the responses that artworks need to elicit in order to work on their own terms are emotional responses. Often a work will fail where it is unable to elicit the emotional responses it requires to implement its own purposes. This failure will count, I take it, as an aesthetic failure.

For example, if a putative thriller presents an invulnerable superhero who is cornered by a ninety-pound weakling, it will fail to engender suspense. It will fail to elicit suspense because, all things being equal, its design is flawed. The audience cannot even begin to worry about an indestructible being challenged by a wimp. Robocop has nothing to fear from Mr Peepers and so the audience feels no anxiety on Robocop's behalf. Here the designers of the work have made an aesthetic error--the work is marred by a structural imperfection on its own terms. The design of the address of the work is defective, since it thwarts the anticipated or mandated audience uptake.

Here, the failure to elicit mandated emotions may not obviously involve morality. However, one needs to recall that a great many emotional responses are dependent on moral assessments. In order to be angry, I must believe that me or mine have been wronged. In order for an audience to be angered by or indignant toward a character, they must at least be able to entertain the thought that some character, say Casaubon or Javert, has wronged another character about whom they feel concern or commitment. Thus if the address of a work elicits the wrong moral assessments from the audience, or blocks the required ones, then the work will fail to secure emotive uptake and the work will be blemished on its own terms (that is to say, aesthetically).

One way in which a work may fail to elicit the required moral assessments from an audience, a morally sensitive audience, is if the moral perspective required to form the relevant moral assessment is evil. Imagine a story in which a Himmler is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is not a comedy, but is meant as an old-fashioned, adulatory bio-pic, like Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet. That is, it is intended to elicit our admiration. But it cannot elicit the admiration of the morally sensitive audience because, all things being equal, the proposition that a Himmler should receive the Nobel Peace Prize is morally offensive. The morally sensitive viewer cannot get her mind around the idea--it is so morally obnoxious, so evil. Thus, the story fails on its own terms; it fails to elicit the emotive response it intends because it repulses emotive uptake due to the evil point of view that it advances.

Such a fiction is morally defective because it endorses an evil perspective and invites others to do likewise. But, I submit, it is also aesthetically defective, since it fails on its own terms--that is, in terms of the affects and experiences it aspires to provoke. Moreover, it fails aesthetically for the same reasons that it is morally defective: the perspective it advances is evil. The evilness of the perspective is what makes it morally bad and aesthetically bad. All things being equal, if the perspective of the work were not evil, it would not be morally bad nor would it be aesthetically bad (at least not in terms of the uptake problem which we are considering at this juncture).

Clearly, the reason the story is morally bad is grounded in a moral defect. But it is the same defect that makes the work aesthetically flawed. Therefore, in cases like this, a moral defect can also figure as an aesthetic defect--a reason the work fails on its own terms. Therefore, moderate autonomism is false.

That is, a story that non-ironically presents Himmler as deserving the Nobel Peace Prize is morally defective. Why? Because it advances an evil perspective--that genocide is morally praiseworthy. Likewise the work in question would be aesthetically defective. Why? Because it advances an evil perspective. Why does that count as an aesthetic defect? Because it repels the mandated emotive uptake from morally sensitive audiences. Why? Because said audiences cannot embrace the perspective in question just because they recognize it to be evil. The palpable evil of the perspective explains their inability to embrace it--their inability to form the moral assessments required to respond emotionally in the way the story mandates. The evil perspective of the work plays an explanatory role in our account of why the story fails aesthetically, and, at the same time, it is precisely the evil perspective of the work that explains its moral badness. The moral badness and the aesthetic badness of the work are explained by the same feature of the work, its morally offensive perspective. Its evil perspective is, in this case, both a moral and an aesthetic defect. And it figures not only in explanations of the moral badness of the work but also in explanations of its aesthetic badness. Indeed, the moral defectiveness of the work, in this case, is the pertinent reason for its aesthetic defectiveness.

This argument presupposes that references to evil can be explanatory. I think that this is not problematic. I write a cheque to a political organization because I recognize its cause is just. I join a protest march because I believe some state policy is evil where my belief that it is evil is counterfactually dependent on its being evil--if it were not evil, ! would not join the march. Similarly, it is the evilness of the address of many artworks that makes the morally sensitive reader, listener, or viewer incapable of supplying the emotive uptake the work demands on its own terms. Thus, evil, at least in some cases, can function as the material grounds for explaining the aesthetic defectiveness of an artwork, while simultaneously serving as the grounds for declaring the same artwork to be morally bad. In such circumstances, moral badness and aesthetic badness derive from the same source; a moral defect also counts as an aesthetic defect. The same evil explains both failings.

Anderson and Dean, however, claim that, even in cases like this, I have not shown that the reason the artwork is morally defective is the reason that it is aesthetically defective. They invite us to compare two arguments---one for the moral defectiveness of the work and another for the aesthetic defectiveness of the work--and they claim that the same reasons are not operative in both.

The moral defect argument looks like this:

1. The perspective of the work in question is immoral.

2. Therefore, the work invites us to share a morally defective perspective.

3. Any work that invites us to share a morally defective perspective is, itself, morally defective.

4. Therefore, the work in question is morally defective.

This is the aesthetic defect argument:

1. The perspective of the work in question is immoral.

2. The immorality portrayed subverts the possibility of uptake.

3. Any work that subverts its own genre is aesthetically defective.

4. Therefore, the work in question is aesthetically defective.

Surveying these two arguments, Anderson and Dean conclude that though both contain a common premise--that the work in question is immoral--it is not sufficient to show that the work is morally or aesthetically defective. Thus, the work cannot be morally or aesthetically defective for the same reason.

I suppose that what Anderson and Dean have in mind here is the fact that the work in question possesses an immoral perspective by itself cannot show the work to be morally or aesthetically defective. This premise alone is not a sufficient condition for moral or aesthetic badness. It is in this sense that they deny that the reason the artwork is morally defective and that it is aesthetically defective can be the same. In neither case is the immoral perspective of the work the sufficient reason for its moral or aesthetic defectiveness. In both cases, then, the sufficient reason must lie elsewhere.

But why suppose that the relevant sense of reason here is sufficient reason? Admittedly a number of factors will contribute to the moral defectiveness and the aesthetic defectiveness of the artwork in question. The moderate moralist need only contend that among the complex of factors that account for the moral defectiveness of the artwork in question, on the one hand, and the complex of factors that explain the aesthetic defectiveness of the artwork, on the other hand, the evil perspective of the artwork will play a central, though perhaps not sufficient, explanatory role in both. With respect to the artwork in question, the evil perspective of the artwork is an ineliminable factor in explaining why, as a matter of fact, it is morally defective and in explaining why, as a matter of fact, it is aesthetically defective. That there are other contributing factors does not mitigate the explanatory role that the evil of the work plays in accounting respectively for the moral and aesthetic defectiveness of the work in question. The evilness of the work is a reason for both its moral and its aesthetic defectiveness.

Moreover, it is a very central reason in both accounts of the work's defectiveness. Ceteris paribus, if the work were not evil, it would be neither morally bad nor aesthetically bad. In both cases, the evil in question is the most important reason with respect to the artwork under discussion for its moral and aesthetic defectiveness, even if said evil is not alone a sufficient condition for either sort of defectiveness. It is the factor, among a combination of factors, that has the greatest explanatory relevance. In that sense, it is the reason why the artwork is defective in both registers and that it is the same reason, with respect to explanatory relevance, in both registers allows that sometimes a moral defect can be an aesthetic defect, pace moderate autonomism.

The way that Anderson and Dean have set up the Aesthetic Defect Argument obscures the way in which the evil of the work plays a central explanatory role in accounting for aesthetic failing of the work in question. As they present the argument, it is the failure of the work to implement the aims of the genre to which it belongs that accounts for its aesthetic defectiveness. I am not sure why they insist on talking about genres here, since it will be an aesthetic defect of the work if it fails to secure its aims, whether or not those aims are genre specific. But, in any case, from an explanatory point of view, we want to know more than that a work fails to secure its aims or that a work subverts its aims. We also want to know why and how it subverts its own aims.

Anderson and Dean tell us that the work in question subverts the possibility of audience uptake due to its immoral perspective. But that premise requires further support, further argumentation, if it is to explain what has gone awry in the case in question. Why does an immoral perspective subvert the possibility of audience uptake? Why is it that the morally sensitive audience cannot be moved to admiration by the prospect of a Himmler receiving the Nobel Peace Prize? Because they cannot morally assess Himmler's genocidal career as anything other than evil--that is, because they cannot subsume the story under the moral criteria requisite for responding with admiration.

Anderson's and Dean's third premise itself requires supporting reasons. And when those supporting reasons are supplied it turns out that a full account of why the work in question is aesthetically defective is that it is evil--evil in a way that blocks emotive uptake. But it is the self-same evil that makes the work in question morally defective. So moral defectiveness can supply a reason, a central reason from an explanatory point of view, why a certain work is aesthetically defective. At least in some cases. And that's moderate moralism.

Noel Carroll, Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 5185 Helen C. White Hall, 600 North Park Street, Madison, WI 53706-1475, USA.
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Author:Carroll, Noel
Publication:The British Journal of Aesthetics
Date:Oct 1, 1998
Words:2718
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