Philosophy and Literature 26.1 (2002) 143-156
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The Vicious Habits of Entirely Fictitious People:
Hume on the Moral Evaluation of Art
Eva M. Dadlez
DAVID HUME'S ESSAY, "Of the Standard of Taste," identifies aesthetic merits and defects of narrative works of art. 1 There is a passage toward the end of this essay that has aroused considerable interest among philosophers. In it, Hume writes of cases in which "vicious manners are described, without being marked with the proper characters of blame and disapprobation" ("ST," p. 246). He maintains that works which include such descriptions are aesthetically flawed, adding that we neither can nor should enter into their writers' sentiments or "bear an affection to characters, which we plainly discover to be blameable" ("ST," p. 246).
There is no reason to ascribe to Hume a Platonic moralism that condemns art's disinhibition of emotion. Neither does Hume advocate some extravagant form of political correctness that evaluates art by looking to the propriety of its subject matter. As later examples in the quoted essay make clear, Hume is speaking of cases in which fiction not only depicts vicious manners, but endorses them. I will argue that such endorsements are stigmatized neither because a low estimation of depicted behavior infects the estimation of a work's merit nor because we take the endorsement to be mistaken or unwarranted. Fictional endorsements of conduct otherwise regarded as vicious constitute defects because they curtail the aesthetic experience. Hume's claim, then, is as much about human psychology as it is about morality. We cannot divorce morality from narrative art because, for Hume, morality finds its basis in the very sentiments such art is intended to arouse. The content of the works under fire is objectionable because it prompts the [End Page 143] imaginative disengagement of the reader or viewer just when engagement and emotional participation are necessary for full appreciation. As Noël Carroll maintains in his objection to autonomism, a moral defect "will count as an aesthetic defect when it actually deters a response to which a work aspires." 2 This is a view for which I will endeavor to offer an explanation based on Hume's philosophy, and that I will attempt to defend against typical objections.
It would be a mistake to associate the position ventured above with some of those appearing in the recent critical literature. There, a work is sometimes taken to endorse any character's behavior which is not explicitly condemned or which is accompanied by some depiction of positive traits. Thus Nabokov's Lolita is suspected of subtle endorsement of Humbert's behavior mainly because Humbert is described as urbane and intelligent. There is a clear mistake here about what it is that can be taken to constitute an endorsement on the part of a work of fiction. To suggest that Lolita endorses child molesting because we are occasionally allowed to glimpse a sympathetic side of the molester is on a par with claiming that Shakespeare's Macbeth endorses killing for personal gain because we are allowed to glimpse a sympathetic side of the title character. Our reactions to complex characters can be, and usually are, correspondingly complex. We can admire one trait and deplore another without being forced into the kind of all-or-nothing evaluation that writers of serious fiction seldom want to elicit. In any case, it seems clear that the endorsement of a character in toto would probably involve a good deal more than the depiction of a few attractive traits. The grim undoing of the two characters under consideration, coupled with their misery and hopelessness, hardly suggests endorsement. Similarly, an aesthetically pleasing depiction of an event we consider tragic should not be taken as an endorsement of that event. Aesthetic and distressed responses are not mutually exclusive. They can constitute distinct responses to distinct aspects of the same state of affairs. The graceful arrangement of the bodies of Romeo and Juliet is surely not an endorsement of their tragic death or their suicide...