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Grounding Moralism: Moral Flaws and Aesthetic Properties
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Can moral flaws lessen an artwork’s aesthetic value? Answering yes to this question requires both that artworks can be morally flawed and that moral flaws within a work of art can have an aesthetic impact. For present purposes, I will assume that artworks can be morally flawed by such means as endorsing immoral perspectives, culpably encouraging responses that could harm oneself or others, or culpably encouraging responses that are wrong to have.1 Assuming that artworks can be ethically flawed, my goal in this article is not to create a new “ism” in the art and morality debate but to provide support for the claim that moral flaws can be detrimental to an artwork’s aesthetic value. I will refer to the position supporting this claim as “moralism about art.”2

In this paper I present a simple and straightforward argument: Moral flaws can become aesthetic flaws when they defeat the operation of good-making aesthetic properties. More formally stated, the central argument is as follows:

The Aesthetic Defeater Argument for Moralism

  • 1.    Properties that defeat the operation of good-making aesthetic properties in an artwork lessen its aesthetic value.

  • 2.    Moral flaws can defeat the operation of good-making aesthetic properties.

  • 3.    Hence, moral flaws can lessen the aesthetic value of an artwork.

This paper is largely a novel defense of the second premise. I argue that according to either the response-dependence or the supervenience account of aesthetic properties, moral flaws can be aesthetic flaws. My goal is neither to develop a new theory of aesthetic value nor to provide support for a particular theory of aesthetic properties; rather, I offer new support for an old, but nonetheless contentious, position—moralism about art—based on the two leading theories of aesthetic properties.

The terrain of positions around the art and morality question is often divided into specific regions. For instance, Noël Carroll defends a position called “moderate moralism,” which is the claim that moral flaws can, but do not always, constitute aesthetic flaws. On the opposite side of the debate, Daniel Jacobson defends a position called “immoralism,” which asserts that moral flaws can sometimes increase the aesthetic value of a work of art.3 Both positions are forms of “interactionism” and set themselves in opposition to “autonomism,” the view that aesthetic value and ethical value are distinct and noninteracting.4

There is some controversy around the labels one should adopt for these positions. Hence, a brief note is in order. Since I admire the clarity of his work, I have adopted labels used by Noël Carroll in his work on the art and morality debate. To be clear, here are my labels:

Moderate Moralism (MM) = moral flaws can sometimes decrease aesthetic value.

Moderate Immoralism (IM) = moral flaws can sometimes increase aesthetic value.

Autonomism (A) = Not MM and not IM.

But Matthew Kieran suggests that the position in support of the thesis that moral flaws can have any impact whatsoever on any form of aesthetic value should be called “immoralism.”5 Similarly, Daniel Jacobson states that immoralism should be considered incompatible with any position called moralism.6 One problem with my choice of terminology is that there is no good label left for the position that moral virtues could increase or decrease aesthetic value. In any case, I find it far less confusing if we understand moralism and immoralism as logically compatible. One could accept one and not the other, or one could accept both. Unless I keep both labels, I am not sure how to describe the position I prefer: MM and not IM. It is far clearer for my purposes to distinguish between moralism and immoralism rather than lump them together under the umbrella category of “immoralism.” This article tries its best to avoid the sea of “isms” and defends a general position called “moralism about art,” which is no stronger than moderate moralism. I am less concerned with the proper name of the claim than with whether or not the claim is true.

Aesthetic Value and Aesthetic Properties

There is considerable controversy about what constitutes an artwork’s aesthetic value. I do not intend to settle the issue here, but some preliminary...

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