- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (September 28, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 019957152X
- ISBN-13: 978-0199571529
- Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 0.6 x 6.1 inches
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- Average Customer Review: 2 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,776,141 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Art, Emotion and Ethics 1st Edition
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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"There is much here to admire. Amon the strengths of the work are the clarity and sophistication of Gaut's arguments.... I consider this an important book that deserves to be widely read and discussed."--Daniel Jacobson, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
About the Author
Berys Gaut is Reader in Philosophy at the University of St. Andrews.
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Gaut contrasts this view with what he takes to be the only plausible competing views, atuonomism and contextualism. Typically, the debate is set up as one between moralists, immoralists and autonomists, but Gaut thinks these labels are misleading.
Ethicism is the monotonic positive relation. All works are aesthetically flawed in so far as they contain an ethical demerit that is aesthetically relevant and all works have aesthetic merit in so far as they contain an aesthetically relevant moral merit. This is the "full-blooded" version. A weaker version can hold that a work is always aesthetically flawed in so far as it has some aesthetically relevant ethical flaw, but a work does not always have aesthetic merit in so far as it has an aesthetically relevant ethical merit.
The extreme immoralist position is that an artwork is always aesthetically flawed in so far as it contains some aesthetically relevant ethical merit and always has an aesthetic merit in so far as it contains an aesthetically relevant ethical flaw. Some weaker version of this monotonic relationship is possible as well.
No one has ever truly defended extreme immoralism, so Gaut decides to put it to the side.
Full-blooded contextualism is the pure polytonic view, this is that an artwork sometimes has an aesthetic merit in so far as it contains some aesthetically relevant ethical merit as well as sometimes has an aesthetic merit in so far as it contains some aesthetically relevant ethical flaw. It also maintains that an artwork is sometimes aesthetically flawed in so far as it contains an aesthetically relevant ethical flaw as well as sometimes aesthetically flawed in so far as it contains some aesthetically relevant ethical merit.
Gaut believes that this leaves three relevant options: ethicism, contextualism, and autonomism. Moderate moralism either reduces to contextualism or is incomplete, and no one maintains extreme immoralism, so a plausible immoralist theory will be contextual.
Gaut divides contextualism into three types: ethicist contextualism, immoralist contextualism, and neutral contextualism. Ethical contextualism will explain the value inversion as a result under the background of a positive relation. So when some ethical demerit is an aesthetic merit, it is explained as a deviance from the normal positive relation. Perhaps some ethical flaw being treated humorously will be an aesthetic merit in so far as it is treated in the way it is. Immoralist contextualism has a character of negative relation. What results in a positive relation is a deviance from the character background of negative relation. So when an ethical flaw is an aesthetic flaw, it is only that way as a deviance from the norm. Perhaps this can be attributed to the fact that an ethical flaw fails to result in a transgression. The final, neutral contextualism, does not have a basic positive or negative character. This is harder to defend as there are no principles on which to base the value inversions.
When I initially started this book, I counted myself as an autonomist but now I would say I am sympathetic to an ethical contextualist view, yet it is important to say why autonomism has its appeal. For those interested, I think Thomas Scanlon's discussion meaning and blame in Moral Dimensions: Permissibility, Meaning, Blame is helpful in this area. Following Scanlon, an act is ethically impermissible if some deliberative employment of some principle rules out that action. This is rarely the case for works of art (though it still may be, perhaps the attempt to morally corrupt its audience), more often one wants to focus on the meaning of some action or artwork. The meaning is distinct from its being ethical, but it is significant. If some artwork glorifies rape, for instance, this may not be ethically wrong, and thus not an ethical flaw under deliberative employment of some principle or attitude, but it does have a certain meaning between the work/artist with its audience/other rational agents. Perhaps here, when one is presented with such a meaning, one may modify one's attitudes to that work or artist. Thus the flaw in critical employment may equate to an aesthetic or artistic flaw.
On this notion, we can rephrase the general question of the book, "Can one modify one's relations to a work of art or artist if the critical employment of some principle is flawed within the work or artist?"
This at once makes the particular question less mysterious and the moralization of art more plausible, as well as making the issue much more complicated. Now we seem to have two domains of inquiry. That of a flaw of deliberative employment in some artwork and that of a flaw of critical employment in some artwork. A positive answer to the latter will likely entail a positive answer to the former, but a positive answer to the former does not necessarily entail a positive answer to the latter.
Gaut himself wishes to defend the view that artworks in manifesting a certain ethical attitude by the artist can literally be judged based on ethical standards. To my mind, something like Scanlon's notion of meaning makes all of this more comprehensible and in a sense, dissolves the autonomist position all together.
With this out of the way, we can review some of the main arguments of the book. In order to respond to some objections to ethicism, Gaut defends a plausible version of moral principles as pro tanto. A pro tanto principle is the 'in so far as' relation. For example, an action may be morally good in so far as it is a promise, and morally bad in so far as it is a failure to help someone in need. If I make a promise to be somewhere by a certain time, but arrive late because I decided to help someone in need, my action is morally good in so far as I helped the person, but I still owe an apology for breaking my promise in so far as I made the promise. It would overall be a morally good act despite the badness of breaking the promise. Conversely, I could decide to keep my promise and not help that person, but though my action would be morally good in so far as I kept the promise, it would be morally bad in so far as I failed to help the person. It would then be overall morally bad because the failure to help someone in need is a greater wrong than breaking a promise in this case.
Gaut believes that the pro tanto principles properly respond to the inseparability objection. It may be true that there is an ethical flaw and that making it an ethical merit would overall make it aesthetically worse, but it still is aesthetically flawed in the pro tanto sense in so far as it has the ethical flaw.
Gaut uses the pro tanto position to solve many more difficulties as well, making it a powerful tool in his ethicist arsenal. Unfortunately, it alone is not enough to support the theory. To do this, Gaut proposes three main arguments: the moral beauty argument, the cognitive argument, and the merited response argument; none of which I take to be successful.
First, Gaut wants to improve Colin McGinn's suggestion of moral beauty as supervenient by defining a strong biconditional version and a weak sufficiency conditional version. The strong goes: a quality is a moral virtue iff it is a beautiful character trait and a quality is a moral vice iff it is an ugly character trait. However, it's a bit of a stretch to claim that virtues are beautiful and vices ugly. Virtue and vice as concepts are more gradient than the concepts of beauty and uglyness which are polar. Some things can be more beautiful than others and/or uglier than others, but there really is not a place (or even a vague region) where these concepts meet. The same is not true of virtue and vice. There can often be a fine line between them, however vague. If this is true, then there should be some virtues which are not beautiful though also not ugly, perhaps they can just be good or appropriate. Likewise for vices, they may not be ugly, but they may be bad or inappropriate. Even here, one can assume that a virtue in some context may be inappropriate and a vice appropriate. So the most we can say is that some moral virtues are beautiful and some vices ugly, but being a virtue is not sufficient for being beautiful and being a vice is not sufficient for being ugly. This would invalidate even the weak claim.
The second argument doesn't fare much better either. The cognitive argument claims that the knowledge manifested in an artwork as the understanding of the artist can teach. It does this by the artists understanding being an imaginative type of knowledge. He also seems to suppose that since knowledge is justified true belief (along with some further condition to satisfy Gettier type problems), and that for knowledge to be taught through a work it must at minimum be true. But consider fiction. Some set of facts may be true in the fiction, yet untrue in the real world. Of course, this is not what Gaut means. But in the same way something is true in fiction but not in reality, something can be true from a particular frame of reference but not in reality. This of course is not knowledge, but it is understanding and consistent with the idea of a manifested understanding of an artist in an artwork.
It seems to me that at best the argument allows knowledge of ethical principles in the real world, but that an artwork may also present an ethical truth from a particular framework. This would not then be a support for full-blooded ethicism. It may however support ethical contextualism. This may also help to establish what types of conditions allow for value-inversion. An ethical demerit is an aesthetic merit in so far as it is ethically meritorious from the particular ethical frame of reference. This may seem to leave the matter entirely open so that any quality which has some bearing on any possible ethical system will be an aesthetic merit. I do not think this is the case. What we can instead say is that given the actual normative moral system, or set of plausible moral systems, an aesthetically relevant ethical demerit of an artwork is an aesthetic merit in so far as it is an ethical merit from the particular frame of reference manifested in the work by the artist which has some relevant positive relation to the set of plausible moral systems.
Say some work is completely bleak and nihilistic, but that this nihilism is motivated by humanistic concerns. The bleakness can be an aesthetic merit. Gaut will wish to explain this same phenomenon with his pro tanto notion, but I do not think it is appropriate to do so. What he would claim is that there are two moral qualities, one positive and one negative where the positive wins over the negative. But I want to say that it is this very bleakness that makes it aesthetically meritorious. It is underwritten by a humanity which it shares with all plausible moral frameworks, but its humanism would be an aspect intimate with its own framework. Outside of it, it would not appear to be humanist at all. One would not be mistaken given the set of premises that the humanism one wishes to endorse leads to a bleak picture. This is what makes it different. I would say the writing of Louis-Ferdinand Céline fit this type of analysis. The pro tanto attempts to explain the same thing, but it adds an unnecessary qualification.
The third, and final, argument for ethicism is the merited response argument. Gaut first plausibly defends the idea that one can have genuine rational affective responses to an artwork. I find his treatment of this thoroughly satisfying. However, the merited response argument assumes that artworks prescribe responses. Though this is reasonable enough (e.g. a horror movie may prescribe a fear response, or a joke a humor response). The difficulty lies in whether this aspect is a feature intrinsic to the work, or the actual transmission of the response to the audience. It is not entirely clear which Gaut supports. In some instances it is the former, in others the latter. But both have difficulties Gaut skims over. If the prescribed response is internal, it is difficult to say what grounds its evaluation. If no one reacts as it intends an audience to react, it cannot be judged a failure since this would be merely coincidental. The grounds one evaluates the prescriptive response must be cognitivist, then. But if the merited response argument rests on the cognitive argument and the cognitive argument fails, the merited response argument fails as well. If, on the other hand, it is based on an audiences actual response, if no one responds as the work intends, it is an aesthetic failure. In some ways this is plausible, but it is not something I would wish to endorse. If a comedian conceives of a joke and does not tell it, is it not funny? But shouldn't the joke be funny in the first place for it to even produce a humor response?
Although I do not think his arguments go through, Gaut's book is a fantastic exercise in thinking ethically about art. His treatments clarify and otherwise murky subject. And though I have not been convinced of ethicism, I nevertheless found much use in the arguments presented throughout the book to refine my own views which I would be happy to label as ethical contextualism. And as one who began this book with autonomist leanings, this was no mean feat. This is a highly recommended work, if you are interested in the ethical dimensions of aesthetics or just aesthetics in general.