Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Aaron Meskin

 

Art and Ethics Reunited

 


 

 

 

_Aesthetics and Ethics_

Edited by Jerrold Levinson.

Cambridge University Press, 1998

ISBN 0-521-58513-9

viii + 328 pp.

 

'With much art, we are naturally inclined to speak of it in moral terms. Especially when considering things like novels, short stories, epic poems, plays, and movies, we seem to fall effortlessly into talking about them in terms of ethical significance . . .' (126).

 

Ordinary discourse about film is pervasively ethical. From our casual conversations about the moral status of cinematic villains and heroines, through debates about the effects of the portrayal of violence by Hollywood International, to arguments about the portrayal of sex and sexuality, film talk is intimately tied up with ethical concerns and evaluations. It seems to me that the philosophy of film should take this discourse seriously, and attempt to offer an account of the importance of the ethical to the cinematic.

 

This volume, edited and with a clear and helpful introduction by Jerrold Levinson, is a collection of ten essays on the relations between ethics and aesthetics. The contributors are prominent figures in analytic philosophy: Richard Miller, Peter Railton, Ted Cohen, Noel Carroll, Gregory Currie, Berys Gaut, Karen Hanson, Mary Devereaux, Arthur Danto, and Lynne Tirrell. The general level of the essays is quite high; they are uniformly clear, well-written and interesting. A number of them raise important new issues, and there are novel approaches to some classic puzzles. Although only one essay is concerned directly with (a) film, there is a great deal in here that is directly relevant to the subject matter of ethics and cinema. To my mind this volume is a significant contribution to the field of philosophical aesthetics. It joins recent works by Colin McGinn and Martha Nussbaum as part of a much needed rethinking by philosophers of the important relations between these two domains of value. [1] I will focus in this review on the essays and arguments that seem to me to have the most relevance for the study of film.

 

The first two essays in the volume are by prominent philosophers who work primarily outside the field of aesthetics: Richard Miller and Peter Railton. Both focus on issues of objectivity and realism with respect to aesthetic value. Railton's essay offers a realist and naturalistic account of aesthetic value and judgment which he bases on an interpretation and extension of Hume's famous essay 'Of The Standard of Taste'.

 

In his dense and extremely ambitious essay, Miller argues that aesthetic judgments, like ethical ones, possess objectivity insofar as they make 'rational nonperspectival truth claims' (42). They do not, however, possess the full-blown objectivity that scientific claims do because, according to Miller, they lack universality. Miller's arguments for these points are complicated but I do think he is right about them. What I find much less plausible is his account of aesthetic value and appreciation. Miller claims that aesthetic value is linked to 'the enjoyment of a learninglike process' (38). I'm not sure I know exactly what a learninglike process is -- Miller says rather tentatively that it 'might have elements of passive reception, surprise, exploration, imaginative construction, discovery, the achievement of coherence, or the perception of normality' (38) -- but it seems clear that Miller thinks that it is crucial that the enjoyment stem from a process which is *learninglike* but not actually directed at *learning* (38, 54). Furthermore, he suggests that the enjoyment of this process stems in large part from 'the need to overcome the frustration and disappointment of actual striving for truth . . .' (54). These are bold and interesting hypotheses and I am quite skeptical of them. Peter Kivy has recently offered convincing arguments that, at least in the particular case of literature, our appreciation of (many, although not all) artworks is importantly bound up with a concern for truth and actual learning. [2] This is just as true of film as it is of other art forms, as Stanley Cavell's philosophical criticism of the Hollywood comedies of remarriage has made evident. [3] Art and aesthetic appreciation are not necessarily a respite from the frustrations, disappointments, and joys (!) of the quest for truth (although they can be), but instead they are frequently sources of those very things (e.g. _Apocalypse Now_, _Crumb_, _His Girl Friday_). But in any case I would like to hear much more about the learninglike nature of aesthetic appreciation and artistic appreciation.

 

Ted Cohen's well-written and enjoyable essay raises novel questions about intrapersonal consistency, and the frequent lack of consistency, in aesthetic taste. Cohen's article starts by adapting and expanding on an argument of Arnold Isenberg's in an attempt to show that there are not even intrasubjective laws or principles of taste. He then puzzles over the pressure one feels to have some consistency in one's aesthetic and artistic judgments. If there are no principles or laws of taste then why should we feel any pressure to be consistent? But it seems we *do* feel some pressure to be consistent in our aesthetic judgments. We may, for example, believe that we like a movie for a particular reason -- because it is funny or because it belongs to a favored genre -- but dislike another movie even though it seems to share the valued properties. In cases like this we do seem to feel some pressure to explain our apparently incompatible judgments. I, myself, feel some pressure to explain my almost incomprehensible enjoyment of _Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls_. But if there are no laws or principles of taste why should I bother? Interestingly, the situation here seems to be different than with that in ethics. The belief that I should do something for a reason seems to force me (on pain of some sort of logical inconsistency) to believe that I should do any other acts where that reason is in force.

 

Cohen's suggestion is that we may have to accept the impossibility of aesthetic consistency, and yet still strive for it (perhaps as a matter of integrity). There may be something to this. But I am skeptical of Cohen's argument that there are no intrapersonal laws or principles of taste, although the anti-nomic position is a firmly entrenched one in aesthetic theorizing. (Richard Miller, for example, makes something of the alleged unprincipled nature of aesthetic judgment in his essay.) For one thing, many of the arguments against laws or principles of taste rest on the difficulty of formulating them. But cognitive science regularly, and successfully, adverts to extremely complex psychological laws that are unavailable to the agents whose behavior they govern. I see no reason to think laws of taste would be any more accessible, or any less complex, than the rules of linguistic or visual processing that are studied by cognitive science. And their complexity would not preclude them from being general. Furthermore, as George Dickie has argued, arguments against laws or principles of taste tend to focus on overall judgments of value (e.g. 'it is a good film'), and are not nearly as convincing if one, instead, considers judgments which merely ascribe some degree of aesthetic value to works of art. [4]

 

Oscar Wilde famously wrote in the preface to _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ that '[t]here is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.' [5] But anyone who is has thought carefully about Wilde's novel knows that this should not be taken at face value, since the book itself seems to make a serious moral point, and, moreover, contains within it a description of an seemingly evil book -- most likely something by Huysmans.

 

There are good reasons to believe that there are such things as moral and immoral books, as well as moral and immoral movies, paintings, sculpture, photography, and television programs (the Teletubbies have just arrived on these shores!). One of the major contributions of this volume is to provide us with a variety of sophisticated accounts of why this is so, along with some examples of how one might go about morally evaluating particular artworks. And a number of the essays in the volume tackle the vexing question of the relationship between the ethical evaluation of the artworks and the aesthetic evaluation of them. The general consensus is that there is a strong connection between these two types of evaluation -- that ethical evaluation bears importantly on aesthetic evaluation.

 

Between them the essays by Noel Carroll and Berys Gaut add up to a powerful case for the appropriateness of ethical evaluations of artworks. Gaut's essay goes further in arguing that ethical and moral considerations are relevant to the specifically artistic and aesthetic evaluation and criticism of artworks. On his view it is not simply appropriate to fault certain artworks for the racist or sexist attitudes expressed in them; these flaws are properly thought of as *aesthetic* flaws. Perhaps what is most important about these two articles, however, is the reasons they provide for their conclusions. Carroll and Gaut (along with Karen Hanson who also argues for the relevance of moral concerns to aesthetic evaluation in her essay) do not argue for their conclusions on the basis of possible behavioral consequences of exposure to artworks, but instead base their claims on philosophically sophisticated accounts of the centrality of ethically evaluable emotional responses to art.

 

Carroll focuses on narrative fictions in a variety of genres and argues for a view he calls *clarificationism* -- which holds that many of these artworks have the capacity to deepen our moral understanding by providing us with opportunities to apply moral concepts to particular cases. Carroll points out that narratives are by their nature incomplete and function by encouraging their audience to *fill-in* the work with background information and, more importantly for the topic at hand, with emotional responses.

 

Horror films, as Carroll has argued in his book _The Philosophy of Horror_, work by generating fear and disgust in audiences; melodramas work by encouraging sadness and respect for their heroes and heroines. _Now, Voyager_, for example, works by encouraging the audience to feel sadness at Charlotte's plight, but also admiration for her. Carroll claims that the very understanding of human narrative relies on the generation of these emotions in the audience. If you are not angry at the behavior of the villain then it may be incomprehensible why he or she is punished in the fiction.

 

It is here that moral considerations come into play, for these emotional responses that narratives work to encourage are quite typically tied to moral evaluations. Admiration and anger are moral emotions. One admires the virtuous and is angry at the wicked. Perhaps, as Carroll suggests, all successful human narratives require the filling-in of moral emotions (140).

 

This process of filling-in with moral emotions is the basis not just for moral considerations to come into play, but also for moral learning. This moral learning, according to Carroll, consists not in the acquisition of new moral propositions (if such things there be) but in the deepening of our moral understanding of the world through the exercise and clarification of our moral categories and premises.

 

Carroll's views on this subject, expounded here and in his recent _A Philosophy of Mass Art_, are quite convincing and suggest further lines of research and thought -- e.g. formulating an explicit psychological model of the process(es) of clarification would be quite interesting. These writings, in part due to the wealth of concrete examples from film and literature that Carroll provides, have had an impact not just on my philosophical views about film and literature but on the way I watch film and read fiction.

 

But one question for Carroll goes back to his claim that the understanding of works of narrative requires *having* certain emotional responses. Although it does seem to be true that in the majority of cases our understanding of narratives depends on our having the proper emotional responses, I wonder whether this is always the case. Some works may direct emotional responses which, perhaps due to historical circumstance, we are unlikely to actually have. Nevertheless, it seems possible that we can recognize that those emotional responses are directed by the work and, hence, understand the narrative. Carroll slides in his discussion of this point between talking about *understanding* a work and *getting* a work (139). I suspect that Carroll may be thinking not merely of understanding narrative works but, instead, of *appreciating* them -- an activity which involves understanding but consists, over and above that, in getting the valuable experiences that the work provides. Carroll's claim seems more plausible if it is framed in terms of appreciation. In any case, I do not see that his argument for clarificationism is scotched even if he is wrong about what is needed for narrative understanding.

 

Berys Gaut's essay argues for a position which he calls *ethicism* -- the view that 'the ethical assessment of attitudes manifested by works of art is a legitimate aspect of the aesthetic evaluation of those works' (182). This is a enlightening essay and to my mind one of the best and clearest arguments for the connection between ethics and aesthetics that I have come across. Gaut first spends some time examining and dismissing arguments against his view. He then canvasses some alternative arguments for the aesthetic relevance of ethical aspects of works and finds them wanting or in need of supplementation. He then presents a simple, straightforward, and positive argument for the ethicist position.

 

Works of fiction (e.g. Hollywood movies, science fiction novels, comic books . . .) promote imagining in audience members. Furthermore, they prescribe emotional and other psychological responses to the fictional events which are represented. But not all responses that are prescribed by works of art are merited or appropriate. For example, a movie may prescribe amusement at a scene, but fail insofar as what is represented in that scene is not actually worthy of laughter or amusement. This is an aesthetic failure -- it is a problem with the film as a film. Gaut's contention is that some responses prescribed by works will not be ethically merited. So, for example, a movie may prescribe amusement at sadism, pity or disgust towards homosexuality, or indifference to wanton destruction (e.g. most recent action blockbusters). These responses are ethically unmerited. We have (ethical) reason not to be amused at the sadism, not to pity or be disgusted by homosexuality, and not to be indifferent to wanton destruction. Insofar as movies and other artworks prescribe these ethically unmerited responses they are flawed -- in fact flawed as works of art.

 

Again, these two essays by Carroll and Gaut seem to me to provide extremely important and convincing arguments for the relevance of ethical concerns to art and, moreover, to the evaluation of art as art. On the other hand, Gregory Currie's essay, which also strives to make an argument for the ethical criticism of narrative, seems to me to suffer from two serious flaws: an unworkable empirical psychology and an implausible account of moral learning.

 

Currie's essay argues that fictional narratives have a particular value in virtue of their capacity to engender imaginative responses in readers (and viewers), thereby providing them with knowledge about morally evaluable outcomes. On Currie's account, this capacity is rooted in the realism of narratives -- their capacity to produce responses in audiences which are similar to ones that would be produced in real life.

 

Currie's work, which follows up on earlier work of his on related subjects, relies on some recent work in cognitive psychology and the philosophy of mind. In particular it relies on a 'simulationist' theory of the imagination and empathy. As opposed to 'theory-theory' views of our folk psychological capacities, which hold that the prediction, explanation and understanding of others relies on a tacit psychological theory, simulationists hold that these capacities are implemented by taking our own mental processes 'off-line' (i.e. disconnecting them from the production of action). Instead of using a theory to understand other people, we use ourselves as a model. Currie has, in the last few years, attempted to extend the simulationist account to explain all sorts of other mental capacities including the production of visual and motor imagery, imagination, and empathy. Among theorists of film other than Currie, Murray Smith has also recently argued for a simulationist account of empathy. [6]

 

Stephen Stich and Shaun Nichols have provided compelling reasons for thinking that simulationism (at least in its standard form) is not the correct theory of predicting the behavior of others. [7] But this would not show that simulationist views of empathy and imagination are wrong, since these are distinct psychological capacities. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the simulationist view of the imaginative engagement with fiction is quite hopeless. The central problem with the simulationist view is that the account of the imagination that it produces is ineliminably first-person. But the imagination, and our imaginative engagement with fiction, need not be egocentric. Noel Carroll has argued convincingly that our emotional responses to fictions need not have a first-person element. [8] Moreover, the cognitive (non-affective) states generated by fictions do not necessarily have a first-person element. Hence, something other than a straightforwardly simulationist story is called for.

 

Currie bases his account of the moral value of fiction on the claim that fictions, by getting us to project ourselves into the lives of fictional characters, allow us to have experiences of possible courses of events which are sufficiently like the experiences we would actually have if the events themselves were actual. It is these experiences, according to Currie, which enables fiction to change our values. 'Imaginative projection can help us to value responses that are not naturally our own, by enabling us to experience them in a new and revealing way' (172). But, again, there seems to be a first-person bias to Currie's thinking. We typically imagine the experiences of fictional characters from a third-person perspective. So it is hard to see how his account of moral learning, which is based on empathetic (i.e. first-person) experience, could possibly be central to the experience of fiction. Carroll's clarificationist account, which locates the moral powers of fiction in its ability to generate third-person moral responses, seems more promising.

 

Mary Devereaux's clear, interesting, and thought-provoking essay on _Triumph of the Will_ is perhaps the article most straightforwardly relevant to the concerns of _Film-Philosophy_ since it is the only essay in the volume that is centrally about film.

 

Although it is widely agreed that _Triumph of the Will_ is a disturbing and ethically suspect film, there is disagreement about what the proper explanation of this view is. Devereaux presents a powerful argument that the disturbation and ethical disvalue stem primarily from the work's conjoining of evil and beauty. It is because the film presents evil in a beautiful way, because it presents a beautiful vision of National Socialism, that it is so disturbing and immoral. This conjunction of beauty and evil may tempt us to be attracted to what is evil. Interestingly, she claims that '[t]he most important reason . . . for watching _Triumph of the Will_ is that . . . it allows us to see that one of the disturbing things about art is that it can make evil appear beautiful and good' (251).

 

I am uncertain, however, whether to accept Devereaux's claim, for it is not obvious to me that _Triumph of the Will_ really is properly characterized as beautiful. It is certainly a technical masterpiece, although I find it rather boring and, hence, am unsure as to whether it really is the 'work of artistic mastery -- perhaps . . . genius' (244) that Devereaux claims it to be. And _Triumph of the Will_ is a masterful piece of propaganda. But nothing that Devereaux says in her essay convinces me that the vision of National Socialism that _Triumph of the Will_ presents is a *beautiful* one. Mere technical mastery is not enough to make a work beautiful. Furthermore, any respectable account of the beautiful should allow for a distinction to be made between what appears to be beautiful and what actually is beautiful. It may be, therefore, that _Triumph of the Will_ appears beautiful but is not actually beautiful. Perhaps, however, my judgment here is clouded by the Platonic tradition which identifies the Beautiful with the Good. I'm not sure.

 

The volume also contains a typically interesting and entertaining piece by Arthur Danto about photography and the rights of subjects. He has some fascinating things to say about the differences between *stills* (which do not show us as we actually appear) and *natural drawings* (which do). And in her essay Lynne Tirrell offers an interesting way, informed by an inferential role theory of meaning (!), of thinking through debates about the use and abuse of derogatory terms. The book also provides a helpful bibliography of recent work (primarily in analytic philosophy) related to its subject matter.

 

This first edition of the book is marred by a publisher's error which resulted in a failure to attribute the photograph on the front cover. It is a photograph by Peter Hujar, 'Candy Darling on her Deathbed' (1974), and, according to Danto, is 'one of the truly great photographs of the century' (270).

 

Despite my criticisms of various essays, this is an excellent and important book. It is well worth the attention of anyone with an interest in aesthetics, or the relations between ethics and art of any sort. It should be of great help and interest to anyone interested in thinking seriously about cinema and its ethical dimension.

 

Rutgers University, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Colin McGinn, _Ethics, Evil and Fiction_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997). Martha Nussbaum, _Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

 

2. Peter Kivy, _Philosophies of Art: An Essay in Differences_ (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

 

3. Stanley Cavell, _Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage_ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981).

 

4. George Dickie, _Evaluating Art_ (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988).

 

5. Oscar Wilde, _The Picture of Dorian Gray_ (New York: Penguin, 1985).

 

6. Murray Smith, _Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion and Cinema_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

 

7. See Stephen Stich and Shaun Nichols, 'Folk Psychology: Simulation or Tacit Theory', _Mind and Language_, vol. 7 no.1, 1992, pp. 35-51; and also their _Second Thoughts on Simulation_, in A. Stone and M. Davies, eds., _Mental Simulation: Evaluations and Applications_ (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1995).

 

8. Noel Carroll, _A Philosophy of Mass Art_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1998).

 

***

 

Aaron Meskin, 'Art and Ethics Reunited'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 11, May 1998

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n11meskin

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

  

 

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