Sunday, December 09, 2007

the distinction between ethics and aesthetics

I'm writing a paper on attempts to make the distinction between ethical judgments and aesthetics judgments and would be interested to hear why people think there is a distinction and how they make that distinction.

Though this might sound simple its actually a lot harder than you might think.

edited to say I should have said ethical JUDGMENTS and moral JUDGMENTS not just ethics v art

22 comments:

  1. I'm no expert in aesthetics, but I'll throw something out there for you.

    One difference between art and morality is that most folk think that there is something inherently valuable in any piece of art. Even if no one likes the art, there is still an assumption that it shouldn't be destroyed because it is ART. Someone worked at it and it is expressive of something that they feel (or somesuch.)

    I don't have the same intuition about a moral rule. If a moral rule is bad then it's gotta go, and I don't care much that someone slaved over its formulation or application.

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  2. Matteson, I don't think your comparison is apt. Why compare an object with a rule? If a piece of art is of purported intrinsic value, I would think the apt comparison is with something of purported intrinsic moral value. Then we can see how people value each item. But no one, I think, holds a moral rule to be of intrinsic value. The analogy to a moral rule might be an "aesthetic rule" if there is such a thing. I'm thinking, "avoid putting yellow and purple next to each other on a canvas" in painting, or "never gesture with your downstage hand" in theater.

    When rules are compared I think morality comes across as feeling more important. Moral rules are overriding, or have authority, while aesthetic rules (if there are such things) do not.

    But Kirwan, I'm interested in hearing more about your project. You're not comparing aesthetic value with moral value, I take it, but judgments about such value?

    Maybe you can start by explaining what role philosophy has in this issue. Shouldn't you consult with psychologists if you want to know what human judgments are like regarding aesthetics and morality?

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  3. Well, I admit that I don't know exactly what he's looking for. Since it's term paper time I imagine that the paper is more involved than the OP. I tried to ask a question about a paper that I'm writing, and I can't fit all of the background that you need to know into a decently sized post either.

    Now, in response to what you said: I compared objects with rules because (a) I'm not that well versed in aesthetics and (b) as far as I know there aren't any ethical objects. I can imagine that there are people who hold moral rules to be of intrinsic value, or at least that they think there are moral rules which are necessary to support other things which are of intrinsic value. (as a side note I don't understand what "intrinsic value" can possibly mean, and I think "inherent value" might not be the same thing)

    So Peter, I take it that you are comparing judgments about art (for example) with judgments about morality? Do you mean moral judgments like "What Arthur is doing to that cat is Bad" or do you mean judgments like "The right thing to do is to maximize happiness?"

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  4. Yeah, my last post definitely came out sounding more obnoxious than I intended.

    But to harp on this point just a little longer, some people who believe in "aesthetic value" hold that a work of art is valuable in itself (and not merely instrumentally valuable). This is what I mean by intrinsic value. The art itself has value.

    On the moral side, we don't have to look for "ethical objects" per se, but we should see if we ascribe intrinsic moral value to anything. It is common to hear that people are intrinsically valuable, or rational agents, or perhaps just pleasure.

    I don't think I'm using "intrinsic value" idiosyncratically. If this doesn't capture what you mean by "inherent value" maybe you can explain what your term means.

    But perhaps Kirwan should step in (since its his topic) so that I stop acting like a jerk by bickering about irrelevant details

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  5. I just don't see what the term "intrinsic value" can mean. I don't know what to think about a value which isn't instrumental in some way. If it isn't "valuable" to me in some way (or to someone else in a way that they can articulate to me) then why would I say that it is "valuable?"

    Inherent value (and this is just an intuition I have right now) might mean that the art isn't valuable-in-itself, but that it inherits some value from the artist's expressive intention or work or some such. Thus, I can understand what you mean when you say that a sculpture is valuable-as-art even though I think the statue is tripe.

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  6. thanks for the responses guys. I'm sorry if you are finding some of this a bit unclear but I wanted to keep the post short and sweet.

    Arthur said:

    "When rules are compared I think morality comes across as feeling more important. Moral rules are overriding, or have authority, while aesthetic rules (if there are such things) do not."

    yes I think this is what most people will first reach for but there are two problems

    a) If this is going to be a meaningful distinction then authority will have to mean something. However, I think we would all agree that its not easy to give an account of overidding authority with many (like myself) going further and thinking that the attempts to do this so far really don't make that much sense. Anyway even if we had this account of authority we might think it applied to some aesthetic cases. For example we might think that the claim that Mozart ought not to waste his talent sunbathing all his life has a similar sort of authority over him.

    b) I think its fairly uncontroversial that we actually consider some (of the things we now call) aesthetic things to be more important than some 'moral' things. For example, back in 2001, the taliban destroyed a bunch of massive buddha statues. Now it seems to me that this event is more important/significant than if I unneccesarily cause a small amount of pain to matteson (say by pricking his thumb with a needle when he's not looking). Or for the kantians out there if you tell a small but unneccessary lie.

    Finally, primarily what I'm doing arthur is looking at whether we can distinguish between the meaning, reference and formal structure of claims like 'x is good' (in ethics) from x is good (in aesthetics). However, I may try and extend this approach to our use of words like 'ought' and 'right'. If we can't make the distinction then this leaves wide open the possiblity that moral value may be a subset of aesthetic value.

    Philosophy is involved because I'm looking at the meaning of the sentences not at the difference between the aesthetic experience and the moral experience (which would also be interesting though)

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  7. matteson said

    "So Peter, I take it that you are comparing judgments about art (for example) with judgments about morality? Do you mean moral judgments like "What Arthur is doing to that cat is Bad" or do you mean judgments like "The right thing to do is to maximize happiness?""

    I will start out with the first and tackle the second if I have time. I think its harder to collapse the distinction in the case of right than it is in the case of good.

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  8. arthur said:

    "But perhaps Kirwan should step in (since its his topic) so that I stop acting like a jerk by bickering about irrelevant details"

    well sounds to me like inherent and intrinsic mean the same thing.

    I don't think this is irrelevant. Some people might try to make the distinction by saying that aesthetic objects are only ever instrumentally valuable while moral objects are instrinsically valuable. I think one could probably make a decent case against Moore's beautiful world case. However, as you said, there are a lot of people who think aesthetic objects are intrinsically valuable.

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  9. Mattesson said: "I just don't see what the term "intrinsic value" can mean. I don't know what to think about a value which isn't instrumental in some way. If it isn't "valuable" to me in some way (or to someone else in a way that they can articulate to me) then why would I say that it is "valuable?""

    While I disagree I think one could make a plausible case for this view.

    "Inherent value (and this is just an intuition I have right now) might mean that the art isn't valuable-in-itself, but that it inherits some value from the artist's expressive intention or work or some such. Thus, I can understand what you mean when you say that a sculpture is valuable-as-art even though I think the statue is tripe."

    I don't really get this distinction. I know we always tell our students not to go looking up the dictionary but I did and from there it looks like they are pretty much the same. Thats got to hold some weight right unless we are using them in a special philosophical way.

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  10. Special philosophical way indeed. I'll bow to the Mirriam Webster on that one. I don't have a strong argument for it at all.

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  11. Kirwan, I think your project is really interesting, and I want more!

    I'm a value monist in the end. I think all value (if there is such a thing) is moral value. I'm deeply curious why you think all value would be aesthetic value - makes me want to hear more about that. If I ought to do something, is that an aesthetic "ought"? Or a moral "ought" with aesthetic value at its root?

    Being something like a hedonist (it's a complicated story, but for now let's just say I'm a hedonist) utilitarian I think I can explain very elegantly why the taliban should not destroy the buddhas and why, all things being equal, we disapprove of Mozart wasting his day sunbathing. It sure seems to me like aesthetic properties only matter when they affect us. People draw pleasure from perceiving them, making them morally relevant.

    If someone were to blow up the louvre (when no one was inside) I'd be against it because it would upset people, but I don't think the art in the louvre is intrinsically valuable. If no one knew about it, I can't see a thing wrong with blowing it up.

    Mostly I want your response on my earlier question: if there were only one kind of value, and it entailed "oughts," why think this value is aesthetic rather than moral?

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  12. Gents,

    I want to throw my two cents in here. Kirwan, you offer these two examples of Mozart and the taliban, but I don't see that either of these is primarily a question of aesthetics. Since we're all doing it, let me run to the dictionary here:

    Aesthetics: the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments.

    Given this, these seem like moral cases that are informed by an aesthetic judgement. For example, we have the moral question of whether or not one is required to use one's talents to better the world if they are sufficiently special (or something like that) and it happens to be that in this case, one must first answer the aesthetic question of whether Mozart's work is "really" great or something like that.

    In the second case, we want to know if and why it was wrong for the taliban to destroy those statues. Again, we might think that the answer to this would change based on whether or not those statues have aesthetic value, but that does NOT mean that whether or not the taliban did something wrong is a question of aesthetics.

    Here's an analogy. Let's say that I come up with a brilliant epistemological theory that involves using some newfangled process of reasoning. When this process is used, I claim that one is always guaranteed to attain knowledge. Now, Bob the Badguy goes out and starts performing illegal brain surgery on people so that they can no longer use this particular process of reasoning (but leaves them otherwise fine brain-wise). If I ask whether something bad is happening here, this is an ethical question, not an epistemological question. However, the answer might hinge (at least in part) on whether my epistemological claims are correct; if this is actually a useless reasoning process, we will likely say that the resulting situation (even if not Bob's actions) is better than if I was right and this was a sound form of reasoning.

    I'm not sure whether this case is directly analogous, but I think it makes my point. Aesthetic questions (I take it) have to do with what has aesthetic value just as epistemological questions (well, some of them) have to do with what has epistemic value. Of course, once we suggest that something has value of one sort, there is then an ethical question about cases in which that value is not promoted (e.g., Mozart) or in which it is damaged (e.g., the taliban or Bob the Badguy).

    I think that once these questions are appropriately separated, ethics and aesthetics (at least in these cases) can go one their merry ways as distinct branches of philosophy. Of course, Kirwan, you may have arguments that don't involve these sorts of cases, in which case there may yet be some reason to fold ethics in with aesthetics.

    The only one I can think of off the top of my head is that aesthetics has all of the letter in ethics, and then enough to anagram things like seat or teas or east. If we categorized this way, we could probably get rid of a LOT of extraneous branches of things.

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  13. I'm rather ill just now hence the delay in responses but I'll try to post something later tonight

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  14. I like faraci's point that "moral cases are informed by aesthetic judgements." Further, I would say that aesthetic judgements are informed by subjective evocative moments in which the observer experiences an emotion. The value of a work of art is set by what it is sold for. However, certain pieces recognized by our culture as priceless - e.g. the Mona Lisa - are not for sale and hence have no monitary value. The value lies in what those peices evoke. To deny this kind of value because one lacks the ability to embrace it doesn't lessen its value. It has accepted value that is intrinsic. That object evokes emotion which seems to be valued by our culture. However, aesthetic judgement should not be limited to valuating art. Denali (Mt. McKinley) has evoked awe for thousands of years - it is not art in a human sense, yet an aethetic would be hard-pressed to deny that it has intrinsic value. Enough so that hundreds of thousands of people sojourn there in hopes of seeing it on a clear day knowing that they have a 30 percent chance of seeing it.

    So if aesthetic cases inform moral judgements, then moral judgements are more deeply informed by the emotions evoked by whatever event is observed or experienced. So what informs the evocative response? I never saw the budhas that were destroyed in Afganistan, however, when I learned of the destruction, I experienced a sense of loss in that it is something that I would never have an opportunity to see. Now when I consider visiting the site of the ruin, knowing what was destroyed and the disagreeable motive behind that destruction, I expect that the event of seeing that destruction might evoke something like anger possibly hate. If that is essentially what is informing my moral judgement, then the destruction was morally bad. But that is in complete opposition to the Talibanis that destroyed it. I pose that our evocative responses may be partially informed by our indoctrination, but also by some intrinsic human quality that triggers responses.

    But I agree with faraci that aesthetic cases inform our moral judgement. But I think that it is clear that the moral judgement contains elements of intellectual polution.

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  15. In response to Arthur

    "If I ought to do something, is that an aesthetic "ought"? Or a moral "ought" with aesthetic value at its root?"

    I'm not sure that the idea of a moral "ought" with a non moral value at the end is coherent. Seems to me that this leaves no real connection of any sort between the right and the good which seems like the wrong answer regardless of your particular moral theory. Of course, in your own case its particularly strange given that the definition of maximising consequentialism (as i understand it anyway) has a very particular relationship between the right and the good. Namely that the right equals whatever maximises the amount of the good in the world.

    Here is one reason that you might think all value is aesthetic rather than all value being moral. If you think about two key evaluative words we use to describe aesthetic value 'beautiful' and 'ugly' these always seems to interchange comfortably with moral terms of evaluation. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to describe morally good actions or persons as 'beautiful' or to describe morally bad actions or persons as 'ugly'. Now, while some of the words that we apply to morality (again narrowly understood) can be applied to aeshetics there are several that can't. If a work of art or a natural phenomenon is aesthetically bad/ugly it is not exactly the same thing to say that it is 'wicked'.

    I do worry as I write this, however, about certain negative evaluations of works of art such as 'jejune', 'dull' and 'banal' as it doesn't look like these are easily used to morally evaluate persons or actions. Hopefully this is something I can iron out though.

    However, I also have a positive argument for collapsing the distinction my way which is that moral judgments are a type of aesthetic judgments. This argument precedes from two controversial but defensible premises. The first of these is that, as Slote has argued, all ethical judgments reduce to judgments about “motives character traits or individuals” (Slote 5) while the second is that, as McGinn argues, “for a person to be virtuous (or vicious) is for a part or aspect of him – his soul or character or personality – to have certain aesthetic properties” (McGinn 97).

    I do feel though that i will need to do more to defend an aesthetic as opossed to a moral collapse or the paper will just say that we should accept one of the two options.

    To clarify more precisely: my position is that morality is a sub type of aesthetics so that everything moral is aesthetic but not everything aesthetic is moral.

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  16. I'm starting to understand your position now.

    I agree that judgments of character often take an aesthetic tone. I wonder, though, if it works as well for actions and states of affairs. For instance, when I think about genocide, to reflect on it as "ugly" seems to trivialize it. It's horrifying and deeply immoral. Rape, to take an act, seems to lack the aesthetic vocabulary to describe it's awfulness.

    Why not think that the fact that moral character is thought of in such aesthetic terms is one more strike against the existence of moral character. That's what I'm inclined to say: Morality and aesthetics are different, and if character seems aesthetic, so much the worse for virtue ethics!

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  17. thanks for your input dave,

    three things in response

    firslty in response to your dictionary definition which was

    "Aesthetics: the branch of philosophy dealing with such notions as the beautiful, the ugly, the sublime, the comic, etc., as applicable to the fine arts, with a view to establishing the meaning and validity of critical judgments concerning works of art, and the principles underlying or justifying such judgments."

    a) I have in mind a wider conception of aesthetic which would include the beauty of things that are not works of art like sunsets, mountain ranges.

    b) even on a narrow dictionary definition why not think that persons are (or potentially) works of art? We already have this in performance and body art.

    Secondly, i've singled out the following paragraph as it sums up most of the rest of what your saying

    "I'm not sure whether this case is directly analogous, but I think it makes my point. Aesthetic questions (I take it) have to do with what has aesthetic value just as epistemological questions (well, some of them) have to do with what has epistemic value. Of course, once we suggest that something has value of one sort, there is then an ethical question about cases in which that value is not promoted (e.g., Mozart) or in which it is damaged (e.g., the taliban or Bob the Badguy)."

    a) the assertion that "Aesthetic questions (I take it) have to do with what has aesthetic value just as epistemological questions (well, some of them) have to do with what has epistemic value" isn't that helpful as it just moves the question to what things have aesthetic value.

    b) Now regarding "Of course, once we suggest that something has value of one sort, there is then an ethical question about cases in which that value is not promoted (e.g., Mozart) or in which it is damaged (e.g., the taliban or Bob the Badguy)."" I must be misunderstanding you because it looks like your saying that the moral 'right' involves maximising ALL positive values as opossed to any specifically 'moral' values. This seems rather strange and would result once again in a very strange connection (or lack of proper connection) between the moral good and the right.

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  18. also welcome to the blog growler!! unless of course you've been here before in which case welcome back I guess. I just don't recognise the name.

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  19. Kirwan,

    First, the point of my posting that dictionary definition was certainly not to argue that aesthetics applies to art only, so it can't be ethics, Q.E.D. This would be an (obviously) ridiculous argument. The point, rather, was that aesthetics has to do with, for example, determining what makes something beautiful or what things are, in fact, beautiful. Since this is what aesthetics does, it did not seem like an aesthetic question whether "Mozart ought not to waste his talent sunbathing all his life" because this is a question about what ought to do, has reason to do, has a duty to do, etc, and I take it that traditionally, at least, aesthetics doesn't have anything to say about such things; it simply tells us which things aesthetic terms apply to.

    Now, of course, you later attempt to bypass this concern with your assertion that "If you think about two key evaluative words we use to describe aesthetic value 'beautiful' and 'ugly' these always seems to interchange comfortably with moral terms of evaluation. It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to describe morally good actions or persons as 'beautiful' or to describe morally bad actions or persons as 'ugly'." But I do, in fact, think this is a stretch. If Mozart were to spend all day sunbathing and we indeed thought he had a duty not to, I can't imagine saying that what he was doing was "ugly." The fact that I can describe some morally bad things as ugly does not mean that "morally bad" means "ugly;" rather, it seems that ugliness is tied to disgust, which we apply to certain sorts of morally repugnant behavior. Mozart's actions would not be "ugly," they would simply be bad; while the actions (or at least the character, I'm still not comfortable applying this term to actions) might be both bad and ugly.

    As for your later points:

    a) the assertion that "Aesthetic questions (I take it) have to do with what has aesthetic value just as epistemological questions (well, some of them) have to do with what has epistemic value" isn't that helpful as it just moves the question to what things have aesthetic value.

    Again, I think that for aesthetics, the important question IS the question of what has aesthetic value. It is a further, non-aesthetic question when we ought or ought not promote that value.

    b) Now regarding "Of course, once we suggest that something has value of one sort, there is then an ethical question about cases in which that value is not promoted (e.g., Mozart) or in which it is damaged (e.g., the taliban or Bob the Badguy)."" I must be misunderstanding you because it looks like your saying that the moral 'right' involves maximising ALL positive values as opossed to any specifically 'moral' values. This seems rather strange and would result once again in a very strange connection (or lack of proper connection) between the moral good and the right.

    First of all, I didn't say anything about maximizing anything. All I said was that when something has value of any sort, it is an ethical question whether or not that value should be promoted. I'm frankly a bit confused by this notion of morality having to do only with things of moral value, because I'm not sure what it would mean for a thing to have moral value. Moral values are things like "moral goodness" or "virtue" or something like that, and objects of art cannot be valuable in this sense. Rather, objects can have other sorts of value--such as aesthetic value--and we then can determine whether or not we wish to promote that value, which is an ETHICAL question.

    I suspect that the problem here is that you are conflating two notions: First, the notion that X has aesthetic value and second, the (ethical) notion that we ought to promote those things that have aesthetic value. It does not follow directly from the high aesthetic value of Mozart's music that he ought not spend his days sunbathing. The further question of what sorts of ethical duties are conferred on one by aesthetic value must be answered.

    So, again, I don't see what is at all odd about moral goodness or rightness resting on non-moral values. All we need is a bridge principle:

    1. X is aesthetically valuable.
    2. We ought to promote things that are aesthetically valuable.
    3. We ought to promote X.

    But the oughts here, of course, are ethical oughts (or, at least, pragmatic oughts). I've certainly never heard of an aesthetic ought, and I really don't see what that could mean.

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  20. Faraci,

    apologies for the late delay but I've been marking exams and then celebrating finishing exams and then recovering from celebrating finishing exams.

    I got caught up in your first paragraph so I've concentrated on that.

    Your first paragraph (which i'll flesh out slightly in light of our conversation the other day in the department) seems to amount to the claim that aesthetic is purely evaluative and not prescriptive (unlike ethics which is both evaluative and prescriptive). I offered an example of such prescriptive language when an expert artist looking over the shoulder of an amateur artist says 'You shouldn't use red there' or 'You ought to use a darker shade of grey there'. To this you objected that these are hypothetical imperatives and lack the of authority of categorical moral imperatives. Or where (like perhaps the giant buddha cases) you concede that there is authority in the imperative you will say that its because its a moral imperative. I know you'll hate me using Kant's vocab here but it seems to fit best. While I think this is a strong objection it seems to me there a few possible outs for me.

    The first is to challenge the assertion that moral imperatives have any special authority or at least ask for a solid account of how this authority works (I know there are many but I find the one's i've seen very unsatisfactory). This is, obviously, a big (and old) talking point in meta ethics that we won't settle here.

    The second would be to ask, if and when a solid account of authority in moral imperatives is supplied, why this authority doesn't apply to aesthetics?

    An interesting point to push my account on is (and this is a point thats been made before) that even if we concede authority to aesthetic judgments it looks like they might lack the universality we normally think applies to ethical prescriptions. For any aesthetic rule or principle we can think of for the construction of works of art it seems we can always imagine a work of art that violates the principle but is still beautiful or that is in accordance with the principles but is ugly.

    The get out of this problem it seems I would have to make the very thick (and to most disagreeable) metaethical claim that ETHICS doesn't use universal principles or rules. I know a lot of people will see that as ridiculous but I think (am i wrong?) there are some metaethicists who think that (some types of virtue ethicists maybe? ... though maybe imperatives to build a certain character trait are universal).

    In any case this particular objection has made me think of a new (and I think VERY interesting) direction for the paper which is to say that insofar as one considers (as a great many people with the exception of myself and arthur it seems do) it obvious that there is a distinction between aesthetics and ethics then you are committed to making some significant meta ethical claims including that ethical oughts have special authority and/or that ethical oughts are derived from some set of universal principles/rules. Now this might not sounds like news to some (many i guess) but people have had trouble (as i noted already) establishing the authority point (though i'm not sure about the universal principles/rules point) and this offers an argument for it which (IF everyone involved agrees there is an aesthetic/ethics distinction) looks pretty strong.

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  21. Of course that last argument would use as one of its premises the assumption that there is no other way to make the distinction (other than the authority or universality of ethical judgments).

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