When I was in high school I wrote a paper about the character Iago in Shakespeare's Othello. He fascinated me and although I would never do any of the things he did (he is practically the embodiment of evil) I felt that I learned something just from getting into his head. This raises the question of ethical moralism. There are many versions of this theory, but the basic idea is that if a work of literature promotes or encourages immoral behavior, or even presents it without clearly condemning it, then it is a worse work than otherwise. Consider another example: Nabokov's Lolita. This is surely a great work of literature, but the moralist would bring it down a notch, or several notches, because it does not clearly condemn the actions of a pedophile. It might be seen by the moralist as degrading trash. What I want to suggest is that although it makes sense to rank works of literature in terms of artistic value it does not make sense to move them up or down these rankings based on whether or not the author clearly condemns immoral behavior in the characters or clearly praises moral behavior. I am not sure how to argue for this point here. It's just the intuition I will work with. For instance, it surely is not the case that Lolita would be a better book if the author in some way made more clear that what Humbert Humbert did was bad. One of the things that makes the book so good is that it forces the reader to enter into the consciousness of a teacher who seduces an under-age student. The great thing about literature is that it allows you to see the world from the perspectives of others, even others who do things that one would never condone in oneself.
I want now to talk about a specific current theory by Alessandro Giovannelli that defends moralism: "Ethical Criticism in Perspective: A Defense of Radical Moralism." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 71:4 (2013) 335-348. Giovanelli's piece is written in technical analytic style, but it is a very current defense of moralism and worth looking at for that reason. The abstract of the article actually makes the position very clear. I quote it in full:
"I defend the ethical fittingness theory (EFT), the thesis that whenever
it is legitimate ethically to evaluate a representational artwork for
the perspective it embodies, such evaluation systematically bears on the
work's artistic value. EFT is a form of radical moralism, claiming that
the systematic relationship between the selected type of ethical
evaluation and artistic evaluation always obtains, for works of any
kind. The argument for EFT spells out the implications of ethically
judging an artwork for its perspective, where such an ethical evaluation
is understood as an assessment of how well the work's ethical
perspective fits extra-fictional reality—how appropriate, correct, or
true the perspective is. The argument shows that the ethical legitimacy
of judging a work for its perspective ipso facto proves the judgment's
art-critical relevance. Hence, the argument effectively amounts to a reductio ad absurdum
of theories that admit the legitimacy of ethically judging artworks
this way, but deny or qualify the judgment's relevance to artistic
merit. Since EFT is stated conditionally, the argument need not indicate
how often artworks are subject to this type of ethical evaluation.
Nonetheless, I make a case for the relevance of EFT to actual art
criticism and contemporary philosophical debate."
The application of moral evaluation, according to Giovannelli only should happen when it is legitimate to evaluate the work. So presumably there are some cases where such evaluation is irrelevant or illegitimate in some other way. The theory also holds that works of literature, for example, sometimes (always?) embody a moral perspective. The work's artistic value should go down in our estimation if it embodies a bad moral perspective. (Note that this claim is not descriptive, but normative. It might be obvious that our estimation of the work will go down if it embodies a moral perspective of which we disapprove. That would just be a descriptive claim.) Giovannelli uses the term "radical" rather strangely to refer to the fact that the theory applies to all kinds of representational art. The theory assumes that it makes sense to say that works of representational art do in fact embody a single moral perspective. This raises interesting issues, since plays, for example, usually have the various characters represent different moral perspectives, the author seldom outright telling us which character he/she identifies with. Thus we could assume that Iago represents an immoral perspective (it is OK to deceive in fatal ways to gain revenge or power) as also Othello (it is acceptable to kill one's wife if suspected of adultery). So, does that mean that the play as a whole has an immoral perspective, or does the final death of both characters indicate that the author's perspective is moral?
Another issue is "how well the work's ethical perspective fits extra-fictional reality." By "extra-fictional reality" I take Giovenelli to mean that there is an extra-fictional moral reality, i.e. a set of objective moral truths. So, the novel is to be downgraded if its ethical perspective is contrary to objective ethical moral truths. This would be a problem for people who question moral realism, i.e. the belief that there are objective moral truths. Situation ethicists for example would wonder about this. Historical relativists might wonder whether the ethical perspective must match the accepted moral truths of 2013 or the accepted moral truths of 1913. But there is a further issue. Why should something that explores moral ambiguity (as literary works often do) be tied down in terms of evaluation of a moral realism of any sort? This seems a subordination of the meta-moral-perspective of representational art to the meta-moral-perspective of philosophy or religion.
Let's get down to specifics. Giovanelli encourages the art critic to praise Francisco de Goya's The Third of May 1808 (1814) for "the condemnation it embodies of the brutality of war and oppression." Since the Goya does not contain a sentence that indicates that it is condemning the brutality of war and oppression we may assume that this comes in large part from knowing about Goya's life and times. So, what if we found that we were wrong and that Goya took lurid delight in public executions? Would this mean that the artistic value of the work should be degraded? Maybe, instead of being one of the top ten pictures depicting executions it now becomes only one of the top one hundred. What sense can be made of this?
On the other hand, surely we are right to condemn a work of being racist, sexist, or for advocating pedophilia. That is, works that embody a point of view that in general causes significant harm to others are at least problematic for that. What I want to suggest, however, is that being concerned about whether works should go up or down in the hierarchy of goodness as works based on moral considerations may not be may be metaphysically suspect. We are back to the issue of realism...in this case not just moral realism but value realism, which also seems to be assumed by Giovenelli's position.
Returning to my additional issue, and to be fair to Giovenelli, he believes that his moralism "need not be committed to the claim that an immoral work would be improved artistically, other things being equal...by an alteration in the work's perspective." His position only says that the work would be "better artistically, other things being equal, if its perspective's ethical status were...not immoral." (346) By itself, this does not make much sense. But, when applied, the claim is that "If what Triumph of the Will glorifies were worthy of being glorified, then...the film would be a better film, artistically..." (346) So, Triumph of the Will glorifies the rise of Naziism and is also a widely recognized as a powerful documentary as well as a controversial, film. Could Triumph of the Will have been a glorification of the pacifism of Gandhi? Well, no: it wouldn't then be Triumph of the Will. Isn't Triumph of the Will necessarily a film glorifying a militarized hero-worshiping society? One could not make a film remotely like this glorifying Abraham Lincoln, to give another example. Triumph of the Will is a great film and it just doesn't make sense to talk about downgrading it from that simply because it, in this case clearly, promotes an immoral perspective. It just means that those of us who do not accept Nazi ideology will view it with a certain distaste or as morally disturbing. The value we get from it, though, will be in part through getting some perspective into how people with that ideology saw the world.
Also, in response to a concern I raised earlier, Giovannelli would argue that "often immoral views, presented within a work, may be instrumental to the emergence of a different overall ethical perspective, which is the one the work really embodies (as might be the case with King Lear)." (346) The, implication of this view, however, is that if we cannot match the ultimate perspective of King Lear (or Othello in my example) with objective unchanging moral truth then these plays are to be degraded. But let us say that we cannot? Let's say that Shakespeare had several moral views that we would disapprove of today (as he in fact probably did) and that his overall moral perspective did not match what we consider the objective moral truth. Does this mean we should not see his plays or love them? What are the real-life implications of the degrading action Giovannelli recommends?
In short, the main question I wish to raise is, what is meant exactly by "detracts from the work's artistic value": how is this cashed out in life experience, i.e. in a way that is coherent?
Interested in learning more? See my book: Thomas Leddy The Extraordinary in the Ordinary: The Aesthetics of Everyday Life. Broadview Press, 2012. Available at Amazon in paperback, and an electronic version at google where you can also find most of the first 47 pages including the table of contents. You can also buy it fro Broadview.