What Is Art Philosophy Essay On Morality

To say that a work of art is aesthetically good or has aesthetic value is one thing; to say that it is morally good or has a capacity to influence people so as to make them morally better is another. Yet, though the two kinds of judgments differ from one another, they are not entirely unrelated. Three views on the relation of art to morality can be distinguished:


According to this view, the primary or exclusive function of art is as a handmaiden to morality—which means, usually, whatever system of morality is adhered to by the theorist in question. Art that does not promote moral influence of the desired kind is viewed by the moralist with suspicion and sometimes with grudging tolerance of its existence. For art implants in people unorthodox ideas; it breaks the molds of provincialism in which people have been brought up; it disturbs and disquiets, since it tends to emphasize individuality rather than conformity; and works of art are often created out of rebellion or disenchantment with the established order. Thus, art may undermine beliefs and attitudes on which, it is thought, the welfare of society rests and so may be viewed with suspicion by the guardians of custom. When art does not affect people morally one way or the other (for example, much nonrepresentational painting), it is considered a harmless pleasure that can be tolerated if it does not take up too much of the viewer’s time. But when it promotes questioning and defies established attitudes, it is viewed by the moralist as insidious and subversive. It is viewed with approval only if it promotes or reinforces the moral beliefs and attitudes adhered to by the moralist.

Plato is the first champion in the Western world of the moralistic view of art—at least in the Republic and the Laws. Plato admired the poets and was himself something of a poet, but, when he was founding (on paper) his ideal state, he was convinced that much art, even some passages in Homer, tended to have an evil influence upon the young and impressionable, and accordingly he decided that they must be banned. Passages that spoke ill or questioningly of the gods, passages containing excessive sexual passion (and all works that would today be described as pornographic), and even passages of music that were disturbing to the soul or the senses were all condemned to the same fate. Plato’s concern here was with the purity of soul of the persons who would become members of the council of rulers of the state; he was not concerned with censorship for the masses, but, since one could not predict which young people would pass the series of examinations required for membership in the council of rulers and since it was (and is) practically impossible to restrict access to works of art to a certain group, the censorship, he decided, would have to be universal. The objection might be raised, to be sure, that rulers to be should not be hothouse plants separated from the influences of the outside world and that they would be better off facing all of reality, including its evils. But Plato’s view was that these influences should be kept from them during their formative years—that during this critical time, when the whole tenor of their lives was being shaped, art could be an influence for evil and had to be sacrificed in the interests of morality. In other dialogues of Plato, such as the Ion and the Phaedrus, when he was not concerned with building a state, he extolled the virtues of art and even held the artist to be divine (although madly divine); but when it came to a conflict between art and morality, it was art that would have to go.

The most famous champion of the moralistic view of art in modern times is Tolstoy. Long after he had finished writing his novels, he fell under the influence of primitive (prechurch) Christianity, the principal tenet of which was the brotherhood of all humans. This one idea became such an obsession with him that everything else, including the pursuit of art to which he had devoted his life, became subordinate to it. Almost all the literature of his own time, including all his own novels, he condemned as inimical to human brotherhood by emphasizing class distinction and pitting one group of humankind against another. Even art that appealed primarily (in his opinion) to “upper class” tastes, such as the symphonies of Beethoven and the operas of Richard Wagner, were condemned as “false art.” The art that remained after these colossal excisions included such items as folk songs that peasants might sing in the fields as they worked and pictures and stories either illustrating the tenets of primitive Christianity or fostering the spirit of Christianity by promoting brotherhood.

The moralistic view of art is still, on the whole, the unarticulated view of art held by the masses, particularly when they are under the sway of a dominant religious or political doctrine. Historically, Christianity has been suspicious of all art except those works that depict some aspects of biblical history or that could be used to further the spread of Christian belief and practice (although this is no longer strictly true). And it would probably be fair to say that the view of art held by the government of the U.S.S.R. was a moralistic one: works of fiction and poems had to praise communism or further its doctrines, and works of music had to be melodic and singable (composers such as Dmitry Shostakovich were often condemned by the Soviet hierarchy as “too German” or “too materialistic”). Whenever a culture or nation is under the sway of a dominant view, whether moral or religious or political, the tendency of the rulers of that nation is to promote it at all costs, and one of the casualties in the process is art—at any rate that great body of art that is either indifferent or hostile to the reigning dogma.

Mixed positions

The moralistic and aesthetic positions are extremes, and the truth is likely to be found somewhere between them. Indeed, art and morality are intimately related, and neither functions wholly without the other. But to trace the precise relations between art and morality is far from easy; for want of a better term, “interactionism” could be used to label the view that aesthetic and moral values each have distinctive roles to play in the world but that neither operates independently of the other.

It would be admitted, first of all, that works of literature (which will be examined first, since of all the arts the relation of literature to morality is most obvious) can teach valuable moral lessons through explicit presentation: the genre that has this as its aim is didactic literature, as exemplified by Pilgrim’s Progress by the English Puritan John Bunyan and Back to Methuselah by the Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw. But most works of literature do not exist to teach a moral lesson: possibly, Shakespeare did not write Othello merely to attack racial prejudice or Macbeth to prove that crime does not pay. Literature does teach but in a far more important way than by explicit preachment: it teaches, as John Dewey said, by being, not by express intent.

How does literature achieve this moral effect? It presents characters and situations (usually situations of difficult moral decision) through which the reader can deepen his own moral perspectives by reflecting on other people’s problems and conflicts, which usually have a complexity that his own daily situations do not possess. He can learn from them without himself having to undergo in his personal life the same moral conflicts or make the same moral decisions. The reader can view such situations with a detachment that he can seldom achieve in daily life when he is immersed in the stream of action. By viewing these situations objectively and reflecting on them, he is enabled to make his own moral decisions more wisely when life calls on him in turn to make them. Literature can be a stimulus to moral reflection unequalled perhaps by any other, for it presents the moral choice in its total context with nothing of relevance omitted.

Perhaps the chief moral potency of literature lies in its unique power to stimulate and develop the faculty of the imagination. Through literature the reader is carried beyond the confines of the narrow world that most persons inhabit into a world of thought and feeling more profound and more varied than his own, a world in which he can share the experiences of human beings (real or fictitious) who are far removed from him in space and time and in attitude and way of life. Literature enables him to enter directly into the affective processes of other human beings, and, having done this, no perceptive reader can any longer condemn or dismiss en masse a large segment of humanity as “foreigners” or “wastrels,” for a successful work of literature brings them to life as individuals, animated by the same passions as he is, facing the same conflicts, and tried in the same crucible of bitter experience. Through such an exercise of the sympathetic imagination, literature tends to draw all people together instead of setting them apart from one another in groups or types with convenient labels for each. Far more than preaching or moralizing, more even than the descriptive and scientific discourses of psychology or sociology, literature tends to unite humankind and reveal the common human nature that exists in everyone behind the facade of divisive doctrines, political ideologies, and religious beliefs.

This is not to say, of course, that those who read great works of literature are necessarily tolerant or sympathetic human beings. Reading literature alone is not a cure for human ills, and people who are neurotically grasping or selfish in their private lives will hardly cease to be so as a result of reading works of literature. Still, wide and serious reading of literature has an observable effect: people who do this kind of reading, no matter what their other characteristics may be, do tend to be more understanding of other people’s conflicts, to have more sympathy with their problems, and to be able to empathize more with them as human beings than do people who have never broadened their horizons by reading literature at all. No one who has read great literature widely and for a considerable period, so as to make it an integral part of his life, can any longer share the same provincialism and be dominated by the same narrow prejudices that seem to characterize most people most of the time. Literature, perhaps more than anything else, exercises a leavening influence on the temper of a person’s moral life. It looses him from the bonds of his own position in space and time; it releases him from exclusive involvement with his own struggles from day to day; it enables him to see his own local problems and trials from the perspective of eternity—he can now view them as if from an enormous height.

To have moral effects, it is not necessary that a work of literature present a system of morality. Its moral potency is perhaps greatest when it presents not systems but human beings in action, so that through the exercise of the imagination the reader can see his own customs and philosophies as he sees theirs: as some among many of the countless adjustments and solutions to human problems that different circumstances and humans’ endlessly varied and resourceful nature have produced.

Works of literature, then, develop more than anything else the human faculty of the imagination, and the 19th-century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said that the imagination is the greatest single instrument of moral good. Perhaps this sounds like an absurd overstatement, but consider what morality is like without the imagination. Consider the average morality of a small community, relatively isolated from centres of culture and unacquainted with any artistic tradition. Its morality is rigid and circumscribed; the details of each member’s personal life are hedged about with constant annoyances, and everyone’s life is open to the prying eyes of others who are unfailingly quick to judge, with or without evidence. Outsiders are looked upon askance; people of a different religion, race, or culture are viewed with suspicion and distrust; and anyone who does not subscribe to whatever moral code is dominant in the community is condemned or ostracized. No doubt these people are sincere—they are dreadfully sincere, deadly sincere. But sincerity without enlightenment can be as harmful to the achievement of good as intelligence without wisdom when that intelligence is possessed by political leaders playing with hydrogen bombs. Generally speaking, the people of a small community have not known the leavening influence of literature. Their morality is rigid, cramped, and arid. If these same people had been exposed from early youth to great masterpieces of literature and had learned through them to appreciate the tremendous diversity of human mores and beliefs held by other groups, with the same degree of sincerity that they themselves possess, they would be less likely to be as harsh, intolerant, and rigid as they are.

People are usually inclined to separate art and morality into two hermetically sealed compartments. They talk as if morality were already complete and self-sufficient without art, and that art, if it is to be tolerated at all, can grudgingly be permitted, provided that it conforms to the moral customs of the time and place of those judging it. But this view is surely to conceive the relation between art and morality in far too one-sided a manner. If art must take cognizance of morality, equally morality must take cognizance of art. Almost everything that is alive and imaginative about morality comes from the leavening influence of art.

To consider examples from ancient Greece alone, what would morality be today without the influence of the dramatists Aeschylus and Sophocles, without Socrates as described in Plato’s dialogues, even without the historians Herodotus and Thucydides with their quiet humour, gentle prodding skepticism, and tolerance for other customs and views? It is through great works of art that the most vivid conceptions of various ways of life are obtained. What is it about other times and places that people most remember? Is it their political squabbles, their wars, their economic upheavals? These events are known in general to intelligent laypersons and in detail to historians, but even then such events do not usually make much of a dent in peoples’ personal lives in the way that art does. What is alive today about ancient Greece is its sculpture, its poetry, its epic and drama. What is alive today about the Elizabethan period, even more than the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, is its poetic drama, with its vivid characterizations and boundless energy. Other civilizations and cultures may be sources of facts and theories that enlighten modern understanding, but what enables contemporary humans to share directly their feelings and attitudes toward life is not their politics nor even their religion but their art. Art alone is never out of date. Science is cumulative: even the science textbooks of ten years ago are now discarded as obsolete; the science of the ancient Greeks and the Elizabethans is studied today primarily for its historical value. But great art is never obsolete; it can still present to modern humans its full impact, undiminished by time. Shakespeare will not be out of date as long as human beings continue to feel love, jealousy, and conflict in a troubled world. A biblical statement might be paraphrased and applied to past cultures: “By their arts shall ye know them.” The artists whose works are now revered may have died unsung. Most of them, even those who were appreciated during their lifetimes, were considered far less important than the latest naval victories or the accession of the current king. Yet today these things have all passed into history, but art survives with undiminished vigour. The art of the past molds in countless ways the attitudes, responses, and dispositions of modern people’s daily lives. Most of what is perceptive and imaginative in morality owes its origin to art, and, when morality loses contact with the tradition of art, it becomes dead and sterile. Yet, in spite of this, some people tell us that art is merely the salve of morality, to soothe its stringency.

Already, in the preceding paragraph, mention has begun of arts other than literature. How, it could be asked, can they have any moral effects on those who view them or listen to them? Yet there are effects of these arts on the observer that, in a broad sense, are moral (as opposed to nonmoral) and that account for the attempts of many people to censor them.

Historically, the most famous supposition about the moral effect of art on its audience is Aristotle’s theory of catharsis; Aristotle applied the theory to tragedy only, but many since his day have applied it to art in general. According to this view, art acts as an emotional cathartic and achieves a “purgation of the emotions.” Certain emotions that humans would be better off without (Aristotle limited them to pity and fear, but they could easily be extended) are generated during the course of daily life. Art is the principal agency that should help to dispel these emotions. By observing works of art (witnessing a drama, listening to a powerful symphony, looking at certain works of sculpture or painting) the recipient can work off these emotions rather than let them fester inside him or take them out in unpleasant ways on others. Art siphons off these disturbing inner states rather than letting them grow rancid.

As it stands, this view is undoubtedly somewhat crude, especially in the light of modern psychology, and fault could be found in many respects with the Aristotelian doctrine of catharsis. Yet the experience of reading, viewing, or listening to a work of art does give a peculiar release, a feeling of freedom from inner turbulence. The mere act of plunging, for a few hours, into an entirely different world when attending a play or a concert is often enough to transform, however temporarily, the tone of people’s daily lives. It is not merely that for a few hours they can forget their troubles—any form of entertainment, however worthless, might do this. It is not merely that art provides a break or interruption in the course of people’s lives at the end of which they are exactly what they were before. It is that through the aesthetic process itself, in the very act of concentrating energies on an art object of great unity and complexity and depth, a kind of inner clarification is achieved that was not present before.

It is not true, therefore, that reading novels of crime and detection leads people to indulge in a life of crime; on the whole, those who read such novels are law-abiding people, and, if anything, the reading of such novels is a substitute for aggressive activity (it is aggression vicariously experienced) rather than an incitement to it. Nor do works of art of a licentious nature usually incite people to rape or adultery; far from acting as incitements to action, they are safety valves against action by providing a kind of substitute gratification. It has been said, for example, that Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is an immoral work because it celebrates the passionate surrender to an illicit love and the victory of this love over practical, political, and moral concerns. But is there any evidence that people who read this play will behave like the lovers in question because they read the play? On the contrary: it could be argued that reading the play has an instrumental value in that it presents another example of a complex moral situation, the perusal of which provides many avenues for moral reflection, and that the play also possesses the intrinsic value of acute characterization, dramatic power, and poetry whose imagery and intensity are among the most splendid in the English language. Again, it was said in the mid-20th century that American youth had been demoralized by such writers as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, in that these writers set an example of bad behaviour. But to say that they are capable of demoralizing an entire generation is certainly to attribute to them too much moral power, especially over people who have never even heard of them. Even among those who do read serious literature, the effects are probably more beneficial than harmful: through books the horizons of such readers have been expanded to include other ways of life than they would have previously known.

Quite apart from the ultimate effect of a work of art on people’s emotions, it would appear that the very act of experiencing the work may itself have a moral effect. If they are really concentrating on the details of a work of art and not just passively letting it play upon their senses, this effect—the heightening of their sensibilities and the refining of their capacities for perceptual discrimination—will make them more receptive to the world around them, thus raising the tone of their daily lives and making their experience of the world richer than before.

Most of what passes for aesthetic appreciation does not begin to have this effect, but its failure is only because it is not aesthetic appreciation at all—it is a kind of tired reverie rather than an intense absorption in the aesthetic object. Most people, when they hear music, simply allow themselves to be inundated by the sheer flow of sound. Such people do not actively listen to the music and are not even aware of the most elementary kind of ebb and flow occurring within it; they only receive it passively, perhaps using it as a springboard for a private reverie or an emotional debauch of their own. Music has for them not an aesthetic effect but an anesthetic effect. It is not just hearing music that will have the required effect. The aesthetic experience, which involves nothing less than a total concentration on the perceptual details of the aesthetic object, is an experience that heightens consciousness, exercises people’s capacity for perceptual awareness and discrimination, and helps them come alive to the sight and texture of the world around them. After a viewer has seen an exhibition of landscapes by Cézanne, the entire world may seem to him to have changed its structure and complexion: it may, indeed, take on the look of Cézanne’s landscapes. And is not anything that increases awareness and subtlety of discernment and discrimination a potentially moral agent? Art provides the most intense, concentrated, and sharply focussed of the experiences available to human beings. Because of this, art can have an enormous influence on the tenor of a person’s life, more influential no doubt than any particular system of morality. In its ability to do this, it has an effect that, in an extended sense at least, can surely be called moral. Morality transcends particular systems of morality, and art, by being for many persons the dominant influence in their lives, thus transcends them also.

John Hospers

Carroll 2000 is the most influential introduction to the contemporary debate. Carroll 2004 covers much of the same ground but outlines various philosophical theories in relation to three objections to ethical criticism. Both introductions are focused on narrative works. Kieran 2003 introduces the debate in terms of the value of works of art from an immoralist perspective. Gaut 2005 individuates five distinct ways in which art and ethics are connected from an ethicist point of view. Peek 2005 focuses on the ethical criticism of art, literature and moral education, and censorship. Giovannelli 2007 presents a novel and more sophisticated mapping of the various positions on ethical criticism. Lagueux 2004 is an introduction to the debate on the connection between architecture and morality. The author argues that architectural evaluations must always be informed by moral considerations, given the functional nature of buildings.

  • Carroll, Noël. “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.” Ethics 110.2 (2000): 350–387.

    DOI: 10.1086/233273E-mail Citation »

    Identifies key positions and arguments in the contemporary debate. Introduces radical and moderate versions of autonomism and moralism.

  • Carroll, Noël. “Art and the Moral Realm.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Edited by Peter Kivy, 126–151. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756645E-mail Citation »

    Another introduction to the debate by a defender of moderate moralism.

  • Gaut, Berys. “Art and Ethics.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 431–444. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    An introduction to the debate from an ethicist perspective. Emphasizes the cognitive role of various artworks.

  • Giovannelli, Alessandro. “The Ethical Criticism of Art: A New Mapping of the Territory.” Philosophia 35.2 (2007): 117–127.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11406-007-9053-0E-mail Citation »

    Provides a novel and fine-grained mapping of positions. The author argues against the perspicuity of Carroll’s classification of theories on ethical criticism.

  • Kieran, Matthew. “Art and Morality.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 451–470. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Includes references to obscene and pornographic works of art and a defense of the idea that these works can be better, qua art, in virtue of their alleged immorality.

  • Lagueux, Maurice. “Ethics versus Aesthetics in Architecture.” Philosophical Forum 35.2 (2004): 117–133.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0031-806X.2004.00165.xE-mail Citation »

    An overview of various ways in which architecture and morality are related. One main theme of the work is that architectural works constitute the framework of our existence, and thus have an important role for our decisions.

  • Peek, Ella. “Ethical Criticism of Art.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    This entry discusses various forms of moralism and autonomism (thus drawing mainly from Carroll’s early presentations of the debate), the contribution of literature to moral education, and the connection between ethicism and censorship.

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