Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part IV – Moralism

3.1 Moralism

In the previous two sections I explored some criticisms of Autonomism. I highlighted that with certain art forms (such as representative art) it appears that the moral stance directly influences the quality of an artwork’s representation. In this section I will explore an account advanced by Carroll called (Moderate) Moralism (1.). Moralists hold that moral character is central to our appreciation and assessment of artwork. (2.) They also hold that a moral flaw (or virtue) can be an aesthetic flaw (or virtue). An immediate criticism that is levelled against Moralism is that there are many artworks that are morally questionable that we seem able to appreciate without issue. If moral defects are always aesthetic defects then why is it that we can appreciate sexist films such as Rebecca (Dir., Alfred Hitchcock, 1940). However, Carroll asserts that his form of Moralism escapes this criticism because he does not hold that every moral flaw is an aesthetic one. Carroll asserts that:

Moderate Moralism does not claim that every moral defect in an artwork is an aesthetic defect. Artworks can be immensely subtle in terms of their moral commitments. Morally defective portrayals may elude even morally sensitive audiences and may require careful interpretation in order to be unearthed. (3.)

There are many artworks that feature unflattering stereotypes. Artworks that portray morally insensitive stereotypes are often also aesthetically flawed (such as Tintin au Congo) but there are many Hollywood films which contain stereotypes which are not diminished aesthetically. One such film is Red Heat (Dir., Walter Hill, 1988) which features a stereotypical Soviet character Capt. Ivan Danko who joins up with smart-ass American cop Det. Sgt. Art Ridžić to thwart a drug smuggling enterprise. The film achieves a good level of drama, action and comedy despite Danko being a classic cold-war Soviet stereotype. Therefore, there are certain artworks that feature morally questionable elements which do not influence artistic value. According to Carroll this is because the audiences’ intended emotional and moral responses are not inhibited by the depiction of stereotypes in these cases. So in cases such as Rebecca and Red Heat the Moralist can argue that the audience is able to have the intended emotion and moral responses despite the morally questionable elements of these artworks.

            As I noted in section 2.3 Carroll asserted that it is an aesthetic defect if an artwork fails to produce the intended emotional or moral responses in its audience. If a thriller doesn’t thrill its audience then it would be seen as aesthetically defective or inferior.  If the reason for the thrillers lack of success is because of some moral feature of the work – the audience just can’t engage with such a racist depiction – then that moral feature (defect) can be said to be an aesthetic defect. Similarly, if an artwork is more vividly dramatic due to the artwork’s moral elements then that moral element (virtue) can be said to be an aesthetic virtue. One particular instance of this is Casablanca (Dir., Michael Curtiz, 1942) which explores the issue of self-sacrifice over personal profit. In Vichy-controlled French Morocco Casablanca’s central protagonist Rick Blaine struggles to choose between staying neutral and reigniting a past relationship or getting involved on the side of the Allies and sacrificing both his successful nightclub and any chance of a relationship with his former love. Through the film’s development of this issue the audience responds by desiring that Blaine reignite his relationship with his former love whilst also accepting that he must sacrifice that relationship for the greater good. Therefore, the film’s central moral element not only provides impetus to the film’s narrative but it also produces complex contradictory desires in its audience enabling a more powerful aesthetic experience. That is, the moral element of Casablanca contributes considerably to how much tension and drama the audience experiences. Therefore, moral virtues and flaws can sometimes be aesthetic virtues and flaws.


(1.) Although Carroll calls his position Moderate Moralism I will only call it Moralism. The forms of Moralism that assert that artwork’s moral defects are always aesthetic defects are so strong that they are better known as Extreme Moralism or Severe Moralism.

(2.) Elisabeth Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 68.

(3.) Noel Carroll, ‘Art and Ethical Criticism’, p. 378

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