Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part VI – Immoralism

3.3 Further Criticisms of Moralism: Challenge of Immoralism

In the previous section I explored two criticisms of Moralism. I noted that Carroll used the notion of an idealized, morally sensitive audience to sidestep issues arising from morally unaware audiences. I then examined how Carroll could conceive of that morally sensitive audience. I noted that Carroll was open to being either too strict, and therefore condemning many good and great artworks, or too moderate (losing any sense of being moralist). In this section I will explore another problem for Moralism. I will question whether Moralism is correct that moral blemishes, when they contribute to an artwork’s value, are always aesthetic blemishes. In section 2.3 and 3.1 I argued that it seems plausible that the moral elements of an artwork can affect the coherency and quality of an artwork’s aesthetic qualities. However, if a moral blemish can positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork then Moralism is false. Therefore, I will argue that some immoral artworks are aesthetically superior because of their moral blemishes and that Moralism should be rejected.

The position which holds that an artwork may be valuable as art because of, rather than despite, its moral blemish is called Immoralism. One argument for Immoralism holds that the imaginative experience afforded by immoral artworks can be more rewarding because of their immoral nature. This is called the “cognitive argument” for Immoralism. The cognitive argument for Immoralism starts by highlighting the difference between how differently we seem to judge actions in fictions (compared to those same actions in normal life). Daniel Jacobson asserts that ‘we routinely feel things in response to works of art that would be appalling, were they responses to real-life people and events. Yet we typically don’t notice’.[1] In our everyday interaction with artworks, especially narrative fiction, we do seem to respond to fictional situations in ways that we wouldn’t if those situations were real. In Commando (Dir., Mark L. Lester, 1985), after a hard fought hand to hand battle, the protagonist John Matrix finishes his nemesis off by throwing a pipe through his stomach. As he does this the pipe goes through the antagonist’s stomach and into a steam pipe causing steam to fill the room. In response Matrix quips “time to let off some steam”. In the context of the film we find this remark funny and even strangely appropriate. However, if we witnessed that very scene in real life we would be horrified by the act and by Matrix’s callous nature – as well as the fact he did it in front of his young daughter. Therefore, in our interaction with fiction we are able to imagine, engage with and approve of many counter-factual, bizarre and immoral characters and situations that we wouldn’t in normal life. The cognitive argument for Immoralism holds that this is common feature of our engagement with art. A further claim the Immoralist makes is that a benefit of much art is that we are able to, monetarily, suspend many of our real beliefs and desires and explore, in imagination, the beliefs of other people.[2] Immoral art’s ability to allow us to explore other beliefs, often radically different to ours, is both liberating and cognitively beneficial. This is because Immoral art lets us entertain different perspectives and approaches to life. Kieran asserts:

Works which commend or fail to condemn characters and states of affairs that we would judge to be morally bad can, through getting us to take up a perspective we would not otherwise entertain, enhance the value of the imaginative experience afforded.[3]

Artworks such as Goodfellas, which glamorises the gangster lifestyle and the Omerta[4] moral code, allows us to glimpse briefly into the Mafioso world. We see the attraction of living by a strict honour code such as the Omerta and by allowing us to experience the desire to be one of the “goodfellas” we emerge with a fuller understanding of the reasons behind their actions. Obviously a counter criticism that could be levelled against this argument is that any lessons that we learn from art would be at best trivial. However, even if the lessons we learn from immoral art are short lived or superficial, immoral art is able to get us to see the world anew from another perspective. Allowing us to see the world with fresh eyes or from another perspective, radically different to our own, is what great art can do and some morally questionable art can allow us to do that in ways morally appropriate artworks cannot. As Kieran notes, one way we value an artwork’s ‘value as art is the intelligibility and reward of the imaginative experience proffered by the work’.[5] The experience offered by certain immoral artworks is emotionally powerful precisely because the experience offered is one that we wouldn’t even consider in the real world. We do not enjoy films such as Goodfellas despite their immorality; we enjoy their aesthetic experience precisely because of their immorality. Therefore, the immorality of some artworks contributes directly to its ability to offer a distinct imaginative experience unavailable to morally correct artworks. Some artwork’s moral blemishes may contribute positively to their value as art. Therefore, the cognitive argument for Immoralism gives us good reason to reject Moralism because it appears that sometimes a moral blemish in an artwork can contribute positively to an artworks value qua art.


[1]Daniel Jacobson, ‘Ethical Criticism and the Vice of Moderation’, in Matthew Kieran (ed), Contemporary Debates in Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006), pp. 342-357, p. 354.

[2]For an account of how our cognitive architecture allows for this see Shaun Nichols and Stephen Stich, ‘A Cognitive Theory of Pretense’, Cognition 74 (2000): 115-147

[3]Matthew Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge: The Challenge of Immoralism’, in Jose Luis Bermudez and Sebastian Gardner, Art and Morality, (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 56-73, p. 63.

[4]Omerta is the code that any member of a Mafia clan cannot talk to the police or agent of the state on the pain of death.

[5]Kieran, ‘Forbidden Knowledge’, p. 63.

Published by

A.R. Duckworth

South Yorkshire England

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