The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

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.

Moral Evaluations of Artworks Part V – Moralism Cont.

3.2 Criticisms of Moralism

In the previous section I explored Carroll’s claim that moral virtues and flaws are sometimes aesthetic virtues and flaws. In this section I will explore some criticisms of Moralism. One of Carroll’s central claims was that his account allowed there to be artworks with moral flaws to remain artistically unblemished. In support of this claim I noted that we seem able to enjoy artworks such as Rebecca and Red Heat regardless of their morally questionable nature (sexism, racist stereotypes). As Schellekens notes, Carroll’s claim is therefore that ‘moral character only takes on importance in relation to our overall assessment when it somehow impedes our capacity to engage with the artwork or to respond to it appropriately’.(1.) According to Carroll if a moral flaw doesn’t impede the audiences’ capacity to engage with the artwork then it isn’t an artistic one too. However, if as I noted in section 2.3 the theoretical Milošević film is shown to the right audience – one which does admire Milošević – they will have the intended emotional responses. If all that is required for a moral blemish to escape being an aesthetic one is that an audience experience the intended emotional and moral responses then the Autonomist could easily conjure up a potential intended audience for every immoral artwork.(2.) In reply to this Carroll holds that even if an actual audience (the pro-Milošević lobby) is not impeded from engaging with an immoral artwork the artwork may still be aesthetically flawed. Carroll asserts that a moral blemish:

will also count as an [aesthetic] blemish even if it is not detected – so long as it is there to be detected by morally sensitive audiences whose response to the work’s agenda will be spoilt by it. A blemish is still a blemish even if it goes unnoticed for the longest time.(3.)

Carroll attempts to sidestep the criticism by holding that it is not whether a particular audience is impeded (or not) from engaging with the Milošević film. The film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one if an ideal morally sensitive audience is unable to respond with the intended emotional and moral responses. Responding with sympathy and admiration to the Milošević film is not something a morally sensitive audience would do – as it entails advocating genocide. Therefore the Milošević film’s moral flaw is also an aesthetic one.

            Carroll’s use of an idealized morally sensitive audience allows Moralism to sidestep issues arising from morally insensitive or unaware audiences. However, if Moralism relies on an idealized audience then there needs to be further clarification on how idealized and morally sensitive that audience should be. Many films feature minor defects in a film’s representation of race, gender or sexuality. Therefore if Carroll’s notion of a morally sensitive audience is too idealized them it appears unlikely that they would forgive the sexism of Rebecca, the racist stereotypes in Red Heat or the explicit rape scenes in the film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Dir., Niels Arden Oplev, 2009) or Deliverance (Dir., John Boorman, 1972). The consequence being that many good and great artworks would be found to be aesthetically flawed. If the notion of a morally sensitive audience is hardly idealized at all then it remains to be seen why the audience could not be conceived of easily enjoying many immoral films without issue. If the idealized audience is an average one then artworks like the hypothetical Milošević film will fail to produce the intended emotional and moral responses but morally questionable films such as Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990) will be successful in their intention to produce sympathy and admiration for gangsters who commit murder and other hideous crimes. The issue for Carroll is that any account which calls itself Moralism and doesn’t find artworks like Goodfellas morally and aesthetically defective is in serious danger of losing its Moralist credentials.


(1.) Schellekens, Aesthetics and Morality, p. 69

(2.) This criticism doesn’t come close to saving the Autonomist position – as moral elements may still positively contribute to an artworks value qua artwork – but it is an important query that the Autonomist can raise in regard to the success of Moralism as an account.

(3.) Carroll, ‘Moderate Moralism’, p. 234.