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Do ethical flaws in an artwork detract from its aesthetic value? Essay


Some basic points on moralism

While discussing ethical flaws in an artwork and their impact on its aesthetic value, it is necessary to highlight some important points on moralism in aesthetics. First of all, it should be pointed out that the issue of morality in art can be regarded rather ambiguously.

Thus, the so-called immoral art is mostly associated with aesthetic defects. Most of moralists are of the opinion that art can bring about both – benefits and harm. The major contradiction, however, is that any art can be regarded as potentially dangerous, if it does not inspire persons to do something creative.

According to Humean moralism, “moral defects in a work of art are aesthetic flaws; insofar as they are present, the work’s aesthetic value is diminished” (Jacobson 158). Keeping in mind the statement, one can probably conclude that the work’s aesthetic value is determined by a person’s moral responses.

On the other hand, the evaluative attitudes seem to be more complex, as the issue of morality involves numerous constituents, and must be analyzed on the basis of different perspectives.

For instance, the ethical criticism of art is considered to be extremely important, as the kind of criticism gives people an opportunity to evaluate the work in different ways; therefore, both – positive and negative approaches can be taken into account.

Autonomism vs. moralism

When analyzing whether a work of art is morally correct or incorrect, one is to draw his or her attention to ideas and attitudes a work of art expresses. Thus, a work’s ideas and attitudes seem to shape a person’s moral approach.

For this reason, it becomes obvious that a creator’s aesthetical purpose must be intelligible for viewers, as it depends upon public opinion whether an artwork will be accepted as aesthetically good or bad.

Another important position, which should be taken into account, is autonomism. Thus, it must be noted that autonomism does not recognize any moral approaches in relation to art.

The philosophical position is considered to be totally opposite to moralism. However, it should be stated that both philosophical positions cannot be regarded as reliable, as they are based on “inadequate conceptions of art and aesthetic value” (“Ethical Criticism of Art” par. 5).

As far as moralism determines the so-called spiritual values of works of art, autonomism represents more formal attitude to artworks. According to autonomism, a work’s beauty is determined by formal features. These include right proportions and other pure aesthetic qualities.

Moral responses in relation to narrative artworks

Generally, it is difficult to decide what position should be accepted as the only appropriate one, as artworks are rarely regarded within social perspectives. The supporters of autonomism appeal to the design of works rather than to their content.

According to them, ethical approach to art has no sense, because it is considered to be universally inapplicable (Carroll 225). When relying on moral considerations people neglect other dimensions of value and therefore, they are unable to evaluate an artwork in a proper way.

Of course, one can state that those works, which are created to encourage moral behaviors, should be analyzed on the basis of moral perspective. So, it is a natural process when audiences discuss their opinions and thoughts, or share their beliefs and expectations.

All the processes involve moral responses to an artwork’s content. However, keeping in mind autonomism, it becomes evident that the analysis of works on the basis moral perspective is possible, when one talks about the nature of a narrative artwork. Other works, in turn, must not be discussed from a moral point of view.

The ethical dilemma and one of the ways of its resolution

People’s moral approach towards works of art is probably based on three major grounds. On the one hand, people can assume that some immoral activities were involved in the process of creation.

On the other hand, one can suppose that some works of art can impact on other persons’ behavior in a negative way. In other words, some artworks can probably cause persons’ immoral conduct; and finally, a work can be morally denounced “within the limits of art” (Gerwen par. 2).

As far as ethical flaws in an artwork and their impact on its aesthetic value seem to represent the ethical dilemma, one can conclude that finding out a middle ground between the above-mentioned philosophical positions (moralism and autonomism) is a right way to succeed.

So, the combination of moral considerations along with aesthetic ones can provide audiences with an opportunity to evaluate a work of art in a proper way; therefore, the last critical verdict depends upon a variety of factors within conflicting philosophical positions.

Moral education and its meaning

One more important aspect, which should be analyzed in detail, is moral education. It should be noted that works of art cannot cause new moral emotions or tenets.

One is to keep in mind that people’s moral responses depend upon their worldview, upbringing and moral education. The last variable is mostly associated with moral understanding.

Thus, people’s moral evaluation is considered to be subjective. An artwork’s content activates people’s pre-existing moral emotions; so, they cannot think critically. As far as they fail in objective reasoning, they show poor judgement and cannot take a sober view of things.

The issue of morality and its analysis

Rightness and wrongness as the most important components of morality are not related to aesthetic conceptions. The issues must be regarded irrespective of aesthetics. Morality is considered to be a set of principles on people’s desired behavior.

One can also state that morality is associated with certain codes of conduct established by a society. However, as far as works of art should not be regarded within social perspectives, it becomes evident that there is no need to apply the principles of morality to art.

People’s moral evaluations depend upon their mentality. Different societies have different views on morality. For this reason, some moral approaches can take the priority over others; therefore, people’s moral views on the same works of art are not the same.

It is almost impossible to point out some common moral principles, which could be applied to different mentalities, as representatives of different societies think differently.

There is a strong need to differentiate between such issues as morality, ethical aspects and aesthetical values. It is necessary to make distinctions between the meanings of the terms, in order to interpret them in a correct way.

People’s emotional responses vary; therefore, making moral judgments can be regarded as a subjective process. Carroll is of the opinion that “The moral dimension of an artwork, when it possesses one, is strictly independent of the aesthetic dimension” (231).

Moral defects as artists’ unique approach to their works

Ethical flaws in artworks require careful analysis, as in some cases, the so-called moral defects can be regarded from the point of view of artists’ unique approach to their works.

In other words, artists understand the moral psychology of viewers in their own way. In most cases, the audiences interpret artworks according to artists’ aesthetic aims; so, for this reason, it becomes evident that sometimes aesthetic flaws seem to be not flaws in their original sense, but peculiar features of artists’ works.

One is to keep in mind that the major aim of art is not to enrich viewers morally, but to please the audiences. That is why finding out moral flaws in works is considered to be ethically inappropriate.

A variety of forms of the philosophical positions and their importance

Both – moralism and autonomism are recognized to be the major categories of moral aesthetic criticism. Artworks undergo moral evaluation on the basis of a historical background. Thus, in ancient times all forms of art were interpreted from the point of view of religious conceptions.

In our days, works of art are mostly related to political propaganda. So, many philosophers are of the opinion that artworks have moral dimensions, which shape viewers’ aesthetic evaluations. In the 19th century, some philosophers started to criticize the moral-centric view relying on separatism conceptions.

A struggle between supporters of moralism and autonomism had begun. A variety of forms of the philosophical positions appeared because of the conflict between moralists and autonomists. These forms involve moderate moralism, moderate autonomism, radical moralism and radical autonomism.

Moderate moralism and moderate autonomism are the most important forms of philosophical positions art evaluation can be regarded within. Moralists’ viewpoints on aesthetic evaluation of artworks are considered to be somewhat softer as compared with autonomists’ positions.

For instance, moralists concede that some forms of art cannot be regarded within moral perspectives. These forms are of wide range; although classical music and abstract art are recognized to be the most appropriate forms.

On the other hand, moralists state that much of art is to be morally evaluated, as a moral dimension must be accepted as an integral part of any art.

The two positions of moralists seem to be at variance with each other. For this reason, one can state that moderate moralism is an unreliable philosophical position.

The opinion of James C. Anderson and Jeffrey T. Dean cannot be ignored:

While ethical criticism of works of art is a legitimate activity, neither Gaut nor Carroll have succeeded in showing that the endorsement of an ethically reprehensible attitude entails that a work is in any sense aesthetically flawed.

Moreover, that a work endorses ethically commendable attitudes does not entail that the work is to any degree aesthetically meritorious (152).

Keeping in mind the viewpoint, one can probably notice that the major conflict the philosophical positions represent is a conflict between the aesthetic aspects and the moral ones.

The interdependence between the aspects is rather ambiguous, as in some cases, the aspects are considered to be separable; in other ones – inseparable.

Moreover, the ethical dilemma is aggravated with the additional question concerning the impact of the aesthetic properties on the moral ones and vice versa. As far as moralists’ views are softer, autonomists are often accused of their strict approach to a moral dimension much of art involves.

Works of art and their intrinsic and extrinsic features

The supporters of autonomism are of the opinion that there are two ways the audiences can rely on to evaluate artworks. Thus, some viewers consider pieces of art as aesthetically good; while others define certain works as morally bad.

The autonomists explain the difference on the basis of intrinsic and extrinsic features all works of art possess. For instance, aesthetically good artworks are determined by such features as shape, color, texture, etc. Moralists consider artworks on the basis of their extrinsic properties.

These involve more data on an artist and his or her moral development. Thus, when looking at an artwork, moralists are mostly concerned about who an artist is, what education does he or she have, or whether a creator is an honest and kind, etc.

When focusing on a wide range of the intrinsic features, one seems to have an aesthetic experience; when focusing on a variety of the extrinsic features, a moral experience takes place.

To evaluate an artwork in a proper way, one is to focus on both – intrinsic and extrinsic features. If viewers consider one aspect only (aesthetic or moral), they are unable to understand the content of an artwork appropriately.


Finally, it should be noted that the positions of both – moralists and autonomists can be equally criticized. Their viewpoints involve numerous contradictions; so, they cannot be regarded as reliable and logically grounded.

It is difficult to say for sure whether ethical flaws in an artwork detract from its aesthetic value or no; however, it seems that the audiences must take into consideration not only moral dimensions, but also intrinsic properties.

Works Cited

Anderson, James and Jeffrey Dean. “Moderate Autonomism.” British Journal ofnAesthetics 38.2 (1998): 152. Print.

Carroll, Noel. “Moderate Moralism.” British Journal of Aesthetics 36.3 (1996): 223-238. Print.

“Ethical Criticism of Art.” Utm.edu. n.d. Web. <>.

Gerwen, Rob. “Ethical Autonomism: The Work of Art as a Moral Agent.” University of Michigan Library. 2004. Web. <>.

Jacobson, Daniel. “In Praise of Immoral Art.” Philosophical Topics 25.1 (1997): 155-199. Print.

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