Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Damn the Consequences



What follows is a guest post by James Harold. James is a Professor of Philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. He works primarily in aesthetics and meta-ethics, and is particularly interested in the intersection of those two fields. He has also written about the role of principles in critical evaluation, philosophical psychopathology, empirical ethics and aesthetics, and ancient Greek and Classical Chinese philosophy. In a universe not terribly distant from this one, however, he’s still working in scene design and carpentry, probably at some small regional theater.

When a contemporary philosopher condemns a work of art for being morally flawed, you can bet good money that she does not mean that the artwork has pernicious effects on its audiences.[i]More likely she means that the work sympathizes with a vicious protagonist, that it endorses a morally odious viewpoint, or something along these lines. In the twenty years or so since the revival of “ethical criticism” in Anglophone philosophy of art, an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the ethical evaluation of art, but almost nothing has been said about whether or not works of art might have real ethical consequences on audiences.[ii]Instead, champions of ethical criticism take pains to distance themselves from such thinking. To cite a pair of well-known examples: Noël Carroll writes that “a moral defect can count as an aesthetic defect even if it does not undermine appreciation by actual audiences so long as it has the counterfactual capacity to undermine the intended response of morally sensitive audiences”[iii]; Berys Gaut claims that his view “does not entail the causal thesis that good art ethically improves people”[iv].

I have two aims here: first, to try to understand why so many philosophers thinking about morality in art have been so unwilling to talk about art’s potential consequences. And second, to argue that philosophers of art should, after all, pay greater attention to those consequences.

There are, I think, two main reasons why philosophers have been reluctant to talk about the ethical consequences of art on audiences. The first reason has to do with Plato. Plato, of course, thought that there was a perfectly good and intelligible causal link between listening to certain poems and vicious behavior. (Many philosophers think that his argument was a bad one.[v]) And, as a result, Plato banned the poets from his ideal city. The worry is that if we agree with Plato that art might have bad consequences, we might end up agreeing with him about censorship.[vi] Berys Gaut, immediately after putting aside talk of art’s consequences, insists that his own view “has nothing to say about the issue of censorship.”[vii] But thinking that art can cause vicious behavior does not obligate one to favor censorship. The causal view has no more to say about censorship than Gaut’s view does. The question of whether to censor art is formally separate from the question of whether it is morally wrong, no matter what one’s reasons are for judging it wrong.

But I suspect that the most important reason why philosophers have tended to avoid discussion of how artworks affect audiences is that they doubt that art does in fact affect audiences. In fact, it’s commonly held that any causal claim involving the media we consume and moral behavior is dubious at best. However, this turns out to be one of those cases, like climate change, where non-experts think that the question is highly unsettled but experts do not. In her comprehensive discussion of the topic, Susan Hurley writes: “Surprisingly, there is a strong disconnect between even educated public opinion on this subject and the increasingly convergent majority opinion of experts. The strong and growing consensus among researchers has not been accurately reported in the media, and has not got across to the public.”[viii] Hurley goes on to cite major textbooks and comprehensive meta-studies that show that the expert consensus is strong and clear: viewing violent media causes aggression.

In particular, there is evidence for long-term as well as short-term effects, and the causal mechanism at work is largely automatic and unconscious. From studies of the causal links between media violence and aggressive behavior, psychologists have hypothesized a number of underlying mechanisms: for short term effects, priming, excitation, and specific imitation; and for long term effects, the acquisition of new social-cognitive schemas and scripts (that is, narratives) for problem solving, and the adoption of new beliefs.[ix]

Now most of the research in psychology and related disciplines has focused on the causal connection between consuming violent media and aggressive behavior. That is not, of course, what philosophers always have in mind when thinking about ethics and art. Philosophers will often want to distinguish between artworks and other kinds of media (such as news reports) as well as between different kinds of representation in those media. Furthermore, aggressive behavior is not the only kind of moral change that we would want to look for. There is lots of fruitful research that could and should still be done – I return to this below. But the well-established causal link between viewing violence in media and aggressive behavior suggests that philosophers should take the possible causal claims involving art and vicious behavior very seriously.

A.W. Eaton makes this case in connection with pornography in some detail – and elsewhere, she makes a similar claim for art. [x]The best model for testing causal claims like these, she argues, is an epidemiological one. The claim “art improves character” is roughly parallel to the claim that “smoking causes lung cancer.” It is probabilistic, not deterministic. Not every person who smokes gets lung cancer, and not every person who watches Birth of a Nationbecomes more antipathetic towards African-Americans. And while a single experience, like a single cigarette, might have little causal power, repeated experiences could have much greater collective power, and make for a greater probability that the individual will be affected. But the aim here is not to prove any particular causal claim about the moral consequences of artworks, but to show that such causal claims have prima facie plausibility. So there is good reason to think that there might be significant ethical consequences to art.

Let’s turn, then, to the question of why we should, after all, think about the possible ethical consequences of art on audiences when thinking about the ethical values of art.

The first is that the alternative modes of ethical evaluation face a serious difficulty: they end up treating artworks as though they had mental states. I will focus here on Berys Gaut’s view because his ethical reasoning is worked out in much greater detail than that of others, but I think that the problem is quite general. Gaut’s argument has three steps. First, he asserts that artworks prescribe responses in audiences: they ask us to feel certain ways about the events or characters in the work, though we might or might not actually feel as the work asks (perhaps we resist feeling this way). Second, he argues that certain feelings are in themselves morally wrong. Third, he argues that because it would be wrong to for audiences to have certain responses, it is wrong for works to prescribe those responses.

The first step of the argument is relatively uncontroversial.[xi]Gaut defends the second step by appeal to the idea that a person’s inner character matters as much as her actions: “Much of our ethical assessment is directed at what people feel, even though these feelings do not motivate our actions. Suppose that Joe is praised for some deserved achievement by his friends, but he later discovers that they are secretly deeply jealous and resentful of him. Their feelings have not motivated their actions, yet we would properly regard these people as less ethically good were we to discover this about them.”[xii]The argument for the second step is rooted in the virtue ethics tradition: a person’s virtuous or vicious character is morally important independently of how she acts.

The last step of the argument, however, gets into trouble. While virtue ethics does give a clear and detailed account of how it is that an agent’s feelings – never manifested in action – nonetheless matter morally, it’s not clear at all how this ethical framework can be applied to an artworkinstead of a person. If an artwork prescribes that audiences respond in a particular way that would be morally deficient, but no audience member ever actually responds in that way, where exactly is the failing in the artwork? Clearly, no one wants to say that artworks themselves really have intentions or feelings or habits or any other of the components of character traits that are the necessary constituents of a virtue ethic. Artworks don’t maliciously attempt to corrupt their audiences. When we speak of artworks manifesting “attitudes,” we speak metaphorically. Artworks don’t have mental states like attitudes or intentions, and so they don’t seem to be candidates for criticism on the basis of a virtue or character-based ethical theory.

This is not to say that one could not attempt to extend virtue ethics to cover artworks and other complex artifacts that we sometimes think of as expressive or quasi-intentional. But we should recognize that this work has not yet been done, and developing the theory in this way would not be a trivial task. Any attempt to ground one’s moral judgments in non-consequentialist considerations will depend on thinking of artworks as being person-like, but we are in need of arguments establishing why an artifact like a painting, novel, or film should be treated as if it had the psychological and emotional states characteristic of persons.

Furthermore, much of the intuitive sense that works of art are really morally wrong vanishes once we really put aside all thinking about consequences. If a work of art asked its viewers to admire torturing children, but we also knew for a certainty that no person viewing that work could ever be persuaded to so respond, how strong would our intuition that the artwork is nonetheless morally flawed be?

In putting aside all consequentialist considerations when thinking about the ethical criticism of art, aestheticians also deprive themselves of a powerful moral theory. After all, if some version of consequentialism, or even pluralism, is true, as many philosophers believe, then we will need to take account of the consequences of actions in order to get a proper evaluation of the moral virtues or vices of artworks. In fact, even if all versions of consequentialism and pluralism including consequentialism turn out to be false, looking at the consequences could still give us indirect evidence of moral value. Even the strictest Kantian, while maintaining that a good will might never manifest itself in action, will nonetheless concede that such cases will be rare. So knowing what ethically salient consequences viewing art has on its audiences is still valuable information to have. [xiii]

There are other possibilities, of course. One could dispense with ethical criticism of artworks altogether, and make ethical judgments about the actions and character of the artist. However, there are independent reasons why one might not want to do that.[xiv]

One final reason why it would be good for philosophers of art to bend their ethical criticism in the direction of art’s consequences is that it suggests potentially fruitful new lines of research. For example, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castono published a paper in Scienceentitled “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind.”[xv]In it, they argue that reading influences readers’ performance on different theory of mind tasks, and that literary fiction has a greater affect than nonfiction or popular fiction. This seems to offer some indirect empirical support for claims like Martha Nussbaum’s – while these effects are not strictly speaking improvements in moral character, they might count as the kinds of cognitive effects that could be put to moral use. But this research raises many questions needing further investigation that philosophers could help to formulate. Does increased ability to understand the minds of others make people act more compassionately? How much do modes of presentation have to do with how people are affected, and how much is “mere content”? More generally, what qualities of artworks produce these effects? Do some art forms affect us more deeply than others, and why? How are different populations affected differently? If philosophers of art were start to get involved more deeply in empirical research, as they have recently with respect to other kinds of questions[xvi], who knows what we might learn? Greater attention to the consequences suggests new and potentially exciting lines of research for the ethical criticism of art.[xvii]

[i] Unless you had the bad luck to bet on A.W. Eaton, in which case you will lose your money. See, for example, her “Rough Heroes of the New Hollywood,” Review Internationale de Philosophie 64 (2010), pp. 511-524, where she makes some of the same points I make here. I’ll return to her view below. 

[ii]Some philosophers, most notably Martha Nussbaum, have been willing to argue that good art can have ethically praiseworthy effects on their audiences. Recently, Gregory Currie has expressed skepticism about this particular causal claim. See his “Does Fiction Civilize Us?” The New York Times (June 2, 2013), p. SR13.  But almost nobody has been willing to say that art can make us worse. A.W. Eaton is the main exception; Gregory Currie has hinted at this in print, as have I, but only briefly: see “The Moral Psychology of Fiction,” in Stephen Davies (ed.), Art and Its Messages: Meaning, Morality, and Society (Penn State Press, 1995), pp. 49-58; and my “Infected by Evil,” Philosophical Explorations 8 (2005), pp. 173-187. 

[iii]Carroll, “Moderate Moralism,” The British Journal of Aesthetics 36 (1996), pp. 223-38. 

[iv]Gaut, “The Ethical Criticism of Art,” in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 184. 

[v] I do not agree with this assessment. See my op. cit.

[vi] Perhaps relatedly, contemporary advocates of the view that art can cause evil behavior, and ought to be banned, tend to be politically conservative: one thinks of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre blaming video games for mass killings. Few philosophers wish to be associated with such figures. 

[vii]Gaut, op. cit., p. 184. 

[viii]Susan Hurley, “Imitation, Media Violence, and Freedom of Speech,” Philosophical Studies 17 (2004), p. 177. 

[ix]L. Rowell Huesmann, “Imitation and the Effects of Observing Media Violence on Behavior,” in Susan Hurley and Nick Chater (eds.), Perspectives on Imitation, Volume II: Imitation, Human Development, and Culture (Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 2005), pp. 257-66. 

[x]A.W. Eaton, “A Sensible Antiporn Feminism,” Ethics 117 (2007): 674-715, and “Rough Heroes,” op. cit

[xi]Though see Katherine Thomson-Jones, “Art, Ethics, and Critical Pluralism,” Metaphilosophy 43 (2012), pp. 275-293. 

[xii]Gaut, op. cit., p. 186. 

[xiii]In his Doctrine of Right, actions serve as an imperfect proxy for motives in the making of laws. 

[xiv]Principally worries about artists’ intentions, but also concerns about the artwork as a bearer of meaning independent of its creator. 

[xv]Science 342 (18 October 2013), pp. 377-380. 

[xvi]For example, Aaron Meskin, Mark Phelan, Margaret Moore, and Matthew Kieran, “Mere Exposure to Bad Art,” British Journal of Aesthetics 53 (2013), pp. 139-164. 

[xvii]I’m grateful to A.W. Eaton for comments on a draft of this blog post.


  1. Would an artwork thus count as morally good if it is so reprehensible, that it sparks reflection and reaction that leads to a general moral improvement of its audience? E.g., if a virulently homophobic movie led to so much discussion, people coming forward with their own stories, and so on, that an overall greater sympathy for BGLT people followed in its wake? (Assume for the case that this is not the intention of the artist — the movie is sincerely homophobic, and not intended as a kind of cinematic reductio.)

  2. James,

    Thank you for discussing this topic. Relative to other issues in aesthetics/philosophy of art, perhaps work on the “causal thesis,” as Gaut calls it, is underrepresented, but there have been some fairly prominent accounts offered in the last twenty years. Works by Noel Carroll, Gregory Currie (before he decided that such accounts were doomed to be empirically unsupported), John Gibson, Colin McGinn, Richard Eldridge, and, as you note, Martha Nussbaum, spring to mind. Based on personal conversations, I believe that several young aestheticians are working on this topic, as well, including myself. I defended my dissertation last year that was aimed precisely at showing how aesthetic experience has tremendous moral transformative power (not always positive), and I provided what I took to be substantial empirical support for the account. Maybe the topic is poised for an upswing in interest.

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