25 May 2011
Unravelling Values: Has Conscience Anything to Do with Aesthetic Taste?
By: Piers Tattersall— 2010-2011
Piers Tattersall is a musician who has studied composition at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Royal College of Music. His works have been performed at Salisbury Cathedral, Cadogan Hall, and Peacock Theatre (Saddlers Wells). He has worked with groups like The Orpheus Sinfonia, London Children’s Ballet, The Composers Ensemble, and The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra as well as student orchestras. He is now working on a commission from the Britten Sinfonia for solo violin and chamber orchestra to be performed by the Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud. He is an Intern of the Thomas More Institute, devoting a portion of his time to research, in respect of which this paper amounts to ‘work in progress’. The following paper was given by Piers Tattersall at the Thomas More Institute on 25 May 2011
That there is a relationship between morality and aesthetics is an idea which, at various times, writers and artists have been keen for one reason or another to assert. On the face of it there would seem to be a pleasing relationship between the two if we could say that the person most capable of discerning good actions from bad were also best able to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly. Of course, moral and aesthetic judgements are both normative judgements. Each involves decisions about how the world ought to be while at the same time begging certain questions about why the world ought to be ‘like this’ rather than ‘like that’. We can observe that both moral and aesthetic concerns may have deep and positive effects both on moral actors (people) or the viewers of works of art, and there is a certain conceptual tidiness in saying that moral and aesthetic values are in fact different instances of the same kind of value: that beauty, in fact, is the embodiment of virtue.
However, it is often difficult to see how such speculation can go from being a pleasing idea to being demonstrable knowledge or even (dare we mention the word) a useful conclusion. One might say, cynically, that this could have something to do with the fact that both aesthetic and moral values are in some degree enigmatic. In spite of well over two thousand years of discussion artists and thinkers have yet to put together a comprehensive theory of what constitutes an aesthetic object, still less why a symphony by Mahler may elicit floods of tears from one listener and utter boredom from another. Likewise, while moral concerns remain high on the agenda of philosophy they are often quite far down the scale when it comes to reaching agreement as to what things are moral and why this is so.
If we can say that pieces of music, pleasing pictures and the like possess the same kind of value as virtuous acts, albeit in a distinct form, then at least the enigma is of a similar nature to that which we have over moral values and, is in that sense, easier to accept as subject to normative value-judgements. There may still be mystery in the world but we can at least say something about it that appears insightful, even if of limited significance.
Cynicism aside, the question of what to take out of a burning building, whether a lost work by Raphael or a child’s painting of Daddy might become more straightforward if we were able to attest that moral and aesthetic values are somehow commensurate with each other. The towering aesthetic value of a Renaissance masterpiece must surely outweigh the piffling juvenile daub, whatever the moral-emotional pull of the latter. In spite of an obvious moral interest in saving a child’s picture that no one in the world is going to recognise as an image of his father the answer must be that we should save the portrait of Cardinal Bibiena and let the other burn. More serious issues of censorship soon complicate the relationship between morality and aesthetics when we encounter not only a pleasing kind of evaluative symmetry but also ‘just’ reasons for banning works of art that an intellectual elite considers inferior or possibly corrupting. In many ways the strong reaction of censoring aesthetic objects (be they plays, paintings, pieces of music or whatever) articulates not only the wide disparity of responses among viewers of identical works of art but also the great strength of feeling that may accompany such responses. Attitudes towards censorship have varied quite widely, but in a society like ours where personal autonomy and expression are highly prized – and much more so than public institutions or intellectual elites – any suggestion that certain kinds of art exert a moral influence is almost invariably met with cries of derision. ‘Ours,’ writes Roger Scruton, ‘is a non-judgemental culture [where] hostility to judgement arises from the democratic belief in human equality’1. Yet such a non-judgemental position assumes no link whatsoever between the advocating of certain aesthetic traditions or conventions and acceptance of specific ways of life that inevitably have a moral dimension. For many people it is just as difficult to separate the aesthetic of rap music from the drugs, violence and misogyny that seem so often to accompany it as it is to separate Beethoven, well-groomed hair and tweed from imperialistic oppression. The notion that there is a relationship between moral behaviour and aesthetic objects is, in fact, one that has persisted for a very long time, and, for good or ill, aesthetic objects will always be understood as signifying something beyond what they actually are. Whether it is a National Anthem, a Marxist protest song or Michelangelo’s Pietà, aesthetic objects are necessarily appreciated within a social, political and, indeed, a moral context.
One might say that to advocate radical autonomies in aesthetics and in morals seems just as unhelpful as to assert a radical equivalence between the two. One fragments our systems of judgement by questioning the apparent intertwining of moral and aesthetic values, and the other holds them captive to each other even when it appears that they are pulling in opposite directions. The dilemma over which painting to remove from the burning building is not straightforward, and the assumption that aesthetic objects have no relationship to moral value at all certainly appears at times naïve. So, how best are we to make sense of the relationship between morality and aesthetics?
From antiquity onwards there have been apparently two distinct, but nonetheless related, concerns surrounding aesthetics and morality. The first, and perhaps the more controversial, is the idea that aesthetic objects have a causal link with certain kinds of moral or immoral behaviour. For Plato and Aristotle this is understood in terms of ‘mimesis’ or imitation, the notion that certain aesthetic works can imitate moral characters and communicate them to viewers or listeners. Of all the arts music was held most important or potent in this regard (though Aristotle does admit that visual works can display a similar capacity for influence). In Book IV of the Republic Plato asserts (after the philosopher Damon) that ‘the musical modes are never changed without change in the most important of the city’s laws’. He continues
(music) is harmless – except, of course, that when lawlessness has established itself there, it flows over little by little into characters and ways of life. Then, greatly increased, it steps out into private contracts, and from private contracts… it makes its insolent way into the laws and government, until in the end it overthrows everything, public and private 2.
Such apocalyptic pronouncements on the power of music are frequently met by modern readers with scepticism. Again, in the Laws the ‘Athenian’ Plato’s interlocutor relates a story of theatre-goers corrupted by ‘lawless’ music in which the texts of one literary style were mixed with melodies of another and where flutes attempted to imitate the melodies of harps 3. So, too, in the Politics Aristotle put forward the notion that certain melodies have characters that can be understood as possessing a kind of moral quality or potency 4. One melody may be suitable for the education of the young while another may have to be censored altogether. Just as gymnastics trains the development of the human body in particular ways so, thought Aristotle, does music have educative power in forming human character: heroic music to encourage heroism, tender music to encourage tenderness.
Moving forward to the second century A.D. we find a similar preoccupation with morality and music in evidence among the early Christian Church Fathers who feared that the faithful might be led astray by songs of the wrong sort. In the Apostolic Constitutions the faithful are instructed that, the Christian who is faithful ought to sing neither a heathen hymn nor an obscene song, since he will be obliged by the hymn to mention the demonic names of idols and, in place of the Holy Spirit, the evil one will enter into him 5.
Closer to our own time, during the German Enlightenment, similar ideas regarding aesthetic value and moral conduct were put forward by Friedrich Schiller. For Schiller aesthetic beauty was something of a middle way between the ‘the unseen world of morals’ 6 and the more tangible, if also more capricious, field of human sentiment. A right understanding, for Schiller, of beauty was a means for a person, and so too for a society, to live well in accordance with a rational morality in the face of an often irrational, but (as he saw it) perfectible, human nature.
The assertion that aesthetic appreciation and moral conduct are causally related does have some weight, although is understandably not unproblematic. Those who advocate such a strong relationship between aesthetic objects and moral behaviour are faced with the problem of evidence. This appears at best anecdotal. When scientific studies are actually carried out it becomes apparent that it is very difficult to assert that the cause of a person’s moral behaviour is his or her experience of a particular kind of aesthetic object. We are all-too-familiar with quacks and cranks declaring that to listen to music by Mozart or to look at paintings by Turner fosters intelligence and decent behaviour. It might indeed do so, but the hard evidence is inconclusive. The attempt by King Charles IX of France to reinvigorate society through music and poetry by means of an Académie de Poésie et de Musique, perhaps one of the grandest efforts to rely on a special relationship between aesthetics and moral conduct met with no more than mixed results. Nonetheless, the notion that aesthetic objects might influence moral behaviour has been hard to suppress. A study at the University of California at Irvine, published in Nature on 14 October 1993 found that listening to Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for 2 Pianos, K488, correlated with an eight-to-nine point improvement in listeners’ IQ for as long as it took to complete a short test. It is certainly true that pieces of music and visual works do have ‘characters’ and that these can, and I believe should, affect those experiencing them. We respond to works of art emotionally and consider this an important part of our engagement with them. Indeed, it is quite reasonable to suppose that after having heard a concert of fine music or attended a particularly good play one might feel morally better disposed to other people. If the process were repeated it might be accepted that the effect might have some persisting influence over an audience. But simply to observe that art makes people feel better, and that they might then be better able to act morally or intellectually does not do anything to advance the notion that aesthetic objects have a special relationship with moral actions. I might just as well behave morally if I had had some significant professional success and were in good physical health as if I just been to see a world-class performance of Hamlet.
However, if we can say that moral and aesthetic values are distinct instances of the same kind of value it is potentially more reasonable to point to a link between aesthetic objects and moral actions, and to do so in a way that distinguishes aesthetic value from physical health or professional success. Just as moral acts encourage others by their example to act morally so too we might suggest that beautiful objects could encourage people to behave more morally. We might also, at the same time, assert that a culture which behaves well morally would be better able to create objects of high aesthetic value.
This second concern over whether there is a special relationship between morality and aesthetics as instances of a kind of value is, as already indicated, by no means wholly distinct from the first regarding whether or not aesthetic objects can exert influence over moral behaviour. Put simply, this is the idea that aesthetic value is moral value but in a different form; and, vice versa that moral value is aesthetic value albeit in a different form. In Plato we find this second concern in the Philebus where beauty is given, alongside symmetry and truth as one of three components of goodness. 7 While there is little treatment of this idea in the Fathers of the Christian Church we do find in the medieval writings of St. Thomas Aquinas the assertion that ‘beauty and goodness are a thing identical fundamentally for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form’ 8. The idea that moral and aesthetic value are differing instances of one and the same thing has had quite wide currency up to our own times (including, as already mentioned in Friedrich Schiller), and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein also declared that ‘Ethics and Aesthetics are one and the same’ 9. Indeed, if it were possible to demonstrate that moral value and aesthetic value are ‘one and the same’ we might be somewhat closer to providing a rational understanding of some causal relationship between moral actions and artistic works. We can, of course, observe that beautiful objects have upon us various profound and pleasing effects. Moral goods are also capable of causing a deep sense or experience of goodness or badness: that there is something that ought to be changed, ought to have been done differently or ought to be kept the same, and so on. In both cases the experiences and their causes can be subject to rational discussion. In many ways we are back where we were in saying that moral judgements are like aesthetic judgements in that they are normative. The question simply arises whether the experience of ‘goodness’ arising from moral actions and a similarly profound experience of ‘goodness’ caused by aesthetic objects are actually experiences of the same value under different forms. If they are essentially the same it is not inconceivable that our ability to understand or experience this value that morality and aesthetics have in common might be able to shed some light on the value itself. Do we use the same kinds of criteria, though necessarily within different domains of judgement, for judging moral actions as we do for judging aesthetic objects? Are moral values analogous to aesthetic ones, and if so, how far? In judging aesthetic objects are we performing the same kind of act as if we were judging a moral action? We might also ask whether or not our criteria for aesthetic worth are different instances of the kinds of criteria that we use for judging moral actions. By addressing these questions it should be possible to identify areas where our faculties of conscience and aesthetic taste converge and why it may be reasonable or otherwise to say that they are related fundamentally.
If we begin from this experience of value (both moral and aesthetic) in the judgements we make through our faculties of conscience and aesthetic taste some important differences arise. The first, and in many respects the most obvious difference between moral and aesthetic judgements is that moral judgements are made over practical actions while aesthetic judgements are made over objects that are the subject of aesthetic contemplation. Judgements regarding morality are, under normal conditions, ‘practical’ judgements while those of aesthetic objects are ‘contemplative’ judgements. While I may judge the moral value of the act of giving food to a hungry stranger I do not consider the value of the action as primarily one subject to contemplation. The value of giving food is in the act and not in something we take to be the subject of a particular kind of enjoyment or thoughtful consideration, as is the case with an aesthetic object. In fact, contemplating a moral action for the sake of enjoyment might even constitute an act of pride or indulgent self-satisfaction and detract from the moral goodness of giving the food in the first place. By contrast, an aesthetic object is (normally taken as) the subject of a kind of pleasurable contemplation. Indeed, moral acts and their moral value seem, on the surface of it, to have very little to do with aesthetic value. In fact, the creation of an aesthetic object may not actually be all that aesthetically pleasing or pleasurable and, indeed not something that we should wish to contemplate or judge aesthetically. The painting of a beautiful ceiling may not be aesthetically all that valuable a process. Scaffolding must be erected; the smell of turpentine may well pervade the place of painting; there may be copious amounts of masking tape on the walls; in the case of canvases glues must be made from all manner of unpleasant substances. Once completed however, the work may really be aesthetically very beautiful. Beethoven’s manuscripts are known for their scruffy appearance in spite of the fact that they give rise to beautiful music in listening to which we can legitimately experience great joy.
A second observable difference lies in the information needed to make moral and aesthetic judgements. Good moral judgements can effectively be made in the abstract. We do not need direct contact with a moral action in order to judge of its moral value. By analogy, in judging an action lawful or otherwise, a judge or magistrate does not need to have had first-hand contact with the events in a particular case. All that need happen is that the course of events and all relevant details be recounted to him, and to the jury, in order that they can make a good decision. The same applies to moral judgements. As long as we know all of the relevant facts of an action we should be able to judge its moral value effectively. The same cannot be said of aesthetic judgements. I can go through all the details of an opera by Wagner: the plot; the way the orchestra works; the language used; the colour of the costumes, and even the quality of the singers’ voices. But even with all possible information about the physical characteristics of the work available I will still not be able to form a reliable judgement about its aesthetic value. We might hazard a guess, and a person particularly experienced in opera might be able to make certain judgements about aesthetic problems that are likely to occur, but such judgements cannot be considered complete or authoritative until there has been first-hand contact with the completed work. Such is the importance of first-hand contact with a work of art for assessing its artistic worth that the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard has declared that it is not the sound of music that we attend to but rather the experience to which it gives rise, 10 an experience that requires us to have first-hand contact with a musical work and not one that can be elicited simply from giving a description of the course of events and all the relevant details in Tristan und Isolde. This tangible experience of value, widely held to be a vital part of aesthetic judgement, is not regarded as so important in making moral judgements. In many ways our view of morality is quite the reverse, and the analogy of the courtroom finds yet another use in articulating the importance of making dispassionate moral judgements. It would seem that a necessary part of our aesthetic judgements is precisely that they are affected by, and related to, feeling, if not entirely then at least in part. Meanwhile, our moral judgements are in many respects better when they are made at both a physical and an emotional distance.
To some extent this second difference can be attributed to the manner in which we hold moral and aesthetic values. Moral values, be they of rights or people, can be held in the abstract. I do not need to have had an experience of being liberated from slavery in order to judge liberating slaves to be morally good. An important part of the reason for this is that my judgements on such an act can themselves be based on moral criteria regarding the value and dignity of human beings held independently of a given action. Because I believe certain things about the value and dignity of human beings I also believe that it is morally better for humans not to be considered as objects or property but as free individuals. Thus I can say that liberating slaves is morally good even if I have never actually had any kind of first-hand experience of such an event. The same cannot be said of aesthetic judgements since aesthetic values are not of a kind that can be held in the abstract in the same manner as moral ones. Put simply, there are no aesthetic values that I can hold in any kind of analogous way to, say, the moral value of a human life. I value my own life and have first-hand experience of being alive, but I do not have any direct experience whatsoever of the lives lived by other people. I accept that the lives of other people and my own are of the same value but I do so without first-hand experience of their lives. But the same cannot be said of aesthetic value. Just because I value the size of a Cathedral does not mean that I will automatically judge all exceedingly large works of art to be aesthetically valuable. I may be just as likely to say that the small size of a flower is part of its aesthetic value. So too, a particular kind of subject-matter in one play may be very good while in another it may be rather dull. Granted, not all moral actions have an absolute value but there are at least some aspects of moral value that we are happy to ascribe universally. The widow in the New Testament who gave all she had to the temple performed an act of great moral worth because of her impoverished situation, not because of the amount she actually gave. Nonetheless, when making moral judgements we can legitimately appeal to certain universally true values especially on matters relating to human life, equality before the law, rights to property and so on. Yet on matters of aesthetic taste even the importance of proportion, long prized as the most important rule in making works of art, is a problematic one to sustain. Consider highly respected works of English literature such as Virginia Woolf’s short stories. They display a myopic and disproportionately introspective quality, yet many praise them for their single-mindedness and clarity. So, too, the paintings of Mark Rothko show an obsession with certain shades of colour, particular sizes of canvas and, some would say, precious little else. It is not a balanced view of colour that Rothko was interested in depicting, but simply the relationships between very specific hues. Steve Reich’s minimalist compositions demonstrate a skewed, if utterly single-minded, approach to music focusing on the smallest change it is possible to make in a musical idea. Many may have no time for any of the work of these three artists, and might well criticise them for ‘disproportionate’ approaches. But in their respective fields none of them can be discounted in their own traditions simply because of apparent disregard for proportion or balance in some aspect of their work. If anything, they are highly regarded precisely because of their disproportionate approaches to particular aspects of artistic construction. In all three cases the artists have created work with great clarity, have been very well received in their respective artistic communities and have shad a lasting influence on subsequent artistic movements. In aesthetics there are no absolute sins or virtues.
On a closer examination, however, it becomes clear that these differences between moral and aesthetic judgements are themselves far from absolute. In fact we can point to practical actions that have aesthetic value, and also to circumstances wherein moral actions are rightly subject to a kind of pleasurable contemplation. Aesthetic judgements can be, and often are, made in the abstract in a manner very similar to moral judgements. Just as giving food to a hungry stranger is an act that can be legitimately judged according to an abstract moral standard, the act of painting a scene red or green can be judged by an abstract aesthetic standard of value. In the case of painting a scene red or green it is necessarily judged by the value of the finished work. At this point it might seem more useful to characterise the value of actions in terms of moral and aesthetic interests rather of than the value we recognise in them. Giving food to a hungry person is to act in accordance with a moral interest, namely that of the person. To paint a scene red or green is to act with an aesthetic interest, that is, for the good of the aesthetic value of the work. In some respects this may appear to be a rather cumbersome way of describing the value of different kinds of action, but it does nonetheless demonstrate that judging an act according to an aesthetic standard of value is at least possible, if not perhaps something we are likely to do on a regular basis.
We must also note that it is impossible for the painter, while painting, to know through first-hand experience what the aesthetic value of the painting is, since, as yet, it does not exist. Parts of it may, in fact probably do, already exist. An artist may be inspired by particular materials to create a specific work, but any expectation of aesthetic value, necessary for the artist to believe in the value of his or her work, and thus make the effort to create it, relies at least to some extent on an abstract conception of the work in the mind. Each individual act involved in making the work is ultimately ordered towards completion of the whole, and is judged to be good or bad insofar as it supports or undermines the artist’s vision of the complete work. The judgement of actions and the holding of a standard of value in the abstract are not limited to morality. Though in certain respects unusual, it is possible for actions to be judged according to an abstract standard of aesthetic value. If the artist judges that painting a scene red is a bad action, according to his abstract conception of the work, he will paint it a different colour. If he judges it aesthetically good he will leave it unchanged and can judge his act of painting the scene red to be good in accordance with an aesthetic interest. In this sense it is possible to characterise certain aesthetic judgements as ‘practical’ judgements in much the same way as moral judgements.
Interestingly, the seemingly unusual nature of these kinds of judgement may also explain why the example of the paintings in the burning building causes us some confusion. The very idea of acting according to an abstract or non-experiential aesthetic standard of value is a strange one and may in part contribute towards some people saying that saving the masterpiece by Raphael instead of the child’s painting has a kind of moral worth simply because of the beauty of the picture.
We can see, therefore, that not only is it possible to conceive of standards of aesthetic value in the abstract and to judge certain actions accordingly, but that it is also possible to make moral acts the legitimate subject of contemplation. This is most clearly in evidence with artistic works which have explicit moral content. While it may be distasteful and even morally questionable to muse smugly on one’s altruism in helping someone in need, moral actions can, and frequently do, become the subject of artistic creativity. Particularly when dealing with historical events it is often difficult, and indeed even undesirable, for artists to avoid actions and events that are explicitly moral. By treating of moral actions in the context of an aesthetic object the moral actions in question necessarily become the subject to a kind of contemplation akin to aesthetic contemplation.
Although we are not perhaps treating of the normal environment for moral judgements it does then become possible to judge certain aesthetic works according to their moral value, by virtue of their content. Films and literary compositions are the kinds of aesthetic work best suited to evaluation of moral and aesthetic value since they may explicitly recount actions of a moral character while at the same time being themselves objects of aesthetic contemplation. It is regard to them that censorship is more likely to be encountered. One thinks of the boards of film certification found in Britain and in America which clearly recognise that some images or scenes are not suitable for certain, or for any, audiences, although our moral verdicts on films and literature are often more nuanced than the, at times arbitrary, age-certificates attached might suggest. Of potentially greater concern than the portrayal of sex, drugs and violence are the implicit or explicit messages conveyed by certain works. In films such as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will the question arises of whether its clear support for the Nazi regime is so morally problematic as to require some censorship of what is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of 1930s German cinema. This film has caused much hand-wringing over whether or not it can legitimately be enjoyed aesthetically. While we may definitely not wish to offer approval of so terrible a regime as that of Nazi Germany, it is very difficult to ignore completely a film of such powerful aesthetic beauty. Part of our difficulty is not simply with its moral content, but rather with the apparent disparity between this and its aesthetic value. If it were manifestly second-rate we should very likely not take issue with it. It would simply be an example of aesthetically second-rate fascist propaganda. But it is so well made that we start to experience a degree of discomfort. Rather than being a film of questionable taste wherein not enough attention has been paid to lighting or editing we are faced with a work of considerable aesthetic importance in spite of its moral shortcomings.
A similar kind of unease may arise in regard of works suffering from the opposite problem. Michael Apted’s film Amazing Grace of 2006 about William Wilberforce and the outlawing of the slave trade by the British government is in some respects a fine work of art. Its subject-matter is morally irreproachable. Its script and photography, however, as well as the performances of its actors are, at best, mediocre. We cannot hail it as an artistic triumph, even if the subject-matter is so uplifting. Morally Amazing Grace is superb. Aesthetically it is rather dull.
Some of those in the audience may quite enjoy the tensions inherent in such films as these. It is difficult, however, to say that either film is an unqualified masterpiece. The disparity between moral and aesthetic value is simply too great. Intuitively we want, I would suggest, to see some kind of parity between these two kinds of value.
It would be tempting to argue that here we have strong evidence to support the claim that moral and aesthetic values are not ‘one and the same’. But this disparity does not in itself mean that moral and aesthetic values are truly distinct. In both cases we can judge these films to be less good than they might be, either because of their moral content or because of their aesthetic content. But tension between instances of value does not mean that we are observing different kinds of value. There are plenty of morally problematic scenarios involving both a good and a bad action. Funding a hospital from the proceeds of crime is an action with competing moral values but this does not change the nature of the values in question. We might just as well say that these films are problematic because there is an apparent competition between a good value and a bad value, than that there are different kinds of value per se.
What does demonstrate their separateness is the basis upon which these respective kinds of judgement are made. In both Triumph of the Will and Amazing Grace it is possible to judge moral worth at a distance. The act of supporting a regime such as that of Nazi Germany is something that we can reliably call morally reprehensible. Ending the slave trade in the British Empire was morally good. Seeing the films is not going to change our verdicts on these two sets of behaviour. We can make moral judgements authoritatively without direct contact with the works in question. However, it is very difficult, if not impossible, for us to make a reliable aesthetic judgement on either film in the same manner. Our aesthetic judgement relies to a large extent on the feeling or experience that the work gives rise to, and to experience this we must see the work directly. Of course, we might be in the situation of making both moral and aesthetic judgements of these particular films simultaneously if we were to be able to watch them without prior knowledge of what they contain. But this does not change the nature of the judgements we make. Our moral judgement remains one made according to certain criteria that we hold in the abstract about human slavery and about Nazism. By contrast, our aesthetic judgement is made through the direct contact we have with the films and the experience they elicit from us. Whatever our preconceptions about aesthetic values – be these about content, materials, proportion, or whatever – theses may be revised subject to experience.
To return to the question about whether or not we carry out the same kinds of acts in making moral and aesthetic judgements it would appear that such is not the case. There may be similarities, and it is clearly possible for both moral and aesthetic judgements to display the characteristics of each other. Indeed, neither moral nor aesthetic judgements are confined simply to judging acts or judging objects, and the standards of value in operation when making moral or aesthetic judgements can both be held under certain conditions in the abstract. However, it is also apparent that the way in which we hold certain moral values is inimical to the way we do so for aesthetic values. When judging matters relating to the value of human beings, it is clear that the sources for our judgements are quite different from those for aesthetic values. Indeed, if it were possible to say that aesthetic values could be grounded in the value of a human person then this last difference as regards our judgements of works of art and of moral acts would disappear. If we were to adopt a system of morality based purely on first-hand experience of moral acts we should be in the position of making our moral judgements in the same way as our aesthetic judgements. Indeed, with regard to conscience, it would appear that, insofar as its moral judgements are not based on universally applicable standards of value, its judgements increasingly resemble those of aesthetic taste. For those moral judgements that do not rely on universal values it appears that they share certain important characteristics with the judgements which we make of aesthetic objects, and for this reason they may be considered part of ‘soft’ conscience as opposed to the more absolute aspects of conscience applied in regard of the value of human life, for example.
As already observed, it is difficult to say that Triumph of the Will and Amazing Grace are unqualified masterpieces. If the story of William Wilberforce and the ending of the British slave trade had been recounted with the brilliance Leni Riefenstahl displayed in her Triumph of the Will we should very likely have a work such as we might, without any sense of unease, style a masterpiece.
Shakespeare’s Henry V is a possible candidate for such a work demonstrating some degree of parity between moral and aesthetic value. The virtues extolled by the king in his ‘band of brothers’ speech – brotherhood, heroism and self-sacrifice – are all virtues that we can hold dear. They are also expressed in words of immense beauty (assuming one is lucky enough to hear them declaimed by a good actor).
Such parity between moral and aesthetic value may produce powerful results. Good moral values and a good aesthetic understanding can be allied and the result capable of exerting a very strong influence on an audience. One thinks of the Colonel Bogey tune whistled by British prisoners in the film Bridge on the River Kwai. It was not only an attractive melody but also a symbol of resistance to, and even defiance of, their Japanese captors.
Both examples are clearly quite patriotic but no doubt those here present from other countries can think of comparable examples of aesthetic objects with both a moral and an aesthetic appeal, and some parity between the two as part of the object’s significance. Yet, while clearly desirable, the description in either moral or aesthetic terms of such a parity is also quite problematic. We might say that the worth in question is good, and that the good is made up of both moral and aesthetic elements, but it is also a good that cannot be described adequately either according to a moral standard of value alone or according to an aesthetic standard of value alone for the simple reason that it requires some grasp of both morality and aesthetics. The good of this parity between moral and aesthetic values is one that is beyond both and reducible to neither. Nonetheless it is clearly tangible. Our appreciation of Amazing Grace relies heavily on our understanding that trading humans as slaves is wrong. There is clearly a kind of appreciation of this moral fact akin to aesthetic contemplation. But it is a contemplation of a different kind since it necessarily involves a standard of value held quite separately from any direct experience. Our experience of Triumph of the Will is similar to that of Amazing Grace in the sense that it is contemplative, but again, it is different because it is based on a standard of value that relies heavily on direct experience with a work. In Henry V we may observe the two kinds of value converge in a manner that makes both more tangible. The aesthetic import of the words is made more urgent by the moral message that they convey, while the ‘unseen’ moral message is made more tangible and identifiable because of the beauty of the language. In this co-operation we have not simply a coincidence of two otherwise unrelated kinds of value, but a co-operation and mutual support of each by the other in such a way that the value of the object in question cannot be adequately expressed either morally or aesthetically.
Where moral and aesthetic concerns appear able to co-operate neither alone will give a complete account of what is good in either an object or an action. Nonetheless, certain distinctions can and arguably ought to be maintained regarding the nature of moral and aesthetic judgements themselves. These differences are such that aesthetic value cannot be considered a substitute for moral value or vice versa. Indeed, where the values of aesthetics, established by direct experience, appear to undermine those moral values that we hold and apply ‘universally’, we must, in good conscience, subordinate our ‘experiential’ values to more wide-reaching moral concerns. A moral education involves understanding a different kind of value from that offered by an aesthetic education, and no amount of aesthetic beauty can redeem a work of art that is morally reprehensible. But, at the same time, problematic moral content cannot wholly detract from aesthetic beauty. The act of judging physical beauty is different from that of judging moral rectitude but, I would suggest, an understanding of both leads to a greater understanding of what constitutes the Good. While differences remain between morality and aesthetics, both can be said to indicate the Good which, as St. Augustine argues ‘we could never judge… if a basic understanding of the good had not already been instilled in us11.
- R. Scruton, ‘Soul Music’, published in The American (Feb. 2010). Available at: http://www.american.com/archive/2010/february/soul-music accessed on 20 April 2011 ↩
- The Republic, 4. 424 ↩
- The Laws, 3. 700 to 701d ↩
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- De Trinitate VIII, 3(4), PL 42, 949 ↩