Genre and Folk Evaluations of Art

How do our moral evaluations of artworks relate to our aesthetic evaluations? Put it another way: do moral defects cause or constitute aesthetic defects, cause or constitute aesthetic virtues, or are they aesthetically irrelevant? This is the question that we (Shen-yi Liao and Jonathan Phillips) attempted to answer in recent studies. Our findings suggest that there is no univocal answer to the question. Instead, the influence that moral evaluations have on aesthetic evaluations of artworks partly depends on genre.

Let’s run through one study (N = 50; between-participants). In one condition, participants listened to a 30-second clip of a Taiwanese folk ballad song.

Then they were shown two sets of “translated lyrics”, and asked which set of lyrics would make the song more appealing.

“Show You the Facts” (Moral)
Men say stupid things like
“Women are not worth anything
I use them and then I toss them”
They don’t treat women like they should
Let me show you the facts, get it right:
Women are equals in every respect

“Game Over” (Immoral)
Another woman dropped down
I wanted it, I got it, and I’m gone
There’s another one around the corner
I’ll do the same thing with her
You know they want more from me
But the game’s over when I score

In the other condition, participants listened to a 30-second clip of a Taiwanese hip hop song.

Then they were shown the same two sets of “translated lyrics” as before, and asked which set of lyrics would make the song more appealing.

We found that participants in the folk ballad and hip hop conditions produced different patterns of response (chi-square = 4.393; p = 0.036). In the hip hop condition, a significantly greater percentage of participants judged that the immoral lyrics would make the song better.

Folk Ballad vs Hip Hop Comparison

We believe that our result adds new evidence to the ethical criticisms of art debate in philosophical aesthetics. This debate is concerned with the relationship between moral and aesthetic values of artworks. There are three prominent families of views in this debate. Autonomists think that moral defects are aesthetically irrelevant; moral value is not intrinsically related to aesthetic value. Moralists think that moral defects are aesthetic defects, at least in many cases. To be precise, they think that moral value monotonically relates to aesthetic value: as moral value decreases, aesthetic value decreases or stays the same. Immoralists agree with moralists—and disagree with autonomists—that moral value interacts with aesthetic value, but they think that some moral defects cause or constitute aesthetic virtues. To be precise, they think that moral value non-monotonically relates to aesthetic value.

Our result clearly shows that ordinary people do implicitly take moral evaluations to be relevant for aesthetic evaluations (contrary to what they may profess). The autonomists thus have the challenge of explaining away ordinary people’s moral and aesthetic evaluations; that is, they must explain why ordinary people take moral defects to be aesthetic defects. More broadly, they have the burden of explaining why ordinary people’s moral and aesthetic evaluations systematically fail to track the actual moral and aesthetic values. For the moralists, the challenge is to account for the different patterns of responses in the two conditions. They must explain why a significantly larger number of participants judged that the immoral lyrics to be aesthetically better in the hip hop condition, and why those participants are mistaken. Given these challenges for the autonomists and the moralists, we take our result to provide prima facie support for immoralism. As we see it, the folk are genre-sensitive immoralists when they evaluate artworks.

We would love to hear your thoughts on this study and suggestions for future studies!

[Cross-posted at The Experimental Philosophy Blog; please comment there]

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