Edward Armitage’s ‘Retribution': a Dilemma for Ethicism

June 3, 2015

Following a recent brief conversation with Sam Liao at the Race & Aesthetics conference, I realized we took very different views of the relationship between certain kinds of moral properties and their aesthetic upshot. We were discussing a couple of paintings in the Leeds Art Museum where the conference was taking place, one of which was Edward Armitage’s Retribution. As it happens, Sam has discussed the painting elsewhere in a recent blog post:

Learning about the museum’s collection from a postcolonial perspective actually heightened my aesthetic experience of them, albeit in unexpected ways. For example, a painting that I’ve long casually dismissed as an amateurish allegory actually became more interesting to me when I learned it was part of the British propaganda to justify their horrific actions in India. The painting featured a white angelic figure slaying the Bengal tiger. It is not the subtlest of all symbols, which makes it rather amateurish as an allegory, but perfectly appropriate as propaganda. What was previously an aesthetic flaw somehow ceased to be one, even though the painting is certainly more morally flawed for it.

Edward Armitage - 'Retribution' (1858)

Edward Armitage – Retribution (1858) {image in the public domain}

The “white angelic figure” (“demonic” seems more apt) is Britannia. Retribution was painted to celebrate the (brutal) crushing by the British of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8, in which Indian sepoys working for the East India Company engaged in a mutiny, leading to a number of others and, eventually, the dissolution of the East India Company. Crucially, for the remainder of the discussion, the fact that Retribution celebrates this Imperial bloodbath renders the painting morally flawed (in case that was not obvious).

In conversation, Sam suggested that this kind of example provides a simple way to argue for aesthetic immoralism. Aesthetic immoralism, as it is sometimes used and as I shall use it here, is a broad family of views according to which (among other commitments) ethical flaws in artworks sometimes count as aesthetic merits in a work, and ethical merits sometimes as aesthetic flaws. Aesthetic immoralism stands in opposition to a family of views sometimes called aesthetic moralism. Among the moralist views, the best defended is Berys Gaut’s ethicism. According to ethicism, roughly, ethical flaws always count as pro tanto aesthetic flaws, and ethical merits always as pro tanto aesthetic merits. So, for example, according to the immoralist, cruelty—qua cruelty—in an artwork can, but need not, be an aesthetic merit in a work. According to the ethicist, however, cruelty—qua cruelty—in a work always counts as an aesthetic flaw, in addition to being a moral one.

The argument for aesthetic immoralism that Sam had in mind, I guess, goes like this: some ethically bad works (such as Retribution) are interesting as art in virtue of being ethically flawed. And since being interesting as art is a pro tanto merit in a work, and the fact that these works are more interesting as art is grounded in their being ethically flawed, some ethical flaws count as aesthetic merits in artworks.

I agree with Sam that Retribution, along with many other works, is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed. However, I think this fact supports a different conclusion to the one he draws; namely, being interesting as art need not count as an aesthetic merit in a work. And, I think, this kind of example shows more generally that aesthetic properties thought to be always positively (or negatively) valenced, such as being interesting, thought-provoking on the positive side, and being dull or hackneyed on the negative—i.e. properties that are thought to always count as pro tanto merits, or as pro tanto flaws—can in fact switch their valences. Why? To put the argument as succinctly as possible (since this is a blog post, not a monograph): if being interesting as art does not contribute the same aesthetic valence across artworks, surely nothing does. So while I concede that Retribution is more interesting as art for being ethically flawed, I deny that this counts as an aesthetic merit in the work. I deny this for the same reason that I deny that being interesting as art counts as an aesthetic merit when it arises from the aesthetic flaws in a work or performance. Take the terrible auditions for various TV talent competitions, for instance. These are often so aesthetically terrible that they thereby become interesting as art—as artistic spectacle—a fact the producers of these shows ruthlessly exploit. But it seems bizarre (if not incoherent) to think of such a performance as aesthetically better for being interesting in this way. For, if we thought it was, then following the same reasoning I attributed to Sam, we would have to say that its being interesting as art is grounded in its being aesthetically flawed, and thus that some aesthetic flaws are aesthetic merits. I take it that stated literally this is an untenable position.

But my ultimate interest is not in Sam’s position (or, rather, the one I have attributed to him). Instead, it is with the ethicist’s. So, even if you side with Sam, never fear—the preceding discussion still throws up an interesting consequence. Namely, if our positions (mine and Sam’s) concerning Retribution and works like it are exhaustive (whether of logical space or just its plausible positions), then this by itself provides an argument against ethicism (and thereby one for aesthetic immoralism). Let me explain.

If one of us must be right, then there are two possibilities. The first possibility is that Sam is right. If so, then the argument against ethicism is straightforward; it is simply “his” argument for aesthetic immoralism as spelled out above.

The second possibility is that I am right. If so, then we can mobilize a burden-of-proof argument against the ethicist. For, in order to make her argument, the ethicist relies on the fact that ethical properties in artworks will never flip their aesthetic valences. So, to use the earlier example, being cruel will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic blemish in a work, (and similarly, being beneficent will always count as a pro tanto aesthetic merit). But if a notion as seemingly robustly univalent as interesting—or even interesting as art—can flip its valence as my argument claims, then the ethicist must answer a question: namely, what is so special about ethical properties in artworks that they never flip their valences? The challenge here is simple: if all properties of artworks can flip their aesthetic valences, why not the moral ones?

So, in summary: perhaps Sam is right, in which case we have a straightforward argument for aesthetic immoralism, and thus against ethicism. Alternatively, I am right, in which case we have (at least the beginnings of) a burden-of-proof argument against ethicism. Either way, we have a prima facie case to reject ethicism.

Moral Blindness, Cruelty, and Three Faces of Responsibility

February 16, 2015

I just read an interesting and thought-provoking argument from Dana Kay Nelkin [1] to the effect that psychopaths – understood here as agents which are morally blind in a particular way – could not be cruel, no matter what they do to people. I’m worried that this argument is too cautious in its application of that term, but in order to express my worry I’ll need to first talk about responsibility generally.

I’ve always thought that there are three kinds of responsibility discussed in Gary Watson’s seminal “Two Faces of Responsibility” [2]: the attributive kind, the aretaic kind, and accountability. Watson yokes the first two together, and I wish he had fleshed out the relation between them.

Attributability is a matter not of attributing properties like blame- and praiseworthiness to agents, which is the usage some of the literature following Watson seems to have settled on – after all, Watson intends to argue two kinds of blame need to be distinguished – but of attributing actions to agents. My going to the grocery store reflects my aims in a way that my accidentally dropping a vase does not. Accounts of attributive responsibility differ along what is required for an action to be attributable to me: must it reflect my deep self, my practical identity, or merely be something I do for a reason? So understood attributive responsibility is not a moral notion, except in the broadest of senses, for to assign this kind of responsibility is not yet to level censure or give praise. It’s also important to note that the appropriateness of ascriptions of this kind of responsibility do not obviously require anything more than bare agency: an ability to set (some) aims and act for (some) things seen as reasons.

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When Duties Harm

April 9, 2014

Can duties harm us? Can being obligated to do something of itself make a person worse off, at least sometimes?

Duties and obligations – or the conditions which trigger preexisting duties and obligations – are often greeted with resignation by those who have them just as if they were bad news, at any rate. Even if Yann quite likes his job teaching philosophy and understands that he may be assigned administrative duties as a condition of employment, he might also be quite disappointed when he remembers all the graduate student applications he must read tomorrow, just when he was hoping to spend a day on research. He just found out that things are a little bit worse for him than he thought. Shante might hate the very idea of a monster truck rally but go to one for the sake of a friend who wants her to have a “cultural experience.” What motivates her is a sense of duty to the friend, not any desire to see cars smashed; she would have preferred never to have been invited, because then she wouldn’t have to go.

Of course a good friendship is usually not a burden, and having obligations and filling them can indeed be part of what is good about a friendship. Such duties do not even seem pro tanto bad for those who have them. Joseph Raz puts it best:

Some activities and relationships which cannot be specified except by reference to duties are intrinsically good. Friendship is such a case in which the two properties coincide. Friendships ought to be cultivated for their own sake. They are intrinsically valuable. At the same time the relations between friends, the relationship which constitutes friendship, cannot be specified except by reference to the duties of friendship. When this is the case the justifying good is internally related to the duty. The duty is (an element of) the good itself.  [1]

Let’s suppose it’s the duties themselves which can be said to affect our well-being in the cases above. If that’s so, then what makes their effect positive or negative? When do duties enhance our well-being, and when do they detract from it? Here’s one answer:

Obvious Account (OA): New duties benefit us to the extent that they increase our expected future well-being and harm us to the extent that they decrease it.

In this post, I want to suggest that OA cannot account for a way in which a duty can itself be a harm.

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Defectiveness of Concepts

January 28, 2014

There’s a kind of pragmatism, call it Carnapian pragmatism, that concerns the adoption of languages. More specifically, Carnapian pragmatism, as I am using the term, combines two theses: (1) there are no a priori rationally indispensable languages, and (2) the adoption of a language ought to depend on the weight of the various benefits that speaking that language confers on one and one’s community. (1), rules out, for example, the a priori indispensability of a language involving material substances that persist through time and underly change. That is, of course, compatible with that language’s being as a matter of fact the obviously best language in which to (e.g.) conduct inquiry. (2) gives us a criterion scheme for choosing among eligible languages.

Now consider the following claim, a rough first approximation: there are some truths that one ought never to come to believe, because they involve defective concepts. Everyone, I think, will grant that there are some truths we ought not to come to believe for some significant sense of ‘ought’, perhaps because they would be too damaging or morally corrosive. But suppose the ‘ought’ is the ‘ought’ of inquiry: given the goal is furthering inquiry, one ought to φ (in general I don’t think this will be what is called the epistemic ‘ought’). The claim, then, is this:

(*) There are some unambiguous truths (where an unambiguous truth is simply true, and thus not also false) and subjects S such that (A) S is warranted in believing p, and (B) has considered whether p, but (C) ought not to believe p because p contains (or is expressed with) a defective concept.

Another way of putting things: are there concepts defective from the point of view of inquiry not just because they have no instances (or, more generally, cannot be used to express positive truths)?

I consider (*) to be stronger than Carnapian pragmatism. According to Carnapian pragmatism, there are languages we ought not to speak in view of what best furthers inquiry. Important progress in science can be made by hitting on these languages. But this thesis is just a thesis about language, and not about rational belief. Carnapian pragmatism does not forbid you from believing content composed of or expressed by bad concepts. As a view, it has a large amount of prima facie plausibility, whereas the claim of the previous paragraph looks pretty controversial from the first.

There are some concepts it would be better if we did not have, if only because they add clutter without doing much corresponding work for us. Hirsch’s incar and outcar might be good examples. Other concepts are more pernicious, because they encourage thoughts it would be prudentially better for us not to have. Slurs might be one example here. But if our only goal is inquiry, are there really concepts with which we can express truths, but where those truths simply ought not to be believed? It is just not plausible that, where we find ourselves thinking about incars, and we realize some true thing about them, that we ought not to believe that true thing. It’s just that it’s unfortunate that we ever set out thinking in terms of incars, since that’ll mostly be a waste of our intellectual resources.

A variation on Prior’s tonk might be the kind of thing we’re after. It’s characterized (incompletely, for present purposes) by its introduction rule (from A, infer A tonk B) and its elimination rule (from A tonk B, infer A). But these rules don’t give us any truth conditions for tonk, so let’s stipulate some: A tonk B is true iff A is true or B is true. Suppose we have a sentence like ‘Grass is green tonk Gibbard invented penicillin’ (call it G). is true, since the corresponding disjunction is true. But we ought not to believe G, since then we would be “licensed” to infer that Gibbard invented penicillin, a manifest absurdity. So perhaps this is a counterexample. I don’t think it is, though. Though it is true that G analytically entails that Gibbard invented penicillin, we are often not permitted to believe even what’s logically entailed by what we believe, as in preface cases, or where we have contradictory beliefs (not just anything goes in that kind of case). Similarly, though the concept is characterized by certain sorts of inference rules, it is impermissible to infer according to those rules, because we know that a huge variety of tonk-inferences do not preserve truth, and do not even pretend to.

To forestall an objection: we still have the concept tonk even if in most cases we don’t infer according to its characteristic rules, if only because we can argue about it and have good reason to say things like ‘tonk is a dumb concept’ with complete justification (compare Williamson on McGee and modus ponens). That is, I think I have at least one tonkish belief (G), though I haven’t yet inferred that Gibbard invented penicillin. So, we might be permitted (required, if the truth and our warrant are obvious enough) to believe truths expressed with this version of tonk, though we would also have to be sure not to make risky inferences.

Here’s a worry about that response to the tonk variation. Tonk will still differ from incar, because in worlds where incars are extremely important, truths about them become very important. That is, there are some possible beings for whom it would be useful to think with incar. But with tonk, no matter which possible world and which possible beings, or beats it in view of inquiry. Or and tonk make the same contribution to truth conditions, but with or, you need not worry about making the inferences that come with possession of the concept; with tonk you need to be on your guard. So or will always be at least as good as tonk. While I agree, I don’t see how this gets us (*). It would be better to reason with or than with tonk, no doubt about that. But ought we really to disregard the tonkish truth, just because or does better? That just doesn’t follow. The worry, then, is just an instance of Carnapian pragmatism, and does not establish (*).

(*) is an exciting claim, while Carnapian pragmatism seems old hat to me. It would be a way of combining conservatism with revisionism: “granted, the people here are saying true things, but what they’re doing is nevertheless defective”. So, it would be very interesting to find the truths it claims are out there, though I haven’t yet found any. For my own part, I’m inclined to think something like this: from the point of view of inquiry, anyone is permitted to believe any unambiguous truth for which they have undefeated warrant. If, for example, theological discourse is defective from the point of view of inquiry, it is defective because its positive claims are all of them false, since they would involve a concept with no instances. I don’t know if I have more of an argument for that claim than the ridiculousness of conceding to someone that some claim is true, and they have great reason to believe that claim, but even so they oughtn’t to believe it. We all just need to be careful about what we do with even the truths we believe. That might sometimes be difficult, practically speaking, but it seems always at least possible.

(Thanks to Umer, Boris, Zoe, Paul and Nick for the interesting discussion much of which I’ve translated here.)

Hunger-Striking and Ideal Judges

August 31, 2013

As some of you know, I have been on hunger-strike this week as a small token of solidarity with the detainees held without trial at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp. During this week I have taken on only water, non-calorific flavoured water, and small amounts of salt. It’s been quite the experience.

There’s plenty to hate about being on hunger-strike. The weakness, the waves of nausea, the occasional vomiting, the broken sleep, the frustrating sense that one’s life is on hold, the coming and going of mental clarity, and, of course, the intense unabating hunger.

But there have also been some more pleasant surprises. The lack of energy brings with it a certain heightened consciousness of one’s embodied self. The body ceases to be a cage in which a bare Cartesian ego is imprisoned, instead revealing itself as a quite miraculous thing in which the mental and the physical are intimately befriended, even if, as with many friendships, there are occasional violent disagreements. Another surprise has been the way fasting has altered my sense of taste and smell. Following one bout of vomiting, water, plain Jane tap water, tasted sweet, literally sweet. As in, “who dumped sugar in my water?” sweet. This is an extraordinary experience. It led me to wonder whether it might explain why Germans call freshwater (as opposed to saltwater) Süßwasser—literally, sweet-water. Just a thought.

The experience with water was a one-off. But the most pleasant surprise is something that has persisted since around day 3; that is my heightened sense of smell. Not only has it been sharpened, but the smell of food in particular has become intensely pleasurable. I put it to you that you haven’t smelled food—really smelled food—until you haven’t eaten for a few days. A lot of people curious about the phenomenology of fasting have apologized for eating near me, or remarked that I “must dread passing by restaurants”, or something to that effect. But they’re mistaken. The smell, and to a lesser extent the sight, of food has been one of the few things bringing me sensory pleasure during this week of denial.

This, I think, raises an interesting philosophical issue. I can’t possibly do it justice in this short(ish) post, but I’ll sketch some of my thoughts out in what follows.

Many philosophers, following Hume, have thought that any standard of aesthetic goodness (or perhaps, merely for settling aesthetic disputes)[1] must be grounded in the notion of an ideal appreciator. This is someone whose set of abilities for appreciating artworks and other aesthetic objects make her an authority for others.

Hume describes the requisite abilities in a “true judge” as follows:

“Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty.”[2]

Here’s a question: what if some of these standards, whether Hume’s or better ones, are in tension? I don’t mean in logical tension. There’s no contradiction between being free from prejudice and being well-practiced in appreciation, for instance. But what about what we might call human tensions—tensions in the joint realizability of abilities and characteristics in a human being.

My experience on the hunger-strike has made this troubling possibility acute. For, if we include the olfactory within the domain of the aesthetic (and I don’t see why paradigmatic artworks couldn’t include olfactory components, even if in fact they rarely do), then it seems to me that an ideal appreciator just might be someone who, among other qualifications, exists several days into a fast.[3] And here’s where the tension arises. For, a person on a fast is hardly ideal in many other respects. She isn’t comfortable, she’s less patient, and her mind is often foggy. All of these characteristics are ones we’d want to eliminate from our ideal appreciator, even if Hume doesn’t do so explicitly. Hume stressed that his true judges would be rare. But this suggests they might not exist at all.

The obvious response goes something like this: you’re missing the point. An ideal appreciator is just that: ideal. It’s nothing more than a theoretical construct. There’s no requirement that any person actually embody, or be able to embody, all the relevant abilities and characteristics.

The problem with such a response is that it flies in the face of the very human aspect of aesthetic appreciation. Superhuman aesthetic standards, it strikes me, are simply irrelevant on any plausible aesthetic theory. Consider piano flourishes that are literally too fast for us to hear, although a superhuman might appreciate them, or narratives that are so incredibly complicated no-one can follow them, although, again, a superhuman might. A plausible response to such cases, I suggest, is: who cares what the superhuman would think? If the art was created for human appreciation, then rococo complexity and indiscernible speed aren’t aesthetic merits. If anything, they’re defects.

One might, of course, have the rare person with the olfactory sensitivity of someone on hunger-strike, but who isn’t actually on hunger-strike. The possibility I’m raising is just that we might also not have such a person, and worse still, that we can’t (where the strength of this modal operator is suitably qualified, as above). To the extent that we want our ideal judges in the aesthetic domain to be realizable, not just in principle, this looks like a problem.

[1]  Something along these lines is pursued in James Shelley’s 2013 article, “Hume and the Joint Verdict of True Judges”, published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.

[2] David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste

[3]  One might resist this on the grounds that such a person is apt to delight in every smell without discrimination. I don’t think this is the case. But in any case, I want to put this worry to one side.

Philosophy in an Unjust World

August 27, 2013


“Die Philosophen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt darauf an, sie zu verändern.” – Karl Marx, These über Feuerbach.

A 2009 article in the Miami Herald describes the policy at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp library.[1] The policy is outlined on a slip of paper that was returned to a Pentagon lawyer along with the book he tried to donate to the library—an Arabic translation of Noam Chomsky’s Interventions. The book was refused; the slip of paper offers some explanation why.

The document divides potential Guantanamo literature into two classes: Authorized and Restricted. On the Authorized side, one finds a ragbag of categories: “Poetry”, “Fiction”, “Nature”, “Sports”, “Mathematics”, “Puzzles and Sudoku”, “Chemistry”, “Agriculture”, “Electronics” etc. The categories are rough-and-ready and pitched at differing levels of generality (call me crazy, but I’m willing to forgive the authors for lacking a fully worked out taxonomy of literary types). On the Restricted side, meanwhile, things get a little edgier. One finds categories like “Military Topics”, “Excessive Graphic Violence”, “Racial and Cultural Hate Groups and Ideologies (i.e. Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Western)”. In a touch of dark irony, the Restricted list also includes “Travel Offers”. You know… in case the detainees get any ideas.

For me, the most interesting part of the document, however, is a small and unique parenthetical qualification on the Authorized side. Sat awkwardly between Sudoku and Sociology (a wry comment on the state of the discipline, perhaps?) is the entry: “Philosophy (limited)”.

Limited. Why? A little reflection is enough to begin answering this question. Among philosophy’s hallmarks—the normative, the conceptual, the a priori etc.—is the discipline’s skeptical attitude. Philosophy is an art form that questions even the most fundamental assumptions, including some of the deepest commitments, real or alleged, of other disciplines—the existence of numbers, or the prospects of scientific progress, for example. In a similar vein, philosophers also question social practices and institutions such as modern norms of feminine appearance, the distribution of goods in a society, or the circumstances that make war permissible. This kind of thoroughgoing skepticism, I propose, makes the people who run an institution like Guantanamo uncomfortable. The Guantanamos of the world can only survive to the extent that they evade critical eyes. Philosophy—at least, some kinds of philosophy—has the potential to expose injustice and thereby incite the slighted and their supporters to action. Gitmo no likey.

Modern professional philosophers are in many respects perfectly suited to take such action. Philosophers are able to bring an incredible potential for critical thinking to any given problem, coupled with their relative wealth, access to incredible informational resources, and ability, if they’re lucky, to manage much of their own time. It’s for these reasons that I’m often disappointed at how much time philosophers, myself included, spend on mastering sometimes incredibly arcane bodies of knowledge at the exclusion of other more pressing demands. It’s partly for these reasons that I decided to protest the injustice the U.S. government is perpetrating at Guantanamo Bay.

The action—a week-long fast and a few days distributing literature about the state of Guantanamo—is largely symbolic. And I don’t imagine it will achieve much. But I do hope it reaffirms in fellow philosophers, and similarly situated others, to recognize their position as highly-trained critical thinkers in an unforgiving world, and the responsibility that comes with that. Just one day into the strike, I find the response encouraging.

Man I’m hungry.

The “Core”

July 6, 2013

A metaphor familiar to ethicists and political philosophers is that of the “expanding circle” of justice. Circles, of course, have a centre. At the centre of the justice circle stands, as a matter of historical fact, that ominous presence: the prosperous, white, heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgendered etc. man (incidentally, I am guilty as charged). The idea behind the metaphor, then, is to suggest that, as a matter of historical description as much as normative prescription, our circle of moral concern must expand beyond this narrow centre. It must expand in concentric bursts to incorporate, piece by piece, outsiders into its periphery: people of colour, women, homosexuals, the disabled, non-human animals, and even (God forbid!) the working class.

Metaphors are just metaphors. But they do (to deploy another metaphor) frame our imaginative conceptions of philosophical problems. So it’s worth pointing out that while the metaphor of the expanding circle might be descriptively accurate, it’s normatively inadequate. This is because circles, even expanding ones, still have centres and peripheries. Even once we’ve included those who were once excluded, we do so only by moving them into the periphery—social Neptunes around a privileged sun. Perhaps this means we should find a better metaphor (the melting pot of justice? The frontier of ethical inclusion? – both seem problematic). Or perhaps we should just acknowledge that the metaphor should only carry our thinking so far, if not abandon it all together.

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