Post on Aesthetics for Birds Blog

April 15, 2016

I contributed some thoughts about cultural appropriation to the excellent Aesthetics for Birds blog. To check it out, click here.

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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.


Philosophical Thought Experiment as a Genre?

June 18, 2009

A recent post by Brian Weatherson over at the Arche Methodology Project Weblog raises an interesting idea: can philosophical thought experiments be treated as a genre like, say, science fiction? This idea is also explored in Jonathan Weinberg’s article “Configuring the Cognitive Imagination” in New Waves in Aesthetics. Weinberg spells out the idea, without endorsing it, on page 214:

Yet, what if philosophical thought experiments were a genre—at least in the sense that engaging in them successfully requires mastery along the same lines as I have sketched for the mastery of literary genres? There are rules to engaging properly with a hypothetical scenario, after all. To make just some of the more obvious generalizations about our imaginative practices with thought experiments: one should embellish as little as possible; generally it is a practice conducted in an affectively `cool’ manner; and our inferential systems must often be brought to bear in this particular sort of imaginative project as well. And there are surely other, and more subtly articulable, rules for the proper performance of thought experiments still to be detailed.

While I was initially attracted to the idea—especially given my interest in imagination, fiction, and genre—I now think that it won’t do, on the more interesting interpretation. Roughly, the idea is to treat philosophical thought experiment as a genre relevantly similar to other genres of fiction. I have two worries with the idea, interpreted thus. In this post, I’ll press the first worry: we engage with philosophical thought experiments relevantly differently from the way we engage with fictions in other genres.

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Self to Self

July 3, 2008

In this post, I reply to my previous post on a new motivation for positing desire-like imagination. The right response to the argument sketched there, I now think, is a combination of `Who cares?’ and `What are you talking about?’. But there’s a functionalist explanation behind the indifferent shrug and the incredulous stare.

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Advertisement for a Sketch of an Outline of An Argument for Desire-like Imagination

June 25, 2008

Desire-like imagination, or I-Desire, is said to be analogous to desire in the same way that belief-like imagination, or imagination, is analogous to belief. There are a few different arguments for positing desire-like imagination in print. Greg Currie has given a few on the grounds of inference to the best explanation: he argues that desire-like imagination can best help us explain phenomena including affective response toward fiction and seemingly conflicting desires toward fiction (Currie and Ravenscroft 2002), and imaginative resistance (Currie 2002, in Gendler & Hawthorne). Tyler Doggett and Andy Egan similarly argue that desire-like imagination can best help us explain behaviors of pretenders who are immersed in the fiction of the pretense (Doggett and Egan 2007). I am unconvinced by these arguments and remain skeptical of desire-like imagination. But in a reading group today, I tried to provide a new motivation for positing desire-like imagination.

Take as the starting point the analogy at the beginning of this post: desire-like imagination is to desire as (belief-like) imagination is to belief. There is a tradition of differentiating belief and desire by their “directions of fit”. Belief is said to have a mind-to-world fit: the aim of belief is to represent a fact about the actual world. Desire is said to have a world-to-mind fit: the aim of desire is to make the world as the non-actual state of affairs represented. Arguably, we can also say that imagination has a direction of fit, at least when we are exercising the faculty in pretense or engagement with fiction. Imagination, I want to claim, has a mind-to-fictionality fit: the aim of imagination is to represent a fact about the (relevant) fictional world. The relationships between belief, desire, and imagination are summarized by the following table:

belief-like mental states desire-like mental states
real world belief (mind to world) desire (world to mind)
fictional world imagination (mind to fictionality) ???

Now it seems natural to fill out ??? with a mental state that is both desire-like and about the fictional world. Desire-like imagination fits. Following through with the analogies, desire-like imagination has a fictionality-to-mind direction of fit: the aim of desire-like imagination is to make the fictional world as the non-fictional state of affairs represented.

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ADG: Canon and Fanon

March 16, 2007

This is the first, hopefully, in a series where I air out some thoughts after the aesthetics discussion group. Last Friday, our comrade Ian Flora presented ‘Canon, Fanon, and Fiction’, a paper that aims to explores the relationship between canonical fiction worlds and worlds of fan-fictions. I will only try to bring out the issues and raise some questions I find interesting. To know Ian’s view, you’ll have to ask him. I also have some view, but you’d have to buy me a beer to hear them. (And for them to make sense, you should buy yourself a keg.)

Roughly, we are interested in the relationship between canon and fanon, and what fits under those terms. To borrow Ian’s example of Harry Potter, canon is what officially happens in the Harry Potter books by Rowling and Movies, and fanon is what the fans accept as true as a result of fan-fiction. Note that neither canon nor fanon needs to only contain the propositions that are specifically mentioned in the story, but just what is reasonably implied. We may use the fictional world terminology loosely to talk about the what is true or implied true by the fiction. For example, the true propositions given by the Harry Potter stories compose the Harry Potter world; the true propositions given by the Harry Potter stories and a series of fan-fictions F compose the Harry Potter sub-F world. Notice I am also being rather sloppy in not distinguishing the world given by a fiction and the world that we imagine when we access a fiction. This is of course an important distinction that needs to be drawn out in the full account. For the sake of simplicity and interest, let’s continue with the sloppy intuitive notions and start asking some questions:

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