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mist claims is the common denominator of aesthetic evaluation.
In order to substantiate this abstract claim, let us take a look at the narrative
arts (narrative literature, drama, film, painting and so on). It is of the nature of nar-
rative to be incomplete. No author is absolutely explicit about the situations she
depicts. Every narrative makes an indeterminate number of presuppositions and it
is the task of readers, viewers, and listeners to fill these in. Part of what it is to fol-
low a story is to fill in the presuppositions that the narrator has left unsaid. If the
story is about Sherlock Holmes, we presuppose that he is a man and not an
android, though Conan Doyle never says so. If the story concerns ancient Rome,
we presuppose the message was delivered by hand, not by fax.
No storyteller portrays everything that might be portrayed about the story she
is telling; she must depend upon her audience to supply what is missing and a sub-
stantial and ineliminable part of what it is to understand a narrative involves filling
in what the author has left out. It is of the nature of narrative to be incomplete in
this way and for narrative communication to depend for uptake upon audiences
supplying what has been left unremarked by the author.
Furthermore, what must be filled in in this way comes in all different shapes
and sizes, including facts of physics, biology, history, religion, and so on. Notably,
much of the information that the author depends on the audience™s bringing to
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AND


the text is folk-psychological.The author need not explain why a character is sad-
dened by her mother™s death. The audience brings its understanding of human
psychology to bear on the situation.
But it is not only the presupposed, implied, or suggested facts about the fic-
tional world and human psychology that the audience must fill in in order for
narratives to be intelligible. Understanding a narrative also requires mobilizing
the emotions that are appropriate to the story and its characters. One does not
understand Trilby unless one finds Svengali repugnant. Moreover, and this is
where the connection with morality begins to enter, many of the emotions
that the audience brings to bear, as a condition of narrative intelligibility, are
moral both in the sense that many emotions, like anger (inasmuch as “being
wronged” is conceptually criterial for its application), possess ineliminable
moral components, and in the sense that many of the emotions that are perti-
nent to narratives are frequently moral emotions, such as the indignation that
pervades a reading of Uncle Tom™s Cabin.
Without mobilizing the moral emotions of the audience, narratives cannot suc-
ceed.They would appear unintelligible. One does not, I submit, understand the wed-
ding scene in Ken Russell™s production of Madame Butterfly unless one feels that
Pinkerton is unworthy of his bride.Thus, activating moral judgments from audiences
is a standard feature of successful narrative artworks. And this is the case, not only
where the moral judgments play a role in emotional responses, but also where the
audience understands the logic of a plot that deals wrongdoers their just deserts.
Part of what is involved, then, in the process of filling in a narrative is the
activation of the moral powers “ the moral judgments and the moral emotions
“ of audiences. Moreover, it is vastly improbable that there could be any sub-
stantial narrative of human affairs, especially a narrative artwork, that did not
rely upon activating the moral powers of readers, viewers, and listeners. Even
modernist novels that appear to eschew “morality” typically do so in order to
challenge bourgeois morality and to enlist the reader in sharing their ethical
disdain for it.
Earlier I noted that according to the radical autonomist, moral concern with art-
works is regarded to be either a failure in taste or intelligence insofar as such concern
is inappropriate with respect to art. Talk about morality is, on this account, out of
place, if not conceptually incoherent. However, if understanding a narrative artwork
is, as I have argued, so inextricably bound up with moral understanding, then at least
with narrative artworks, it will be natural for moral concerns to arise in the course of
our appreciation of narrative artworks and our discussions of them.
Since narrative artworks necessarily depend upon activating our antecedent
moral beliefs, concepts, and feelings, it is no accident that we will be predisposed
to discuss, to share, and to compare our moral reactions with other readers, listen-
ers, and viewers concerning the characters, situations, and the texts that portray
them, where, indeed, the authors of said texts have presented them to us with the
clear intention of mobilizing, among other things, our moral responses. It is nat-
ural for us to discuss narrative artworks by means of ethical vocabularies because,
MODERATE MORALISM 299

due to the kinds of things they are, narrative artworks are designed to awaken, to
stir up, and to engage our moral powers of recognition and judgment.The radical
autonomist claims that moral discourse is alien to all artworks. But, given the
nature of narrative artworks, it is germane to them.We may discuss the formal fea-
tures of narrative artworks, but it is also apposite, given the nature of the beast, to
discuss them from a moral point of view.3
The radical autonomist undoubtedly has a case against what might be called
the radical moralist or Puritan “ someone, perhaps, like Plato “ who maintains
that art should only be discussed from a moral point of view. But radical moralism
is not my position, since I freely admit that some works of art may have no moral
dimension, due to the kind of works they are, and because I do not claim that
moral considerations trump all other considerations, such as formal ones. My
position, moderate moralism, only contends that for certain genres, moral com-
ment, along with formal comment, is natural and appropriate.
Moreover, the moderate moralist also contends that moral evaluation may fig-
ure in our evaluations of some artworks. For inasmuch as narrative artworks
engage our powers of moral understanding, they can be assessed in terms of
whether they deepen or pervert the moral understanding.That is, some artworks
may be evaluated by virtue of the contribution they make to moral education.
Of course, there is a longstanding argument against the educative powers of
artworks, namely, that what we typically are said to learn from artworks are noth-
ing but truisms, which, in fact, everyone already knows and whose common
knowledge may in fact be a condition for the intelligibility of the artworks in
question. For example, no one learns that murder is bad from Crime and Punish-
ment and, indeed, knowing that murder is bad may be a presupposition that the
reader must bring to Crime and Punishment in order to understand it.Artworks, in
other words, trade in moral commonplaces, and, therefore, do not really teach
morality.They are not a source of moral education, but depend upon and presup-
pose already morally educated readers, viewers, and listeners.
However, the characterization that I have offered of the relation of moral
understanding does not fall foul of this objection. I agree that the moral emotions
and judgments that narratives typically call upon audiences to fill in are generally
already in place. Most narrative artworks do not teach audiences new moral emo-
tions or new moral tenets.They activate preexisting ones. Nevertheless, it is a mis-
take to presume that this may not involve moral education.That is, it is an error to
presuppose that moral education only occurs when new moral emotions or tenets
are communicated.
Moral education is not simply a matter of acquiring new moral precepts.
Moral education also involves coming to understand how to apply those precepts
to situations. Moral understanding is the capability to manipulate abstract moral
precepts “ to see connections between them and be able to employ them intelli-
gibly with respect to concrete situations. Understanding is not simply a matter of
having access to abstract propositions and concepts; it involves being able to apply
them appropriately.This, of course, requires practice, and narrative artworks pro-
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AND


vide opportunities to develop, to deepen and to enlarge the moral understanding
through practice.4
We may believe certain abstract principles “ like “all persons should be given
their due” “ and possess abstract concepts “ such as “virtue = that which promotes
human flourishing” “ without being able to connect these abstractions to concrete
situations. For that requires not only knowing these abstractions, but understanding
them. Moreover, it is this kind of understanding “ particularly in terms of moral
understanding “ to which engaging with narrative artworks may contribute.5
Furthermore, since the emotions have a conceptual dimension “ by virtue of
possessing formal criteria concerning that which can function as the object of an
emotion “ it makes sense to talk about deepening or enlarging our emotional under-
standing. Narrative artworks promote such understanding by providing occasions for
clarifying our emotions, or, as Aristotle might say, for learning to bring the right emo-
tion to bear upon an appropriate object with suitable intensity.
So, understanding a narrative artwork may involve a simultaneous process of
deepening or enlarging one™s moral understanding.And this, in turn, is an impor-
tant element of moral education. Of course, learning from a narrative artwork
through the enlargement of one™s moral understanding is not well described as a
consequence of engaging the story. Understanding the work, enlarging one™s
moral understanding and learning from the narrative are all part and parcel of the
same process, which might be called comprehending or following the narrative. In
reading a novel, our moral understanding is engaged already. Indeed, reading a
novel is itself generally a moral activity insofar as reading narrative literature typi-
cally involves us in a continuous process of making moral judgments. Moreover,
this continuous exercise of moral judgment itself contributes to the expansion and
education of our moral understanding through practice.
Thus, we may speak of moral education with respect to narrative artworks
without supposing that they trade in new moral discoveries or that moral educa-
tion is an alien imposition on the narrative artwork. Moral education, in terms of
the exercise of moral understanding, is a constituent in the appropriate mode of
responding to narratives, i.e. following the story. And, if moral education is built
in, so to speak, to responding to narratives, there is a straightforward way to eval-
uate narratives morally.Those narratives that deepen moral understanding, in the
manner of, say, James™ Ambassadors, are, all things being equal, morally commend-
able, whereas those that muddy moral understanding, as does Pulp Fiction, which
suggests that homosexual rape is much worse than murder, are morally defective.
Moreover, pace radical autonomism, such moral evaluations of narrative artworks
are not inappropriate. Given the relation of narrative understanding to moral
understanding, and the basis of that relationship in the (incomplete) nature of the
narrative artwork, such evaluations are quite natural. It is not a category error to
find that Pulp Fiction, no matter how formally compelling, is also, in certain
respects, morally defective. Pulp Fiction, because of the kind of artwork it is,
engages the moral understanding and can be assessed in terms of the efficacy of
that engagement.6
MODERATE MORALISM 301


I I I . M O D E R AT E AU T O N O M I S M

The radical autonomist contends that all art is autonomous and takes this to entail,
among other things, that discussing and evaluating art from a moral perspective is
conceptually ill-founded, indeed, incoherent. I have argued that for some art-
works, notably narrative artworks, this view is mistaken. For, given the nature of
the narrative artwork, it is appropriate to discuss it and evaluate it morally. How-
ever, confronted by arguments like the preceding one, the autonomist may recon-
ceive his position, conceding that some art may by its very nature engage moral
understanding and may be coherently discussed and even evaluated morally. Nev-
ertheless, the autonomist is apt to qualify this concession immediately by arguing
that with such works of art, we need to distinguish between various levels of
address in the object.
A given artwork may legitimately traffic in aesthetic, moral, cognitive, and
political value. But these various levels are independent or autonomous. An art-
work may be aesthetically valuable and morally defective, or vice versa. But these
different levels of value do not mix, so to speak.An aesthetically defective artwork
is not bad because it is morally defective and that provides a large part of the story
about why a work can be aesthetically valuable, but evil. Let us call this view mod-
erate autonomism because, though it allows that the moral discussion and evalua-
tion of artworks, or at least some artworks, is coherent and appropriate, it remains
committed to the view that the aesthetic dimension of the artwork is autonomous
from other dimensions, such as the moral dimension.7
The radical autonomist maintains that moral discussion and evaluation are
never appropriate with respect to any artwork. The moderate autonomist main-
tains only that the aesthetic dimension of artworks is autonomous.This grants that
artworks (at least some of them) may be evaluated morally as well as aesthetically,
but contends that the moral evaluation of the artwork is never relevant to its aes-
thetic evaluation. The moral dimension of an artwork, when it possesses one, is
strictly independent of the aesthetic dimension.
For the moderate autonomist, the narrative artwork can be divided into dif-
ferent dimensions of value, and, although it is permissible to evaluate such an art-
work morally, the moral strengths and weaknesses of an artwork, vis-à-vis moral
understanding, can never provide grounds for a comparable evaluation of the aes-
thetic worth of an artwork.That is, an artwork will never be aesthetically better in
virtue of its moral strengths, and will never be worse because of its moral defects.
On a strict reading of moderate autonomism, one of its decisive claims is that
defective moral understanding never counts against the aesthetic merit of a work.
An artwork may invite an audience to entertain a defective moral perspective and
this will not detract from its aesthetic value. But this central claim of moderate
autonomism is false.
Recall Aristotle™s discussion of character in the Poetics.8 There he conjectures
that, for tragedy to take hold, the major character must be of a certain moral sort,
if we are to pity him. He cannot be evil, because then we will regard his destruc-
302 ART, EMOTION, MORALITY
AND


tion as well deserved. The historical Hitler could not be a tragic character; his
ignominious death would not prompt us to pity him. Indeed, we might applaud
it. Likewise, Aristotle points out the tragic character cannot be flawless. For then
when disaster befalls him we will be moved to outrage not pity. Mother Teresa
could not be a figure of tragedy, because she had no fatal flaw.The right kind of
character, Aristotle hypothesizes, is morally mixed, elevated, but in other respects
more like the average viewer.
If certain characters are inserted into the tragic scenario, in other words, tragedy
will not secure the effects that are normatively correct for it.That is, tragedy will fail
on its own terms “ terms internal to the practice of tragedy “ when the characters are
of the wrong sort.This failure will be aesthetic in the straightforward sense that it is a
failure of tragedy qua tragedy.And the locus of the failure may be that the author has
invited the audience to share a defective moral perspective, asking us, for example, to
regard Hitler as an appropriate object of pity.
A recent example of such a failure is Brett Easton Ellis™ novel American Psycho.
The author intended it as a satire of the rapacious eighties in the United States. He
presented a serial killer as the symbol of the vaunted securities marketeer of
Reaganonomics. However, the serial killings depicted in the novel are so graphi-
cally brutal that readers are not able morally to get past the gore in order to savor
the parody. Certainly, Ellis made an aesthetic error. He misjudged the effect of the
murders on the audience. He failed to anticipate that the readers would not be
able to secure uptake of his themes in the face of the unprecedented violence. He
invited the audience to view the murders as political satire and that was an invita-
tion they could not morally abide. His moral understanding of the possible signif-
icance of murders, such as the ones he depicted, was flawed, and he was
condemned for promoting it. But that defect was also an aesthetic defect, inas-
much as it compromised the novel on its own terms. American Psycho™s failure to
achieve uptake as satire is attributable to Ellis™ failure to grasp the moral inappro-
priateness of regarding his serial killer as comic.
Narrative artworks are, as we have argued, incomplete structures.Among other
things, they must be filled in by the moral responses of readers, viewers, and lis-
teners. Securing the right moral response of the audience is as much a part of the
design of a narrative artwork as structural components like plot complications.
Failure to elicit the right moral response, then, is a failure in the design of the
work, and, therefore, is an aesthetic failure.The design (the aesthetic structure) of
American Psycho is flawed on its own terms because it rests on a moral mistake,
supposing, as it does, that the sustained, deadpan, clinically meticulous dismem-
berments it presents to the reader could be taken in a comically detached manner.
A great many of the readers of American Psycho reacted to the flawed moral under-
standing of American Psycho, and rejected it aesthetically.Thus, this case, along with
Aristotle™s observations, indicate that sometimes a moral flaw in a work can count
against the work aesthetically.Therefore, moderate autonomism seems false.
Many artworks depend for their effect upon the artist™s understanding the
moral psychology of the audience. Where the artist fails to anticipate the moral
MODERATE MORALISM 303

understanding of the audience, as Ellis did, the work may fail on its own terms,
which is to say in terms of its own aesthetic aims. Of course, the Ellis example is
one in which large parts of the audience rejected the aesthetic contract that Ellis
extended to them. They were not about to laugh at prostitutes with holes
methodically drilled into their heads.
But, one might ask, what about cases in which there is a defective moral per-
spective in a work, but the audience is not so aware of it “ that is, a case where the
average reader, viewer, or listener buys into it. Imagine, for example, a propaganda
film that treats enemy soldiers as subhuman, worthy of any amount of indignity.
Here, let us suppose, most of the audience embraces the flawed moral perspective
that the film promotes. Does it make sense to call the work aesthetically defective
because it endorses a flawed moral perspective that is also readily adopted by the

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