Rationality and Moral Responsibility in Aesthetics
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If I find aesthetic value in an image depicting violence, have I done something wrong? Am I at fault for finding the image aesthetically appealing? Is my enjoyment of this work immoral? These are the sort of questions this thesis aims to address. In this work, I ask two primary questions: “Are we responsible for our aesthetic judgments?” and, “Is it possible for aesthetic tastes to be morally wrong?” Prior philosophy work on desire, aesthetic reason theory, and moral value theory are examined in order to explore possible answers to these questions. As an intuitive answer to the first question, I propose that individuals are not responsible for their aesthetic tastes, and therefore cannot be held morally responsible for them. Prior work on the nature of desire argues that a moral agent ought not be held responsible for desires they do not choose, as an unchosen desire is not voluntary, and is against the agent’s will. I posit that aesthetic judgments are relevantly similar to desires in that both desires and judgments are non-voluntary, and thus not related to an agent’s will. In order to show how desires and aesthetic tastes are similar, I examine two theories on the formation and structure of desires, as well as a few different accounts of how aesthetic judgments are formed, in order to show how the two operate in similar ways. Specifically, I look to show that both desires and aesthetic judgments are non-voluntary due to the way in which they are formed. From this, I argue that since a moral agent is not held morally responsible for non-voluntary desires, they ought not be held responsible for their non-voluntary aesthetic judgments either. In answer to the second question - whether aesthetic judgments are morally wrong - I evaluate problematic aesthete judgments from the perspective of each of three moral value theories. The theories I consider are: consequentialism, which determines morality based on the consequences of an action; deontology, which focuses on an action’s consistency with general moral rules; and virtue ethics, which holds that an individual’s actions and beliefs are reflective of their overall moral character. Based on these evaluations, I conclude that merely having problematic aesthetic judgments can be consistent with consequentialist and deontological ethics, even if only in a limited set of cases. However, since virtue ethics suggests that the enjoyment of problematic aesthetic works is reflective of poor moral character, the enjoyment of problematic works seems inconsistent with virtue ethics. However, I offer a suggestion as to how aesthetic judgments may not in fact be reflective of moral character. My concluding answer overall is that the ethics of aesthetic judgments is very complex, and whether or not an aesthetic judgment is morally wrong depends upon how the nature of the individual judgment itself. After my investigation, I ultimately conclude that individuals are not responsible for their aesthetic judgments in cases where the individual does not cause, create, or choose their aesthetic judgment. I note that aesthetic judgments may sometimes be considered morally wrong, however, in cases where individuals are not responsible or their judgments, they are “off the hook” for any problematic judgment they may have. Finally, I close with a brief speculation on whether it may be possible to change our aesthetic judgments, and, if so, whether we ought to try to change our problematic judgments.