On Friday, 18th January, the Art and Ethics project’s first workshop took place. The well-attended event featured presentations by Moonyoung Song (University of Maryland), Adriana Clavel-Vázquez, James Harold (Mount Holyoke College), and Becca Rothfeld (Harvard University).
Song presented ‘The Ambiguity of ‘Moral Defect’ and Its Implications’, in which she points out that theorists in the debates surrounding aesthetic moralism have failed to distinguish between higher- and lower-level moral defects. As such, some arguments in this debate talk past each other rather than offering meaningfully opposed positions. Moreover, only those theories appealing to higher-level moral virtues and defects establish an interesting interaction between the aesthetic and the ethical.
Clavel-Vázquez’s paper, ‘The Case for Contextual Autonomism’, argues for the bold view that fictions are not ethically evaluable qua fictions. Roughly, fictions fail to meet the necessary conditions to be properly ethically assessed because the attitudes they prescribe appreciators to adopt towards their representations, if any, are quarantined from the actual world. As such ethical criticism or praise purportedly directed at works of fiction are actually (or ought to be) directed at something external to the work, such as the author of the work or its context of creation.
Harold presented ‘Alain Locke and the Aims of the Artist’. In it, he explores some of the writings of Alain Locke, particularly those in response to WEB Dubois’ view of art as necessarily propagandistic, and their implications for contemporary discussions of how ethical and aesthetic values interact in artworks. Harold argues that Locke’s unique value system offers a ‘third way’ between views that deny any interaction and those that affirm it. Neither value is fully determinate; it is the function of art to offer new visions for how to apply our value concepts.
Becca Rothfeld closed the workshop with ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ in which she reverses the normal order of inquiry. Instead of asking how ethical properties affect aesthetic ones, she considers how aesthetic properties (specifically, those picked out by ‘thick’ aesthetic concepts) affect ethical ones, arguing that sometimes the former partially ground the latter. Her arguments focus on cases of works that adopt a precious attitude towards important or sensitive subject matters, citing the lack of fit between the attitude and subject matter as explanatory of the moral failing.
We greatly enjoyed all the presentations, the excellent questions and discussion, and the warm company. We wish our participants luck with their papers and further projects.