Berys Gaut: Art and Ethics 

In Berys Gaut and Dominic Lopes, The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics (2001) 


This document is a summary of Gaut. 
My personal comments are in red. 
These comments have been added to help students understand his arguments.

The Issues

Issues we won’t be exploring:

  1. Does exposure to certain material “corrupt” the audience? Do violent or sexist images make us more violent or sexist? But these are basic empirical questions, to be settled by psychologists and sociologists.

  2. Should we censor ethically bad material? This is a question for social and political philosophy, not for aesthetics.

  3. Do we have a moral responsibility to preserve works of art and not to alter them?

  4. Are there parallels between ethical and moral judgment? [Hume thought so! For more information, click here.]

The issue that we will explore: 
Given that some works of art are aesthetically flawed, and some are ethically flawed, do ethical flaws in a work also count as aesthetic flaws? Do ethical merits count as aesthetic merits? Example: Triumph of the Will 

Three possible answers:

  • Autonomism (also called aestheticism): Ethical flaws and merits have no relevance to a work’s aesthetic merit. (The two things are autonomous, that is, independent.)

  • Immoralism: Ethical flaws are relevant, and can make a work aesthetically better.

  • Moralism (also called ethicism): Ethical flaws are relevant, and can make a work aesthetically worse.

An ethical flaw is not a tendency to cause problematic attitudes/behaviors in an audience (remember, it’s an empirical question when and if this ever happens). 

An ethical flaw is an intrinsic property of the work itself. To be ethically flawed, the work must express an attitude toward its subject matter, and that attitude is one that, if expressed by a person toward that subject matter, would be ethically improper. [A clarification: To say that something has an aesthetic or ethical flaw does NOT mean that it's no good at all. Someone might be ethically flawed in being a coward, but is otherwise a virtuous person. A poem might be aesthetically flawed in having a line that disrupts the poem's flow; that doesn't mean that the whole poem is completely ruined.]

Example: anti-Semitism is ethically wrong. If a work is anti-Semitic (NOT the artist, but the WORK!), then that work is ethically flawed. [So if Mel Gibson’s The Passion is anti-Semitic, it is ethically flawed.] 

Admiration for Adolph Hitler is ethically flawed. If Triumph of the Will expresses admiration for Hitler (and it does!), then it is ethically flawed (and it is!). The question then, is whether it is aesthetically flawed for this reason. [This is not a question about the filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl. She may or may not have been a Nazi supporter, but she did make FILMS that supported Hitler and the Nazis.]


Since Triumph of the Will is ethically flawed, yet is great cinema, we might be tempted to endorse the view that its ethical flaws are completely irrelevant to its aesthetic value.

Response: If ethical considerations exhausted aesthetic merit, then we’d have to regard it as aesthetically weak. But nobody thinks that the later is true, so the merits of Triumph of the Will do not demonstrate autonomism. We should be pluralists about aesthetic value, granting that many things contribute to it. [At best, Triumph of the Will shows that a technically impressive work is not a great work. There is more to aesthetic success than technical accomplishment.]

Formalists often defend autonomism: arguing that form/structure/patterns exhaust aesthetic value, there is no place for ethical judgment in determining aesthetic value.

Response: But the reasons for formalism, that restrict aesthetic value to formal values, are either some version of aesthetic attitude theory, or a refusal to see content as an integral element of any formal value that occurs. Where there is content, there is moral judgment.


Extreme version, restricting good art to ethically transgressive art, is logically possible, but silly [having already endorsed pluralism with respect to aesthetic value, any theory that reduces aesthetic value to just one thing is going to be ruled out].

Moderate version seems plausible: some ethical flaws are aesthetic merits (and some ethical flaws may be aesthetic flaws). In short, ethical transgression can be good.

Response: But where is there any work in which the WORK expresses a genuinely transgressive moral attitude, AND we regard the work as aesthetically good because of it? We can see cases where a CHARACTER is ethically transgressive, but what of a WORK that is?

Second defense of immoralism: If we removed the ethical flaws, we would destroy the work’s value. So the ethical flaws contribute to the work’s aesthetic value. [Edit Triumph of the Will so that Hitler isn’t in it, and see what a mess you have!]

Response: We can grant that there is a pro tanto principle that a work is good to the degree that (“insofar as”) it is ethically good, without thinking that the same rule holds in every case, all things considered. Removing ethical flaws will alter OTHER aspects of the work, so making it ethically better may be pro tanto good, but it may destroy all aesthetic merit, all things considered. Triumph of the Will is flawed insofar as it is pro-Nazi, but remains a great piece of cinema, all things considered. So the ethical flaw is not an aesthetic merit.


Given what was said about immoralism, moralism must be advocating the pro tanto principle that a work is aesthetically good insofar as it is ethically good, but this does not determine its aesthetic value, all things considered.

First Argument for moralism: Look at everyone’s ordinary critical practices: everyone is a moralist. So any other theory is absurd.

Second Argument for moralism: Art has a cognitive function of revealing truth, and some works of art reveal “important ethical insights,” so they are improved by their ethical merits. (The extreme version, that ONLY art can reveal these truths, seems absurd.) Most versions of this argument are weak (because OTHER cognitive values of works of art are not seen as aesthetic merits), but Beardsmore gives a plausible version of cognitive moralism. If the content of the moral insight is inseparable from the way it’s revealed (and there are some poems by John Donne where this seems to be the case -- click here), then in some cases the ethical insight is inseparable from its aesthetic merit. But only a very “rich and detailed” case is a plausible candidate for this pro tanto principle.

Third Argument for moralism: Hume gives the argument that art engages us emotionally, and in this respect it is not distinguishable from the mechanisms of life that engage us emotionally (by altering our “sentiments”). If something does or SHOULD offend us in life, it does or should offend us when it is presented in a work of art. [To learn more about Hume's position, click here. To read what he actually said, click here.]

A modern version of Hume’s argument is as follows: Works of art prescribe various responses. When we see that a work prescribes response X, but fails to elicit X due to its construction (the prescribed response is not merited), then that work is an aesthetically flawed work. (If the horror film is supposed to scare us but it only makes us laugh, it is aesthetically flawed.) [Example: Plan 9 from Outer Space -- For more info, click here.] Some ethical attitudes are never merited, and if a work of art prescribes them, then that work is ethically flawed. So some ethical flaws are aesthetic flaws. 

[Here is the argument, applied to a specific example. Misogyny is an ethical attitude, and it is ethically flawed. Misogyny is never merited. A person who is a misogynist is ethically flawed, and a work of art that expresses misogyny is ethically flawed.  John Donne's poem, "Song," expresses misogyny. So the poem expresses an attitude that is never merited. Yet there is nothing in the poem to suggest that its author does not endorse what is expressed. So the poem is, insofar as it is misogynist, aesthetically flawed. Don't know this poem? Click here to read the poem.]

                        Last updated July 27, 2007