In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art and Morality

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Asian
  • Late Ancient and Medieval Approaches
  • From the Renaissance to the 18th Century
  • The 18th Century
  • The Aesthetic Tradition and Its Discontents

Philosophy Art and Morality
Andrea Sauchelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0108


A great number of works of art, it is commonly claimed, are aesthetically valuable. Some philosophers have even argued that providing an aesthetically pleasing experience is their only proper function. However, some of these artworks display or invite us to adopt an immoral point of view. Even worse, they even seem to make immoral situations delightful and appealing. The following questions thus arise: Does the alleged immorality of these works count as an aesthetic or artistic defect? Can an immoral movie or novel ever be a great example of its kind? In addition to these concerns related to art evaluation, the connection between various forms of art and morality has been investigated by discussing the capacity of works of art to move us emotionally. More specifically, thinkers from different traditions and ages have remarked that works of art are clearly able, first, to stir our emotions in a particularly effective way, and, second, to invite us to act following certain ideas that have been made appealing by their beauty or other aesthetic qualities. Plato was the first in the Western tradition to evaluate in a systematic way whether, as a consequence of the previous considerations, we should supervise the storytellers who are supposed to educate our youth. Other philosophers, from Aristotle to more recent advocates of the value of the humanities, have argued in favor of the positive role that truly great works of art may have in our moral education. Contemporary philosophers are also interested in the role of imagination in fictional immoral contexts (can we engage with immoral works of art and be justified in so doing?). They are also interested in the role played by art in contributing to our well-being and flourishing as human beings. The great majority of recent works on the topic, however, are focused on an assessment of the arguments in favor or against ethical criticism, with a particular emphasis on the criticism of representational works of art. Other issues at the intersection of art and morality are the concept of the obscene, the value of pornography, and censorship.

General Overviews

Carroll 2000 is the most influential introduction to the contemporary debate. Carroll 2004 covers much of the same ground but outlines various philosophical theories in relation to three objections to ethical criticism. Both introductions are focused on narrative works. Kieran 2003 introduces the debate in terms of the value of works of art from an immoralist perspective. Gaut 2005 individuates five distinct ways in which art and ethics are connected from an ethicist point of view. Peek 2005 focuses on the ethical criticism of art, literature and moral education, and censorship. Giovannelli 2007 presents a novel and more sophisticated mapping of the various positions on ethical criticism. Lagueux 2004 is an introduction to the debate on the connection between architecture and morality. The author argues that architectural evaluations must always be informed by moral considerations, given the functional nature of buildings.

  • Carroll, Noël. “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.” Ethics 110.2 (2000): 350–387.

    DOI: 10.1086/233273

    Identifies key positions and arguments in the contemporary debate. Introduces radical and moderate versions of autonomism and moralism.

  • Carroll, Noël. “Art and the Moral Realm.” In The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics. Edited by Peter Kivy, 126–151. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756645

    Another introduction to the debate by a defender of moderate moralism.

  • Gaut, Berys. “Art and Ethics.” In The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. 2d ed. Edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic McIver Lopes, 431–444. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    An introduction to the debate from an ethicist perspective. Emphasizes the cognitive role of various artworks.

  • Giovannelli, Alessandro. “The Ethical Criticism of Art: A New Mapping of the Territory.” Philosophia 35.2 (2007): 117–127.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11406-007-9053-0

    Provides a novel and fine-grained mapping of positions. The author argues against the perspicuity of Carroll’s classification of theories on ethical criticism.

  • Kieran, Matthew. “Art and Morality.” In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Edited by Jerrold Levinson, 451–470. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Includes references to obscene and pornographic works of art and a defense of the idea that these works can be better, qua art, in virtue of their alleged immorality.

  • Lagueux, Maurice. “Ethics versus Aesthetics in Architecture.” Philosophical Forum 35.2 (2004): 117–133.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0031-806X.2004.00165.x

    An overview of various ways in which architecture and morality are related. One main theme of the work is that architectural works constitute the framework of our existence, and thus have an important role for our decisions.

  • Peek, Ella. “Ethical Criticism of Art.” In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. 2005.

    This entry discusses various forms of moralism and autonomism (thus drawing mainly from Carroll’s early presentations of the debate), the contribution of literature to moral education, and the connection between ethicism and censorship.

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