Below is a version of a paper that Jacob Berger (CUNY Graduate Center) and I are working on. Any comments, criticisms, questions, etc. would be most appreciated.
Since at least Plato’s Republic, philosophers have debated whether art affords knowledge. Like Plato, many reject the notion that art has educational value. Others maintain that at least part of what makes some art valuable is that it imparts knowledge. Cognitivism as we construe it is twice existentially quantified: it’s the thesis that some of the value of some art is epistemic. Call that value, whatever exactly it is, the cognitive value of art (CVA). Cognitivism is therefore consistent with pluralism about aesthetic axiology; for example, a cognitivist may also hold that some art is valuable because of its purely formal properties.
One way to distinguish varieties of cognitivism is by the content of the CVA; cognitivists differ on what belongs in the CVA. One promising version of the view is that the content of CVA is moral. Call that content the CVA-M. What moral knowledge can the audience extract from art, and how can it be extracted? Here we can, someone crudely, distinguish four versions of moral cognitivism, depending on the normative content of the CVA-M. First, one could hold that the content of CVA-M is deontological: art teaches what’s permissible, obligatory, and forbidden, perhaps with an eye to the universalizability of motives. Second, one could hold that the content of CVA-M is consequentialist: art shows us which states of the world are good and bad, better, worse, and optimal. Thomas More’s Utopia, Soviet socialist realism, and much science fiction might serve as examples. Third, one might claim that the content of CVA-M illustrates the ethics of care. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God might be cited in this context. Perhaps the most attractive and most common version of moral cognitivism holds that the content of CVA-M is virtue ethical: art teaches its audience the subtleties of virtue and the ways in which virtues interact to produce characteristic patterns of behavior. Homer’s Iliad, for instance, is an investigation of the strengths and weakness of mêtis (artifice), as exemplified by Odysseus, and bíê (might), as exemplified by Achilles. Spenser’s Fairie Queene devotes each of its books to the narrative elaboration of a particular virtue: Redcross represents holiness, Sir Guyon temperance, Britomart chastity, Cambel and Telamond friendship, Artegall justice, and Calidore courtesy. It’s of course possible to subscribe to all four versions of moral cognitivism or even to hold an interactive view according to which art teaches us how, for instance, deontological and consequentialist normative concepts interact and sometimes clash. Sophie’s Choice might be an example.
Moral cognitivism has been attacked on a variety of grounds, but in this paper we will consider a critique of the view that has not been adequately explored. Our target is any version of moral cognitivism that includes virtue and vice in the CVA-M. Such views are open to an elaboration of what’s come to be known as the situationist challenge to virtue ethics. According to this challenge, social psychology suggests that most people are surprisingly susceptible to seemingly trivial and normatively irrelevant situational influences, which in turn means that talk of virtue (and vice) is psychologically unrealistic. If this challenge succeeds, virtue-based moral cognitivism is likewise threatened. After all, art cannot teach us about something that doesn’t exist.