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Brit J Aesthetics 2001 Conolly 109 24

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  NARRATIVE ART AND MORAL KNOWLEDGE Oliver Conolly and Bashshar Haydar II N  ‘A  RT , Narrative, and Moral Understanding’, 1 Noël Carroll advances the thesisof clarificationism, according to which narrative art has the power to clarify ourpre-existing moral knowledge, but not to provide us with ‘interesting, new propositional [moral] knowledge’ (ANMU, p. 142). In this paper, we would liketo examine critically Carroll’s argument for clarificationism, as well as the thesisitself. We do not deny that one of the ways in which narrative art can relate tomorality is by clarifying our knowledge of it. But we do deny that it is the only  way in which it relates to morality: our criticism of Carroll is thus allied to anargument for the idea that narratives can indeed provide us with interesting propositional moral knowledge.Carroll’s formulation and defence of clarificationism is set against thebackground of his argument against autonomism, the thesis that art has nothing to offer in terms of moral knowledge or education which can in any way add toits artistic value. The autonomist position, as Carroll understands it, depends onthe assumption that the only way in which artworks might have moral value in a way that would enhance their artistic value is by their somehow transmitting interesting moral propositional knowledge. And since autonomism rejects thisidea, it reverts to the notion that artworks do not have a moral dimension that canplay a part in its value (ANMU, p. 130). But although Carroll agrees with theautonomist that artworks cannot transmit interesting moral propositionalknowledge, he wants to suggest another way in which artworks may serve amoral-educational function, through clarifying our already-held moral beliefs. Although our main task in this paper will be to take issue with Carroll on theadequacy of clarificationism as a theory, we would also like to see whether it © British Society of Aesthetics 2001 109  British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 41, No. 2, April 2001 1 Noël Carroll, ‘Art, Narrative, and Moral Understanding’, in J. Levinson (ed.),  Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection , (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1998), pp. 126–160. Hereafter ANMU. Although we use Carroll’s article as the basis for the distinctions we make, it is not necessary tohave read the article to understand our paper.  fulfils the anti-autonomist purposes to which Carroll wants to put it. We shallargue that it does not.Some of Carroll’s arguments for clarificationism may initially seem weak, and we shall argue that, as they stand, they are indeed inadequate. We shall argue,however, that they may be strengthened if modified in a way suggested to us by Carroll’s own use of examples, which are predominantly political in character.On one interpretation, clarificationism makes better sense when applied topolitical narratives rather than ones that engage with personal moral issues.Carroll’s argument is thus strengthened, though the scope of its conclusion isnarrowed down.IICarroll usually formulates clarificationism through a contrast with the rival view that art can provide us with moral education in the form of interesting ‘know-ledge [that] can be distilled into propositional form’ (ANMU, p. 130)—let us callthis view propositionalism. Note that propositionalism does not deny that we cangain non-propositional knowledge through narratives; it merely denies that thatis all we gain. Clarificationism and propositionalism are thus mutually exclusive. Why reject propositionalism? Carroll claims that the kind of art ‘which hassomething to say that can be put in the form of maxims—like the punch lines to Aesopian fables or the entries in captain Kirk’s log at the end of   Star Trek episodes—usually delivers little more than threadbare truisms’ (ANMU, p. 130).Only a small number of artworks ‘express general moral precepts’, then, andthose which do are ‘typically so obvious and thin that it strains credulity to think that we learn them from artworks. Instead, very often, it seems more likely that athoughtful preteeneager will have mastered them already’ (ANMU, p. 130). Anexample of such a truism is ‘murder is wrong’, which is, according to Carroll, theonly moral proposition we may extract from Dostoyevsky’s  Crime and Punishment .This is neither a surprising nor a new moral proposition, and it seems unlikely, asCarroll points out, that anyone would learn it from reading the novel. Carrollthen makes the point, crucial to his overall argument, that ‘it is probably a pre-condition of actually comprehending   Crime and Punishment  that the readersalready grasp the moral precepts that motivate the narrative’ (ANMU, p. 130).The idea is that to understand a narrative, the reader must have a stock of moralknowledge already, and hence that narratives cannot give brand new moralknowledge. Let us call this the argument from the morally laden nature of theunderstanding of narrative, or the moral-ladenness argument for short.The argument is spelt out on pp. 139–140, where Carroll’s unobjectionablepremises are that our understanding of narrative relies on our possession of  various kinds of knowledge, ‘ranging from facts about human biology to factsabout geography, history, politics, religion, and so on’ (ANMU, p. 139), and mostimportant ‘human psychology’ (ANMU, p. 139). If we had no knowledge of  110 NARRATIVE ART AND MORAL KNOWLEDGE  human psychology, it is clear that we could not understand the subtle psycho-logical power games that underlie many of the dialogues in Jane Austen’s novels,for instance. On a more mundane level, knowing nothing about history wouldpresent a problem if one were to grasp why those characters travel with coach andhorses, and not by car. Carroll goes on to point out that someone who had nomoral knowledge would simply fail to  understand  certain narratives: ‘anyone whodoes not find Uriah Heep in  David Copperfield  repugnant would have missedDickens’s point’ (ANMU, p. 139). One has, then, to perceive certain moralproperties of characters and situations in order to be said to have properly under-stood the narrative. One must, for instance, see the moral harmfulness of Emma’sproclivity for meddling in others’ personal lives in Jane Austen’s  Emma , even if one grants her the best of intentions.If one’s understanding of narrative is already laden with moral notions, then—so the argument goes—no new propositional knowledge can be gained fromnarratives. This is because our pre-existing moral knowledge has to be ‘mobilised’(Carroll’s term), along with other kinds of knowledge, in order for us tounderstand narratives. This argument from the morally laden nature of theunderstanding of narrative is, strictly speaking, distinct from the argument fromspecific cases, of which  Crime and Punishment  is one, to which we shall returnin due course. The latter argument simply looks at particular narratives, oftenimportant and influential ones, and points out that the only moral propositionsthat can be gleaned from them are not going to be news to anyone with a ‘pre-teenager’ stock of moral knowledge. The moral-ladenness argument is supposedto back up the specific cases argument, and give a principled basis for what wouldotherwise be a shaky inductive argument.In view of its logical priority, let us examine the moral-ladenness argumentfirst. This is its structure:(i) Understanding narrative depends on the possession of moral concepts.(ii) In any form of communication depending on the possession of X-typeconcepts, no interesting propositional X-type knowledge may be gained.(iii) (from i and ii) No interesting propositional knowledge may be gained fromnarratives. We have already granted the first premise. The second is a good deal morequestionable. For it seems to lead to some absurd conclusions. It is obvious, forexample, that moral discussion generally is only possible if its participants possesssome moral knowledge. If one wanted, say, to persuade someone to accept asocialist political standpoint, one would no doubt try to provide one’s inter-locutor with what one perceives to be factual knowledge about the state of the world. One might also have to argue that the socialist conception of justice is thecorrect one, that it is not unrealizable, and so on. It is clear that one could not do OLIVER CONOLLY AND BASHSHAR HAYDAR 111  this unless one’s interlocutor had a good grasp of the concept of justice, andknowledge that justice is a good thing, for instance. The possession of the conceptand possession of the knowledge are concomitant: no one could be said to graspthe concept of justice unless they saw it as a moral good.The logical status of propositions such as ‘murder is wrong’ and ‘justice isgood’ is not clear; they seem to be close to being analytic, or true by definition.Their epistemological status is also unclear, namely that of whether their truth isknowable  a priori  or  a posteriori . We need settle neither question for the purposesof this paper. All we need to establish is that these moral propositions are basicin the sense that grasping them is a prerequisite for grasping many other moralpropositions, and also in the sense that it is difficult to see how someone whodoes not already accept them could be persuaded to do so. In order to bring outtheir place in the hierarchy of moral discourse, let us call these basic propositionsLevel 1 moral propositions. In addition to those already mentioned, Carrollmentions ‘concepts of vice and virtue and so on’ (ANMU, p. 142), and thecorresponding knowledge that vice has a negative and virtue a positive moral value. Another level of moral proposition can be discerned, which fleshes outsome of the concepts that are merely positively or negatively valued at Level 1.For instance, the concept of justice may be understood in a number of ways, suchas the Platonic conception, the rule-utilitarian conception, and the Rawlsian con-ception. These conceptions make connections between the concept of justice andother moral concepts, such as those of social harmony, overall happiness, andfairness. These kinds of proposition—let us call them Level 2 propositions—differ from Level 1 propositions not only in complexity, but also insofar as they are subject to legitimate disagreement. Yet another level of moral proposition canbe discerned at which another kind of disagreement can occur. At this level—Level 3—it is possible for two people to agree on a particular conception of  justice, say, but disagree on how to apply it, and what to classify under theheadings of the just and the unjust. For instance, two people may agree ona conception of justice that incorporates a strong degree of egalitarianism, butdisagree on what constitutes fulfilling work, and hence on whether the relegationof the majority of women to housekeeping roles in a given society counts as aninjustice or not.It may seem that there is little to separate Levels 2 and 3, in that Level 3 judgements are more refined and specific than Level 2 ones, and more directly sensitive to factual judgements. Quine’s picture of our stock of judgementsforming a kind of interrelated web of propositions, with analytic judgements atthe centre and synthetic ones at the periphery, is helpful in understanding theleveled nature of moral judgement. 2 This picture has the ‘purely moral’ 112 NARRATIVE ART AND MORAL KNOWLEDGE 2  Willard van Orman Quine, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, in Quine,  From a Logical Point of View (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U.P., 1956).
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