–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Normativity / Objectivity/ Obligation / Value

by | May 27, 2024

My early work in aesthetics and the philosophy of art was devoted to the question of artistic value and whether there was a way one could construe it as objective. The dominant view in aesthetics, greatly influenced by the work of Hume and Kant, has been that artistic values are and could only be subjective. The question that remains, then – and to which both Hume’s and Kant’s work in aesthetics is largely devoted – is whether we can retain or recover any sense of the apparent normativity of evaluative judgments pertaining to the arts, despite that subjectivity. I was convinced that one could not, and because I thought at the time that at least some critical evaluations had to be normative, I set myself the task of finding some sense in which artistic value is objective.

What I settled upon were judgments pertaining to the fulfillment of artistic purposes or functions. That people find The Producers (1967) funny means that it is an artistic success, given that: (a) it is a comedy; (b) the purpose of comedies is to offer humorous experiences to audiences; and (c) it would be quite strange for someone to suggest that a comedy that audiences find hilarious is not a good comedy. Of course, it may not succeed with respect to other artistic aims, but that does not alter the point that qua comedy, The Producers is objectively good.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that artistic value in this sense doesn’t really matter. For one thing, whether something is funny or not remains entirely subjective – in the sense of varying by way of personal inclination, perception, or opinion – so the objective fact, “this funny comedy is good,” is itself dependent upon the subjective fact that “this comedy is funny.” For another, even if a comedy is funny, in that large numbers of people find it humorous and is thus, objectively good, what does this mean if I dislike it, nonetheless? The majority of viewers over the years have found The Producers hilarious, myself included, but suppose I was one of those who doesn’t? In such a case, what difference would its objective goodness make, as far as I’m concerned? And would there be any point in telling me that I “ought” to like it, because it is objectively good? If unanimity on The Producers‘ comedic merits mattered enough, people might decide to silence me, shun me, or prevent me from participating in discussions of the film, but the fact that The Producers’ goodness is objective would have no significance either way. Knowing that The Producers is objectively good wouldn’t make me find it funny, and in the case that a sufficient number of people deemed it important enough to take action against me over the question of The Producers‘ quality, it wouldn’t matter whether it was objective or not.

The logic I have been describing with respect to artistic values and value-judgments is equally applicable in the ethical context. Take any moral prohibition, around which there is a sufficiently wide consensus such that the claims “X is wrong” and “You ought not to do X” are credibly deemed objectively true. Now, imagine a person who is not part of this consensus; who simply doesn’t feel or believe in the wrongness and prohibitedness of X. Does the fact that this wrongness and prohibitedness are objective rather than subjective make any difference to how this person feels or what he believes? Would pointing out that objectivity make any difference? And suppose unanimity on the issue was of sufficient importance to a sufficient number of us that we collectively decided to remove this person from our society. Would it matter to this decision whether the wrongness or prohibitedness of X was objective or not? I don’t see how it would or could.