Thursday 7 November 2013

Art Consequentialism

[This is the first post in my Sequence on artistic value. The entire Sequence can be viewed here:

  1. Art Consequentialism
  2. Art Should Accomplish Something
  3. Art Has Barely Left the Womb
  4. Taste and Social Intuitionism
  5. Artistic Integrity

Together these five posts argue for a theory of artistic value that I have never encountered before.]

When I used to be into movies, one of my favourite debates was whether there could be an objective basis for determining whether a work of art is “good” or “bad.” I changed my mind a few times. Although it intuitively felt as if there were certain aesthetic judgments we should all agree on, I didn’t see how we could possibly have absolute certainty of the legitimacy of those judgments. This is problematic when people disagree about judgments of artistic quality - and they inevitably do.

The view I used to hold was that there were these twin epistemological categories called “Objective” and “Subjective.” Some kinds of statements fell into objective territory and others fell into subjective territory. Although I felt that a lot of the time it was difficult to tell whether one movie was better than another, often we could. I felt that sometimes it was hard to know whether a movie was good or bad, but usually it wasn’t. The gist of this theory is that we can make fuzzy objective statements about art. These statements couldn’t be exact, but they could still be justified by something other than subjective taste.

Later on, I switched to the position that everything was opinion and that there could be no rules in art. I considered all attempts to place rules or boundaries on art were close-minded and limiting. By setting up goal posts and asking artists to score through them, we turn art into sports. When in reality, I believed, art was precisely about not having any rules to follow or goalposts to score through. It was about personal expression, creativity, and the structuring of meaningful experiences. This idea sprung from the realization that we could never have absolute certainty about facts or values. Although we might be able to make intersubjective claims about the historical narrative of aesthetic tastes and values, we could not say anything true about an artwork’s actual quality. Around this time I went from thinking of objectivity and subjectivity as binary concepts to envisioning a continuum on which some things are more objective and others less objective. Still, I felt that absolute certainty was a prerequisite for making judgments of artistic quality.

When I was about 19, I bought Sam Harris’s new book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Harris argues that by defining moral value with reference to measurable, empirical concepts, we can create an objective science of ethics. The book doesn’t reference any existing moral philosophy and isn’t as sophisticated as one might hope, but it was successful in convincing my teenaged self that absolute certainty isn’t required for practical thinking. In regards to art, I thought that there were empirical facts about human biology and psychology - and that artworks could be called “good” or “bad” based on how well they appealed to those facts. I integrated this into my continuum model of epistemology and my view on the impossibility of absolute certainty (two things that Harris does not do). I changed to the belief that “profundity of ideas” was the highest criteria for artistic quality. The work of art was only as good as its philosophy. Unfortunately, I could think of little to no artists in history that shared my philosophical views (I still can't).

I still believe in the supremacy of a single criteria but I no longer champion the artwork’s profundity of ideas. My view changed when I realized that consequentialist ethics provides an elegant solution to the age-old problem of where artistic value comes from: consequences. Crudely put, the goodness or badness of a work of art is directly dependent on the quality of the real-world consequences it leads to, where consequences are judged based on their ability to maximize wellbeing and minimize suffering. If you compared two works of art and one had better consequences on the world than the other, there is no quality or combination of qualities that the second work could possess that would steer me from my preference for the first work. Of course, what we should be striving for is the optimal equilibrium of cultural output. We aren't just blindly maximizing utilons in a subjective consequentialist sense. As far as I know, I am the only person to ever put forth this position. In retrospect, I think it is obviously correct.

Art consequentialism allows us to unify our understanding of art with rational and moral thinking. It's the piece of theory needed to incorporate the domain of media production into effective altruist concerns.

In future posts, I will elaborate more on this consequentialist theory of art. As I’m currently in the process of writing my MA thesis on effective applications of media for altruistic ends, I can currently only place short and informal chunks about these themes online.


  1. Art for art's sake could be a consequentialist position too. It would value the consequence of creating more art that possessed certain properties other than its effects on conscious experience. Your position seems to be more specifically art utilitarianism.

    1. Yup, it is. But if you think this argument would be unappealing to people that hold art sacred, imagine how "art utilitarianism" would sound to them.