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Aesthetic and ethical Attitudes


The essay suggests that (despite some hostile twentieth-century criticism) there is such a thing as a characteristically ‘aesthetic attitude’, and that this idea can indeed shed light on the production and reception of works of art, as well as on the appreciation of nature. It argues, further, that the response to individual ‘particularity’ implicit in the aesthetic attitude renders this attitude continuous with that of ethical attention to – and appreciation of – individual persons: we are concerned here with distinct, but related, aspects of the valuable ‘in itself’ or ‘for its own sake’.

Aesthetic insight connects with moral insight, respect for things connects with respect for persons. (Iris Murdoch)Footnote 1

FormalPara 1.

I had better begin with a few words of explanation of my title. In fact, I must begin with a confession: my topic in this essay originates in reflection on the teaching not of ethics but of aesthetics – though I believe the place where I will come out is also a significant one for moral philosophy.

The term ‘aesthetic attitude’ directs us to an area of controversy in the theory of art. Or rather, it refers us to an idea that has been out of favour now for at least half a century: George Dickie’s dismissal of this idea as a ‘myth’, and his suggestion that the term ‘aesthetic’ is itself fundamentally vacuous (see Dickie 1969), seem to have played a decisive role in discrediting any such way of speaking. The discovery of this state of affairs, over the course of a few years of undergraduate tutorials, caused me a certain amount of puzzlement and indignation: how could there not be something right in such an apparently self-evident account of the kind of experience, and the kind of value, with which this branch of philosophy is concerned? I wanted, therefore, to consider what this ‘something right’ could be, and how far it might be possible to defend the aestheticist idiom against debunking criticism. My ambition was to vindicate (some version of) the thesis that there is a distinctively ‘aesthetic attitude’, and to show that while it is not restricted to works of art (in other words: these are not the only objects to which we can relate ‘aesthetically’), it does help to illuminate the practice of making and paying attention to such works.

FormalPara 2.

As already mentioned, however, my concern here will be to argue for the further – and perhaps more unlikely – claim that what is correct or persuasive in the idea of the aesthetic attitude is also relevant to ethics. How can this be so?

Let’s begin by considering the term ‘disinterested’. This is widely used in general-purpose modern English as a synonym for ‘uninterested’ – that is, simply not interested in something, indifferent to it, possibly bored by it. But in the history of philosophy ‘disinterestedness’ has played a more individual role, already well defined in Kant and Schopenhauer, and gaining a new lease of life in the early twentieth century from writers such as Clive Bell and Edward Bullough. The enduring thought is that there is a way of attending to things that is distanced or emancipated from practical concerns. Kant, for example, explains the ‘judgement of taste’ as one that requires us not to care about the real existence of its object: our admiration for a picture of an oasis, say, or of a Greek temple, has (or should have) nothing to do with the sensation of thirst or with archaeological enthusiasm. Bell pushes his personal artistic ideals to the point of banishing from the appreciation of painting any low-grade emotional investment of the kind invited by portraiture or story-telling (see Cooper 1992, 24). We may find much to disagree with in this tradition, but what I want to take from it is just the postulate of a human ability (sometimes) to allow our thought to play upon things without reference to their bearing on our own problems or opportunities; and of a mental space created by this occasional forgetfulness of the imperatives of survival, perhaps by virtue of our being (for a moment) sheltered from them.

For a sample statement of belief in the ‘aesthetic attitude’ we can turn to Jerome Stolnitz (see Stolnitz 1969), one of the writers selected for criticism a few years later by Dickie. Stolnitz begins his discussion with the general claim that ‘[i]t is the attitude we take which determines how we perceive the world’ (ibid., 17) and that whereas the normal attitude is that of practical perception, we occasionally ‘pay attention to a thing simply for the sake of enjoying the way it looks or sounds or feels. This’, he continues, ‘is the “aesthetic” attitude of perception’ – which he proceeds to define as ‘disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone’ (ibid., 19). Or to bring the discussion a bit closer to the present day, we can draw on Gary Iseminger’s Aesthetic Function of Art (see Iseminger 2004), which proposes a synthesis of the aestheticist approach with the rival view (associated with Dickie) that we need to make institutional considerations central to our understanding of the ‘artworld’. A synthesis – but one that leans more towards aestheticism, since Iseminger does not follow the institutionalists in their ‘separation of classificatory and evaluative issues’: that is, in their claim that ‘what makes something an artwork is a matter of the way in which it acquires that status – not whether, and how, it might merit that status’ (Davies 1991, 114, expounding Dickie). Instead, he allows ‘evaluative issues’, meaning some account of the point (or purpose, or value) of art, to retain a position internal to our conception of what art – in general – is. Thus he maintains that

[t]he function of the artworld and practice of art is to promote aesthetic communication (Iseminger 2004, 23),


aesthetic communication consists in someone designing and making an artifact with the aim and effect that it be appreciated by someone else (ibid., 25-6),

and ‘appreciation’ in turn is

...finding the experiencing of a state of affairs to be valuable in itself (ibid., 36).Footnote 2

Everything in Iseminger’s picture turns upon our willingness to grant this status – the status of being ‘valuable in itself’ – to the exercise of our senses, or of our cognitive capacities generally, on certain kinds of object. It depends, therefore (or at least this is how I would gloss Iseminger’s words) on our recognition that it is possible for something to have value, not instrumentally, but as an element in the kind of life one could regard as desirable; a life ‘for the sake of which one would choose to be born rather than not’, as Aristotle puts it in one of his discussions of well-being (Eudemian Ethics 1216a13).

How does the idea of the valuable-in-itself relate to that of ‘disinterestedness’? Isn’t the reference to a life that we could regard as desirable already enough to show that the engagement of some human interests is being presupposed, and maybe even of some natural human interests, if we can allow ourselves to speak the quasi-Aristotelian language of ‘second nature’?

The clue, I suggest, is to be found in ‘appreciation’. That is: there is a way of thinking about the value of what is offered to us as conscious, thinking, feeling creatures which is ‘disinterested’ in that it spins free of the question: what is that worth to me? (For example, why should I care about such and such a possible occurrence, since I will be dead by then?) The continued existence of a recognizably human life on earth is merely the most obvious example of something we can care about, something in which (if you like) we can take an interest, not for its value ‘to us’ but ‘for its own sake’.Footnote 3 But the interest we can take in the (somewhat remote) future existence of this or that valuable thing is logically bound up with our appreciation of that thing, just ‘for its own sake’, in the present; and hence with the possibility, here and now, of taking a ‘disinterested interest’ in it. (Yes, motives are mixed and if I see myself as some kind of contributor to the general human artistic or cultural effort, my hope that that effort will continue after my death may not be entirely untainted by narcissism. ‘Fame is the spur …’! But all I need to establish for present purposes is that there can be something in it that transcends the narcissistic.)

FormalPara 3.

We seem to have left the discussion of aesthetic theory far behind. That is not in fact my intention, since I want to keep it in view. I would like, however, to return to Stolnitz’s characterization of the ‘aesthetic’ attitude of perception and to ask: isn’t ‘aesthetic’ an unduly restrictive label for the attitude he has in mind, or at any rate for the one he has succeeded in defining? This, as we’ve seen, involved ‘disinterested and sympathetic attention to and contemplation of any object of awareness whatever, for its own sake alone’. Now, ‘any object of awareness whatever’ probably serves in its original context to emphasize that we should not think of the ‘aesthetic attitude’ as reserved for objects endowed with ‘beauty’ as traditionally understood: indeed, Dickie concedes that for this very reason the idea of such an attitude has had a liberating effect on modern aesthetic theory (see Dickie 1969, 44). So we are being shown the possibility of paying the relevant kind of attention to what might initially look like some rather unpromising candidates – the brash, the dissonant, the grimly realistic, and so forth. But if we abstract for a moment from Stolnitz’s reference to contemplation – I say ‘for a moment’ because I will return to this later – then it seems to me that the residual idea of disinterested and sympathetic attention, paid to an object for its own sake alone, may turn out to have as much to offer to ethics as it does to aesthetics. The source of this ethical significance is that there is nothing to say that the object of ‘disinterested and sympathetic attention’ cannot be a person.

I referred earlier (§2) to the ‘disinterested’ mode of attention as one that is supposed to be ‘distanced or emancipated from practical concerns’. This might suggest an immediate mismatch with the kind of attention to others that is required of us as moral beings in particular: surely (one may think) such attention cannot be without practical relevance, since an awareness of other centres of consciousness – and hence, of other interests that may conflict with our own – places all sorts of constraints upon our actions. That is a thought I have no wish to challenge. But at the same time, it seems undeniable that one can allow one’s thought to play upon others without yet – or at all – raising any specific question about the problems or limits imposed on us by their existence; and also, without seeing their existence as presenting us with opportunities. This is perhaps most obvious in the case of fictional persons: here there is (a priori) no question of (real-world) problems, limits or opportunities, so our actual attention to such persons will necessarily be ‘disinterested’, even if it gives rise to various imaginary interests in our dealings with the imagined characters or situations. True, engaging with certain kinds of fictional narrative may be expected to leave one that little bit shrewder or craftier (as in Henry James’s ideal of the person ‘on whom nothing is lost’). But from another point of view, it can also be regarded as an exercise in ‘just looking’ – that is, just taking in the imaginary human spectacle – and hence as an apprenticeship or education in real-world ‘disinterestedness’ with regard to the life around one; in the habit of non-strategic, non-prudential attunement to that life.

You may say: this kind of talk is all very well, but isn’t it tantamount to a proposal to aestheticize our relations with others rather than considering (for example) what they need, or are entitled to expect, from us? Aren’t we, in fact, flirting rather dangerously with a substitution of the aesthetic for the ethical attitude? I would reply: no, not a substitution, since the moment of disinterested attunement (or ‘just looking’) will have its place within a larger scheme of attention to our human surroundings, some parts of which will be of a practical character (concerned with helping, discharging duties, and so forth), but which will not necessarily allow itself to be taken up in its entirety by the practical. This may be easier to see if we remember all those elements of our dealings with others which, on a typical (not too socially isolated) day, may arouse our immediate interest but which we might well judge to be not really any of our business – the signals we pick up about the current mood of some acquaintance or colleague, the speculation about some stranger glimpsed on public transport that may occupy us for a stop or two … In cases such as these, although we feel we are at liberty to speculate, we also recognize that a certain respect for privacy is in order; to go beyond, as it were, ‘just looking’ would be intrusive; even the act of ‘looking’ can rapidly turn into something uncool. Of course it is not always clear at what point thoughtful non-intrusiveness passes over into culpable indifference; but that merely illustrates the sort of indeterminacy, and the demand for ‘practical wisdom’, that is a standard feature of the ethical.

The thought I want to recommend is that this absence of a clear boundary between contemplative and ethical attention – between the activities themselves (if I can help myself to the idea of ‘attending’ as an activity), and also between the kinds of experience that rightfully elicit them – this indeterminacy, I suggest, is not a defect but an interesting feature of our consciousness.

Its interest for ethics is well captured by some of the writings of Cora Diamond. For present purposes, I will focus on her criticism of ‘standard moral philosophy’ for its neglect of a certain conception of particularity – one that ‘[goes] beyond morally relevant specific differences in kind between cases’ (Diamond 1993, 151-2) (the sort of differences acknowledged, say, in the work of R. M. Hare) and in doing so, seems to abdicate from genuine enquiry into the nature of rational moral discussion. But this is where it may be wise to reserve judgement and to achieve a bit more distance on our subject-matter. The standard approach, says Diamond, is property-centred to the exclusion of all else: ‘Moral attitudes are attitudes towards situations, people or things as having certain properties.’ (ibid., 152) By contrast – and here she enlists Martha Nussbaum in support – ‘[t]he idea of the “irreducibly particular” is a moral idea tied to language used differently, and studied, looked at, thought about, differently.’ It relies on the use of language to give voice to our feeling for what is individual and irreplaceable, as in the passage of Proust where the narrator arrives for the first time at a full emotional apprehension of the loss of his grandmother, who has died the previous year (ibid., 151).Footnote 4

Does Proust’s narrator, then, ‘aestheticize’ the memory of his grandmother at the moment when this sense of loss overwhelms him? We may feel that any such description of the event would verge on the insulting. And yet he does, at that moment, seem to be in the grip of a renewed (or perhaps absolutely new) appreciation of her as an individual person, the unique person who has departed from his own life. And if the word ‘appreciation’ is in place here, we may be looking at a significant connection between the so-called ‘aesthetic attitude’ on one hand, and on the other, that ‘different’ and less well trodden part of ethics which is not about matters of principle or policy but about the value of the particular.

The ‘standard moral philosopher’ can now say: ‘Of course it is normal to care about, for instance, your grandmother as an individual; we don’t just throw our old people on to a scrap heap; this is the sort of thing that social policy has to take into account.’ And so it does, in its characteristically abstract way; but when we move to the discussion of policy we return, if only by default, to the ideological mainstream which treats public – juridical – questions as the natural centre of gravity of moral thought. For the moment I just want to keep in view the conviction of Diamond that, central or not, this kind of content should not be allowed to take up the entire space of the ethical; I will eventually suggest (end of §7) that to do so is an error not just from the philosophical but from the policy-making – one could even say consequentialist – standpoint.

FormalPara 4.

I will now return to the ‘aesthetic attitude’ in its original context – that is, in the philosophy of art. According to Dickie, the arch-critic of this notion, the fundamental objection to it is that it misrepresents as a perceptual distinction (attending to something ‘interestedly’ or ‘disinterestedly’) what is really a motivational one, having to do with the purpose of our attention. For example,

Suppose Jones listens to a piece of music for the purpose of being able to analyse and describe it on [?in] an examination the next day and Smith listens to the same music with no such ulterior purpose. There is certainly a difference between the motives and intentions of the two men: Jones has an ulterior purpose and Smith does not, but this does not mean Jones’s listening differs from Smith’s ... There is only one way to listen to (to attend to) music, although the listening may be more or less attentive and there may be a variety of motives, intentions and reasons for doing so and a variety of ways of being distracted from the music. (Dickie 1969, 31-2)Footnote 5

Dickie’s criticism of the aestheticist picture is challenging, but not, I think, decisive. If we choose as a case study the kind of item Smith and Jones are likely to be listening to (a classical string quartet, for example), then it is plausible to say that one cannot listen to such a thing ‘interestedly’ as opposed to ‘disinterestedly’; at any rate, if there were such a way of listening it would presumably not serve the purpose of equipping one with a good understanding of the music, and this is what Jones needs to be able to demonstrate in his exam. (That is: he needs to be able to show appreciation of features of this particular piece which are significant within the relevant practice of musical composition, and he will not appreciate these if he is being distracted by thoughts about his debts, forthcoming graduation ceremony, or the like.) Dickie’s point, however, does not seem to engage with the question of what music is; or more specifically, with the nature of the object that concerns Smith and Jones. And we may feel that the idea of an ‘aesthetic attitude’ can still be of service in explaining this.

Let’s concede to Dickie that as regards the class of sounds in general, any distinction between an ‘interested’ and a ‘disinterested’ way of listening will have to do with motivation or purpose. For example, on the ‘interested’ side, one typically listens to what other people are saying in order to learn something about the state of the world, or about their state of mind or opinion; one listens for the doorbell or the sound of someone’s key in the lock because one is waiting for their arrival; in some settings one might listen for indications of the presence of enemies or predators; and so on. (These examples suggest that ‘interested’ listening, the kind with an ulterior cognitive purpose, is in fact very much the norm.) By contrast, the string quartet listened to by Smith and Jones (with their admittedly different motives) is an item of a kind whose individual members were brought into existence for the purpose of being attended to in a certain way, which I think it is quite natural to describe as ‘for their own sake’ or ‘disinterestedly’ – that is, not for any ulterior purpose. (Even Jones, the examinee, can revise effectively only by listening to the music qua music – in contrast, say, to what he may do late at night when he anxiously listens to the music from a neighbour’s house to determine how loud it is and whether it will keep him awake.)

Of course, there is some oversimplification here, since a lot of classical chamber music – to stick with the current example – must in practice have been intended to contribute to various sub-musical ends such as providing pleasant auditory wallpaper for the social life of the leisured classes. But an artistically discerning patron would not have been content to think of his musical operations just on that level: he would have liked them to be able to stand up to a certain measure of expert scrutiny. Again, we can concede that once music exists, a highly developed educational culture can incorporate it into further practices such as examinations in musical history or theory. But the fact that our string quartet can be taken up into someone’s world of extra-musical problems and opportunities does not affect its identity as an artefact of a certain kind, and we do not yet seem to have discredited the idea that the kind in question comprises things offered, or suitable to be offered, to an audience as objects of attention ‘for their own sake’.Footnote 6

So I am not convinced that Dickie’s comments strike at the root of what the aestheticist wants to say. The point about the string quartet is that it is an object, an artefact, of a certain kind – the kind of thing ‘created to be presented to an artworld public’, as Dickie himself would have it – and that things of that kind have typically been made with a view to their being appreciated by an audience (or ‘public’): made, that is (and here we breach the bounds of the institutional view) with the aim of realizing a certain value, namely the value residing in the existence of some experiences – some states of consciousness – found to be valuable in themselves. The aestheticist can say: yes, it may well be true that unless Jones attends to the music in the same way as Smith (an off-duty violinist, let’s suppose, who happens to be particularly fond of this quartet), he will not succeed in his own aim of effective revision. But if so, this is because effective revision, here, depends on respecting the object as the kind of thing it is, namely one designed to be attended to with no ulterior purpose. The act of listening to it with an ulterior purpose – for exam preparation – serves that purpose only to the extent that Jones replicates, or imaginatively connives with, the attitude of someone like Smith who just listens in order to appreciate the quartet. You don’t know what a string quartet is until you have understood that it is a thing made to be related to in that way! That there are such things, and that they form a category with a certain principle of unity, is just what the aestheticist gets right.

It will probably be clear enough where I am going with this. One can imagine Smith saying: I love that quartet … Which would mean – according to the view we are entertaining – that he has registered the ‘irreducible particularity’ of the work in question and, on that basis, has logged it as a valuable element in the evolving sum total of his experience. Smith loves the quartet; Proust’s narrator is (suddenly, forcefully) aware of the love he felt for his grandmother. Apparently such different kinds of case; but are they really? Here is what seems to me to link them: if it is correct - despite institutionalist considerations, and focussing now on certain central or paradigmatic cases – to think of works of art as being offered to us as worthy objects of attention ‘for their own sake’, then the practice of making (and attending to) such objects must be trading on our prior ability to give the required attention; that is, on the presence of that ability in the relevant social world.

The word ‘prior’ is not meant to suggest any speculative claim about the evolution of human culture: we need not think of artistic production in general as emerging out of a certain level of moral development, successfully achieved. (In fact, it would be a bad epistemological omen if we found ourselves assuming anything on the lines of ‘morality is more important than art, so it must have come first’.) Rather, the idea is that what it is now for something to be made or created as a work of art involves a multifarious capacity – assumed by the maker to exist in his or her putative audience – for valuing objects or experiences ‘for their own sake’. The maker, in other words, expresses (performatively) a kind of faith in our ability to love things – a few favoured things, no doubt, in the first instance – precisely for their ‘irreducible particularity’. Those first few things to awaken our feeling for particularity will naturally have been persons (and maybe some other significant animals). But all being well, and without losing sight of one’s earliest objects of ‘appreciation’, one can go on to discover more varied - and perhaps more complicated - possibilities of exercise for this feeling.

FormalPara 5.

It would be fair to say, in the abstract, that the idea of an affinity between ethical and aesthetic manifestations of the ‘valuable for its own sake’ goes back a long way in our philosophical tradition. Plato comments on the special status of beauty as a desirable attribute which – unlike, for example, wisdom (phronesis) – is immediately present to our senses (Phaedrus 250d).Footnote 7 (That is, your senses can inform you that someone is beautiful, but not whether they are a person of good character – though the latter too is an eraston, an object of desire.) By virtue of this special status, beauty can make an important contribution to our intellectual progress, since – as we learn from the Symposium – it can set us on a path towards the ‘appreciation’, the love, of ‘fine’ (kala) things whose attractions are increasingly remote from the natural (physical) response that provides our starting-point. And eventually – ideally – the ladder can be kicked away and natural appreciation (the kind belonging to ‘first’ rather than to ‘second’ nature) rendered entirely subordinate to an appreciation informed by judgement, so that we can achieve a point of view from which nothing except the good will appeal to us as kalon, nothing except the bad or foolish will look repellent (Republic V, 452de).

Unfortunately, there is something missing from this picture, and it has to do with the phenomenon of ‘irreducible particularity’ considered above. In order to qualify as a Platonist, you have to accept a hierarchical ontology in which the particular, as such, figures as something to be transcended. This is clearly a potential deal-breaker, and it hints at a deeper (because more systemic) difficulty, namely that (as M. B. Foster puts it): ‘[T]he Platonic identification of philosophical knowledge with love of the object known depends upon his failure to recognize that while the proper object of philosophical knowledge is universal, the object of love is individual.’ (Foster 1935, 35)

Particularity – and our attachment to it – as ‘something to be transcended’: we might do well to remind ourselves that this bit of our Platonist inheritance is open to challenge. And it may be that a review of our personal evaluative scenery (the grandmother mourned by Proust’s narrator, and so forth) will do no more than scratch the surface here. What if the most authoritative, or anyway the most profound, ethical demand were rather to be felt as involving a different kind of ‘abstraction’: not in the direction of some quasi-Platonic universal principle, but simply from our own significant ‘others’ to the (still particular) other person as randomly presented to us? The following passage from Emmanuel Levinas seems to be saying that behind our usual social or conversational defences, the face of this random other person – perceived or imagined as an instance of ‘exposure to invisible death’ –

calls me into question, as if, by my possible future indifference, I had become the accomplice of the death to which the other, who cannot see it, is exposed; and as if, even before vowing myself to him, I had to answer for this death to the other, and to accompany the Other in his mortal solitude … Responsibility for my neighbour dates from before my freedom in an immemorial past. (Levinas 1989, 83)

Normally of course one is distracted from all this – even as a more or less solid citizen – by thought, speech, specific events and responsibilities; but what Levinas calls the ‘irruption of the face into the phenomenal order of appearances’ (ibid., 82, emphasis added) confronts me with the mortality of the other person as an ever-present background condition, and makes that mortality (again, suddenly, as I may feel) my business. I take it this effect, if we acknowledge its reality, can be attributed to some non-human animal faces also. (He, she or it is sooner or later going to die! We are all in the same boat!)

This account of the basis of morality is hard to assess directly; we may find Levinas’s vision more or less relatable. It does, however, offer a revelation of the maximum phenomenological force that can be extracted from the idea of ‘irreducible particularity’ – here, the particularity of other living creatures.

Is there a route back from this idea to that of aesthetic appreciation, which appears once again (cf. §3) to have disappeared from view? Clearly we had better not be too eager to invoke ‘beauty’, or for that matter any other form of attractiveness. The thought we found in Levinas was just that there is something arresting – something morally important – in our perception of the vulnerability, the mortality, of the individual other. Not all animals, and certainly not all humans, are equally attractive to us; but to the extent that we grasp the Levinasian thought at all, we understand that the specimen in front of us - however unappealing - nevertheless doesn’t want to die.

So we seem to have located an alternative – non-Platonist – peg on which to hang the concept of the valuable ‘in itself’ or ‘for its own sake’. Plato (at that memorable moment in the Phaedrus) takes our response to objective value to be most readily or naturally aroused by the (outwardly) beautiful, but capable of transcending that response in favour of the universal. The alternative suggestion is that our point of departure might be, not the particular beautiful person, but the particular person or creature in its ‘mortal solitude’. This (mostly implicit) feeling for the value of particular life can ramify, according to the alternative story, into an appreciation of various other kinds of particular bearer of value – a tree, a street corner, a string quartet – or of course a person who happens actually to be admirable or lovable. (I say ‘ramify’ rather than ‘develop’ because it looks as though we are now talking about something more metaphysical than a process of individual moral awakening.) Some of these bearers of value will belong to the natural world (the treeFootnote 8), while others will be informed by a complicated ongoing culture (the street scene, the work of art, the admirable or pleasing qualities of character).

FormalPara 6.

Meanwhile, this ‘feeling for the value of particular life’, with its possible aesthetic spin-offs – might we not invoke it in reply to a familiar complaint about the Kantian tradition of contemplative aesthetics, namely that that tradition amounts to a thinly veiled assertion of class superiority on the part of the theorist? Thus according to Pierre Bourdieu,

The pure gaze implies a break with the ordinary attitude towards the world, which, given the conditions in which it is performed, is also a social separation ... The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile – in a word, natural – enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasure forever closed to the profane. That is why art and cultural consumption are predisposed, consciously and deliberately or not, to fulfil a social function of legitimating social differences. (Bourdieu 1998, 153, 155)

Even the ‘new aestheticism’ of Iseminger (cf. §2) would presumably incur this kind of criticism in that it invokes the concept of ‘appreciation’, or of states of affairs as being valuable ‘in themselves’ (where the implied contrast is with instrumental or, in general, practical value). That move will already constitute what Bourdieu would consider a ‘break with the ordinary attitude towards the world’, and as such an indicator (‘conscious and deliberate’ or otherwise) of social privilege on the part of the theorist and his implied audience.

All this is certainly calculated to unsettle the political conscience. And yet: in so far as the ‘ordinary attitude towards the world’ is supposed to be an instrumental one, we may by now be inclined to protest that the break with this attitude – the shift to a disinterested appreciation of what is valuable ‘in itself’, or ‘for its own sake’ – is equally ‘ordinary’, in the sense of not being dependent for its possibility on any special social privilege. (What could be more accessible, more universal, than that Levinasian ‘irruption of the face …’?) It is true that learning how to negotiate the encounter with rare or difficult artefacts remains for the most part a class-specific luxury. But no special privilege is built into the more basic awareness of ‘irreducible particularity’ with which we are supposing aesthetic appreciation to be connected. So we may want to ask: wouldn’t it be better to direct our criticism straight at whatever social conditions currently inhibit that basic awareness from ramifying (or, we can now say, developing) into something more versatile – and of course potentially more pleasurable, or at any rate a source of new forms of pleasure? (After all, what is the point of educational egalitarianism unless you believe those at the top of the pile to be in possession of something worth having, and would like more people to have it?)Footnote 9

FormalPara 7.

I must now try to sum up the outcome of this discussion. My main purpose has been to show that an inward (and hence, in principle, autonomous) response to the ‘valuable in itself’ ought to be an object of interest to aesthetics and ethics alike. We might think of this response (or rather: this cognitive activity) as extending its protection to various different kinds of thing – but to kinds drawn together, conceptually, by the value we find (or look for) in the things concerned. And I mean ‘protection’ in more than a merely figurative sense: the exercise of our power of disinterested appreciation is connected (I would suggest) with the effort to protect – to conserve – things of value which may be at risk of disrespectful treatment; perhaps also of destruction. (Compare the remark of Iris Murdoch which I took as an epigraph.)

As regards aesthetics, this view stands opposed to the message we receive from the institutional view of art – namely that ‘classificatory and evaluative issues’ have to be kept separate, so that what determines that something is a work of art is the process by which it comes to be classified as such; ‘art’ status is therefore not a matter of merit, or of how well the work measures up to some functional or teleological standard. It seems to me that the motive for resisting this move – this attempt to render our thought value-free at the level of definition – will have its place within ethics too.

Admittedly, if we are going to talk about the moral claim of the human per se, we will have to set aside our usual interest in the question: is this individual a good or a bad person? And renunciation (or temporary suspension) of that line of enquiry is indeed a necessary preliminary to insisting on due legal process, rejecting the death penalty, and suchlike morally significant gestures. So merit is not quite what we need to think about here. But on the other hand, the ‘moral claim of the human’ is not (supposed to be) an effect of some act of classification, or of ‘conferring human status’Footnote 10 – and the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, about the moral claim of the living world in general. Whether we go with Kant (rational nature as an end in itself), or – more expansively – with animal-friendly thinkers such as Bentham or Schopenhauer who focus on the capacity for suffering, there is at any rate something to be said about the basis of the ‘moral claim’: we can say that it is based on the non-arbitrary nature of our concern with ‘irreducible particularity’, and of our wish to promote that concern as part of an educational process. If we are compelled to abandon the idea of such non-arbitrary grounding, then ethics will import a problem or weakness which seems already to be present in institutional aesthetics. That is: if nothing can be done at the level of definition to give functional unity to our subject-matter, then although there may be plenty to say about the various reasons people have for ‘conferring art status’ on this or that item,Footnote 11 what will go missing is the point of the whole operation – and hence the kind of incentive a rational person might have for paying attention to it at all. In these circumstances, the business of reflecting on (what we would call) our ‘reasons’ threatens to take on an anecdotal and descriptive character that will rob the subject of most of its importance. The situation will be analogous, in other words, to the one that has prompted a ‘why bother?’ critique of ethical non-cognitivism: ‘The will craves objective reasons, and often it could not go forward unless it thought it had them.’ (Wiggins 1998, 99 and context)

So although, as I mentioned earlier, my thoughts about ‘disinterested’ attention sprang initially from aesthetics – from the wish to mount a defence of the ‘aesthetic attitude’ against proceduralist attack – I am now inclined to say, on reflection, that my sympathy with aestheticism has probably owed something all along to an implicit awareness of the ethical resonance of that approach; the importance for ethics of our ability (or willingness) to recognize certain things as valuable ‘in themselves’ or ‘for their own sake’. Accordingly, my aim in this discussion has been to recommend holding on to the idea of aesthetic ‘appreciation’, partly for its contribution to our understanding of the arts, but also for the part it can play in a bigger picture of our appreciation of value. I don’t want to suggest that we should think of the business of getting people to appreciate the beautiful, captivating, striking, provocative, and so forthFootnote 12 as merely instrumental to moral improvement. That cannot be my view, since if those objects that invite aesthetic appreciation really do possess value ‘in themselves’, the appreciation of that value must count as an epistemic ‘end in itself’ – whether or not it has the effect of converting us into better people along the way. Nevertheless, it does seem reasonable to think that a habit of open-minded attention to the valuable-in-itself will tend to safeguard us against the contemptuous treatment of more than one kind of (non-instrumentally) valuable object: those issuing from human creativity, yes – but also those belonging to the world of nature, which includes (as a small and subordinate part) the life of the human species, embellished here and there by our individual creative powers.


  1. Murdoch 1993, 495.

  2. Emphasis added in each case.

  3. Important: this kind of concern is not limited to caring about the future well-being of one’s own biological offspring, if any.

  4. Diamond’s example, mediated by Samuel Beckett. She gives some further examples concerned with mourning.

  5. Dickie warns against assuming that conclusions about an example drawn from one art form can be generalized to all others without further investigation. The remarks I go on to make about his treatment of listening to music are therefore to be assessed on their merits as a source of more general insight into the phenomenon of ‘disinterested attention’.

  6. Or as we might also put it: offered as (deserving) objects of admiration. See Walton 1993; and for discussion of G. E. Moore’s definition of beauty (in Principia Ethica) as ‘that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself’, see Lovibond 2015, especially §§3‑4.

  7. Strictly speaking, this thought comes as usual from ‘Socrates’ (the character), not directly from Plato (the author).

  8. We had better specify that we mean a wild, self-sown one, to avoid the objection of Marx and Engels to Feuerbach on cherry trees.

  9. Paul Crowther argues for the interestingly contrarian view that the institutional theory of art is itself ideological (in a bad sense), since it ‘[locates] the audience’s involvement … at the level of consumer rather than participant’ (Crowther 2004, 365). He concludes, paradoxically, that ‘cultural conservatism of the critical and normative kind advocated [in his paper] … is now a left-wing project’ (377; all emphases in original). I take it this is because a conception of the arts in which the exhibition (or equivalent) is treated as the final authority on what a ‘work of art’ is, and what it is like to encounter such things, might be expected to promote a more abject deference to authority than the traditional conception of the artwork as something to be experienced – and valued – through inward ‘appreciation’.

  10. ‘Not supposed to be’: in fact, human cultures do in the past seem to have devised rituals that would naturally be understood as conferring membership of the human community, with the implication that such membership might be withheld. Thus Plato, Theaetetus 160e mentions the ceremony of amphidromia, performed five days after the birth of a child – evidently (from the context) a period in which to address the question: is this child to be reared? One feels that there would be something essentially marginal or abnormal about the situation in which that question had to be treated as more than a formality; still, a ritual existed by which to mark the liminal moment, and to register its passing.

  11. Thus Stephen Davies 1991, 113‑4, expounding Dickie (the point being that although our definition should itself be value-free, there is nothing to prevent us, in the course of more free-ranging conversation, from passing judgement on the value of this or that work).

  12. Adjectives may well proliferate here in response to the diversity of what modern (and postmodern) artistic practice has called upon us to ‘appreciate’. The rewards offered, in particular, by conceptual art usually have little to do with aesthetic pleasure in the traditional sense.


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Lovibond, S. Aesthetic and ethical Attitudes. ZEMO 5, 61–74 (2022).

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  • Aesthetic attitude
  • Aesthetic value
  • Appreciation
  • Attention
  • Beauty
  • Ethical value
  • Institutional theory of art
  • Particularity