Welcome to what we expect will be a very interesting and productive discussion of Louise Hanson‘s “Moral Realism, Aesthetic Realism, and the Asymmetry Claim.” The paper is published in the most recent edition of Ethics, and is available here. Alex King has kindly agreed to contribute a critical précis, and it appears immediately below. Please join in the discussion!
Alex King writes:
Louise Hanson’s excellent paper “Moral Realism, Aesthetic Realism, and the Asymmetry Claim” argues against the common thought that moral realism is more plausible or defensible than aesthetic realism. It is this thought that she dubs the asymmetry claim. She points out five prima facie attractive ways to defend the asymmetry claim, rejecting each of them in turn. But her aim in the paper is not to argue for aesthetic realism; instead, she aims to shift the burden of proof from those who endorse symmetry to those who endorse asymmetry. Ultimately, according to Hanson, moral theory enjoys a disproportionately strong claim to realism, and she argues that we should either take aesthetic realism more seriously than we currently do or else take moral realism less seriously (with the strong implication that we should go the former route).
In what follows, I will give an overview of the paper, including a brief description of each of the five proposed defenses of asymmetry. I will examine the second in detail and present some critical comments. I am extremely sympathetic to Hanson’s project of defending aesthetic realism – indeed I’ve endorsed a similar symmetry claim in the past – so most of my critical comments will be presented with an eye to strengthening her position, rather than vindicating the asymmetry claim.
Hanson discusses five seemingly attractive reasons one might endorse asymmetry. I reproduce them here, verbatim:
DEPENDENCE: Beauty depends on sensuous properties, such as colors and sounds, which are themselves mind-dependent. Moral goodness, on the other hand, does not depend on mind-dependent properties.
PLEASURE: Beauty depends constitutively on pleasure in a way that is incompatible with realism, but this is not the case with moral goodness.
DESCRIPTIONS: You can make a moral judgment on the basis of an accurate, non-moral description. This is not the case for aesthetic judgments […].
ACQUAINTANCE: To judge something beautiful, you need to see it for yourself, but to judge something morally good or bad, you don’t.
PRINCIPLES: One way to judge the moral status of the action is to apply principles, but you can never come to a view on whether something is beautiful by applying principles.
It’s first important to note that Hanson characterizes the realism/antirealism distinction as falling across mind-independence lines. Realism about some domain, for her, is the claim that statements in that domain aim to state facts that are robustly mind-independent, even when it comes to variously idealized observers. For her, then, all response-dependence theories count as antirealist.
To clarify what she means here, it’s useful to look at her argument regarding DEPENDENCE. If true, DEPENDENCE provides a very direct way of supporting moral realism alongside aesthetic antirealism. Because beauty is mind-dependent, and mind-dependence is incompatible with realism, we must deny aesthetic realism. Hanson rightly disposes of this view in short order, pointing out the now-common distinction between mind-independence (in itself not a problem for realism) and stance-independence. DEPENDENCE need not rely on the objectionable sort of mind-dependence. And it’s not obvious how DEPENDENCE, or some claim like it, would rely on the objectionable kind. At the very least, the burden of detailing that account rests with the asymmetry theorist.
On to PLEASURE. Here Hanson tackles a very prominent idea in the history of aesthetics, which she calls Hedonic Response-Dependence (HRD) about beauty. According to such a view, beauty is a dispositional trait of objects to produce some kind of distinctively aesthetic pleasure in observers, traditionally one marked by disinterestedness, given that certain conditions are met. (Like all response-dependence theories, exactly which conditions must be met varies across different versions of the view.) She rejects the argument from HRD to aesthetic antirealism on the grounds that it is question begging: built into HRD is a form of aesthetic antirealism. So at least we need an argument to support HRD.
But maybe we can get a defense of HRD via DESCRIPTIONS, ACQUAINTANCE, or PRINCIPLES. Hanson presents each of these as potential grounds for a view of aesthetic judgment compatible with HRD, namely, a view on which aesthetic judgments essentially involve affective responses. Generally, these arguments take the form of inferences to the best explanation. The general strategy goes like this (my numbering differs slightly from Hanson’s):
P1: DESCRIPTIONS (or ACQUAINTANCE or PRINCIPLES)
P2: The best explanation of P1 is that aesthetic judgments essentially involve affective responses.
C1: So aesthetic judgments do essentially involve affective responses.
This conclusion can then be parlayed into a second argument defending the asymmetry claim:
P3: Aesthetic judgments essentially involve affective responses (and moral judgments don’t).
(Note that this is C1 with an added claim about moral judgment.)
P4: Realism about a domain is incompatible with judgments in that domain essentially involving affective responses.
C2: Aesthetic realism is untenable in a way that moral realism isn’t.
Because HRD is one way of endorsing C1, each of the three disanalogies in P1 can be used to provide independent support for a view like HRD (and thus as partial support for P3).
As for P3 itself, Hanson provides only provisional reason to doubt its obviousness. Her main arguments don’t directly tackle the latter argument. Rather, her aim is to offer betterexplanations in each of the three cases, and thereby undermine P2. I won’t address those arguments here, though those interested in the debates about moral and aesthetic testimony and the acquaintance principle would do well to see what she has to say.
The dialectic of the paper is a bit delicate, so it’s worth being a bit more explicit. Each of the five above disanalogies is not itself exactly a defense of asymmetry. Each of the five submits a point of contrast between the moral and aesthetic domains. Each contrast is then used to support morality’s stronger claim to realism. In other words, each in its own way embodies the spirit of the asymmetry claim, i.e., that a stronger case can be made for moral realism than for aesthetic realism. The reason it’s important to be careful about this is because, as Hanson sometimes notes, one might accept the suggested difference between morality and aesthetics, but reject that it grounds the differential plausibility of realism across the two domains.
I am most worried about her discussion of HRD and affective response theories. In her reply to the question-begging nature of the HRD argument, she points out two responses available to the HRD theorist. The first is to provide an independent argument for HRD. Although some arguments for HRD have been made, Hanson rightly notes that they are in very short supply. Hanson suggests and rejects three possible independent arguments, and this is why her paper at best shifts the burden onto aesthetic antirealists (and by implication, HRD and other affective response theorists). The other possible response she considers is that HRD about beauty might just be so intuitively obvious as to not require argumentative support. She denies that HRD is indeed so obvious.
But her support for this claim strikes me as a bit odd. HRD about beauty is a massively dominant theory in the history of aesthetics. And arguments in defense of the view are very few and far between. These two facts taken together suggest that the view actually does enjoy a great deal of intuitive strength. If it didn’t, then you’d think it wouldn’t be so widespread, there would be plentiful arguments against it, and those arguments would have generated more arguments in support of it. The fact of its dominance and lack of explicit argumentative support suggests that it really is quite a natural thing to think about beauty.
Of course we might try to explain its largely unquestioned dominance in other ways. Perhaps, for instance, it is dominant in Western aesthetics but not as much outside of that, so perhaps it manifests widespread cultural assumptions. (I’m not sure whether this is true.) The point is that, even if one doesn’t buy into HRD (or an affective response theory), it seems mistaken to deny that it’s an intuitive and attractive view. Better to attempt an argument against it.
At one point, Hanson does something like this. As a way to counter the alleged obviousness of P3, the claim that aesthetic judgments essentially involve affective responses while moral judgments don’t, she examines the following potentially Moore-paradoxical sentences:
(1) It’s true but I don’t believe it.
(2) It’s beautiful but I don’t like it.
(3) It’s morally good but I don’t approve of it.
The first is the canonical Moore-paradoxical sentence. It’s not crucial that we see either (2) or (3) as fully Moore paradoxical. What Hanson wants us to see is that, if P3 were true, we should find that (2) sounds worse than (3), since judgments about beauty essentially involve affective responses, and moral judgments don’t. But that isn’t what we find. Instead, we find that (2) sounds much better than (3). We utter sentences like (2) all the time; we constantly overhear people saying things like this in museums or about good-but-difficult novels.
But I think that this argument isn’t as strong as it seems.
For one, notice that the more descriptive the property in the first conjunct of the Moore-paradoxical sentence, the more natural and non-paradoxical the sentence sounds. So, for example, “It’s delicious but I don’t like it” sounds sort of bad, while “It’s inventive but I don’t like it” or “It’s crunchy but I don’t like it” sounds completely fine. Here, Hanson’s focus on beauty as the relevant aesthetic analog of truth and (moral) goodness becomes important. ‘Beauty’ is sometimes used as a thick aesthetic term, to describe one way – but not the only way – for things to be aesthetically good. If ‘beauty’ is partially descriptive, then it may provide unearned support for her case here.
I should say, there’s some disagreement about whether beauty is a thick or thin term. And it gets used in both ways, which further complicates the question. You might think that twelve-tone music is very good, but not at all beautiful – in fact, quite ugly. On the other hand, you might think that ugliness is not incompatible with beauty. There’s a sort of beauty in certain ugliness. … And so on. Because of this snag, I suspect we will get more accurate intuitions if we use a notion like aesthetic goodness rather than beauty.
If we substitute aesthetic goodness for beauty in (2), we get:
(2a) It’s aesthetically good but I don’t like it.
To my ear, this sounds worse than (2). It still might not sound all that bad, though. But here’s another worry: liking isn’t the appropriate analog of belief and (moral) approval. Those who endorse HRD don’t claim that the relevant hedonic response is one of liking. Rather, it’s traditionally a certain sort of (often disinterested) pleasure. I mean, I like Taco Bell, but I wouldn’t say I get disinterested pleasure out of it. If we make the corresponding changes, we get:
(2b) It’s aesthetically good but I don’t feel any pleasure in experiencing it.
Really? No pleasure at all? This sounds worse than (2a), although admittedly its somewhat awkward phrasing makes it a little hard to judge. (Maybe we don’t hear it in museums, but for other reasons than its potential Moore paradoxicality.) But I think we can get past the awkwardness and see that it does sound worse than (2a). At this point, we might think that (2b) is starting to sound about as bad as (3), and maybe even worse.
Notice, too, that even if we had stuck with beauty, we would have:
(2c) It’s beautiful but I don’t feel any pleasure in experiencing it.
This also sounds bad.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds here. The point is that P3 predicts that (2) will sound worse, i.e. more Moore-paradoxical, than (3), because aesthetic judgments, and not moral ones, essentially involve affective responses. Hanson wants the predictions that P3 makes to come out false, which is why she argues that (2) sounds better than (3). (It would serve her purposes, though not as well, if they sounded equally good.) But it’s not clear, I think, that a suitably refined version of (2), namely (2b) or (2c), sounds better than (3). I think, indeed, that it may sound worse to many people.
So an improved version of (2) makes Hanson’s Moore paradox argument look much less convincing. Though her argument, strictly speaking, doesn’t depend on its success, I still think it would be better if there were a way to cut off the problem at its root, namely, somewhere in the second argumentabove (P3, P4, and C2). Otherwise, the temptation to aesthetic antirealism spreads and one has to go through rejecting each positive argument for HRD or affective response theories. Better to try to show that, even if HRD or some affective response theory were true, this wouldn’t undermine aesthetic realism. But since Hanson’s argument is that each of these candidate asymmetries between the moral and the aesthetic domains either is mistaken or else doesn’t support aesthetic antirealism, one has the sinking feeling that someone could come along with a really compelling disanalogy or a really compelling argument for an affective response theory that might undermine the whole thing. But such is the nature, I suppose, of a burden-shifting argument.
One way for the symmetry theorist to address the second argument is to deny P4, that realism about a domain is incompatible with judgments in that domain essentially involving affective responses. Hanson notes but does not discuss this possibility. But this strikes me as a promising path. Those who endorse motivational internalism and moral realism, for example, may well want to deny P4. Such a view can even concede that (3) sounds bad, while also thinking that this is compatible with realism. But of course a similar combination of views is available to the aesthetic realist, even one who thinks that (2), (2a), (2b) or (2c) sounds bad. And my hunch is that even better arguments could be made against P4. So while I think that Hanson has done the symmetry theorist a great service with this paper, the real win would be to somehow reject the second argument rather than the first.