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Empirical methods interact with moral philosophy in several ways. In this paper I remark the role of experience, as well as formative experience, in moral epistemology. I defend the thesis that abstract reasoning is not sufficient in morality. Experiences are needed for refined moral judgments. In particular, I focus on experience and formative experience through engagement with artworks. I endorse a form of art cognitivism, the thesis that we can learn through experiences of artworks, but here I remain neutral toward whether the cognitive value of artworks contributes to their artistic value.

In my view, learning from artworks is not detached from abstract reasoning, but complementary to it. This is needed in order to reply to an objection directed at art cognitivism, one which appeals to the fact that the properties of artworks can improve our moral cognitive capacities, as well as reduce them.

I reply to this objection by saying that although art is one resource of moral learning, it is not the only resource. This is why we must not passively endorse insights that are derived from experiences of artworks. We must critically analyse these by comparing them with other beliefs and experiences. Experiences of artworks are a source of moral learning, but insights that are derived from them must be reflective and critically examined. The model is a kind of reflective equilibrium, where various sources of learning interact and support, as well as check, each other for moral learning.

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Introduction. Ethics and the empirical method

1I indicate the role of empirical method, through formative experience, in moral epistemology. I endorse the thesis that abstract reasoning is not sufficient in morality. Experiences are needed for refined moral judgments and permanent formative experience is required in order to refine the capacity of moral judgment. Formative experience stems from an engagement with morally relevant experiences, but it is not disentangled from abstract reasoning, which also has an important role. The interaction and mutual support between the two sources of moral learning is also needed. In this paper I focus on experience and formative experience through engagement with artworks.

1. Understanding of moral principles

  • 1 Jones (1999: 55-78). Contrary to the central interest in this paper, which is nurturing and develop (...)

2It is a visible fact that in moral thought people frequently have knowledge about general moral principles, or have the proper general moral attitude, but, nevertheless, lack something important in their grasp of morality. A case of such a lack of understanding is described by Karen Jones, who speaks of a boy who “had a settled and serious commitment to the elimination of racism and sexism, but he was not very good at picking out instances of sexism and racism”.1 This boy, which is the same as many sincere but morally unskilled opponents of discrimination, needs to refine his moral judgment and understanding. As such, people like this need to understand that it is a form of discrimination to grant equal formal opportunities to people, but fail to offer proper education to all.

3How is it possible that one can have a general propositional knowledge of moral principles, or general approvable attitudes, and, nevertheless, fail in important ways to the grasp of requirements of morality? In my opinion, the reason lies in the nature of moral principles. They do not only require propositional knowledge, but judgment and understanding, as well.

  • 2 Hills (2009: 100-102).

4A relevant contribution for the present discussion is the one offered by Alison Hills. The notion in moral epistemology that she stresses is that of understanding. Understanding includes not only knowing that something, let’s say p, is wrong, but grasping the reasons as to why p is wrong, i.e. also apprehending the reasons why p is wrong. Among the features of understanding, she indicates the capacity to draw relevant distinctions in morally relevant situations and to come to correct conclusions about similar cases. When we have understanding, the ability to draw the right conclusions is not a matter of luck, but it depends on an appreciation of the reasons of a moral statement.2

5One might object to Hills’s view by saying that grasping the reasons behind principles is unnecessary, or, in other words, say that one can know that p is wrong without understanding why p is wrong. So, it might be possible to say that there are plenty of people who would say that murder is wrong without being able to say anything further about why it is wrong. If asked to justify their knowledge claim, they may not even be able to understand the claim because to them it is simply the case that murder is wrong.

6On the contrary, I think that Hills is right. Grasping the reasons behind a principle is needed not only to back up a principle (after all, in usual cases the duty to not kill may be more evident than any reason one might provide for it), but, as Hills remarks, in order to establish proper distinctions, as well. This is clear in cases like self-defence, capital punishment, physician-assisted suicide, or abortion. I do not think that it is plausible that one can be able to draw all these distinctions without grasping the reasons behind the principle. By this I do not say that the process of reasoning is one-directional from reasons to principles. Particular insights may revise or refine other levels of moral thinking, as well.

  • 3 In the terminology of Millar (2010), I refer, here, to testimony consisting of tellings – reporting (...)
  • 4 Hills (2009: 111).
  • 5 Ivi: 119.
  • 6 Ivi: 112.
  • 7 Ivi: 101.

7In opposition to moral understanding, there is, for example, moral knowledge through the testimony of others.3 In these cases, a person can know what is right, i.e. p, she can even know why p is right, i.e. she can know that the reason why p is right is q (although frequently moral education is imparted without the provision of reasons). However, she knows this only because she was told this, and not because she is able to grasp the relation, which limits her ability to manage moral deliberation.4 On the contrary, a person that has understanding when being told that lies that make people happy are not always right, will see why this is so, and know how to apply her grasp of these considerations to other similar cases.5 I endorse Hills’s view on the limits of moral learning by testimony alone. Although it is true that the main part of moral education is based on simple statements such as ‘Don’t do p’ without caring about understanding, such an endorsement of principles is not sufficient for a mature moral life. Lacking moral understanding means not being properly responsive to moral reasons, what Hills calls a lack of orientation.6 Understanding includes, at least to some extent, a systematic grasp of morality. The reason is visible from what we have said above. Without systematic grasp one cannot understand the relation between a moral requirement and other requirements, cannot recognize instances covered by a normative requirement (like the boy in Jones’s example, unable to recognize instances of discrimination), and cannot understand the proper domain of the application of a principle (like in different cases of killing). To use Hill’s example, if one understands the moral reason for helping the needy, one must have some awareness about the moral importance of the needs of other people and some grasp of the relative importance of such needs in comparison to other considerations.7

  • 8 Ivi: 126.

8In Hills’s discussion, mere knowledge of formulations of moral principles and even mere knowledge of the reasons for a moral principle are not sufficient. Understanding and judgment are required, as well, and she indicates the need for formative experience that she calls ‘practice’ in order to refine them. At the end of her paper, Hills focuses on recommending moral philosophy as a tool to develop judgment and understanding.8

  • 9 DePaul (1993); Nussbaum (1986, 1990).

9In the remaining part of this paper, my intention is to show how the refinement of judgment and understanding can be achieved with formative experience through engagement with artworks that may function as a supplement to philosophical reasoning. Frequently, as Hills does, moral philosophers do not orient their attention to the role that art can have in supplementing their theories, although there are moral philosophers who also give art a central role in ethics, as well. Michael DePaul and Martha Nussbaum are among such examples.9 In my view, the epistemological resources of art and of more traditional philosophical reasoning interact and cooperate permanently and more strictly.

10Before continuing, I am going to spend a moment justifying my intention of complementing philosophical reasoning with an engagement with artworks. The reason for this complementing is related to the nature of understanding and judgment. Understanding, as we have seen in Hills’s explanation, is not only a propositional knowledge of the reasons behind a moral requirement (such as ‘p is wrong because of q’). Understanding involves grasping the reasons.

11I illustrate this with an example. S is the leader of a group engaged in an activity and knows that telling a member of the group that her performance was insufficient can be either humiliating or stimulating, depending upon a subtle difference in how this is told. S does not want to be humiliating, but unfortunately she is unable to distinguish between the behaviour and the choice of words that humiliate and that stimulate. She may even be told that a too direct and crude communication is humiliating. But she is very approximately able to choose the right behaviour and the right words. She can partly ameliorate her ability by using the suggestions of a skilled person (which is equivalent to what Hills describes as moral knowledge through testimony) or with some theoretical knowledge, for example through reading books on the psychology of communication (which is equivalent to what Hills describes as development of understanding by the help of moral philosophy). But this is only part of the story and for further development, formative experience is needed. This includes, among other things, experiences in communication with others by practicing communication skills, suffering episodes of humiliation, as well as having experienced occasions of stimulation after a bad performance. It is after these formative experiences that a person is able to compare her developed abilities with those naïve ones possessed earlier and say ‘now I understand’.

  • 10 In relation to the fourth element that I indicate, I can mention David Davies who remarks that one (...)

12I think that engagement with artworks is a powerful instrument for the refinement of moral understanding. Why artworks? As preliminary reasons, I can remark upon their greater capacity to engage people than the usual exemplifications or thought experiments as provided by moral philosophers, the fact that they are more detailed, the fact that they may be good substitutes for real life situations that may be related to negative consequences, and the fact that they are able to remark details neglected in real life.10

  • 11 Hills (2009: 104).

13I have explained what I mean by ‘understanding’ but it remains to be explained what I mean by ‘judgment’. ‘Judgment’ is the operative ability that results from understanding. For example, when we understand discrimination, we have the ability to assess a practice as proper and another practice as improper. In other words, judgment is the ability to generate new true moral beliefs by ourselves.11

2. Art as a source of moral understanding

  • 12 I have already discussed Carroll’s contribution to the debate in Baccarini (2010); Vidmar and Bacca (...)
  • 13 Carroll (1998: 145).

14The primary candidate for complementing Hill’s proposal is represented by the proposal that Nöel Carroll calls clarificationism.12 Carroll discusses about the contribution of art to moral learning. In his opinion, art’s contribution to moral learning is not represented by the provision of new propositional knowledge, but by a better understanding of what we already know: “Understanding is meant to mark our capacity to manipulate what we know and to apply it with a sense of intelligibility – not simply to have access to abstract propositions and concepts, but to apply them intelligibly and appropriately. […] Understanding is the activity of refining what we already know, of recognizing connections between parts of our knowledge stock, of bringing what we already know to clarity through a process of practice and judgment”.13 Carroll’s discussion appears as complementary to Hills’s because he indicates art as an instrument of refining understanding.

  • 14 Baccarini (2010).
  • 15 Carroll (1998: 126-160). Carroll’s proposal, primarily in relation to the method of reflective equi (...)

15There are several ways in which artworks contribute to better understanding of moral principles, or moral virtues. For example, as I have indicated in Reflective Equilibrium, Art and Moral Knowledge,14 the experience of an artwork such as Born on the Fourth of July helps us clarify the concept of patriotism in such a way that we interpret, through the sequence of the two interpretations of the concept, people as Ron Kovic, and not people who blindly support their country, as proper examples of patriots). A more detailed explanation of art’s cognitive contribution is offered by Carroll, who indicates that the experience of an artwork can help us to classify already familiar phenomena in a new way, in connecting disconnected beliefs, or in reorganizing the hierarchy of our moral categories and premises.15

  • 16 Young (2001). I have already discussed Young’s proposal in (Baccarini 2010); Vidmar and Baccarini ( (...)

16I now discuss the proposal of James O. Young in order to show more details of the way in which art’s techniques operate for this end.16 He distinguishes the particular way in which art represents, and, therefore helps learning, and I think that this explanation helps us to understand the ways in which art can improve our capacity of moral judgment. In addition to this, it helps us with specifying moral principles and is, therefore, a complement to moral philosophy.

17Young’s main distinction is between semantic representation and illustrative representation. Semantic representations represent due to their virtue of being true (like, for example, ‘it is a rainy day’). There is a relation of truth between the statement and the world, and the truth-relation is determined by the meaning of words and by reality. Illustrative representations represent due to their virtue of there being something in common between the illustration and the represented object. The public recognizes the representation on the ground of similarity. More precisely, Young remarks that there must be a similarity between the experience of the representation and the experience of the represented object. A convention is needed, as well, but, contrary to the case of semantic representation, the convention is not sufficient to represent. Illustrative representations are not true, but they help us acknowledge the truth.

18Young shows that artworks do not represent semantically, but illustratively, by indicating the cases when they do not contain the relevant information that the author offers to the audience. For example, Guernica does not include the information that fascism was evil. At most we can say that the picture includes the information that there were mutilated, hurt and killed people. We extrapolate the information that fascism was evil. More generally, Young says, pictures do not contain the relevant information, we extrapolate the relevant information from the picture. Due to the fact that pictures do not contain the relevant information, they cannot be statements. However, by provoking an experience in us, they lead us to extrapolate the relevant information. As a consequence, they are not semantic, but illustrative representations.

19One can think that artworks in literature are semantic representations, in virtue of their verbal form. But, on the contrary, literary artworks are distinctively illustrative representations, the same as artworks in other arts. We can describe the way literary artworks represent by relying on cases of illustrative representations in ordinary speech.

  • 17 Young (2001: 44-52).

20Let’s think about the case, indicated by Young, of someone who says “The vice-chancellor said ‘students are our partners and our clients’”. This is obviously absurd, because nobody can be a partner and a client at the same time. In this case Young is not semantically representing the vice-chancellor’s stupidity, but, instead, he represents his stupidity by the illustration of a nonsense that the vice-chancellor can pronounce. We can see illustrative representation in one of our previous examples, Born on the Fourth of July. Here the explicit statements are not what is relevant. The prominent aspect is the experience of physical mutilation, psychological harm and deprivation related to one of the interpretations of patriotism. It is from this experience that we extrapolate that such an interpretation of patriotism is flawed. Examples in literature are, among many others, the illustration of a flawed way of living represented by a kind of hedonism, like in Dangerous Liaisons where we see that Valmont’s insensitivity in his relation with Madame de Tourvelle led to a chain of human catastrophes. Another illustration is that of the need to overcome the incapacity to establish proper emotional relations with people caused by the complex created by something perceived as a natural defect, as well as the resentment for it, because the answer that results in evil like in the story of Richard III causes a succession of destruction of people, and self-destruction eventually. These are examples of illustrations that Young calls ‘verbal illustrations’. Another kind is represented by descriptive illustrations, where the audience recognizes similarities between the illustration and the objects represented (like in Aesop’s tale of the fox and sour grape – there is a similarity between the fox and the people who belittle the objects they cannot obtain).17

  • 18 More precisely, I refer here to the case of testimony as ‘facts stating’, i.e. testimony in which w (...)
  • 19 Young (2001: 65).
  • 20 Ivi: 67.

21It is important to remark upon another feature of the cognitive contribution of art. The same as sciences, or philosophy, art’s main cognitive contribution is not represented by the testimony they provide.18 Although a lot of what there is in sciences, as well as in artworks, is testimony, only a small part of their cognitive value is represented by this testimony (in the sense of fact stating that I indicated in the previous footnote). An important part of the cognitive value is represented by the interpretation of the object about which the testimony speaks.19 Here, however, there is an important difference between sciences and philosophy on the one side, and arts on the other: sciences and philosophy interpret through theories or models, while arts interpret through a perspective on the object. “A perspective is a way of conceiving of an object that can enhance the understanding of the object”.20

22We can see, now, how art can provide the contribution needed for enhancing moral understanding. Contrary to the contribution of philosophical reasoning that is mainly based on explicit statements, artworks give us illustrations and provoke experiences, and, therefore, experiential knowledge, and, as such, are a complement to philosophical reasoning. They can deepen and lead to a better understanding of the propositional knowledge we have reached through philosophical reasoning.

3. Radical changes

  • 21 Arpaly (2000: 508).

23I do not neglect the ability of artworks to lead to radical revisions of previous beliefs, although it may appear from my discussion until now that I limit the potentialities of moral learning offered by formative experiences, and those through artworks in particular, to limited developments represented by better understanding of the general principles or concepts that we already know. So, it might appear that I speak about the possibility of epistemological moral development only in the sense of better recognizing situations covered by a moral requirement that is already known, or to delimit the range of application of moral requirements already known, or to the possibility of connecting disconnected beliefs. These are all important cases of moral learning, but it seems that I neglect a fundamental case of the enhancement of moral learning, i.e. a radically new moral perspective. In this case we are faced with what we call basic learning or radical changes of a moral perspective. Obviously, they are very important. Such are the changes discussed by, for example, Nomy Arpaly, who describes situations that she thinks are routinely judged as epistemically rational, although they represent radical changes. One is the case of a young man (called Candide) who initially accepts the teachings of Dr. Pangloss and thinks that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Due to the fact that the young person has emotionally invested very much in the endorsement of this view, it is very difficult for him to abandon it, although life experiences contrast it. But one day, after being asked about it, he simply discovers that he does not believe in that view, and did not for a long time. The change of perspective is not the result of deliberation and it does not follow from argumentative steps, it is a radical change of seeing, but it is rational nonetheless. “Finally, the young man came to his senses”.21

  • 22 Ivi: 509.

24Arpaly says that this is probably the typical way in which people change their minds in matters that they find important: “the very subjects regarding which an attempt to argue with them and talk them out of the error of their ways is likely to encounter the sternest irrational resistance”.22 So, for example, very few racists can change their mind through a process of deliberation and through a refinement of what they already know. Typically, they become aware of the irrationality of their prejudice through a radical change of perspective after life experiences, like, for example, experiences with people of the discriminated race that show the racist the mendacity of their prejudices. Their change of mind is not the result of deliberation, it is a change of perspective.

  • 23 Ivi: 488.
  • 24 Ivi: 509.

25To be sure, Arpaly’s and my goals diverge. She is engaged in providing us with “a theory that tells us when people act rationally and when they do not”,23 while my attempt tries to offer a contribution to what she calls a manual with instructions for making rational decisions (in our case, epistemic decisions). I, nevertheless, agree with her about the importance of radical changes. However, in virtue of my ‘manual with instructions’ intention, even if I accept the legitimacy of radical changes of seeing, I stress the necessity to make them in a reflective way, partly separated from deliberation, but not fully detached from it. The reason for my approach is introduced by Arpaly herself. She is aware that not all the changes of mind that she has described above are rational: “a person can be rational or irrational in a way in which some conclusion dawns on her”.24

  • 25 Young (2001: 105).
  • 26 Ivi: 105-106.
  • 27 Here I reproduce my previous discussions in Baccarini (2010) and Baccarini, Miskulin (2013).

26The possibility of wrong changes of seeing must be kept in mind when speaking about art as a source of formative experience. Artworks, as experiences in general, are sources of learning that must be approached carefully, because they may represent formative experiences, but in other cases they can also represent degenerative experiences. We must consider whether our reaction to the experience is proper, but also whether the artworks provide a proper experience, in the sense that they offer an appropriate perspective, or whether they are misleading. As Young indicates, even if a perspective is abhorrent, by employing the same artistic techniques used by artists in offering proper perspectives, “a clever writer may be able to make such a perspective appealing”.25 But this only urges caution in learning from artworks, and does not reject this possibility. As Young says: “Audience members need to ask themselves whether the perspective provided by an artwork is supported by their past experience. They may need to seek additional experience before they can decide whether some perspective is right”.26 This is the reason why, although fallible, representations offered in artworks are testable. Think about Triumph of the Will and about The Great Dictator. We test each of these opposed perspectives with other relevant information we have about Nazism and its consequences, as well as about other regimes and ideologies supportive of the claim of dominance of one race over others, as well as the dominance of the collective over the individual. In this way we are justified in accepting the perspective offered by The Great Dictator and we do not accept the perspective offered in Triumph of the Will. Although an artwork can be a source of knowledge, it does not need to do this in insulation from other sources of knowledge. To the knowledge of facts, we add all other sources of knowledge that we have, including moral beliefs, but also comparison with other formative experience, as, for example, those related to other artworks.27 A radical change is not something that we can merely let happen to us. We must try to verify the opportunity to embrace it. Obviously, for most of us in the case of Nazism the evidence we already have is sufficient to evaluate a perspective. But in more complicated issues new evidence may be required. This may be the case when we are engaged in establishing the understanding, for example, of gender and racial discrimination.

27Engagement with artworks operates partly at the sub-conscious level. In this sense illustrations function partly as causes of new insights and not as reasons. However, they are not mere causes. They represent how things are, and, although they operate partly at a sub-conscious level, this is not the whole story. Their functioning as reasons is coherentistic. We assess them through beliefs we obtain from other sources. In this way, we may assess, for example, whether the illustration of Nazism offered by Triumph of the Will is proper, or whether that offered by The Great Dictator is proper. But illustrative representations in artworks contribute actively to our process of moral epistemic deliberation, as well, because we can use them to assess the beliefs that we have from other sources. In virtue of this role in the process of epistemic deliberation, illustrations may function as reasons.

  • 28 Cfr. Lamarque, Olsen (1994: 5); Davies (2007); Davies (2010).

28An explanation is needed at this point. It is visible that in my opinion artworks alone cannot provide learning. The insights that we receive from artworks must be put to further scrutiny, i.e. we must confront them with further evidence. This may appear to some less than the cognitivist thesis in philosophy of art affirms (i.e. the thesis that art is an important source of learning, and that there is something integral to at least some artworks which makes learning indispensable to their artistic value), because in my picture the epistemological activity is external to the artistic practice28. In any case, here there may be a relevant difference between artistic and scientific contribution to knowledge. Scientific theories include hypotheses, as well as all the evidence in favour of the hypotheses. Artworks need further evidence and further reflection external to them.

29But this does not defeat the thesis that art is an important source of learning. To be sure, because of the fact that I endorse a coherentist view, I think that any kind of belief must be supported by other kinds of beliefs and, therefore, the requirement of further evidence as such is not a sign of deprivation of the epistemological value of art.

30A problem can be raised in relation to my previous discussion, precisely regarding its central thesis about the role of artworks in moral learning. It is possible to say both that different people can be moved by different artworks, as well as that different people can react differently to the same artwork.

  • 29 Young (2001: 117).
  • 30 To be sure, I am not engaged here with the thesis on the value of art that variations of interests (...)
  • 31 Although I agree that it is a flaw for artworks to be such that it is impossible for the audience t (...)
  • 32 Rawls (1993, 1996, 2005).

31I agree with the statement that relations with artworks are partly subjective and that “the effect an artwork has on people is influenced by their beliefs, abilities and interests.”29 So, for example, the understanding of patriotism can be tuned differently for different people by watching Born on the Fourth of July. But I think that the problem is frequently overestimated. More precisely, I do not see any particular problem for the cognitivist thesis in art. Sometimes nothing changes a person’s opinion. Sometimes good reasoning does. Sometimes artworks provoke changes or enhance moral views.30 It would be too strong a requirement that artworks as a matter of fact ensure the cognitive development of every person who engages with them. After all, this condition is not satisfied by arguments in philosophical reasoning, as well. When philosophical arguments are not embraced this may show a flaw in the audience, not in the argument and I say the same for artworks. The fact that different people react differently to the same artwork is not enough to deny that the epistemological resources of the artwork are not valuable. It may be, for example, that part of the audience is irremediably obtuse.31 The relevant aspect is that artworks include resources for cognitive development, i.e. they may be additional epistemological resources that operate in cooperation with other resources. Notoriously, there are burdens of judgment in moral issues32 and all possible resources must be used to overcome them, although results are uncertain.

  • 33 Young (2001: 94-104).

32I discuss one final problem before ending. I have relied very much on Young’s proposal that was crucial for me when explaining the relevant contribution of art to moral learning. However, although Young supports a cognitivist theory of art, he says that art contributes in a limited way to moral epistemology. Precisely, it does not contribute to the knowledge of moral theories and moral laws, while it can illustrate only specific moral problems. As an example, Young opposes Martha Nussbaum’s thesis that Dicken’s Hard Times functions as a refutation of utilitarianism. In his opinion, Hard Times does not refute utilitarianism more than the contractarian theory. This novel indicates only that a specific approach to education is wrong, and that it is wrong even from a utilitarian point of view. In another example, Young shows that the artist does not demonstrate, but presupposes a certain moral perspective.33

33As it is visible from what I have said above, moral theories and moral principles (I take this expression as a synonym to his ‘moral laws’) must be interpreted in a more sophisticated way than how Young does, and this interpretation helps to remark strongly upon the role of art in moral epistemology. As we have seen from the previous discussion, the explicit formulations of moral principles are too general, and judgment and understanding are needed for their specification. Formative experience through artworks may be precious here (related to this is Carroll’s explanation of the phenomenon appealed to by Young, i.e. that the author presupposes and does not demonstrate a moral perspective, in virtue of the fact that the artworks’ role is frequently in helping to clarify a moral perspective).

  • 34 Carroll (1998: 146).
  • 35 I thank very much Christopher Cowley, Viktor Ivankovic, Luca Malatesti and Snjezana Prijic-Samarzij (...)

34When cases of radical revisions of moral seeing are involved, I do not deny that engaging with artworks cannot help to decide among general theories like utilitarianism and contractarianism. But I think that it may contribute to a change of seeing from some theories of justice to others, like libertarianism and egalitarian liberalism. There are numerous artworks, for example, that illustrate the application of views of justice that oppose any form of egalitarian social justice, and they may function as powerful instruments. One example is represented by the Three Penny Opera that offers an illustration of a society characterized by uncontrolled market relations where, as Carroll says, “the quality of moral life is coarsened by poverty.”34 Such an illustration seems to support egalitarian conceptions of justice. We see here the example of an artwork that supports a conception of justice and its backup reasons in opposition to other conceptions and backup reasons, by seeing the consequence of living in accordance with the latter conceptions. As a consequence, we can say that the Three Penny Opera gives support to views opposed to libertarianism, in the same way as Guernica opposes fascism.35

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Arpaly, N., 2000, On acting rationally against one’s best judgment, “Ethics”, 110, 3: 488-513.

Baccarini, E., 2010, Reflective Equilibrium, Art and Moral Knowledge, in A. Bertinetto, F. Dorsch, C. Todd (eds), Proceedings of the European Society for Aesthetics, Fribourg, European Society for Aesthetics, 20-33.

Baccarini, E., Miskulin, I., 2013, Art, Moral Epistemology, Psychotherapy, in M. Arsenijevic (ed), Beogradsko-rijecki susreti. Zbornik filozofskih radova, Beograde, Institut za Filozofiju and Filozofski fakultet Beograd, 221-236.

Baccarini, E., Czerny Urban, M., 2013, The moral and cognitive value of art, “Etica e Politica / Ethics and Politics”, 15, 1: 474-505.

Carroll, N., 1998, Art, Narrative, and Moral Understanding, in J. Levinson (ed.), Aesthetics and Ethics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 126-160.

Carroll, N., 2002, The wheel of virtue. Art, literature, and moral knowledge, “The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism”, 60, 1: 3-26.

Conolly, O., Haydar, B., 2001, Narrative art and moral knowledge, “British Journal of Aesthetics”, 41, 2: 109-124.

Cowley, C., 2008, Medical Ethics, Ordinary Concepts and Ordinary Lives, Houndmills, Basingstoke - New York, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davies, D., 2007, Aesthetics and Literature, London, Continuum.

Davies, D., 2010, Learning through fictional narratives in art and science, in A. Frigg, M. Hunter (eds), Beyond Mimesis and Convention. Representation in Art and Science, Dordrecht, Springer: 51-69.

DePaul, M., 1993, Balance and Refinement. Beyond Coherence Methods of Moral Inquiry, London, Routledge.

Hills, A., 2009, Moral testimony and moral epistemology, “Ethics”, 120, 1: 94-127.

Jones, K., 1999, Second-hand moral knowledge, “The Journal of Philosophy”, 96, 2: 55-78.

Lamarque, P., 2010, Reply to Susan Feagin, “British Journal of Aesthetics”, 50, 1: 103-104.

Lamarque, P., Olsen, S.H., 1994, Truth, Fiction and Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Millar, A., 2010, Knowledge from Being Told, in A. Haddock, A. Millar, D. Pritchard, D. (eds), Social Epistemology, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 175-193.

Nussbaum, M., 1986, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M., 1990, Love’s Knowledge. Essays in Philosophy and Literature, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Rawls, J., 1993/1996/2005, Political Liberalism, New York, Columbia University Press.

Vidmar, I., Baccarini, E., 2010, Art, knowledge and testimony, “Synthesis Philosophica”, 25, 2: 333-348.

Young, J.O., 2001, Art and Knowledge, London, Routledge.

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1 Jones (1999: 55-78). Contrary to the central interest in this paper, which is nurturing and developing the faculty of moral judgment, Jones is concerned in demonstrating that for people like the boy it would be the right thing to rely on the moral testimony of others.

2 Hills (2009: 100-102).

3 In the terminology of Millar (2010), I refer, here, to testimony consisting of tellings – reporting information and facts – and not to testimony interpreted as sayings – expressions of opinion and conviction. I discuss artworks as sayings with Iris Vidmar in Vidmar and Baccarini (2010). In this paper, we try to show that artworks contribute to understanding through testimony interpreted as sayings. I do not discuss this specific question further in the present paper.

4 Hills (2009: 111).

5 Ivi: 119.

6 Ivi: 112.

7 Ivi: 101.

8 Ivi: 126.

9 DePaul (1993); Nussbaum (1986, 1990).

10 In relation to the fourth element that I indicate, I can mention David Davies who remarks that one of the central points of art is that of directing our attention to details or perspectives neglected in different contexts Davies (2007: 10-13). Authors who defend the cognitive moral value of art have already discussed the cognitive contributions of artworks. Carroll (1998); Id. (2002); Nussbaum (1986, 1990).

11 Hills (2009: 104).

12 I have already discussed Carroll’s contribution to the debate in Baccarini (2010); Vidmar and Baccarini (2010). Here I use thoughts and formulations from those papers.

13 Carroll (1998: 145).

14 Baccarini (2010).

15 Carroll (1998: 126-160). Carroll’s proposal, primarily in relation to the method of reflective equilibrium, is discussed in Baccarini (2010). However, an important specification in relation to Carroll is needed. His position is explained in terms of, as David Davies says, “tuning up our conceptual apparatus” (Davies 2010: 11). I am not primarily engaged in Carroll’s exegesis, but in looking for the possibility of moral learning through artworks. In my opinion, interaction with artworks can contribute to more than mere conceptual tuning up, i.e. it helps for a better grasp of what is the case in morality (by this I am, here, ready to accept various qualifications, like ‘what is true’, ‘objective’, etc.). To be sure, I do not think that interaction with artworks can do this by itself, but I explain this later.

16 Young (2001). I have already discussed Young’s proposal in (Baccarini 2010); Vidmar and Baccarini (2010); Baccarini and Czerny Urban (2013); Baccarini and Miskulin (2013). Here I use thoughts and formulations from those papers. Further details of the techniques that literature employs for enhancing moral understanding are offered in Carroll (2002).

17 Young (2001: 44-52).

18 More precisely, I refer here to the case of testimony as ‘facts stating’, i.e. testimony in which what the testifier says can be a source of knowledge as mere acquisition of facts for her audience. But I think that the case of testimony is more complicated than Young indicates if we take in consideration artworks that offer testimony as the expression of opinions and convictions, and not merely of facts and information. Cf. Millar (2010: 175-193); Vidmar and Baccarini (2010).

19 Young (2001: 65).

20 Ivi: 67.

21 Arpaly (2000: 508).

22 Ivi: 509.

23 Ivi: 488.

24 Ivi: 509.

25 Young (2001: 105).

26 Ivi: 105-106.

27 Here I reproduce my previous discussions in Baccarini (2010) and Baccarini, Miskulin (2013).

28 Cfr. Lamarque, Olsen (1994: 5); Davies (2007); Davies (2010).

29 Young (2001: 117).

30 To be sure, I am not engaged here with the thesis on the value of art that variations of interests can determine a form of moderate aesthetic relativism (cf. Young 2001: 122-124). My concern is only about the epistemological value of art. I agree with the statement that an artwork cannot contribute epistemologically if a person is disinterested in its subject or theme. On the other hand, there are cases when artworks, thanks to their powerful resources, succeed in directing attention to issues previously neglected. The fact that artworks can fail in catching everybody’s interest does not mean that they are not powerful instruments for this end.

31 Although I agree that it is a flaw for artworks to be such that it is impossible for the audience to understand them. cf. Young’s criticism of avant-garde art in Young (2001: 128-159).

32 Rawls (1993, 1996, 2005).

33 Young (2001: 94-104).

34 Carroll (1998: 146).

35 I thank very much Christopher Cowley, Viktor Ivankovic, Luca Malatesti and Snjezana Prijic-Samarzija who read previous versions of the paper. Their comments and objections are extensively present throughout this version. Many thanks to Inka Miskulin who helped me understand better the learning through illustrations. Parts of the paper that I wrote with her (Art, Moral Epistemology, Psychotherapy) are reproduced in this paper, but the influence of our cooperation is even deeper and wider. Many thanks to the participants of the conference in philosophy of arts held in Dubrovnik in April 2012 for thoughtful comments, in particular to David Davies, Matthew Kieran and Elisabeth Schellekens. Thanks to Sarah Cann Czerny for language editing.

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Elvio Baccarini, «Art, Moral Understanding, Radical Changes»Rivista di estetica, 69 | 2018, 40-53.

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Elvio Baccarini, «Art, Moral Understanding, Radical Changes»Rivista di estetica [Online], 69 | 2018, online dal 01 mars 2019, consultato il 25 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Elvio Baccarini

Sveuciliste u Rijeci / University of Rijeka, Filozofski fakultet / Faculty of Humanities and Social Science, ebaccarini[at]

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