The Moral Dimension of Art

A little while ago I read Tolstoy’s essay “What is Art?”, and found it quite compelling. I had read a few reviews beforehand, which were critical of the religious element, and this lowered my expectations somewhat. However, upon reading it, I found that Tolstoy’s conception of religion is very different to most, and is compatible with a materialist and determinist worldview. It seems to me that perhaps the real reason some people did not respond positively to this essay was its uncompromising moral consistency, which could perhaps be mistaken for religious zealotry.

Many people are willing to contemplate the moral dimension of certain actions or situations – say, the welfare of people in other countries, but are entirely disinterested in turning that moral scrutiny towards other areas – for example the welfare of farm animals. This is not motivated reasoning so much as a motivated lack of reasoning, because engaging in such reasoning might in turn demand some change in ones life. The cost of moral consistency is that it complicates ones life, and many would prefer to do without this complication.


The main thrust of Tolstoy’s essay is that art can also be considered in moral terms. Throughout a lot of history this would not have been at all controversial, although for much of that time what was considered “moral” was perverted by religious organisations and the virtue signalling of the upper classes. More recently it has been regarded with skepticism thanks to post modernism and relativism. More recently still there has been a movement towards deep analysis of the cultural value of various pieces of entertainment, which seems to accept this idea, but rarely states it so broadly. Most consumers of art and entertainment still resist this idea, preferring not to have to think about the possible effects it may have on them. And many artists consider only the immediate impact of their work on the audience, and not its net effect on the world.

The Purpose of Art

“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”
– Henry David Thoreau

It seems to me that man has two great pursuits – improving ones own life holistically, and improving the lives of others holistically. I say holistically in order to exclude such things as improve ones life only very temporarily, or offer some improvement at the cost of diminishment in other areas. The temporary sating of ones baser desires, which may seem harmless in the moment, often comes at the cost of ones self control, a useful tool in pursuing the goal of living well. Although it might appear to some the very apex of haughtiness, I believe that the aim of every artist should be the improvement of the world. The production of momentary pleasure, to my mind, does not constitute such an improvement. And yet this constitutes many peoples conception of art, while I would classify it only as entertainment.

The purpose of ones art should be explicit, the artist should have a clear conception of what positive change might be brought about by his art. To approach only the technical details of the production of art, to produce with no goal of improvement in mind, to offer only pleasant perceptions, is not artistry but craftsmanship. Craftsmanship is only the means by which the artist brings about his desired change. Craftsmanship without the guidance of an artistic aim is like a rudderless boat. To improve ones craftsmanship with no interest in the direction or effects of ones art is only to enlarge the sails of that rudderless boat. Whatever undirected art does, it will do more effectively with better craftsmanship, whether that is to the benefit or detriment of humanity. It is incumbent on those who create art and work at improving their craftsmanship, to also work at improving the direction of their art.

There are two aspects to any creative venture – the problem solving and ingenuity needed to progress in a given direction, and the larger decisions about which direction to take. All creators concern themselves with the former aspect, but the latter is often left unexamined, or regarded only within some narrow boundaries, and separately from the rest of the world.

Great art is not merely entertaining or pleasurable, it is transformative. It is directed, and the audience, following that direction, finds themselves improved in the process.

It may seem, at first glance, that entertainment must be largely neutral in its effects on the world. It seeks only to provide us with short lived pleasure, and so its influence rapidly fades. If this were true, surely no one could feel any umbrage at pornography? And yet it seems there is something amiss there. The intent, in both creators and audience, is only the production of pleasure, but it is impossible to disentangle this from other aspects of life. Perhaps it is not proper for humans to satisfy their every desire, as would seem to be the case with food – the best tasting foods are often the least healthy. It certainly appears to me that pornography provides little unique value to the world, and conversely, is the cause of many social and individual ills. That a work has as simple a goal as the production of pleasure does not mean that its effects are so simple.

To the extent that art has the power to change the world, we as artists have a responsibility to use that power for the benefit of mankind. At a bare minimum we should consider this issue and try not to leave the world in a worse state than we found it. Tolstoy states openly that he would prefer that there were no art at all rather than only art that provides pleasure but is otherwise to the detriment of mankind. It is a sobering thought when put in such stark terms, but it strikes me as entirely reasonable. It is not inconceivable to me that a world of entirely undirected art is worse than a world with no art at all.

We have many alternative avenues through which to receive pleasure, and innumerable people in the past have lived with no art, or only very minimal art in their lives. Given the non-essential nature of it, art that impoverishes our ability to think rationally is art that I would prefer, on some level, did not exist. And we can certainly afford to be this selective these days, with the amount of art being produced increasing so rapidly. If all art that is of obviously negative value were removed from existence, we would still have more art available to us than we could ever hope to imbibe in a single lifetime.

The Boundaries of Morality
Actions that assist others in their attempts to improve their own lives have positive moral value, and actions that impede or misguide them have negative moral value.

Many actions are understood very clearly in this moral context, things like theft and assault are understood in moral terms because their effects on others are direct and clear. However if we are interested in consistency we must accept that almost all actions affect others and so can be subjected to moral judgement. Art is typically created with the intention of presenting it to others, and impacting them in some way. Yet often the only question art faces is “does this art produce pleasant sensations in its audience?”

If we concern ourselves with morality, we should be aware that it has no outer boundaries. There are of course practical issues. We cannot always expect our moral imperatives to provide clear, non-contradictory answers. The universe does not owe us a unified theory of morality. However, there are no inherent limits to the scope of morality, if some actions can be judged morally, so can all others. When we fail to consider moral concerns for any particular action, it is not because there is no moral dimension to those actions, but because we have chosen to ignore them.

Because our actions are constrained and driven by practical concerns, we often run into internal conflicts when our actions and our values do not align. We can resolve such conflicts either by changing our actions, or by changing or ignoring our values. Clearly, it is much easier to change or ignore our values, and this is the approach we all adopt most of the time – we remain largely uncritical of our own actions. It is difficult to always act in accordance with our own values. Conversely it is trivial to construct values that justify our actions, or to decide that some actions are subject to moral evaluation and others, conveniently, are not.

Most people are comfortable considering moral issues only in the areas that society at large demands that they do so. It is arguably not even moral, but rather practical, to follow the demands of society, and so avoid possible costs associated with acting improperly. It is hardly commendable that a person act in their own best interests. Moral progress is made by those who follow their moral compunctions even when it costs them personally to do so. Over time, if such behaviour is well justified by moral reasoning, it is further adopted by others and comes to be part of the moral standards of society. This is how progress is made, it is driven by those who are not content with minimum effort morality, those who are less interested in making exceptions and exclusionary clauses to limit their moral reasoning, those who think that morality is not about doing the easy and expected thing, but about doing the right thing according to whatever theory they subscribe to.

As consumers of art we should realise that altering our own tastes is not impossible. It is not impossible to decide that, even though a certain piece of entertainment gave us great pleasure, we recognise the negative effects it may have on us, and therefore to decide that we do not ‘like’ it. Liking is not totally involuntary, through conscious effort we can affect which kinds of things we like.


Judging art morally, and altering our tastes based on moral reasoning as much as on our sensations of pleasure, is not an easy task. It is a task for those interested in moral consistency. Given enough time and social capital, it may become automatic and demanded by society. Or perhaps artists will realise the extent of the power they have, and generally agree to aim at the improvement of the world, and thereby reduce the need for their audience to be so discerning. It would be amazing to see a new artistic movement with this as its central aim.

Pleasure and Behaviour
If art is, as many suggest, merely a means of providing immediate pleasure, what are the implications? Our understanding of pleasure itself will affect the conclusions we draw, so here I will lay out some of my thinking.

Evolution does not value pleasure. Pleasure is simply the carrot dangled in front of the donkey. The purpose of the carrot is not to bring pleasure to the donkey, it is to provoke movement. Movement may bring pleasure, but pleasure exists only to cause movement. In the same way that pain provokes movement away from a stimulus, pleasure provokes movement towards a stimulus.

If, through our artistic endeavours, we are causing movement in others with the lure of pleasure, we should be cognizant of the direction of that movement. And, to be consistent with our moral judgements, to prioritise movement that facilitates the improvement of the lives of the audience holistically, not only momentarily. Movement contrary to this direction, however minute, should be considered the same as any action with more direct and obvious consequences. The cumulative effect of a work of art, even if its effects on the individual are minute, can be large when the work is distributed and consumed widely. Such effects also contribute to the totality of culture, and in turn influence other works disparate in time and geography. So it does not seem at all absurd to me that a work of art should be considered to have similar moral weight to direct and immediate action, to be as abhorent as an act of physical violence, or as virtuous as an act of altruism.

Pleasure drives action, so we should assess the value of a work both by the pleasure it provides, and the actions that it causes.

There are two mechanisms by which art can provoke movement – by behavioural reinforcement through pleasure as described above, or by the influence of ideas. While the influence of ideas has often been overlooked or ignored when judging the merits of artistic works, behavioural reinforcement has hardly ever been discussed or considered in moral terms. And yet it is an increasing concern as we become more and more effective at providing pleasure to an audience.

Reward, as in pleasure that comes as a result of certain actions, reinforces those actions. A cycle of action and reward solidifies actions into behaviours – patterns of action which are somewhat unconscious and automatic, and which we persist with even when the promise of pleasure fades. Every parent understands this, they try to direct the behaviours of their children through reward or punishment. Parents take the external view of pleasure, they see it as a means of directing behaviour, rather than an end in itself. Everything that provides reward, through pleasure, is directing the behaviour of those who interact with it.

Art provides pleasure, and so directs the behaviour of its audience in some small way. The power of a static work to direct behaviour in this way can be rather modest, however we should be much more concerned about systems of reward, such as games and, beyond the realm of art, other interactive systems like social media. These systems are concerned with creating pleasure in their audience, and they therefore reinforce behaviour, mostly irrespective of how that behaviour affects the audience. If our goal, as creators, is to create art that improves the lives of our audience, we should want our art to be compelling only while it is providing that benefit.

Interactive systems are, for this reason, especially dangerous. Static arts might give us ideas or theories, but it is easy for us to fail to act upon them, and so they often have little impact on our lives. Systems which affect our behaviours by definition affect our actions, and our behaviours and actions in turn affect our thoughts, as we construct narratives to justify our actions. The ability we have as humans to impose our conscious will on our subconsciously driven behaviours is rarely as complete as we would like, thus limiting the top-down effect ideas can have on behaviours. Interactive systems, by acting directly on our subconscious in such potent ways, have a much greater potential for changing us, for better or worse. This is something that creators of such systems, if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their audience, should be keenly aware of.

The second means by which art causes change – the influence of ideas, is a more obvious and broadly accepted concept, and so I will not go into it here.

Great art exists where the goals of the audience and the artist are aligned. When the artist has other goals – profit, fame, etc – then the goals of artist and audience are misaligned – the artist is aiming to extract some value from the audience, rather than concerning himself only with the value he can provide. The methods for extracting value from an audience have little overlap with the methods for providing value to them. Selling a work relies less on the moral merits of the work and more on the impression of value, or the desire for ownership the work can inspire in its audience. These effects on the audience are no less direct effects of the work, but they are largely tangential to the benefit it may offer the audience. Such goals on the part of the artist, in the creation of a work, necessarily alters its direction, while the audience would be better served by a work that directs them towards some holistic improvement in their lives. Such work is weakened by competing goals.

An artist may be motivated to insist that there is no moral dimension to art because he may otherwise be forced to reconsider the balance he has struck between providing value and extracting profit. Here we ecounter the usual conflict between practical and moral concerns. Ideally the artist would have no motivation for profit and success, and concern himself only with providing value. I would be satisfied if an artist aimed to extract only as much value as he needed, and otherwise thought only of the effects of his art on the world. Such an artist is unlikely to have a net negative impact on the world.

To refer back to the two main pursuits I mentioned at the outset – the improvement of ones own life, or the improvement of the lives of others, the art that I most respect, which most appeals to me, approaches the second aim through the first – it aims to assist the audience in improving their own lives. It does this through providing the audience with tools and direction for personal change and improvement. This is the value that I find most intriguing in art, and crucially, I think it is this aim that creates the greatest alignment between artist and audience.

The idea that art has this moral dimension seems to make some creators deeply uncomfortable, but I believe we are being inconsistent and irresponsible if we do not accept this and consider the ramifications of our artistic endeavours in the same way we would our more direct and immediate actions. As creators we should not want our art to impede the personal art of our audience – the art of living well.

As consumers we should also be aware of this dimension. From food we seek not only pleasure, but nourishment and good health, and we do this through very conscious and constant mental effort. We should apply the same level of scrutiny and skepticism to our consumption of media. We must remind ourselves that art, like food, impacts us beyond the immediate pleasure we receive.



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