Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Belief, Desire, and Self-Knowledge

As I've mentioned, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge (live as of today)
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all of the listed posts! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 11 selected posts on belief, desire, and self-knowledge.

    Although I've written more on self-knowledge and belief than any other topic, this is my shortest list among the seven categories -- maybe because so much of my work on this is already in longer papers? Or maybe because my positions on these issues were already well worked out before I started blogging, so I had less of an impulse to toss out new ideas about them? Hm.....

    [image source]

    Tell Us How to Fix the Lack of Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    [cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

    by Eric Schwitzgebel and Nicole Hassoun

    Philosophy departments in the U.S. and Britain are famously homogenous. You already know that. What you might not know is that mainstream Anglophone philosophy journals are even more homogenous. We at the Demographics in Philosophy Project aim to fix that. Come join us at the Pacific Division meeting to tell us how.

    First, some data:

    Women comprise about 20-25% of philosophy faculty in the U.S. and Britain (Beebe and Saul 2011; Paxton, Figdor, and Tiberius 2012; White et al. 2014) and about 27-33% of philosophy PhDs and new tenure-track hires (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017). However, among elite Anglophone philosophy journals (as measured by reputational polls), women are only about 12-16% of authors of research articles (Schwitzgebel and Jennings 2017; Wilhelm, Conklin, and Hassoun 2017.

    Black philosophers are even more scarce, comprising about 13% of the general U.S. population, but only about 2% U.S. of philosophy faculty and only about 0.5% of U.S. authors in elite philosophy journals (Bright 2016).

    In the most elite general Anglophone philosophy journals, there is almost no serious discussion of authors from other linguistic traditions, even in translation. In the only published study we are aware of on this topic, we examined 3556 citations from a sample of 93 articles from twelve elite journals (Schwitzgebel, Huang, Higgins, and Gonzalez-Cabrera forthcoming). Approximately 97% of citations were of sources originally written in English, 1% were of sources originally written in German, and less than 1% were of sources originally written in French, ancient Greek, Italian, or Latin. We found not a single citation of any source from any other linguistic tradition.

    We are not aware of any formal studies of the rates at which disabled authors or authors from lower Socio-Economic-Status family backgrounds publish in elite Anglophone philosophy journals, compared to non-disabled authors and authors from middle- to upper-SES family backgrounds, but anecdotal evidence suggests that they may also be substantially underrepresented relative to the general population and perhaps also relative to the population of philosophy professors as a whole. Other under-studied dimensions of diversity include (but are not limited to) sexual identity, political viewpoint, religion, topic of research focus, prestige of home institution or institution of graduate study, and other aspects of race or ethnicity.

    Why it is a problem:

    You might not think such homogeneity is a problem. We do think it is a problem.

    It is a problem for epistemic reasons. Philosophy, as a discipline, profits from hearing voices from a variety of different backgrounds, with a variety of different cultural perspectives and life experiences. If only a restricted range of voices enters the philosophical dialogue, we philosophers, as a community, risk drawing conclusions that would not survive the scrutiny of a broader range of people. We also risk disproportionate focus in our collective philosophical attention: over-emphasizing issues that especially matter to those with the dominant voices and under-emphasizing issues that matter more to those who are not participating as visibly.

    It is also a problem for reasons of social justice. Plausibly, individual and systemic patterns of prejudice or bias disproportionately favor philosophers who already belong to socially privileged groups. Unfair exclusionary practices, whether implicit or explicit, harm people’s lives by unjustly closing off career opportunities, advancement, and salary. If so, this is an injustice that deserves addressing.

    Since publication in elite journals is central to hiring, tenure, and promotion, it is unlikely that we will see much greater diversification among faculty until we repair the situation in the journals. Furthermore, it might be easier to change publication practices than it is to fix pipeline problems directly – and improving the diversity of authorship in elite journals might then naturally lead to more diversity in hiring, tenure, and promotion.

    Tell us how to fix it:

    We have some preliminary ideas about how to improve the situation. But we want to hear from you. We are interested in concrete suggestions for specific practices that can be implemented by journal editors to improve diversity without compromising their other goals. We are especially interested in hearing about practices that have been successfully implemented to good effect.

    Give us your suggestions. Raise objections and concerns. Comment this post. Email us. And, if you’re in the area at the time, please come to our session on this topic at the Pacific APA meeting in San Diego on March 29 (9a-12p). The session will start with a brief presentation on diversity in philosophy journals, but it will mostly consist of open discussion with a panel of editors from nineteen well-regarded philosophy journals, who will bring their experience to the question as well as, we suspect, in some cases, their strenuous disagreement.

    After the session, we hope to partner with journals to collect more data on what works to improve diversity and to develop a toolbox of helpful practices.

    Suggestions, objections, and contributions welcome at dataonwomen@gmail.com. More data on women in philosophy are available here.

    Follow us on Twitter @PhilosophyData and Facebook

    Session details:

    APA Committee Session: Diversity in Philosophy Journals

    Pacific APA, San Diego

    March 29, 2018, 9:00a-12:00p

    Sponsored by the Committee on Asian and Asian-American Philosophers and Philosophies, the Committee on Inclusiveness in the Profession, the Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, the Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Committee on Hispanics, the Committee on LGBTQ People in the Profession, and MAP (Minorities And Philosophy).

    Chair:
    • Eric Schwitzgebel (University of California at Riverside)

    Speakers:
    • Liam Kofi Bright (Carnegie Mellon University)
    • Sherri Lynn Conklin (University of California at Santa Barbara)
    • Sally Haslanger (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    • Nicole Hassoun (SUNY Binghamton and Cornell University)
    • Manyul Im (University of Bridgeport)
    • Meena Krishnamurthy (University of Michigan at Ann Arbor)
    • Anita Silvers (San Francisco State University)

    Panelists:
    • Bruce Barry (Vanderbilt University and editor in chief of Business Ethics Quarterly)
    • Christian Barry (Australian National University and co-editor of Journal of Political Philosophy)
    • David Boonin (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor of Public Affairs Quarterly)
    • Otavio Bueno (University of Miami and editor in chief of Synthese)
    • Stewart M. Cohen (University of Arizona and editor in chief of Philosophical Studies)
    • Graeme Forbes (University of Colorado at Boulder and editor in chief of Linguistics and Philosophy)
    • Peter J. Graham (University of California at Riverside and associate editor of Journal of the American Philosophical Association)
    • Stephen Hetherington (University of New South Wales and editor in chief of Australasian Journal of Philosophy)
    • Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal)
    • Franklin Perkins (University of Hawai’i and editor in chief of Philosophy East and West)
    • Henry Richardson (Georgetown University and editor in chief of Ethics)
    • Achille Varzi (Columbia University and editor in chief of Journal of Philosophy)
    • Andrea Woody (University of Washington and editor in chief of Philosophy of Science)
    • Jack Zupko (University of Alberta and editor in chief of Journal of the History of Philosophy)
    • and representatives to be determined from Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Ergo, Hypatia, Philosophical Quarterly, and Philosophy and Public Affairs

    Thanks to Sherri Lynn Conklin for continuing help with this project.

    Is Life Meaningful, or Is the World a Pointless Cesspool of Suffering and Death? New Scientific Evidence

    The poll results are in. With 1273 respondents to the SurveyMonkey version of my new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure, we now have scientific evidence that life is meaningful!

    86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement "There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create" and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that "The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death" (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

    Other results:

    Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished: 45% agree, 31% disagree.

    All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing: 24% agree, 57% disagree.

    Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters: 46% agree, 37% disagree.

    It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been: 68% agree, 15% disagree.

    On average, respondents reported being "moderately confident" of their answers, on a four-point scale from "not at all confident" to "highly confident" (mean 1.9 on 0-3 scale).

    Total Meaningfulness Score:

    To calculate a total Meaningfulness Score, each answer was assigned a score from -2 to +2. Respondents scored -2 for strongly agreeing with a negatively-valenced statement or strongly disagreeing with a positively-valenced statement, and they scored +2 for strongly agreeing with a positive statement or strongly disagreeing with a negative one. Across six questions, this gave a possible Meaningfulness Score of -12 to +12.

    Respondents were grouped into three categories:
    Life is meaningless (-12 to -2): 16%
    Meh (-1 to +1): 22%
    Life is meaningful (+2 to +12): 62%

    The average Meaningfulness Score was 2.7. This suggests that life is only slightly meaningful.

    Factor Analysis:

    After reverse-scoring the negatively-valenced items, an unrotated two-factor maximum likelihood exploratory factor analysis reveals a first factor (Life is Meaningful) explaining 32% of the variance, on which which all six questions loaded positively (.14 to .33), and a second factor (Acquiescence) explaining 10% of the variance, onto which the three positively-valenced questions loaded positively (.17, .26, and .46) and the negatively-valenced loaded negatively (-.14, -.28, -.28; since the latter are reverse-scored, this indicates agreement with the negatively-valenced statements). In a three-factor solution, the third variable explains only 6% of the variance, so a two-factor solution is preferred.

    Cronbach's alpha is .705, just above the standard acceptable threshold of .70, suggesting sufficient inter-item correlation for a useful psychometric scale that is aimed at a single underlying construct.

    In related news, God prefers spheres.

    The Meaning of Life Quiz as a Learning Outcomes Measure

    Somehow universities survived for centuries without any rigorous attempt to measure "learning outcomes". Fortunately, those days are over! Faculty must now prove to administrators that our students have learned something by taking our classes. And that means rigorous quantitative assessments of learning outcomes, with internal and external validity, test-retest reliability, and other desirable psychometric properties.

    The aim of philosophy is to discover the meaning of life. To properly assess whether students have in fact discovered the meaning of life by taking our classes, I propose a new Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure (MOLOM).

    [Update Mar 23: Poll results are in!] Please answer the following philosophical questions:

    1. Every moment, every breath, every success and every failure is a treasure to be cherished.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    2. The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    3. There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    4. All the uses of this world are weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable. Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    5. Everything is just atoms bumping in the void, so nothing you do really matters.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    6. It is better to have strived and struggled than never to have been.
    (strongly disagree - disagree - neither agree nor disagree - agree - strongly agree)

    7. How confident are you of your answers to the questions above?
    (not at all confident - slightly confident - moderately confident - highly confident)

    8. What is the meaning of life? (Or if life is meaningless, explain why.)
    (fill in the blank)

    Alternatively, take the SurveyMonkey version of the MOLOM.

    Your Meaningfulness Score:

    Score -2 to +2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 1, 3, and 6.
    Score +2 to -2 points for strongly disagree to strongly agree on questions 2, 4, and 5.

    Interpreting your Meaningfulness Score (revised March 23):

    -12 to -2: Life is meaningless.
    -1 to +1: Meh.
    +2 to +12: Life is meaningful.

    Recommended Usage as an Outcome Measure:

    Administer the test at the beginning of philosophy instruction, then re-administer the test at the end of philosophy instruction.

    If a student's Meaningfulness Score rises, this shows that the student has discovered that life has meaning (or at least is not as meaningless as they had previously thought). If a student's Meaningfulness Score declines, this shows that the student has shed their foolish illusions (or at least that they have made progress toward shedding their illusions).

    If the student's confidence score rises, this shows that the student has solidified their understanding of the issues. If the student's confidence score declines, this shows that the student has begun to challenge their earlier presuppositions.

    If the answer in the text box changes, this shows that the student has come to a new understanding of these fundamental issues.

    Also examine the standard deviation of the scores (after first reverse scoring questions 2, 4, and 5). Compare the SD at the beginning of instruction with the SD at the end of instruction. If a student's standard deviation increases, conclude that the student has learned to see nuanced distinctions between these various claims. If a student's standard deviation decreases, conclude that the student has matured toward a more coherent worldview.

    The Meaning Of Life Outcome Measure is not yet fully validated, but I am optimistic that the MOLOM will prove to be the rigorously quantitative learning outcomes assessment tool that we need in philosophy.

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book: Technology Posts

    As I mentioned last week, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. I've narrowed it down to a mere (!) 150 posts, in seven broad categories, and I'd love your input in helping me narrow it down more.

  • moral psychology (poll went live March 16)
  • technology (live as of today)
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Today's poll, 17 selected posts on philosophy of technology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    Help Me Choose Posts for My Next Book :-)

    As you might know, MIT Press will be publishing a book of my selected blog posts and op-eds. Of the 1100 posts and op-eds I've written since 2006, I've narrowed it down to about 150. I'd love your input in whittling it down some more.

    I can't ask you to rate all 150 pieces at one time -- too exhausting! So I'm splitting my posts into seven broad categories:

  • moral psychology (poll now live)
  • technology
  • belief, desire, and self-knowledge
  • culture and humor
  • cosmology, skepticism, and weird minds
  • consciousness
  • metaphilosophy and sociology of philosophy
  • Every week I'll post a poll with about twenty posts or op-eds to rate, on one of those seven themes. No need to rate all twenty! Just rate any posts or op-eds you remember. Each poll will also contain links to the original posts and op-eds so you can refresh your memory if you want.

    It would be a great help if you could answer some of these polls -- if only just to click "a favorite" next to a few you remember fondly. I will take this input seriously in selecting what to include in the book.

    Here's the first poll, 23 selected posts on moral psychology.

    Take the poll, and share widely!

    [image source]

    A New Measure of Life Satisfaction: The Riverside Life Satisfaction Scale

    Seth Margolis, Daniel Ozer, Sonja Lyubomirsky, and I have designed a new measure of overall life satisfaction. We believe that this measure improves on the most widely used multi-item measure of life satisfaction, Diener et al.'s Satisfaction With Life Scale (SWLS) (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985).

    Diener's SLWS consists of the following five questions, each answered on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree":

    SWLS items:

  • In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
  • The conditions of my life are excellent.
  • I am satisfied with my life.
  • So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
  • If I could live my life over I would change almost nothing.
  • One often-noted feature of the SWLS is that the first four items are direct measures of current life satisfaction, whereas the fifth item concerns regret about the past. Accordingly, the fifth item generally has lower factor loadings onto the scale than the first four items, which are a more tightly clustered group that people tend to answer similarly. A more unified construct might cut the fifth item.

    However, we like the fifth item. Instead of cutting it, we think a good measure of life satisfaction should have more items like it, creating a broader target. To see why, consider a hypothetical respondent who answers the first four SWLS questions with "strongly agree" but who also feels intense envy of others' lives, is full of regrets, and wants to change their life path. Such a respondent, we think, should not be regarded as having maximum life satisfaction. Envy, regret, and desire to change are all either indirect signs of, or direct constituents of, dissatisfaction. A good measure of life satisfaction should include questions about them.

    It is this issue -- how should we conceptualize (and thus measure) life satisfaction -- that's my own central concern in this project. Readers familiar with my general approach to attitudes will be unsurprised to hear that I favor a broad, dispositional approach to overall life satisfaction. A person truly satisfied with their life is not just someone who is disposed to sincerely say "I'm satisfied" but someone who is also disposed to act and react generally in ways concordant with being satisfied, i.e., not desperately seeking to change their circumstances, not seething with envy at others' situations, etc.

    Also, in constructing a new measure, we wanted to have some reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items to mitigate acquiescence bias (that is, a tendency to say "yes" to most questions).

    Thus, we created a scale with three SWLS-like items and three reverse-scored, negatively-valenced items targeting envy, regret, and desire to change. The items are presented in random order and answered (like the SWLS) on a 1-7 scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree".

    RLSS items:

  • I like how my life is going.
  • If I could live my life over, I would change many things.
  • I am content with my life.
  • Those around me seem to be living better lives than my own.
  • I am satisfied with where I am in life right now.
  • I want to change the path my life is on.
  • To test this new measure, we ran three studies (all described in our final manuscript version). In Study 1, we selected the final six items above from a larger pool. Across the three studies, we examined inter-item correlations and factor loadings among our six selected items, and we correlated our new measure with the SWLS, the Big 5 personality traits, several demographic variables, measures of positive and negative emotions or affect, the Psychological Well-Being Scale, the Schwartz Values Survey, and a measure of socially desirable responding.

    The details are available in our paper, but a few highlights are:

    (1.) Despite our use of the three negatively-valenced indirect items targeting a broader underlying phenomenon, the SWLS and RLSS showed high and almost identical levels of internal consistency, suggesting that our addition of these items didn't harm the coherence and unity of the measure.

    (2.) The RLSS correlated highly with the SWLS (r = .88, .89), suggesting that most existing research relying on the SWLS would generate similar results had the RLSS been used instead. Thus, despite (we think) improvements, it is not targeting a radically different phenomenon.

    (3.) Finally, the RLSS consistently correlated slightly better than did the SWLS with measures of self-reported emotions, the Psychological Well Being Scale, and the Big 5 personality trait of Negative Emotionality. Thus, arguably, the RLSS is slightly more centrally located than the SWLS in this network of related psychological phenomena.

    [Thanks to Dan Haybron's Templeton grant for funding!]

    Engaging with Evil Art: Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors

    Last term, some grad students and I read Berys Gaut's book Art, Emotion, and Ethics. Gaut argues that although some morally noxious works of art have aesthetic merit, they never have aesthetic merit in virtue of their moral defects. If an ethically flawed work is aesthetically good, it is good despite that flaw, not because of the flaw.

    I find myself inclined to disagree. Sometimes art is more thought-provoking, or more challenging or horrifying, because of its moral defects -- thought-provoking, challenging, or horrifying in ways that make the work more engaging, giving the work a kind of aesthetic interest in virtue of its moral terribleness.

    Before I offer examples, two caveats:

    (1.) In praising the aesthetic merits that morally noxious artworks sometimes have in virtue of that very noxiousness, I don't commit to the view that being thought-provokingly morally awful outweighs other considerations. Some of these works should be overall condemned. Even just appreciating them aesthetically might be overall inappropriate, despite their merits. And the world might be better off had the works never been produced.

    (2.) I am (like Gaut) assuming pluralism about aesthetic value. Aesthetic value does not reduce entirely to beauty, for example. Being thought-provoking, challenging, or frightening can be (though it isn't always) as aesthetic merit in a work -- can be part of what makes a work aesthetically valuable.

    Two examples I've given some thought to are both films: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Riefenstahl and Allen are of course both morally flawed people themselves: Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, Allen plausibly accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, including in his own family. The moral noxiousness of their work might flow in part from their own personal ethical flaws -- but I don't want to rely on such biographical facts in evaluating the works. I discuss their work with considerable trepidation, because of the electricity of discussions of Nazism and of sexual abuse. Let me be clear that I will not be saying that their work is good despite its moral awfulness, as though we could simply bracket moral issues in aesthetic discussions. Instead, my view is that it is the moral awfulness itself that makes these otherwise not-so-great films interestingly distressing to contemplate.


    [image source]

    Consider Triumph of the Will. The film is fascinating, in part, because it is both (sometimes) beautiful and a work of Nazi propaganda. There's a horrifying tension between the beauty of the cinematography and the ugliness of the worldview it celebrates. It would not be nearly as horrifyingly fascinating if it didn't star Hitler -- my god, there he is, arguably the most evil man on Earth, being fawned over! -- if it were, say, a piece of Allied propaganda rather than Nazi propaganda.

    Furthermore, the fact that it is Nazi propaganda is not independent of the aesthetics of the film: It's not simply a beautiful film that happens (by sad chance) to be Nazi propaganda. The fascistic perspective is itself visible in some of its scenes -- for example, in the striking shots of masses of seemingly-identical troops standing in huge, almost inhuman formations, in the unity and uniformness of the crowds' mood and action, in the extreme deference to Hitler, in Hitler's superficially tempting sham-ethical perspective as he praises people who sacrifice and submit everything for the good of Germany and the new Reich.

    Triumph of the Will is fascinating not despite, but because of its moral horribleness. Proper viewing of it requires keeping that horribleness always in view at the same time one feels pulled into the beauty of a shot or feels sympathetically how an ordinary German of the period might be emotionally moved by Hitler's calls for self-sacrifice.

    Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is also, I think, fundamentally morally noxious, but in a different way. The film is clearly intended as a refutation of the idea of "immanent justice" of the sort one sees in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky: the idea that crimes bring their own punishments naturally in their train. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, the title character murders King Duncan, and this leads to other crimes, and torments of guilt, and fear, and ultimately a terrible death. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a robbery, and it too leads to another crime (murder), and subsequent horrible guilt and fear; he never benefits, and he ends up driven to confess. Allen's plausible starting point is that the world doesn't reliably work this way. Often people commit horrible crimes, and get away with it, and don't feel too bad about it, and are better off in the end for having done so. As I've stated it so far, this isn't yet a claim about what one should do. It's just how the world happens to be, as portrayed in the film.

    The central ethical question of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is how to approach life in light of the failure of immanent justice, that is, given that the wicked often flourish. Hypothetically, the message of the film could have been that you should act ethically anyway, even if you'll be worse off as a result, even if Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoyevsky and children's tales are wrong, and crime does pay. That is presumably what Mengzi would say. But that is not, I think, the perspective conveyed in the film.

    In the perspective of the film, the lead character Judah, who murders his mistress so that she will not reveal their sexual affair to Judah's wife, proves to be the wisest character in the end. Wiser than the rabbi Ben, who thinks that you must have faith in God and trust in the moral order of the world, and wiser than Allen's own character Cliff who thinks that it would be unbearable to have an unconfessed murder on one's conscience. By the end of the film, Judah appears glad that he committed the murder in order to save his relationship with his wife. The implicit message of the film is that if morality conflicts with self-interest, sometimes the wisest course is to act unethically -- even to the point of murder to hide a sexual affair. As Judah's brother Jack says, "you only go around once." Don't let anyone else, or the demands of morality, ruin it for you.

    If this interpretation of the film is correct, then the film is morally noxious -- indeed, proudly so. (In its self-conscious rejection of morality, the film differs from Triumph of the Will.) This morally noxious message is central to the film's aesthetic interest: It is what makes it horrifying and dark, and a challenge to think through, and a lively criticism of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If it didn't celebrate Judah's evil choice in a way that most of us would find morally odious, it would be a forgettable film.

    Contra Gaut, artworks that unapologetically celebrate evil, whether in full moral knowledge that they are doing so (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or without full moral knowledge (Triumph of the Will), can be aesthetically interesting exactly because of their moral noxiousness. They can be horrifyingly aesthetically fascinating, like a disaster that we loathe and condemn at the same time we can't look away -- but we needn't wish such disasters on the world or comfortably enjoy viewing them with a mouth full of popcorn.

    [revised 11:43 a.m.]

    March 9 ETA: I've been getting interesting pushback about my interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors (e.g., Taylor and Howard here. Let me say that the basis of my interpretation is primarily that, as I see it, Judah (the murderer) comes out looking wiser than any of the other characters. If the film were to be neutral between Judah's perspective and more moral perspectives, it would need, I think, a character who clearly recognizes the world's lack of moral order and yet chooses morality nonetheless. There is no such character.

    [Note: Somehow two different versions of this post went up. Slightly older version here.]

    Engaging with Evil Art

    [Note: Somehow two different versions of this post went up. Slightly updated version here.] Last term, some grad students and I read Berys Gaut's book Art, Emotion, and Ethics. Gaut argues that although some morally noxious works of art have aesthetic merit, they never have aesthetic merit in virtue of their moral defects. If an ethically flawed work is aesthetically good, it is good despite that flaw, not because of the flaw.

    I find myself inclined to disagree. Sometimes art is more thought-provoking, or more challenging or horrifying, because of its moral defects -- thought-provoking, challenging, or horrifying in ways that make the work more engaging, giving the work a kind of aesthetic interest in virtue of its moral terribleness.

    Before I offer examples, two caveats:

    (1.) In praising the aesthetic merits that morally noxious artworks sometimes have in virtue of that very noxiousness, I don't commit to the view that being thought-provokingly morally awful outweighs other considerations. Some of these works should be overall condemned. Even just appreciating them aesthetically might be overall inappropriate, despite their merits. And the world might be better off had the works never been produced.

    (2.) I am (like Gaut) assuming pluralism about aesthetic value. Aesthetic value does not reduce entirely to beauty, for example. Being thought-provoking, challenging, or frightening can be (though it isn't always) as aesthetic merit in a work -- can be part of what makes a work aesthetically valuable.

    Two examples I've given some thought to are both films: Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

    Riefenstahl and Allen are of course both morally flawed people themselves: Riefenstahl a Nazi propagandist, Allen plausibly accused of inappropriate sexual conduct with minors, including in his own family. The moral noxiousness of their work might flow in part from their own personal ethical flaws -- but I don't want to rely on such biographical facts in evaluating the works. I discuss their work with considerable trepidation, because of the electricity of discussions of Nazism and of sexual abuse. Let me be clear that I will not be saying that their work is good despite its moral awfulness, as though we could simply bracket moral issues in aesthetic discussions. Instead, my view is that it is the moral awfulness itself that makes these otherwise not-so-great films interestingly distressing to contemplate.


    [image source]

    Consider Triumph of the Will. The film is fascinating, in part, because it is both (sometimes) beautiful and a work of Nazi propaganda. There's a horrifying tension between the beauty of the cinematography and the ugliness of the worldview it celebrates. It would not be nearly as horrifyingly fascinating if it didn't star Hitler -- my god, there he is, arguably the most evil man on Earth, being fawned over! -- if it were, say, a piece of Allied propaganda rather than Nazi propaganda.

    Furthermore, the fact that it is Nazi propaganda is not independent of the aesthetics of the film: It's not simply a beautiful film that happens (by sad chance) to be Nazi propaganda. The fascistic perspective is itself visible in some of its scenes -- for example, in the striking shots of masses of seemingly-identical troops standing in huge, almost inhuman formations, in the unity and uniformness of the crowds' mood and action, in the extreme deference to Hitler, in Hitler's superficially tempting sham-ethical perspective as he praises people who sacrifice and submit everything for the good of Germany and the new Reich.

    Triumph of the Will is fascinating not despite, but because of its moral horribleness. Proper viewing of it requires keeping that horribleness always in view at the same time one feels pulled into the beauty of a shot or feels sympathetically how an ordinary German of the period might be emotionally moved by Hitler's calls for self-sacrifice.

    Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is also, I think, fundamentally morally noxious, but in a different way. The film is clearly intended as a refutation of the idea of "immanent justice" of the sort one sees in Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky: the idea that crimes bring their own punishments naturally in their train. In Shakespeare's Macbeth, for example, the title character murders King Duncan, and this leads to other crimes, and torments of guilt, and fear, and ultimately a terrible death. In Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov commits a robbery, and it too leads to another crime (murder), and subsequent horrible guilt and fear; he never benefits, and he ends up driven to confess. Allen's plausible starting point is that the world doesn't reliably work this way. Often people commit horrible crimes, and get away with it, and don't feel too bad about it, and are better off in the end for having done so. As I've stated it so far, this isn't yet a claim about what one should do. It's just how the world happens to be, as portrayed in the film.

    The central ethical question of Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors is how to approach life in light of the failure of immanent justice, that is, given that the wicked often flourish. Hypothetically, the message of the film could have been that you should act ethically anyway, even if you'll be worse off as a result, even if Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoyevsky and children's tales are wrong, and crime does pay. That is presumably what Mengzi would say. But that is not, I think, the perspective conveyed in the film.

    In the perspective of the film, the lead character Judah, who murders his mistress so that she will not reveal their sexual affair to Judah's wife, proves to be the wisest character in the end. Wiser than the rabbi Ben, who thinks that you must have faith in God and trust in the moral order of the world, and wiser than Allen's own character Cliff who thinks that it would be unbearable to have an unconfessed murder on one's conscience. By the end of the film, Judah appears glad that he committed the murder in order to save his relationship with his wife. The implicit message of the film is that if morality conflicts with self-interest, sometimes the wisest course is to act unethically -- even to the point of murder. As Judah's brother Jack says, "you only go around once." Don't let anyone else, or the demands of morality, ruin it for you.

    If this interpretation of the film is correct, then the film is morally noxious -- indeed, proudly so. (In its self-conscious rejection of morality, the film differs from Triumph of the Will.) This morally noxious message is central to the film's aesthetic interest: It is what makes it horrifying and dark, and a challenge to think through, and a lively criticism of Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky. If it didn't celebrate Judah's evil choice in a way that most of us would find morally odious, it would be a forgettable film.

    Contra Gaut, artworks that unapologetically celebrate evil, whether in full moral knowledge that they are doing so (Crimes and Misdemeanors) or without full moral knowledge (Triumph of the Will), can be aesthetically interesting exactly because of their moral noxiousness. They can be horrifyingly aesthetically fascinating, like a beautiful horrible moral disaster that we loathe and condemn at the same time we can't look away.

    Or maybe you can look away, and should. For my moral psychological work on evil, I often need to read in detail about the Holocaust and Stalin's purges and other horrible episodes of human history; and maybe engaging with evil art is like that -- helping to fill out a perspective, but not something that anyone should feel obliged to do.

    March 9 ETA: I've been getting interesting pushback about my interpretation of Crimes and Misdemeanors (e.g., Taylor and Howard here. Let me say that the basis of my interpretation is primarily that, as I see it, Judah (the murderer) comes out looking wiser than any of the other characters. If the film were to be neutral between Judah's perspective and more moral perspectives, it would need, I think, a character who clearly recognizes the world's lack of moral order and yet chooses morality nonetheless. There is no such character.

    [revised 11:43 a.m.]