The legitimacy of an ethical consideration of art has always been highly contested. Traditionally, there have been two prominent positions taken with respect to this legitimacy: those of moralism and autonomism. The moralist perspective on art holds that its aesthetic value should be determined by its moral value. The autonomist proposes that moral categories cannot, and should not be applied to art, and that aesthetic standards alone are of relevance to its description. In recent work, however, the debate over ethical considerations of art is not as much focused on how we should treat art — morally or aesthetically — but rather, what one can gain from art, and whether these two facets can be separated.
Martha Nussbaum (born 1947), a pioneer of the view that art is a means of moral improvement, posits that central to ethical considerations of art is the epistemological distinction between knowledge and know-how, and their respective importance. Know-how, Nussbaum argues, is in most cases both more significant and harder to acquire. The importance of art, it follows, is to enable us to acquire this know-how. Nussbaum counters the extremely pervasive view that fiction contains explicitly formulated messages to tell us something about the world. Instead, she asserts that if literature’s only aim is to transmit beliefs, then it is in itself not necessary; she thus proposes that art is of value primarily for its contributions to our moral know-how, that its informative or aesthetic experience is secondary to what we retain unconsciously from the experience.
Working under the assumption of a universal (yet not innate) morality, Nussbaum highlights literature’s unique ability to foster our imagination. However, by imagination she does not refer to the clichéd conception we have of it. In the Nussbaumian sense of the word, it is an imaginative act to bestow upon certain elements of art particular attention. This imaginative act, that we are compelled to do when interacting with art, develops our awareness and perception of particulars, virtues which Nussbaum asserts to develop our moral ability. This honing of our capacity for morality in itself does not guarantee our moral improvement; it indicates our capacity for empathy and attentiveness, factors which Nussbaum considers to be the root of all immorality.
Disgust relies on moral obtuseness. It is possible to view another human being as a slimy slug or a piece of revolting trash only if one has never made a serious good-faith attempt to see the world through that person’s eyes or to experience that person’s feelings. Disgust imputes to the other a subhuman nature. How, by contrast, do we ever become able to see one another as human? Only through the exercise of imagination.
– Martha C. Nussbaum