Louise Hanson

University of Cambridge


Aesthetic Rationalism
Wednesday, 18 November 2015
16:00-18:00 at Room 243, Senate House

There is an extensive literature on the topic of moral rationalism. This topic concerns the issue of whether moral requirements generate reasons to act independently of agents’ other reasons and desires. Surprisingly, there is next to no literature on the analogous topic of aesthetic rationalism: whether aesthetic requirements generate such categorical reasons to act.
Now, perhaps there are no aesthetic requirements. If so, that would be a good explanation for the silence on the topic of aesthetic rationalism. But this doesn’t appear to be the mainstream view. Philosophers, by and large, appear to accept that there are aesthetic requirements.
One of the reasons the silence on aesthetic rationalism is surprising is that this issue offers a promising avenue for philosophers to argue for a widely held claim that they have struggled to justify using the usual channels. Many share the admittedly vague hunch that aesthetic requirements are importantly different from moral ones in that they are in some sense less compelling, or have less of a hold over agents, than moral requirements do. Philosophers who are drawn to this kind of thought have tended to flesh it out and back it up by arguing that it is harder to avoid being subject to moral requirements than to aesthetic ones. But these kinds of arguments, I will argue, are unconvincing.
A more promising way to argue for this kind of asymmetry is to argue that moral rationalism is more compelling than its aesthetic counterpart. Moral requirements generate categorical reasons to act, while aesthetic requirements do not. I point out that there is a fairly easy argument available that promises to establish moral rationalism, without its aesthetic analogue.
I argue, however, that the kind of moral rationalism (and a fortiori the kind of asymmetry) that can be secured this way is much less significant than it might at first appear. I identify what would need to be established in order to secure a non-superficial asymmetry with respect to rationalism, and suggest that it is at least not obvious that this can be done.
If I am right, then, we have both:
(i) An argument against this widely shared hunch that aesthetic requirements are less compelling (viz. it is unmotivated: the existing arguments for it fail, as does another promising contender),
(ii) A plausible diagnosis of why people have tended to hold this view, namely that a superficially similar view does look admissible. Moral requirements may well differ superficially from aesthetic ones in their bearing on what one overall ought to do, even though there is no good reason to think that they differ meaningfully in this respect.