Art, Emotion and Morality

Damien Freeman

Art, Emotion, MoralityEver since Plato criticized poetry, both for its inability to provide genuine knowledge and its ability to arouse the emotions and thereby subvert rational judgment, there has been much philosophical debate concerning the relationship between emotion, knowledge (especially moral knowledge), and the arts. Focusing in particular, but not exclusively, on literature and visual art, this course will examine a range of issues arising out of this complex relationship, addressing such questions as:

  • What is an emotion?
  • What is a work of art?
  • How do works of art express emotions?
  • Can we find works of art both pleasurable and painful?
  • How can we feel genuine emotions for fictional characters that we know do not exist?
  • Can we learn anything from art?
  • What is the relationship between aesthetic value and moral value?
  • Can pornography be art?
  • Should immoral art be banned?


Readings will include classic philosophical texts by Plato, Aristotle, Hume and Kant, as well as work by more recent thinkers, such as Wollheim and Nussbaum. To illustrate important points, concrete artistic examples will be employed throughout, including pictures of famous works of art and extracts from literary works. The prominent themes of the course will be the relationship between art and moral knowledge, and the connection between aesthetic and ethical value. This course will be of interest to philosophers, art historians, psychologists and students of literature.

This course is aimed at: This course will be of interest to philosophers, art historians, psychologists, students of literature, and anyone with an appreciation of one or more of the arts.

Pre-requisite knowledge required: None.

Note that although it is not a prerequisite, the course Good Life or Moral Life? will provide an introduction to the philosophical study of morality, which provides the background for the issues to do with the relationship between art and morality in this course for those who are interested.

Transferable knowledge and skills: The course will develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills.


1 Final Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)