The Influence of Art

Over at Amatopia, Alex talks about The Influence of Art. As usual, it’s worth reading. Unfortunately, Alex fails to make the critical distinction which everyone else always fails to make when discussing the influence of art: moral influence versus behavioral influence.

This distinction is most clearly distinct when considering violence versus pornography. Violence is a behavior. It can be immoral, as in the case of murder, or moral, as in the case of self defense. Pornography, by contrast, is inherently immoral because pornography specifically includes its purpose within its definition.

When people talk about whether violent video games cause people to be violent, they never specify what sort of violent video games. Do games in which people act in strictly moral ways, such as defending themselves and others or participating in a just war, make them more likely to act in immoral ways, such as committing murder or arson? Well, why would it? Let’s consider another case where people engage in morally justified violence: a surgeon’s job is to engage in morally upright violence—they slice people’s bodies open with knives. Does anyone think that this practice of justified violence makes surgeons desperate to commit unjustified violence? This is ridiculous even to suggest. Yet it is the same sort of suggestion; we don’t think that surgeons wander the streets slashing away with daggers and swords because of their frequent exposure to cutting people.

And if this sounds like an absurd example, that’s only because it’s an example of an absurd idea. Suggesting that violent video games make people violent is absurd precisely because it is confusing an action—violence—with a moral dimension—justification for violence.

By contrast, consider pornography, which contains its immoral object within its definition. Pornography is art which is designed to arouse sexual desire at an object which is not the proper object of sexual desire. Exposing oneself to pornography and using it to indulge in lustful behavior is training oneself to direct sexual energy at objects other than those it should be directed at (one’s husband or wife). It is obvious how this will have an effect on behavior because it consists in training oneself to misuse a faculty. It repetitively breaks the link between the sexual act and its proper use; it violates the habit of looking only at one’s spouse as one’s spouse.

And if we look at other cases of people repetitively misusing sex, we expect them to misuse sex. We do not expect someone who engages in many one-night stands to be faithful in marriage. Nor do we expect a (voluntary) prostitute to be faithful in a marriage. Granted, they will loudly proclaim that it’s not impossible. Which is true, but unimportant. Liars will very loudly proclaim that just because they were lying the last twenty three times, they could be telling the truth this time. And so they could. But the fact that a great many people want respect that they haven’t earned is of no consequence to the present subject.

Making this distinction solves the entire problem. It is not that art has no effect, or art has complete control over the viewer, or that art has 15% control. Art affects the viewer, but it affects the viewer along several dimensions. It affects them in what they do, and it affects them morally. I’ve no doubt that people who play violent video games with morally justified violence will be at least a little less sensitive to the sight of blood and the sound of gunfire, but that could easily mean that they are slightly more able to help people during a terrorist attack. Immoral video games, by contrast, will train people to act a little worse when they get the chance.

As is always the case with morality, it is not enough to ask what a man is doing, you must also ask why he is doing it.

One thought on “The Influence of Art

  1. Good distinction! You’re right: I didn’t mention moral behavior. I did, however, talk about how I think art, over time, can influence what we tolerate. But failing to discuss the moral dimension—the objective goodness, or lack thereof—of a given message in a piece of art is an oversight on my part, an oversight that your post addresses.


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