EESE 1/1998

The Aesthetics of Ethical Reflection and the Ethical Significance of Aesthetic Experience:
A Critique of Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum1

Rüdiger Bender (Erfurt)

1. Literature as Exile for the Question of the Good and of Life as a Whole

In the novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein by Max Frisch the protagonist is radically changing his identity, and his reflection resembles an implicit justification of the author for writing this book:

And, as though to affirm this assertion, the protagonist adds, hesitating whether or not to keep an appointment he has just arranged with a woman: "Ich wußte einfach nicht, was tun."3

This passage can be understood in the sense that moral obligations and principles of justice do not provide an answer to the question of what I have to do in order not to spoil my life. Moral judgments abstract the following aspects from all those differences that are so important for me if I want to see clearly what is good for me: my own biography, my manifold relationships with other people, my own way of life. On the other hand, the answers by which everybody can give a sense to their own lives seem to be of no general, public importance. In times when problems are to be solved that concern each individual alike - like the creation of stable terms of peace and the allocation of resources in short supply - individual problems seem to be rather a private matter. One good reason for this is that the realization of positive freedom must not result in my forcing my way of life on other people. Answers to questions of justice, therefore, have to be neutral with regard to any individual notions of a good, successful, happy life. Thus the writer who tells "I-stories" therefore is faced with a dilemma: if he commits himself morally, he might overlook the individual I worrying about a missed life, and if he tells I-stories they might turn out to be morally irrelevant and meaningless.

Max Frisch does tell an "I-story" but there is more than one "I" and more than one "story" in it. The term "I" can be related to a multitude of identifiable persons at once. The stories describe the same events, but they do so from constantly changing perspectives of the "I" and with a discontinual chronology. The author writes about the difficulty or even impossibility of telling a true and coherent I-story. What might seem to be merely private, irrelevant and meaningless thus takes on another significance. The readers learn that in his perception of himself and of others he is subject to illusions, that his notions of his own and others' motives, wishes and purposes are not free from random attributions and, finally, that what he takes to be his "experience" is the result of a story made up in retrospect. The readers will perhaps be even more disconcerted when they realize that even insight into the arbitrariness of their own story, previously believed to be true and irrevocable, by no means helps them to achieve a certainty which is now free of self-deception.

To tell I-stories is both inevitable and impossible at the same time. We cannot avoid questions like 'Who am I really?', 'Who do I want to be?', 'With whom and how do I want to live for how long?', 'What was it that just happened to me?', 'What kind of experience have I had?' These questions demand an answer, but the answers are increasingly difficult to find. It is impossible to say what it is that makes a good life and how to live happily. The only certainty is the possibility of failure. Who is not afraid of the creeping suspicion or the sudden, shocking realization that the life one has been leading has nothing to do with oneself? What living one's life means and what a good life is - these questions are not sufficiently answered by neutralizing and privatizing moral standards. This is only the negative condition: everyone must decide for themselves how to live their lives. Apart from this, however, the search for the good seems to remain aimless. Worse still, according to some authors we are nowadays living in conditions that render this search impossible: a society in which the various bonds between its members are increasingly dissolving because they are characterized only by role behaviour and the organizations one belongs to, and in which the common goods are administered bureaucratically; an individualistic culture which increasingly idealizes consumption and claims narcissist self-indulgence as life-fulfilment; an era in which common traditions are devalued, the identities of persons and groups are individualized, and cultural world views are deracinated (Bellah et al.). In these circumstances the search for the good life seems vain and aimless, a circular motion reeling from one deception to the next.

Of course, the diagnosis is already part of the therapy. Concern about oneself - understood in the right sense - has again become a subject of practical philosophy since Foucault (Foucault, Schmid). It lso includes a criticism of modern society and its self-image, which had fostered circumstances in which the question of the good had become an anachronism. Yet, no possible answer to this question could avoid the Menetekel of modern individualism and liberalism: concepts of the good must no longer be substantialist in nature, if they are not to lead to the edging out, suppression or destruction of one way of life by another. In this situation, as a concern for oneself is widely felt but, at the same times, nobody is able to define a universal aim, a special way can be seen more and more clearly to open up before us: there is a growing interest in literature and aestheticism. The beautiful, one might think, seems to provide an all-embracing experience of the senses which, nevertheless, does not violently and forcibly intrude on the reader or viewer. Aesthetical experience could bring back our sensibility for those contexts that are necessary to help us live a good life, but, as members of a modern society, that is something we have forgotten. But if aesthetical experience is, however, to work to this effect, the boundaries between moral values (in the sense of what is just and in keeping with norms), ethical values (in the sense of the good and the adequate) and the aesthetically beautiful and sublime will have to be levelled out.

Among those who try to revive a philosophical ethic with the help of aestheticism there is a marked difference. It has to do with how they regard modernism. There are those who accept its premises (Rorty, Taylor). They want to rid ethical questions of false or inadequate demands of the kind that has been raised by deontological morality or by a world view based on theorems which have been claimed to be true. The reconstruction of aesthetical experience is modeled on modernist art, and ethical questions are submitted to its claims. (Taylor: 456-494). By contrast, those ethical approaches that criticize modernism in toto believe the rehabiltiation of an ethic possible only in the case of a pre-modern ethic (MacIntyre, Nussbaum 1985; Nussbaum 1986). They too, however, borrow from aesthetical concepts. Thus, MacIntyre tries to make up for the loss of substantial conceptions of the good life by means of the notion of the narratability of a consistent life. Martha Nussbaum looks for possibilities to identify a moral attitude with aesthetical production and experience. Both explicitly and polemically intend to rehabilitate the Aristotelean as opposed to the Kantian ethic. This constellation suggests that aestheticism in this context is intended to fill the gap left by modern moral philosophy and its criticism of the Aristotelic conception of the good life. It must be asked, however, a) to what extent, if at all, can aestheticism function as a substitute for the ethical, and b) at what cost could aestheticism - or art and literature - take over this role.

2. Alasdair MacIntyre

MacIntyre's project of rehabilitating the Aristotelean ethic, like all projects of its kind, is faced with at least two problems. First, an ethos that endows a certain amount of habitual patterns of behaviour with the quality of ethical value, as in the ancient society of the polis, can no longer be found. Second, there is no longer an indisputable notion of human life from which might be deduced which "virtues" lead to an ideal self-realization. Even though it may still be possible to name a certain number of "virtues" whose exercise, at least in most cases, is generally accepted, it is impossible to order the great amount of competing virtues hierarchically. With respect to this situation, MacIntyre has suggested a new conception of virtue. He has set the concept of virtue in three different contexts which can be understood as a modern reconstruction of the notions of ethos and the good life. Virtues help to recognize inherent goods in common practice and to realize and maintain these goods in different situations. Yet, this does not solve the problem of how the individual is supposed to decide between competing values and colliding demands of behaviour. This is why MacIntyre has developed the concept of a "consistent life". Within this concept, virtues fulfil the function of enabling the individual to strive for a coherent biography. This characteristic, thirdly, is further supplemented by the factor of tradition which is both shared and upheld by all parties concerned.

Time and again, MacIntyre's reformulation of the concept of virtue collides with the conditions of modern times. The second aspect, that of its function for the consistent life, raises the question as to what it is that constitutes a consistent life. The notion of consistency thus leads back to the question of the good. MacIntyre must necessarily avoid a direct answer if he does not want to distinguish one way of life as better than others. Aristoteles' argument had been that the good life was not exhausted in a single moment. By this he wanted to avoid the misunderstanding that the good life consisted in the acquisition of riches which was always possible only on a short-term basis.

How do we experience and judge a "complete human life"? I can do this only when I see, understand and judge my life "as a life that can be conceived and evaluated as a whole" (MacIntyre: 205), which is only possible when I have a conception of my biography. Only within this context are ethical questions like "who was I?", "who am I?" and "who do I want to be?" of some significance. As soon as I try to understand my life as a whole, I begin to tell a story. I order my actions and purposes with regard to past decisions and events, present purposes and future aims. What had been only one factor among others for Aristotle, namely the fact that the conception of the good life depended on the idea of its unity and duration, has now become the central aspect.

The question of what is good for me thus shifts towards the conditions of the unity of a "complete human life". MacIntyre takes into account only this one characteristic. These conditions are not, however, predefined goods; instead, they form a structure: life has unity if it can be told. Who I am, was and want to be corresponds to the story I tell about myself. I am what I tell. My own self is and is shaped by the story I am able to tell. In doing so, I am not the omniscient author but I become what I am also because I am telling the story. I become the narrator of my story in the process of telling it. MacIntyre aims at the "[...] concept of a self, whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end" (205).

With the quality of "narratability" MacIntyre has won an Archimedic point that allows him to include in his reflections the contexts that had been suppressed by modern moral philosophy without declaring one way of life to be better than others. A story cannot be told without dealing with concrete experiences, special circumstances, purposes, aims and emotions as well as the historical conditions of those involved. The self that sees itself as part of a narrative does not refer to an abstract identity but to its individual biography embedded in a concrete society. In the context of the structure of narratability the notion of the self gets into contact with other ethically relevant basic notions: the notions of action and the understanding of action, intention, motive, responsibility, account and finally personal identity. Only in the context of a story do we "understand" an action, because it leads us away from the modern analytical understanding into the concrete situation of the acting person. The narration of an action demands a "frame", or a symbolic environment in which the individual biographies of the acting persons are set. This "frame", in turn, has a history of its own. Further, the narration of an action demands a causal and chronological order in the protagonist's intentions. Only by fulfilling these two requirements can we speak of the "intelligibility" (209 f.) of speech acts and actions. By viewing several successive actions and speech acts (e.g. a conversation) in this way, we classify them as belonging to a certain narrative form:

So far MacIntyre's suggestion seems to aim solely at an alternative theory fo a context-oriented, comprehensive description of actions and situations. This might fairly well be ascribed to a modern understanding. Descriptions of actions, situations and persons would then be analytical constructions whose adequacy could be tested in discourses of different kinds. Under these circumstances, though, it would, in the end, still be the individual, isolated self that chooses, more or less at random, a certain descriptive mode to characterize actions.

In order to avoid this "relapse" to modernism, MacIntyre takes one more step:

It becomes clear that the story of an action according to MacIntyre's demands cannot be told at random. The conditions of narratability are not available to the author. "Narratability" is not an outward shape which is added afterwards to an action for the purpose of communicating it or with the dramaturgical intention of an effective setting, but it is part of the action itself.

The acting person thus is at the same time the protagonist and the author. But as such he is woven into an intersubjective network of different stories. He does not act alone, but in exchange with other persons who each live out their own story, which in turn overlaps and is interwoven with those of others. Furthermore, there are events that influence the narratives to be lived from outside:

Because of these circumstances, the narrated life is unpredictable and yet teleological. It cannot be told as a succession of actions taking place according to rules. Instead, it is true that "[...] at any given point in an enacted dramatic narrative we do not know what will happen next" (215). But then it is also true that

Our life thus has a teleological structure in spite of its "unpredictability" and coexisting with it, as far as it is lived with a possible common future horizon in view. The multitude of conclusions that MacIntyre draws from the narrative structure of the consistent life leads to a "central thesis" from which follows its ethical relevance: "[...] man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal" (216). This, of course, without the high-handedness and despotism of an omniscient author. The narrated life is not the result of the self-determined acts of an autonomous person, but the product of a predetermined structure of narratability. Thus, the central thesis leads to the maxim: "I can only answer the question 'What am I to do?' if I can answer the prior question 'Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'" (216)

Having turned it in this way into a norm, MacIntyre also makes use of the narratability of life for his definition of the terms "responsibility" and "personal identity". As the narrator of a life-story which I take up responsibly, I am at the same time its subject. "To be the subject of a narrative that runs from one's birth to one's death is, I remarked earlier, to be accountable for the actions and experiences which compose a narratable life" (217).

As far as I am narrating my life, I am able to account for my acts and experiences to others. Because of this MacIntyre supposes an interdependence between the notion of personal identity and those of narrative, intelligibility and accountability. What is it that makes the unity of a life? "The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life" (218).

Once more, however, MacIntyre shrinks back from showing a preference for any special narrative. But this is no longer necessary: instead of substantializing the telos of the good life MacIntyre has substantialized narratability itself. For a definition of the good life to be ultimately derived from this, it needs nothing more than a reflexive twist. The good life is not a special narrative standing out from others, but the fact of searching and constantly striving for narratibility. In my unrelenting struggle for a narratable structure, my life gains the unity of a "complete human life": "The unity of human life is the unity of a narrative quest" (219).

Consequently, the question of what is good itself turns into a good. In searching for a narratable unity, I learn what is for me the good life. Only by understanding and interpreting myself in terms of this structure and by directing my actions accordingly, do my experiences become significant for me and so, have a modifying effect on those conceptions of the good that I model my lived narrative on. In other words: the way is itself the goal. Percival's redemption does not lie in finding the grail but in understanding that the quest itself is the grail.

From this results another task to be fulfilled by an ethic, namely that of reconstructing virtues as the dispositions that support us in our quest. They are narrative aids that indicate to us how we are to build up the narrative of our lives in order to gain unity.

3. Martha Nussbaum, or: the Aesthetic Fineness of Moral Emotion

While MacIntyre resorts to an aesthetic concept like that of "narratability" in order to explain ethical principles, Martha Nussbaum goes further still and turns the analogy into identity. She claims to show "[...] why the novel is itself a moral achievement, and the well-lived life is a work of literary art" (Nussbaum 1985: 516).

More pointedly than MacIntyre, she not only defines moral behaviour as an aesthetic task but also sees aesthetic production as a moral achievement. We create ourselves as beings acting morally just as the artist creates a work of art - and vice versa. It would seem absurd to explain this thesis with arguments. The ethicist who wants to argue this has to create an aesthetic experience himself if he wants to be convincing. Nussbaum, therefore, chooses a scene from Henry James's novel "The Golden Bowl" as a literary example. Still, for a discussion of Nussbaum's thesis, it is difficult to render this example without divesting it of its aesthetic character. Nussbaum herself states that it is necessary to read the whole story in order to understand the achievement which is at the same time an aesthetic and a moral one. A resumé fails to render what is important: the presence of the moral content in the literary narration. This caveat heads the following discussion:

the frame of this scene in Henry James' novel is the relation of a father and his daughter. The daughter has grown up with her father at his home. She is going to marry and leave her father to live with her fiancé and have a family. Life will change for both father and daughter. They meet just before this event, conscious of their oncoming separation. This meeting is the subject of the scene chosen by Martha Nussbaum. The future relationship between father and daughter will become clear during this meeting. Together they have to find a way for separating and still living together. The father has to find out how to live on by himself without taking care for his daughter and yet secure her complete affection. The daughter must keep the independence from her father gained by her marriage.

Within this context a highly complex action of gestures, discussions and acts takes place. It ends in a "picture" created by father and daughter together in which the found solution is represented symbolically. Nussbaum includes five observations that reveal the relevance of the aesthetical for an adequate moral solution. She takes on the inner perspective of the dramatis personae. The aesthetical character of the presentation is expected to prove a constitutive element of the solution of the conflict between the persons involved.

  1. The degree of imaginative power that they need in order to solve their conflict entirely can be seen in the aesthetic quality. The ability to represent the conflict completely shows in the protagonists' ability to imagine each other's feelings. Whether a solution to the conflict is possible or not depends on whether I can see what the other sees and vice versa. I do not know this by way of principles or psychological knowledge but by turning my attention to the particular quality of the concrete situation. The exercise of imaginative power and empathy is not merely a technical prerequisite for moral behaviour but is itself part of it.

  2. The "beauty" of the picture that the persons involved create by using their imaginative power determines the moral quality of their behaviour. This picture, like a work of art, must have a completeness that lacks nothing. No explanatory sentences should be necessary and its content must not be describable with simple statements. It must stand for itself, which shows in the fact that it surpasses any interpretation.

  3. What is relevant for a successful solution of the conflict of life can be only inadequately described by propositional knowledge. Instead, by aesthetical representation it becomes clear that a highly sensitive perception of the situation is necessary for successful conflict solution. Propositional knowledge about the objective and subjective facts and the semantic content of general norms is not sufficient. The situation has to be visualized as a concrete shape and this vision has to have a certain "komplexe Wahrnehmungsprägnanz" (Henrich quoted by Jauß: 88). In this perception the moral significance is already included in the phenomena that come together in the picture; it is not created by a later and outward application of general norms to a description of facts. One only has to look closely and honestly, then one feels what is required in a specific conflictual situation, and no complicated moral deductions are needed. Nussbaum goes back to the origin of the term "aesthetic": aisthesis in the sense of the perception of the concrete. "Moral knowledge," James suggests, "is not simply intellectual grasp of propositions; it is not even simply intellectual grasp of particular facts; it is perception" (521).

  4. Only by aesthetic representation it can be shown that an adequate solution cannot be found only by cognition alone. The fact that father and daughter have really found a way of living with each other without inadequate mutual expectations can be seen less from their verbal utterances and the quality of the reasons they bring forward than from the picture they create together during their meeting. In a complicated and lengthy interplay in which they take part with their entire persons they work out a common symbolic world. It contains all the relevant parts of the persons involved in the process of their changing by empathetic mutual influence. This, in turn, is possible only when they turn towards each other attentively and honestly, when they perceive their specific qualities. Aisthesis or perception thus does not demand a perception which is passive, isolated and receptive, but one which is interactive, productive and creative. The picture does not appear by chance but grows like a ripening fruit sown by both of them together:

  5. Only the aesthetic representation can fill the gap between judgment and action. The action is part of the event, there is no clear dividing line. Acts, gestures, the expression of feelings, statements, but also imagination, sensations,fantasies and pictures belong together and explain each other. The communication doesn't have to "jump" into the action, instead the action is part of the totality in which the persons involved perceive the whole process. The resulting action cannot be understood as the application of a rule but as shaping itself according to the situation and corresponding to its perceived shape:

When an aesthetic representation has these qualities, Nussbaum concludes, then only such a representation can "convey" the "rightness" (523) of an action. Rightness and description are linked internally. "Rightness" is not a normative demand but a quality of the description of actions in concrete situations. Consequently, any small change of description influences the moral quality of the action. Yet Nussbaum does by no means search for a moral descriptivism that reduces the moral rightness of norms to describable facts. The quality of description which is constitutive for moral rightness cannot be judged by a listing of assertative statements. It is only perceivable aesthetically. Therefore, it refers not so much to facts as to the lived sensation. "A good action is not flat and toneless and lifeless" (524).

Martha Nussbaum, like MacIntyre, because of her modern aesthetical experience is clever enough to realize by herself that aesthetic representation alone is not enough to guarantee the moral rightness of an act - the aesthetic construction can break free from its object and become an end in itself. Then the moral judgment of an act would be replaced by an aesthetic one or they would at least both compete for the adequate judgment. The result could be that the aesthetic judgment would not, as in Nussbaum, lead to a criticism of a certain (deontological) kind of moral judgment but to a criticism of morality itself. What is "the evil" in moral judgment could then still be aesthetic. If, differently from Kierkegaard's "A" or Nietzsche, one wants to avoid this consequence, the only way is Nussbaum's way of ascribing a moral task to art itself. Art depends on morality as well as morality on art: "Perception without responsibility is dangerously free-floating even as duty without perception is blunt and blind" (524).

From this follows an option for a certain kind of morality and an option for a certain kind of art. Morality and aestheticism become two interdependent and complementary parts. They do not, of course, become this in the trivial sense of a mere projection of aesthetic contents onto morality and vice versa, which would mean taking advantage of one another. For morality, this means that it cannot do without rules in the sense of norms and principles, but also that it is not only a system of norms and principles that can be applied to random actions and situations. The aesthetic attitude postulated by Nussbaum understands moral rules (requirements, prohibitions and permissions) only in the context of the concrete situation and the persons immediately involved. For art this means that it is obliged to represent normative contents. But this, again, is not meant in the sense of a mere didactic presentation of general principles but of an exact and authentic representation of the way of life the artist belongs to. Nussbaum demands the same inspired awareness and honesty of the morally acting person and the artist:

General principles, habits and social bonds - these are the elements which, according to Aristoteles, form the ethos of a way of life. To this ethos Nussbaum relates the functions of aisthesis or perception, because it cannot be articulated by way of a systematic canon of rules. It shows in the habits which, as they stabilize, become characteristic of each individual. They are not acquired simply by learning, but are formed out of the individual's experiences in dealing with practical problems. Therefore, character formation goes together with the gradual acquisition of a disposition to assess situations sensitively and to perceive their ethically relevant aspects attentively and honestly. Again, aisthesis or perception proves outstanding as a medium for relating the commonly shared ethos of our way of life to concrete situations.

Nussbaum's argument can be summarized thus: without aesthetic experience the ethical rules that guide our way of life are of no use to us in concrete situations. As to the principles and norms that belong to an ethos, Nussbaum ascribes three functions to aisthesis:

  1. Aisthesis has a heuristic function. Without it we would have no idea at all which normative aspects are relevant to a concrete situation nor as to what this situation is about in moral terms: "[We] could not begin to figure out which rules and standing commitments are operative here" (525). The situation itself is always much more concrete than the normative aspects by which we judge it. We can get lost in an unending description of the situation so that, because of the details, we cannot see the whole, or in other words, the "wood for the trees". The moral significance of a situation cannot be seen from the characteristics of its description, complete as it may be; they bear no "duty labels". This is why we need norms as rules of thumb for a primary assessment of the situation:

  2. Aisthesis guides the "application" of rules. Yet, the system of case and rule is broken. The rightness of an act in a concrete situation does not follow from the rightness of a norm together with a description of a situation that can be subsumed under the norm.

    The concrete norm from which is derived the rightness of an action is formed only within the situation itself by attentively and honestly respecting the circumstances. The strict attention to rules would lead to moral "obtuseness". Those who rigorously follow general principles do not see the differences of the individual situations and circumstances.

  3. Aisthesis finally makes possible a change of rules in the light of new descriptions of situations. It enables us to discover new, so far unknown aspects of a situation and to change the normative thumb rules accordingly until they "fit" the new situation. The changed perception can extend to particularities impossible to describe. Often a different colouring of the perception of a situation already leads to a subtle, merely perceptible change of the significance of the normative terms. With the help of aisthesis we use "general terms and conceptions in an open-ended evolving way" (525). Without this flexibility in dealing with norms we would not react adequately to different descriptions of situations. The task of practising the shared ethos individually within the media of aesthetic experience is set to the artist as well as to the morally acting person.

    Nussbaum at first had explained this task from the inner perspective of the protagonists within a literary text. In the next step she tried to show that the artist himself has to live up to this task each time he creates a work of art. The work of art not only presents a particular example of the ethically successful solution of a life conflict, but it is itself also the product from the practice of an ethos which is communicated aesthetically. Only for this reason the reader, by means of his aesthetic experience of reading, is able to have a moral experience. This moral experience is the insight that moral behaviour itself is a work of art. According to Nussbaum, James shows how a person, in her example, the female protagonist, grows up morally by learning to give sufficient respect for the irreducible particularity of the context and for all the relevant aspects of the case as well as not losing sight of the whole and reacting to the concrete situation with a finely tuned sensibility instead of narrow passion. This network of attitudes can be shown in its completeness only in the form of a literary text. For the work of art to be achieved successfully, it must itself be the expression of this network. Only then can the reader experience it congenially. Protagonist, author and reader become one person. It is the fictional character of the literary text that enables the reader to aquire the same objectivity as the persons are given by the author:

The reader's moral-aesthetical experience does not consist in appreciating the protagonists' behaviour as advisable nor in adopting it for himself or herself. Instead the "moral of the tale" is that the reader should train his ability to behave in morally relevant situations like the writer who created this scene in which father and daughter meet. The artist's work is now woven into this network of attitude; it is a moral achievement:

"The artist's task is a moral task" (527) and vice versa: "Our whole moral task [...] is to make a fine artistic creation" (528).

The author himself is bound by the ethos that he describes in the actions and conflicts of his fictional protagonists and that his public belongs to. But what is decisive for the aesthetical-moral quality is not the ethos itself but the attentive, inspired and truthful perception of the ethically relevant in a concrete situation. For this reason, Nussbaum explicitly makes "[...] a claim about the moral responsibility of the novelist, who is bound, drawing on his sense of life, to render the world of value with lucidity, alert and winged" (527).

However, for Nussbaum this does not result in either an aestheticization of morality or in moral relativism. Although not explicitly expressed, she seems to have in mind an ethical-aesthetical concept according to which moral and aesthetical realism would require one another. The narrator, as in Balzac's great Comédie Humaine, should give an authentic expression to our social experience.

4. Good Life versus Justice

Have MacIntyre and Nussbaum succeeded in rehabilitating the pre-modern ethic with the help of aestheticism? Looking at the phenomena of normative conflicts which both use to explain their alternative concepts of an ethic of the good life, one is lead to suppose that their blow at their adversary, modern deontological morality, is missed. For this morality is concerned with a completely different area of phenomena. MacIntyre's examples focus on the question what life I - in some cases, together with others, want to lead. Nussbaum's literary example is concerned with a typical family conflict: the separation of adult children from their parents.

The subject of these exemplary situations is not what kind of behaviour is morally required, but the ethical question of what kind of life I or we together want to live. In such life conflicts the solutions are never unambiguously right or wrong, they can only be better or worse. It might happen that I come to decisions that I bitterly regret at a later time because by deciding in this way I have missed what I really wanted - as I am later to realize. I may be in error about my goals. Whether my actions are "right" or "wrong" in this sense depends on what kind of life I want to lead. There is no clear, general goal which would be the same for everyone. First, the notion of what I really want changes in the course of a lifetime. Second, what represents life's happiness for me depends on the many special circumstances. Aristoteles' idea of happiness was just not a "calculus of happiness" which could be activated by any person in any situation and would then bring about a maximum of satisfaction.

The same applies to life conflicts in which several persons are involved. The process of separation between parents and children can fail because the children unconsciously feel guilty and the parents react with mute reproaches. Conflicts, misunderstandings, injuries and inadequate reactions can result from the fact that they have no common idea of how they want to create their relationship. The same might also apply, if less so, to other small groups and perhaps even to entire populations.

Failure in the solutions of an individual's life conflicts or of the conflicts between persons living together may even show in clinical symptoms. Somebody who continually does the contrary of what he or she really wants to do, who constantly behaves differently from how he or she feels, who systematically deceives himself about his wishes and purposes is bound in the long run to suffer from more or less heavy pressure. There might actually be analogies between a coherent biography and narrative fiction (Jauß 1982: 166). However, it would be dubious to try to turn narratability into some kind of normal biography from which pathological cases would be distinguished by their non-narratability. It is difficult to set general standards for "coherency" in narratives and thus also in a life story. A solution to life conflicts can only be found by those involved concretely for those involved concretely; only the egocentric perspective of the individual or the group is relevant. The solutions depend on the context, and their failure is predictable if relevant aspects are neglected. This is why they cannot be generalized.

Do these characteristics also apply to moral conflicts? The purpose of a rehabilitation of a pre-modern ethic would only be achieved when it could be shown that also all moral phenomena also share these characteristics. If, however, I am failing in my life, does that mean that I am at the same time behaving immorally? And vice versa: is the egocentric perspective of the individual or of a group adequate for finding just solutions to moral conflicts? Certainly conflicts between individuals can be assessed from many different perspectives. The question whether I should tell a lie here and now for the sake of a small advantage can be discussed as an ethical problem if I ask myself whether a lie could be in accordance with the image I have of myself. Likewise, the reflection on how my act would change my relationship with the person I am planning to lie to would be an ethical one: will it still be as friendly as it used to be once I have lied to him or her concerning a subject of importance for both of us? A different kind of question would be the question if everyone should be allowed to lie at all and if so, in which situations and following which criteria.

5. The Ambivalence of Aesthetic Experience

"Ich probiere Geschichten an wie Kleider!" (Max Frisch)

But even taking into account only the genuinely ethical problem of the good (individual and shared) life, no clear correspondence between ethics and aestheticism can be seen. The claimed analogy or identity of the aesthetical and the ethical attitude can only be kept up by combining the searched-for pre-modern ethic with a pre-modern aesthetic. This can only be done by successfully dismissing the (so far) outstanding characteristic of modern art: its autonomy.

Therefore it does not seem accidental that both MacIntyre and Nussbaum have resorted to aesthetical concepts that have not been developed according to twentieth-century artistic experience. MacIntyre explains his notion of how to lead a good life by the example of the medieval quest. Here is to be found for the first time the picture of a "voyage of life" in the course of which we learn the the goal is the quest itself.

The fact that MacIntyre follows a rather traditional narrative model can also be seen from what he takes to be the main characteristics of a narrative: major importance is accorded to the structure (introduction, middle, ending), the identifiable and describable frame of reference, the causal and chronological order of motives and the intelligibility. This narrative structure was guaranteed by the authorial narrative perspective until the great novels of the nineteenth century. The perspective was that of a narrator who, within the microcosm of the narrated action, represented the whole epoch. Nussbaum also uses the great realist novel of the nineteenth and early twentieth century as the model of her analysis. In their argumentation they both touch a problem that results from a changed aesthetical experience. MacIntyre discusses Sartre's novel Nausea in which the protagonist recognizes the untruth of all narratible life stories. Nussbaum does accept aestheticism as a possibility that might result from her thesis of the aesthetical nature of moral behaviour, even though she sees it as a risk. Both are linked, because they both call to mind the same aesthetical experience: that there is more than one possible narrative of a life and that there are no reliable criteria according to which could be decided which narrative is "true", or which is the "right" one. In every narrative there remains a residue of arbitrariness. Max Frisch says about narrating stories:

And he warns us of the illusion of the "epischen Imperfekt" which endows the past with an apparent order, a teleological process. Max Frisch, by contrast, insists on the importance of "der Einfall" (the idea). Only this later, arbitrary act turns the mere sum of meaningless data into what we take to be an "Erfahrung" (experience) and what we fit into our life story that likewise was invented at random. This residue of arbitrariness, which unavoidably remains, is the subject of aesthetical reflection. Aestheticism has several different interpretations of this act of arbitrariness. In its function to refuse making use of art for other purposes it insists on the irreducible stubbornness of this arbitrariness. Art is stylized as reason's Other, or at least as possessing a reason of its own. As a result, art is seen as equal, if not superior, to morality and ethics (as it is equal to philosophy and religion).

Taken seriously, this insight distances art from the social world of norms, values and goods, from cultural symbols and patterns of socialization, in other words, from ethos. This also situates the reader or viewer in a special position: "[D]ie ästhetische Einstellung [kann ihn] in ein Gegenüber zur Rolle bringen, das ihn vom Zwang und der Routine alltäglicher Rollen spielerisch freisetzt" (H.R. Jauß, 34).5 This distance is the source of the ambivalence within aesthetical experience. We can employ it for lying, deceit or even crime. Ugliness, horror and dread can be the subject of art, as in the work of Edgar Allan Poe, the whore poems of Charles Baudelaire or Ernst Jünger's tales of the existential dread of war (Bohrer). Interesting examples of the moral-free use of aestheticism can be found even earlier than the epoch of literary Modernism. In the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom there are four female "narrators" whose characterization resembles a prophetic parody of the thesis of narratability as the precondition to ethical behaviour. Every night, these narrators have to initiate four "libertins" into "150 passions". The lechers want the narrators to be "Subjekte, die imstande wären über all diese Exzesse zu berichten, sie zu analysieren, auszubreiten, zu detaillieren, sie einzuteilen und auch das Interesse einer Erzählung hineinzulegen" (Marquis de Sade, 37).6 They explicitly demand of them an aesthetic sense even though the subject of their narrative is horror.

Because of this ambivalent distance literature does not only serve the purpose of authentically expressing shared ethical norms. Instead of rendering plots comprehensible, as postulated by MacIntyre, or, as Nussbaum sets the task for the artist/writer, expressing their personal ethos attentively, truthfully and lucidly, form and content of the literary narrative are aesthetically alienated. Even though the narrator is able to create a fictional ethos within his narrative, he can do this only from a disrupted distance from his own life-world. It is in this distance that the reader finds himself when what seemed familiar to him suddenly becomes unfamiliar, when every effort at understanding fails and becomes itself the subject of literature, as in Beckett's dramatical work. For this reason modernist literature often uses devices of this kind, which are the contrary of MacIntyre's conditions of narratability: the chronological and causal order of motives and intentions is disrupted and jumbled up; the structure of beginning, middle and end is reversed. The purposeful destruction of the habitual narrative structure causes the shocking realization that the narrated life is neither coherent nor teleologically structured.

MacIntyre's and Nussbaum's thesis is that this arbitrariness can be used correctly - in aesthetical terms - only by following moral rules. This thesis could be supported by stating that autonomous art is part of the modern world, where questions of the good life are separated from moralism and aestheticism. Art and life are impoverished and dried up because their common source has been exhausted as a consequence of the modern pluralization of ways of life. The original unity of the aesthetical, the ethical and the moral is broken up into disparate "Sphären" (spheres). Yet, this unity existed only, if ever, in the societies of the ancient polis, where aesthetical experience could still provide a collective identity (Meier). All modern efforts at reviving this unity in the form of a new mythology, like Richard Wagner's concept of a musical drama for the people, have failed because of the irreversible process of differentiation and rationalization. If they were not contented with this, they made a pact with like-minded political projects aimed at restoring a substantial unity by means of violence (Frank).

The independence of the aesthetical does not originate in mere stubbornness nor by the pleasure of the cryptic, but it is based on the experience that the purpose MacIntyre and Nussbaum ascribe to morality and art can no longer be achieved. For the ambivalence is found also with respect to the good life. The Aristotelean and medieval certainty that it is possible for us to know what a good life is no longer assumed to be obvious. The modern Percival has to learn that there is no Grail and that he had believed in a chimera as long as he spent his life searching for the good (Hein). There are experiences of self-dissolution, of an increased intensity of the senses - which is not directed towards a self, which is identical with itself and narratible, but towards forms of self-transcendence. It is these experiences that, like the hashish experiments of certain writers in the twenties, are assigned an aesthetical significance. Even here it could still be objected that the search for experiences of this kind finally serves the purpose of discovering new facets of the individual self. But even if this interpretation is just it cannot be related to the narrative structure that MacIntyre in his concept assumes to be the precondition of narratibility, and most certainly not to the chronological and causal order of intentions and motives and the structure of beginning, middle and end.

6. Ethics and Autonomous Art

"Denn das Schöne ist nichts als des Schrecklichen Anfang" (Rainer Maria Rilke).7

Morality and art as well as the notions of a good life have irrevocably become reflexive. Are there then no more relations between the aesthetical, the moral and the ethical? Are they "Wertsphären" (Habermas)8 that are completely separated and spin around self-referentially without communicating with each other? At first sight this does not seem to be the case. Thanks to modern aesthetical experience we are able to turn away from our everyday stories and take a strictly incommensurable perspective towards ourselves and our life world. This makes the aesthetical shock possible. We do not experience a "Verstehbarkeit" (intellegibility) but "Fremdheit" (unfamiliarity) and "Differenz". We do not (at least not primarily) owe this possibility of (self-) dissociation to the search for the good or for moral contents incarnated in the aesthetical production. It is rather based on the autonomy of the aesthetical and the reflexive consciousness of it. Freedom, in a negative sense as the negation of norms and in a positive sense as innovation and the production of new, different possibilities of perception, is also rooted in this autonomy. In modern times this freedom goes further and becomes the permanent self-criticism of aesthetical conventions; aesthetical rules finally become totally self-referential.

In spite of this complete autonomy, art can still communicate with the areas of ethics and morality. I invent stories and I can play whatever role I like within them. The freedom of role distance makes it possible for me to take over fictionally different roles and to experiment with them. Thus, there is a "spielerische Identifikation" (Jauß, 35, 40) with what they (the spectators) should be or would like to be. But even here there is a rupture within the perspectives of the participants: the identification, the invention of stories or the (exemplary) re-experience or reconstruction of invented stories presupposes the abyss of the playful distance and reproduces it in the act of aesthetical experience. This especially opens up the necessary space for the change of experiences and significances and for the discovery of new possibilities of perception. For this, the aesthetical autonomy has to be maintained (Menke-Eggers). Only when the work of art and the way it is conveyed are at the same time made subjects does the unconstrained change of perception become possible. Max Frisch does not tell which one of the stories told by his protagonists is the authentic one. Changed ways of perception can now influence our moral and ethical interpretation of situations. Yet, this possibility cannot be striven for under the conditions of autonomous art (Kuhlmann). It is a result of autonomous art that it is impossible to intend directly. Only by resisting the temptation of equalling ethics and aestheticism the possibilities of the mutual fertilization of both areas can be explored and made use of.

I am grateful to my wife - Lelah Ferguson - for important suggestions and discussions. For their comments and criticism I also thank my friends and colleagues at Erfurt, Dr. Richard Breun, Kiran Desai, Prof. Dr. Winfried Franzen, Dr. Karl Hepfer, Prof. Dr. Heinrich Niehues-Pröbsting and Dr. Alexander Thumfart.


Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. Transl. by Sir William David Ross, Oxford 1925, 1991.

Robert N. Bellah a.o. Habits of the Heart. Individualism and Commitment in American Life. New York 1985

Karl Heinz Bohrer. Die Ästhetik des Schreckens. München/Wien 1978

Manfred Frank. Gott im Exil. Frankfurt/M. 1988

Max Frisch. Mein Name sei Gantenbein. Frankfurt/M. 1974

Max Frisch. Gantenbein. Transl. Michael Bullock. London 1982.

Max Frisch. Kurze Prosa. Frankfurt/M. 1972

Christoph Hein. Die Ritter der Tafelrunde. Neuwied 1989

Andreas Kuhlmann. "Das stumme Antlitz der Kunst". In: Rowohlt Literaturmagazin 24 (1989), 61 ff.

Alasdair MacIntyre. After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. 2nd Ed., Notre Dame/Ind. 1984.

Christian Meier. Die politische Kunst der griechischen Tragödie. München 1988.

Christoph Menke-Eggers. Die Autonomie der Kunst. Frankfurt/M. 1989.

Martha C. Nussbaum. The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge 1986.

Martha Nussbaum. "Finely Aware and Richly Responsible: Moral Attention and the Moral Task of Literature". In: The Journal of Philosophy 1985, 515-529.

Richard Rorty. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge 1989.

Marquis de Sade. Die Hundertzwanzig Tage von Sodom oder die Schule der Ausschweifung. Dortmund 1987.

Charles Taylor. Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge/Mass. 1989.


1 translated by Anke Bruns

2 "I tried to read (sometimes it seems to me, too, that any book, as long as it does not deal with war prevention, the creation of a better society and so on, is pointless, idle, irresponsible, not worth being read and inadmissible. It is not time for I-stories. And yet human life fulfills itself or fails in the individual I, nowhere else.)" [transl. A.B.] (evtl. Übersetzung aus engl. Ausgabe ergänzen).

3 "I simply didn't know what to do." [transl. A.B.]

4 "Every human being makes up his own story, which he then considers to be his life, often at great cost, or a series of stories, which are backed up by placenames and dates so that their authenticity is beyond doubt. Only the writer doesn't believe in them. That is the difference." [transl. A.B.]

5 "the esthetic attitude [can] situate [the reader or viewer] opposite the role so that he is liberated in a playful way from the constraint and the routine of daily role-playing" [transl. A.B.]

6 "Subjects capable of reporting all these excesses, of analysing them, enlarging on them, going into detail, of arranging them and to make them as interesting as a story." [transl. A.B.]

7 "For the beautiful is nothing but the beginning of the terrible." [transl. A.B.]

8 "Spheres of value" [transl. A.B.]