Beauty and morality: Kant's theory of beauty and 20th century philosophical aesthetics

Christopher Alan Lee Hromas, Fordham University


Philosophical aesthetics and philosophy of art are notable in the twentieth century for their general lack of interest in beauty and their separation of aesthetic and moral value. This has led to two unfortunate developments. First, beauty in art became trivialized because expression and meaning were thought to give the arts a more profound philosophical calling than the mere production of pleasure. The second development was that a general distrust of beauty arose, partly spurred by moral condemnations of beauty as a social value by artists like the Dadaists and Philip Guston, and partly by the worry, expressed by Mary Devereaux in her analysis of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, that beauty could lend immoral ideas an air of attractiveness. This second development is based on what I call the moral objection to beauty: that beauty, as a form of pleasure, is either trivial or potentially irresponsible in the face of serious moral concerns. Such an objection only arises if aesthetic value and moral value are independent of one another, a view that gained traction in the twentieth century due to the relegation of beauty to a merely sensible phenomenon of enjoyment. By describing beauty as indicative of something more than a mere evocation of pleasure, Immanuel Kant gives beauty an inherent moral significance in two key ways. First, beauty reassures us that nature can be amenable to universal moral ends and thereby help us avoid falling into moral despair when faced with nature’s indifference toward moral virtue. Second, since beauty is a disinterested feeling that is not responding to any interest or desire of the subject, it is similar to the disinterested feeling of pleasure involved in moral appraisals. Thus, the cultivation of taste can assist us in recognizing moral feeling associated with correct moral action. The advantage of Kant’s theory over other theories of beauty in the twentieth century is that it does not require us to be suspicious of beauty and allows us to pursue aesthetic value without compromising moral value because beauty itself is morally valuable.

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Recommended Citation

Hromas, Christopher Alan Lee, "Beauty and morality: Kant's theory of beauty and 20th century philosophical aesthetics" (2016). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10182793.