The Echo of God's Laughter: Aesthetic Experience and the Virtue of Openness within a Pragmatist Ethics
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Immanuel Kant's claim that morality is a matter of rational judgment is perhaps the apotheosis of a tradition within ethical philosophy that sought certainty with regards to how one ought to live or what one should to do in any given situation. Although this strand still lingers in various guises in contemporary moral philosophy, pragmatism has set itself up as a response to this quest for ethical certainty. Yet, with its anti-absolutist commitments, pragmatist approaches to ethics struggle with the articulation of a prescriptive moral philosophy. Virtue ethics, however, with its focus on the general dispositions of agents, suggests itself as a viable model for a normative pragmatist moral theory. Moreover, in moving away from the view that moral progress is a form of knowledge-acquisition, pragmatist ethics opens the door for a host of possible influences for our ethical development. In this dissertation, I argue that aesthetic experience, as elicited by the work of art, can significantly inform our ethical lives by cultivating in us what I consider to be the cardinal pragmatist virtue, openness. For, not only does this disposition, which John Dewey describes as a “hospitality towards the new” and a “willingness to be affected by experience,” prove salutary in regards to the pursuits of individual flourishing and social melioration, but one can also construct a system of norms and values upon it while not contradicting pragmatism's anti-absolutist commitments. Engagements with art can help foster this virtue, I argue, because the work of art helps unsettle the conceptual systems of interpretation we often over-rely on in moral inquiry, and thus expands our horizons of possibility for human meaning and action.