Ethical limits to knowledge in the arts

Christine asked:

If we conclude that there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds, how can we determine the boundaries of acceptable investigation within the area of knowledge of arts?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Your question takes the form of a conditional so the first thing we need to decide is whether it is in fact true that ‘there is some knowledge we should not pursue on ethical grounds’.

I recall a few decades ago, when student protests were an almost weekly occurrence, the demonstrations demanding the resignation of the psychologist Hans Eysenck, Professor of Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London for his claim that the IQ of infants varies with race. Today, it would be unheard of to seek grant funding for research into the relative IQs of the different races, regardless of the expected result. On ethical grounds, we are told, one should simply not go there.

Is that true? I assume that few would challenge research into physical characteristics of different races, so why is intelligence, or more precisely, the ranges of intelligence — logical, visual, musical, emotional etc. — such an ethically sensitive subject? Is it wrong to ask volunteers for a research study to state their ethnicity in their application questionnaire? Or does ethical error only come in when the answers are collated?

To me, this seems like one example where it is somehow more ethical to have inconsistent views on ethics, as Leszek Kolakowsi argued in his brilliant essay, ‘In Praise of Inconsistency’ (Toward a Marxist Humanism, 1967). Nowadays, it is common to ask about ethnicity — in job applications, healthcare provision etc. — in order to guard against bias. How can a researcher avoid noticing differences even if he/she refrains on ethical grounds from putting biro to paper? I leave that for you to judge.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that there is or could be knowledge that one should not pursue on ethical grounds. What examples could one find in the domain of what you term ‘the arts’? How about the art of torture? One could argue that torture is not only a science but also an art. To be good at it you need talent, as well as factual knowledge. Judging from the offerings of Internet entertainment companies, viewers can’t get enough of murder and torture. Watching these played out in fantasy from our living room couches, we seem to be protected against such horrors. For a short while we are able to forget that we, too, are going to die some day, possibly in terrible pain.

But what about the methods of real life torture? The best place on the human body to put the electrodes, for example, how to judge the precise current to use, depending on one’s perception of the subject’s reaction? Of course, it would be unethical to actually torture people in order to get this knowledge, but much research can be done exploring the work of others, for example, by going through documents left undestroyed by the East German Stasi, or the Nazi concentration camp ‘doctors’.

I do want to know. I don’t want these things to be forgotten, erased from human memory as if they never happened, even though such knowledge can be put to bad use. That is because I value human freedom. That is not the only thing I value, but I value it enough to despise those who would limit freedom on the grounds that ‘it’s best/ safest/ more ethical not to know’. I know how to make nitroglycerine, having once studied Chemistry. As a teenager, I had a laboratory at home complete with glassware and fume cupboard. I’m pretty sure you can find all you want to know on Google, but perhaps in the future it will be made illegal to publish the information, in case it is used by terrorists.

But we are talking about the arts. Another of my interests is photography (see my web site Camera Dreamer or my Flickr feed. A photographer I admire is Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989). In another age, Mapplethorpe would be imprisoned for his sexually explicit black and white photographs. (He has also done wonderful photographs of flowers.) Today, the only examples one can think of where it is unethical to take an interest in photographs with sexual content, is where the subject has been exploited or abused. I accept that there will be some borderline cases, but this is a common problem in many ethical questions.

It is not unethical to take an interest in things that some, or perhaps most human beings find disgusting. The movie, Little Murders (1971), stars Elliot Gould as Alfred, a photographer obsessed with taking photographs of dog turds. However, one could imagine much worse. For example, depictions of human cannibalism. A photojournalist makes a photographic essay about a tribe who practice ritual cannibalism, with shots of a family sitting round a fire, biting chunks out of a recently deceased grandparent. A book has been published, and you are a librarian deciding whether it would be right to purchase this for your library.

One thing you can’t argue is that it is ethically wrong, on principle, to take a photograph of something that is ethically wrong, or wrong to view such photographs, or seek them out. It all depends on the circumstances. Taking photographs of someone being tortured, would be one example. The world needs to know that this has happened,’ is the classic defence of photojournalism, but not if the photographer was in a position to prevent the torture from taking place, or indeed if there is a trace of suspicion that the torture has been deliberately staged for the benefit of the press.

I would be reluctant to set any ethical boundaries to investigation into the arts. As Is stated before, I value human freedom, although that is not the only thing I value. Perhaps my imagination is just not good enough to come up with an example where it would be ethically wrong, in principle, to enquire, to seek out, to view some work of art by virtue of its content, leaving aside the cases I have discussed. Can you do better?

One thought on “Ethical limits to knowledge in the arts

  1. What about editorial cartoons? This form of art can be sometimes considered to be extremely offensive to some people, for example because of cultural sensitivity Should boundaries be set for the publishing of political cartoons to avoid unnecessary harm?

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