Aesthetics and Ethics Guided Discussion


This tutorial activity is a guided discussion and debate on the topic of aesthetics and ethics. Total Time required is two hours.

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will be able to do the following:

  • make a value judgement on the ethical nature of media content that is supported by research
  • defend this value judgement by using Socratic reasoning
  • identify the ethical position they are assuming in exercising this judgement

NOTE: it is essential that teachers are familiar with this flipped lesson which students will have completed prior to participating in this face-to-face tutorial.

Key terms: aesthetics, beauty, art, ethics, image, value, judgement, nature.



Allow 20 mins to watch and discuss this topic summary video and the ‘goldfish in a blender installation’ as a whole class.

Teachers should read the article linked below about the installation art experiment cited in the introductory video to provide further context to students when leading the discussion. While reading this article, teachers should also pay attention to the structure of the argument, which can be replicated / or used to guide your discussion with the class.,-but-is-it-art

Teachers should be careful not to take a definitive position on this topic as the aim of the first activity is to model Socratic reasoning for the students and promote the need for rational critique in the judgement of value.

In the remaining 10 mins summarise the ethical standpoints that emerged in the class discussion with reference to what they learned in the flipped lesson. Remind them of the following ethical positions and identify examples of how students exercised these in the preceding discussion. Ask them to reflect on which ethical position resonates with them individually before beginning the next activity, reminding them that the goal of this lesson is to not only be able to judge the value of content but also to understand and critique the reasoning used to exercise their judgement.



Allow 5 mins to give students instructions and direct them to the four case examples provided below. It is recommended that you copy the text and media from each example into a resource you can easily distribute to your students (i.e. a Google slide or the class Padlet).

For this activity, put students into 4 groups and assign one case example to each group. Then refer them to the ‘ethical dilemma’ accompanying each case example below and give them 10 mins to do some research and form a collective response to the questions. Allow 20 mins (5 mins per group) for each group to share their response and rational with the whole class. In the remaining 10 mins open the discussion up for general debate on the positions shared.

Example 1

When judging a work of art, does the moral value of the work affects its aesthetic value: should we think that a film, game or book is worse, aesthetically, because the content is morally objectionable?

Likewise, is morally objectionable content, aesthetically displeasing? What about the morality of the artist? Is the work of an artist who is deemed cruel, morally repugnant or evil of no aesthetic value by default of its creator?

Take a look at the set of images below. They are benign enough you might think. In fact, they are rather ordinary and for this reason, it seems unlikely that they might offend anyone. But what if I told you the artist was Aldof Hitler? Does this knowledge produce an uneasiness in your gaze? Do these works suddenly become ethically or morally challenging due to what we know about the artist? If so, this suggests that the ethical value of art also relates to the values of the artist as a person.

Ethical Dilemma: should the judgement of the aesthetic value of a work of art be entirely separate to our judgement of the artist?

You can view the extended collection of paintings by Hitler at the link below.

Paintings by Adolf Hitler: 40 Rarely Seen Artworks Painted by the Führer From the 1910s

Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party in Germany in the years leading up to and during World War II, was also a painter. He produced hundreds of works and sold his paintings and postcards to try to earn a living during his Vienna years (1908-13).

Tip: Extend this discussion by exploring the ethics of purchasing this art. Upon what criteria are we judging its apparent ‘worth’; is this ethical?

Adolf Hitler’s artwork fetches $583,000 at auction, but should it be sold at all?

Normal text size Larger text size Very large text size The Weidler auction house in Nuremberg held an unusual event last weekend. On finely carved wooden easels, auctioneers propped up 14 items, ranging from ornate watercolours of German castles to pictures of pretty flowers. The pieces weren’t particularly good, experts admitted.

Example 2

This image simply titled Starving Child and Vulture features in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential photographs of all time. It was taken in 1993 by photojournalist Kevin Carter.

Photojournalists capture candid moments of reality, which means they should never alter a scene or to influence it unnaturally, Ideally, they want to be invisible spectators documenting events that would otherwise not be witnessed.

Ethical Dilemma: Should photojournalists be obliged to intervene in the face of human suffering? Why/why not?

The following text accompanies this image in TIME’s web gallery (linked above).

Kevin Carter knew the stench of death. As a member of the Bang-Bang Club, a quartet of brave photographers who chronicled apartheid-­era South Africa, he had seen more than his share of heartbreak. In 1993 he flew to Sudan to photograph the famine racking that land. Exhausted after a day of taking pictures in the village of Ayod, he headed out into the open bush. There he heard whimpering and came across an emaciated toddler who had collapsed on the way to a feeding center. As he took the child’s picture, a plump vulture landed nearby. Carter had reportedly been advised not to touch the victims because of disease, so instead of helping, he spent 20 minutes waiting in the hope that the stalking bird would open its wings. It did not. Carter scared the creature away and watched as the child continued toward the center. He then lit a cigarette, talked to God and wept. The New York Times ran the photo, and readers were eager to find out what happened to the child—and to criticize Carter for not coming to his subject’s aid. His image quickly became a wrenching case study in the debate over when photographers should intervene. Subsequent research seemed to reveal that the child did survive yet died 14 years later from malarial fever. Carter won a Pulitzer for his image, but the darkness of that bright day never lifted from him. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain.”

Tip: Extend this discussion by exploring various debates on this topic beyond the image presented above. The articles below will help get you started.

Photojournalists discuss the ethics of non-intervention

The photojournalistic tradition of trying not to play a role in the scene you’re shooting doesn’t answer every ethical dilemma. While the viewing audience of news images would hope that the photographer hasn’t intervened or staged the image, does that mean the journalist should simply observe acts of violence and crime?

Example 3

According to photographer Karl Taylor (2014), there are two sides to this debate. Those against photoshopping of models, he says, “argue that it creates a false and misguided expectation in young people that they need to look perfect” while the “depicted level of perfection in images is unachievable in the real world.” Concomitantly, those who support the use of photoshopping in this way would argue that super-sized images of people for advertising are already unrealistic. “A human face would never ordinarily be presented in such high detail (4 meters tall for example) and therefore the imperfections we can’t see with the naked eye need to be removed when we are viewing images in such detail.”

Ethical Dilemma: is it ethical to photoshop models and celebrities to appear flawless? What are the implications of these distorted representations?

Tip: Extend this discussion by exploring various debates on this topic beyond the image presented above. The articles below will help get you started.

Rethinking The Ethics Of Photoshop

Retouching is its own form of fake news. Can an oath change a problem that stretches from fashion to product design?

Advertising’s toxic effect on eating and body image

Picture Imperfect – Digital Image Manipulation Ethics

By: Amanda Ray If you believe the adage, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What about when that beauty is manufactured through digital image manipulation? The beholder doesn’t have as much of a choice then. Digital image manipulation – or editing with software that stops short of manipulation – has become a routine practice in photography.

Example 4

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris has long been considered a classic film, a boundary-breaking meditation on 20th-century loneliness and sexual politics. Released in 1972, it stars Maria Schneider (1952-2011) and Marlon Brando (1924-2004) as Jeanne and Paul, two strangers who begin a torrid sexual relationship. Bertolucci shot the erotic scenes in vivid detail, a directorial choice that was equally lauded and vilified at the time.

However, a recently resurfaced 2013 interview (WARNING: graphic content in the linked video) with him revealing an instance of sexual abuse in the making of the film invites us to reassess its value and consider how abusive masculinity permeates the movie industry. Australian streaming service Stan has already removed the film from its catalog in response. And film scholars — who have long regarded this film as part of the canon — must surely reassess this judgement now that we know the appalling means by which one of its key scenes was created.

The above is an excerpt from an extended article by Cesar Albarran Torres and Dan Golding, Swinburne University of Technology, published in 2016 via ABC news. Read the full article at the link below.

Why we should no longer consider Last Tango in Paris ‘a classic’

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris has long been considered a classic film, a boundary-breaking meditation on 20th-century loneliness and sexual politics. Released in 1972, it stars Maria Schneider (1952-2011) and Marlon Brando (1924-2004) as Jeanne and Paul, two strangers who begin a torrid sexual relationship.

Ethical Dilemma: Should we continue to celebrate the artistic achievements of a film (or any other creative media) knowing that our aesthetic experience is attained through witnessing the genuine pain and suffering of people (or animals)?

Tip: Extend this discussion by exploring various debates on this topic beyond the image presented above. The articles below will help get you started.

The abuse of Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris just the tip of the iceberg

Updated first published at Normal text size Larger text size Very large text size Anyone connected to the film industry would be familiar with the guiding, if unspoken, principle that film is something bigger than ourselves, to which all involved must make sacrifices.

Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Movie – News – PETA Australia

With technology advancing at an astounding pace, it can be hard to tell these days whether video footage of animals in movies, television shows and adverts is real or artificially generated. But for those animals who are still forced to work in the entertainment industry, the misery is still all too real.


DEBATE AND DEFEND (60 mins total)

Note: In many ways, the previous task was a guiding activity to prepare them for a more robust discussion in this exercise. If you only have time for one task, then it might be difficult to execute this successfully without the previous ‘set up’ so you should plan accordingly.

In the remaining hour divide students into 4 groups for this debate-style activity.
Assign group A and B to debate question 1 and group C and D to debate question 2.
Now assign the ethical position that each group must take when debating their question as follows:

Question 1: Should a work of art (i.e. photo, film, game, song, book, play etc) be considered of lesser aesthetic value if its subject-matter is immoral?
Group A: Moralist
Group B: Amoralist

Question 2: Should a work of art (i.e. photo, film, song, book, play, etc) be considered of lesser aesthetic value if the means by which it was produced are immoral?
Group C: Moralist
Group D: Amoralist

Be mindful that students will not necessarily agree with the position they will be arguing so help them to shift perspective if necessary. Specifically, you should remind them to think about how this task forces them to engage with metanarrative, grand narrative, questions of authorship, binary oppositions, deconstruction, causality and truth covered in week 1 and week 2. This may also give them clues as to ways they can justify their ethical standpoint.

They will have 15 mins to research their position and find supporting examples and 7mins per team to present their argument. Circle around the room as they begin forming their case and guide their application of reasoning and selection of supporting media examples where required.