Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Noël Carroll

Committee Members

Susan Feagin

Jonathan Gilmore

Nickolas Pappas

Subject Categories

Aesthetics | Ethics and Political Philosophy


Aesthetic Value, Artistic Value, Normativity, Metanormativity, Value Theory


In this dissertation, I defend a volitionalist theory of aesthetic value. The volitionalist theory is a species of response-based models of aesthetic value: It holds that aesthetic value is based in a kind of human response. Traditional response-based theories of aesthetic value hold that value is based in responses of cognition, perception, desire, or pleasure. The volitional theory offers a new response as the home of aesthetic value: the will. We find things beautiful, I argue, because we orient our selves towards them; we find things ugly, I argue, because we orient our selves against them. The volitionalist theory I offer here is what I call, following Ruth Chang, a form of hierarchical voluntarism. On the first stage of the theory, there are objective aesthetic reasons in the world. Objects have features that give reasons for their aesthetic value or disvalue. But these reasons are not sufficient for value. Aesthetic value, I claim, requires actual valuers. Aesthetic value requires human agents to engage in valuing particular objects and practices. This valuing is an act of the will; we orient ourselves alongside certain reasons.

The volitional theory is meant to respond to a crisis in contemporary aesthetic theories of value. The standard Humean theory of aesthetic value holds that aesthetic value is based in hedonic responses of pleasure (Levinson 2002). It is becoming clear that pleasure is an inadequate basis for aesthetic value. If aesthetic value was based in pleasure, good aesthetic agents should trade up in their pursuit of aesthetic goods, optimizing the pleasure they get from art and the natural world. But this is not the way that aesthetic agency tends to work. We stick to our own projects and develop our distinctive personalities. Our distinctive aesthetic styles are crucial parts of a good aesthetic life.

In light of this crisis, it is surprising that aestheticians have not drawn from one of the most influential trends in the past thirty years in value theory: The emergence of normative volitionalism, or voluntarism (Korsgaard 1996). My goal here is to draw from this rich strain of normative thinking to offer a new picture of aesthetic value—a picture that fits better with the aesthetic lives we actually live. I aim to show that aesthetic agency exists, and that the aesthetic reasons we encounter in the world do not force any response upon us. Instead, I argue, we construct aesthetic values by aligning ourselves to aesthetic reasons—by committing, avowing, or endorsing them.