"Reflection on the ethical climate is not the private preserve of a few academic theorists in universities. After all, the satirist and cartoonist, as well as the artist and the novelist, comment upon and criticize the prevailing climate just as effectively as those who get know as philosophers. The impact of a campaigning novelist such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dickens, Zola or Solzhenitsyn may be much greater than that of the academic theorist. A single photograph may have done more to halt the Vietnam War than all the writings of moral philosophers of the time put together." ~ Simon Blackburn*
Vietnam - June 8, 1972. Photograph © Nick Ut.
Blackburn's overall claim (made in reference to Nick Ut's famous image) is hardly astonishing given that, even during the late sixties, the writings of philosophers had scant impact on matters of practical politics. I read his comments less as stressing the futility of philosophers than as a useful reminder of the influence that literature and the arts can, in particular instances, have on the politics. In a sense, Blackburn is re-cycling a claim that Richard Rorty regularly made, namely that morality and ethics presuppose some process of defining the "we" to whom we apply our ethical categories. Rorty insists that that process of categorization often trades upon the kind of ‘sad, sentimental story’ conveyed by writers of the sort Blackburn mentions just insofar as such stories revolve around ‘detailed descriptions’ of human hardship and suffering.
But that, in turn, raises the question of how photographs might have such profound impact and why they so rarely do so. Those are large, important questions. I think Blackburn (and by extension, Rorty) is correct about the possible impact of photography. But neither provides an especially compelling account of how that impact comes about or how it too commonly is thwarted.
* Simon Blackburn. 2001. Being Good: An Introduction to Ethics. Oxford UP,