Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Aesthetics and Ethics

I think one of the major problems with the modern teaching of ethics is the tendency to divorce ethics from aesthetics. Yes, they are distinct; they are nonetheless closely interlinked. And sharply severing ethics from aesthetics falsifies most of the history of ethics, and most of the major historical positions in ethics. The argument for this can be made long indeed, but a few basic considerations that show why aesthetics sometimes needs to be brought in if we are to properly understand certain historical ethical positions that are commonly taught in Ethics classes:

(1) One of the things I've occasionally had a problem with when discussing utilitarianism is that even utilitarians often don't grasp that utilitarianism can be -- and classical utilitarianism was -- applied quite broadly, so as to include aesthetics. This is rather obvious even a priori -- if you are genuinely concerned with maximizing utility or the greatest happiness of the greatest number, you have to be concerned with art, which provides utility (in the utilitarianism sense of a factor conducive to subjective happiness) on a massive scale, and likewise with the beauty of nature, which does the same. And the classical utilitarians did. This is especially true of Mill, who made Aesthetics one of the branches of the Art of Life and whose criticism of Bentham in the Essay on Bentham is in part that Bentham does not do enough justice to the aesthetics of human actions themselves:

Every human action has three aspects,---its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong; its aesthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its lovableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire, or despise; according to the third, we love, pity or dislike. The morality of an action depends on its foreseeable consequences; its beauty, and its lovableness, or the reverse, depend on the qualities which it is evidence of.

(2) But it is also in a way true of Bentham, despite the fact that Bentham himself has a reputation for lacking much in the way of aesthetics. In his Chrestomathia, under the extraordinary curricular name of Hedonistic Aplopathematic Pathology (the arts that concern aggregation of pleasure), he includes the fine arts, thus at least recognizing their direct concern to the matter he considers most important. Bentham himself was actually an enthusiast for literature (although not a fan of literary critics), and considered all aesthetic matters to have a utilitarian account. Indeed, it's actually from such a discussion in Rationale of Reward that Mill drew the famous comment about pushpin and poetry, and shortly after making the point (which is primarily to argue that lesser arts like heraldry or coin collecting get their value in the same way the fine arts do), he says:

All the arts and sciences, without exception, inasmuch as they constitute innocent employments, at least of time, possess a species of moral utility, neither the less real or important because it is frequently unobserved. They compete with, and occupy the place of those mischievous and dangerous passions and employments, to which want of occupation and ennui give birth. They are excellent substitutes for drunkenness, slander, and the love of gaming.

(3) Kant makes a sharp distinction between ethics and aesthetics (in the sense of being concerned with sublimity, beauty, and the like), but this is not to say that he thinks they have no relations to each other at all; while pure morality stands above anything that can be called aesthetic, in actual human life we have to combine the sensible and the moral, and this brings us up directly to aesthetics. Thus, we have Kant's famous argument that beauty is the symbol of the good, in the sense that, while beauty and good are themselves very different, our experience of the good involves things that are broadly like our possession of the moral Idea, albeit in a limited form. And, of course, the moral law turns out to be the thing that most truly inspires awe. Cultivation of taste is for him part of moral cultivation -- not the only thing, but a genuine part.

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