Saturday, January 09, 2021

Moral Judgment and Aesthetic Judgment

 One of the things that makes Mansfield Park interesting is its exploration of the interaction between aesthetic and moral judgment. Both are recognized as important in the novel -- it is important for Fanny's development, including her moral development, that she has a naturally cultivated, and not artificially distorted, taste for beautiful things. It's one of the things, for instance, that gives her the occasional boldness needed to start developing her moral strength. In doing this, MP is giving a new presentation for an old idea; as I've noted before, it is rare to find any moral philosopher in the history of ethics, East or West, who does not recognize important links between aesthetic and moral judgment. The splitting of the two in abstract discussions, as if they had little or nothing to do with each other, seems primarily to be an aberration of the twentieth-century West.

MP, however, also recognizes the danger of this interaction between aesthetic and moral judgment. They are not the same, and very bad things can come of using aesthetic judgment to perform the task of moral judgment. The Crawfords are aesthetically pleasing in almost every way. They are charming and fun. Mary is pretty in appearance and Henry is engaging in manner, and they are both lively and witty. What is more, they live their own lives almost entirely by aesthetic, rather than moral. judgment. Being human, they neither of them lack the latter, and despite having no upbringing or practice to help them, occasionally rise to good moral judgment. But their lives are aesthetic lives, lived by taste and not by principle. And, of course, the problems of this are inevitably going to show.

I think it's clear enough when you look at human behavior that people have difficulty distinguishing aesthetic judgment and moral judgment. This is not a matter of intelligence or experience; you find very intelligent and experienced people who, like the Crawfords, cannot really distinguish them at all. Indeed, you find plenty who can recognize a distinction in the abstract but in the concrete obviously conflate them. It's just a result of the fact that aesthetic judgment and moral judgment do necessarily exist in interplay, so nobody can distinguish them without reflection and nobody can do it consistently without practice. Trying to separate them completely in actual practical life would require a very unhuman ethics; but by the same token, distinguishing them takes work.

And, of course, they need to be distinguished. We see this very easily when we look at questions of condemnation; trying to use aesthetic judgment to do what moral judgment should do inevitably leads to injustice. You can walk up a very pretty primrose path to some very nasty things. We find that often (not always, but quite often) when people react with vehemence against something, they are reacting with vehemence against the aesthetics of it, and while sometimes this is quite justified as far as it goes, the vehement revulsion is not itself a moral judgement. Thus when we find cases of people responding out of all proportion to the badness of the things, I think we can usually blame it on using aesthetic judgment as if it were moral judgment.

The rule of thumb seems to be something like this. When you are condemning something, the question to ask is, "What, precisely, is the morally wrong thing here?" (This rule of thumb does not cover every kind of case. But it covers a great many of the most important ones.) Something can be aesthetically bad in general; for instance, you can have a situation that is jarring and discordant not from any particular feature but from a whole blend of things. But you can't have moral wrongness except by way of some particular things that are morally wrong. So it's important to ask ourselves, whenever, we are inclined to condemn anything, what particular thing is wrong. If we can't -- if we can't articulate what's wrong, if we find that every attempt to do so never gets out of generalities, if we find ourselves falling back on general labels -- that is at least a good sign that our inclination to condemn is aesthetic, not moral.

This is complicated by the fact that we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that we are talking about something precise, when really we are just describing some general features in a lot of different ways. The real idea is that if someone has done something morally wrong by words, for instance, then this can only be by particular words said in a particular context that makes them wrong. What are they? If someone has done something morally wrong by deeds, we should be able to identify a particular action that is wrong in a particular context. We should be able to give the concrete details that don't themselves depend on abstractions and generalities. Moral judgment can involve abstractions and generalities, but it is always about something concrete, particular, definite. What is the concrete, particular, definite wrongness? If you can't say, you are probably judging aesthetically, and it is important to avoid treating this kind of judgment as a genuine moral judgment.

None of this, again, implies that aesthetic judgment is itself to be disparaged, or that it is unimportant for the moral life. It's just that we should not treat our judgments about how we experience a situation as if they were judgments about moral good and bad. Aesthetic judgment doesn't see people as people, for instance; it sees them as good or bad features of the environment. Now, it's absolutely true that a person can be a bad feature of the environment in some way; but this is not the same as being, or acting as, a bad person. There are absolutely kinds of aesthetic goodness we want built into our society, but we should avoid treating this as a superior end to ends like justice and mercy and charity, which in their different ways will often require us to have some endurance or tolerance for things we do not like, even for things we justifiably do not like, or to give some benefit of the doubt to them that makes us uncomfortable, or simply to have a sense of proportion that recognizes that there are things much, much more important than how these things come across to us. The moral judgment does not make the aesthetic judgment insignificant -- both the virtue of temperance with respect to our own actions and a good sense of proportion about those of other people, for instance, require both, clearly distinguished but clearly interacting. But we are very often unjust to people, even to people who would be justifiably condemned if we did so on better grounds and in better ways, when we make the aesthetic judgment do the work of the moral judgment.

Of course, what goes for condemnation goes for other kinds of judgment, as well; it's just that condemnation is a particularly easy point at which to see how we can go very wrong.

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