Aesthetics and Ethics

aesthetics and ethicsThere are five traditionally accepted branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, politics, aesthetics, and ethics. Each branch answers specific questions that have a profound impact on our lives. Because each branch is focused on answering particular types of questions, it is possible for different branches to give different solutions to the same problem. Consider the branches of aesthetics and ethics. Aesthetics is concerned with the questions of what is beauty, what is ugliness, and how can beauty improve our lives, while ethics concerns the questions of what is right, what is wrong, and how can we make the best decisions. It might seem strange to some that these two branches can be confused with each other, but consider the following scenario where a person uses aesthetics, the awareness of beauty, as their approach to solving a problem.

Henry adores his daughter Beth’s smile. Nothing pleases him more than to see Beth smiling beautifully; likewise, the sight of his daughter crying fills him with revulsion. One evening, Beth comes to Henry and asks if she could have some extra dessert. Henry asks what her mother has said about this. Beth breaks down into tears and says that her mother has told her she isn’t to have any more dessert tonight unless she cleans her room. Henry recoils from the sight of his lovely daughter’s face spoiled by tears and he wishes he could gaze upon her cheeky, beautiful smile again. So he tells her that of course she may go and have some extra dessert. Beth’s face lights up with joy and Henry feels happy to see his favourite smile in the whole world again.

Henry’s actions were in alignment with his aesthetic interests. He wanted more smile and less frown, he got more smile and less frown. I am not going to accuse Henry of being amoral here. In this example, Henry has chosen to emphasise aesthetics over ethics, but this isn’t to say he lacks a conscience; instead, that he probably just failed to see the moral dimension to this particular problem. It is generally best to assume ignorance ahead of malevolence. Before going onto what would have happened if Henry had seen this problem as an ethical problem instead of an aesthetical one, let’s look at some of the features of aesthetics.

Aesthetics can offer us insights about objects: the beautiful woman, the ugly rat, the gorgeous portrait, the hideous cesspool, and so on. Aesthetics can offer us insights about sounds: the beautiful music, the annoying noise, the sweet voice, the grating rant, and so on. Aesthetics can offer us insights about actions: the kind gesture, the rude remark, the generous help, the callous betrayal. Indeed, almost everything a person can experience can be processed in accordance to how beautiful or how ugly it is. The alert reader will have noticed that having an aesthetic sense gives a person a substantial survival advantage over someone who lacks it: fresh food is prettier than rotting food and, thus, people prefer food that is healthier for them to eat. People are attracted to handsome people who are more likely to be healthier mates with whom to have children. Also, consider how harmful excrement is to human health; is it no wonder we find it so repulsive in look, smell, taste, and touch? Taking all of this into account, it is plain to see that aesthetics are a big part of being human.

Consider the aesthetics of the story with Henry and his daughter, Beth. Is it not a beautiful thing to please another person? Is it not a beautiful thing to dote on someone? Does it not play on your heart strings to see just how sweet Henry is towards his young daughter? There is beauty in Henry’s actions. However, let us go over this exact same story again, but this time Henry’s decision making process will be guided by ethics instead of aesthetics:

Henry adores his daughter Beth; treating her responsibly is his first priority as her father. Nothing pleases him more than to see Beth growing up into a righteous young lady; likewise, the sight of his daughter acting in irresponsible ways concerns him. One evening, Beth comes to Henry and asks if she could have some extra dessert. Henry asks what her mother has said about this. Beth breaks into tears and says that her mother has told her she isn’t to have any more dessert tonight until she cleans her room. Henry recoils from the sight of his lovely daughter’s face spoiled by tears, but he is mindful not to yield to them. He remembers that he has made vows with his wife to act with her, not against her. If he dismisses her intentions without consulting her, he is breaking his marriage vows. Since breaking a promise is the wrong thing to do, he must inform his daughter that the only way she can have extra dessert is if she cleans her room as instructed by her mother, or if she reaches a different agreement with her mother. It pains him to say this, for he wishes he could gaze upon her cheeky, beautiful smile again. Instead, Beth breaks out into louder, more insistent sobbing. Henry is annoyed by his daughter’s tantrum, but remembers the responsibility of the feelings and tantrum belongs with his daughter and not with him and so he tells Beth to go to her room, so his evening doesn’t need to be spoiled by her tantrum. The disappointed Beth goes to her room and sulkily tidies it up.

At this point, it becomes clear that aesthetics and ethics, although they can be close in alignment with each other, do in fact co-exist with some degree of tension between them. The enjoyable thing to do can easily be at odds with the right thing to do. No parent wants to do things in a way that might cause their children sorrow, fear, or pain, yet a responsible parent will often do things that may provoke feelings of sorrow, fear, or pain in their child. These things might appear ugly to other people, like the mother in the supermarket being harangued by a three year old who wants a chocolate bar. What is ugly is the sight of a mother ignoring her child’s distress, but what is righteous about this situation is the mother’s setting of a healthy boundary with her child. Indeed, the mother certainly doesn’t want to deal with the distress, she wants a happy child, but she knows the right course of action for her child is to put up with his distress.

Finding a harmonious agreement between one’s ethical sensibilities and one’s aesthetic sensibilities is no easy task. There is no doubt that we would all be a lot happier if, somehow, what was right and what was beautiful were the same thing. Funnily enough, self-knowledge is largely about learning to see the beauty in doing the right thing: what is commonly called “tough love”. If you can see the beauty of the ethical Henry in his firmness with his daughter’s behaviour, then you are well on the way to discovering inner peace.

It is useful to keep in mind that ethics does not apply as broadly as aesthetics does. Aesthetics typically has something to say about everything imaginable, while ethics only applies to a few things. When considering whether or not to paint a house, one’s aesthetic sense is pondering millions of questions: What colour? What pattern? What paint(s)? What kind of finish? What brush type? What brush technique? What budget? What approach? And so on… and there is no right or wrong answer to these questions. Meanwhile, the ethical centre of one’s brain is only asking a few questions: Is the house mine? Are the painting materials mine? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, then that’s it. You’re free to do what you wish. Go paint your roof tiles purple with yellow polka dots using a single haired brush if that is what pleases you. Your conscience will not get in your way. Unless your neighbour’s property values plunge.

What can be troubling for many people to accept is that different people may have different aesthetic sensibilities. Sometimes these differences are harmless; for example, I find coarse fabrics more attractive than fine fabrics. I am willing to guess that I might be in the minority on that front. This difference in me is part of the fascinating uniqueness of who I am. My preference for a particular type of fabric hasn’t lead me into any conflicts with anyone yet, certainly no ethical conflicts in my life. However, consider how dogs have their own aesthetic sense. Human beings do not generally like faeces, while dogs are fascinated by it. For a dog, faeces are beautiful. If a person finds faeces beautiful like a dog does, then we can quickly start to feel some chills down our spines. We probably wouldn’t feel comfortable associating with such a person closely, but so long as that person understood and respected personal boundaries, most people would be willing to accept sharing the same planet with that person, even if they were not entirely comfortable with it.

However, there are examples when differences of aesthetics cross a boundary that’s more than harmless or weird. Consider that the majority of people see something beautiful in watching another person feeling joyful, calm and relaxed. However, some people enjoy seeing others feeling miserable, anxious, and hurt. This perversion of aesthetics does not necessarily mean that a person is a sociopath, although it does move them closer in that direction. While a person might enjoy seeing other people suffer, that person might still be, for all intents and purposes, an ethical person. Consider that a person might understand that it is immoral to inflict suffering on other people for your own enjoyment, so this person chooses a career as a prison guard, a drill sergeant, a night club bouncer, a police officer, a paramedic, or a security guard. These people are highly likely to see suffering people in the line of their job. In fact, while most people might find such jobs draining and even traumatic, these people are able to do these jobs enthusiastically without risk of trauma.

Of course, if a person has a perverted sense aesthetics and no ethical centre, then they would be extremely dangerous. However, a perverted sense of aesthetics alone does not a monster make. This in itself highlights how important and distinct these two fields of study actually are. Yet how many people confuse aesthetics (appearing to do the right thing) with ethics (actually doing the right thing)? While giving, forgiving, and allowing might all be aesthetically pleasing actions to look at, in many situations it is unethical to give, forgive, and to allow certain behaviours. It is unethical to give a prize to a cheater, it is wrong to forgive someone who hasn’t atoned for their sins, and it is immoral to allow others freedom if they would use that freedom to threaten and injure others. Many actions which appear beautiful are, in fact on a deeper level, immoral and this conflict between aesthetics and ethics can be quite confusing for a person who goes with what feels right. While aesthetics do feel right, ethics are right.

When considering all this, it is advisable that when making a decision, ethical considerations should take precedence over aesthetic considerations. This is not intended to denigrate aesthetics. Aesthetics are a big part of life, they’re valuable, enjoyable, they help us to understand who we are, and what is important to us, while ethics can at times feel like an endless killjoy and burden to carry through life. This is not the case, though, since the constraints of ethics are less severe than the constraints of aesthetics. Once the ethical chores are taken care of, you have complete freedom to pursue what you find enjoyable. In fact, the tendency is that the more self-knowledge a person has, the more enjoyable ethical behaviour is for them because they can see the hidden beauty in doing the right thing and justice becomes its own reward.

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