April 14, 2009 6:47 AM   Subscribe

Looking for articles/writings based around the premise that ethics are an extension of a larger sense of aesthetics.

My google-fu is not serving me well today. I'm looking for writings that explore the idea that the application of ethics is an extension or subset of aesthetics (as opposed to the usual notion that the reverse is true). All traditions/doctrinal positions welcome, I'm just trying to determine what's already been said about this. Thanks for any information you can provide.
posted by Burhanistan to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Deeply flawed David Brooks column that got a lot of attention:
Today, many psychologists, cognitive scientists and even philosophers embrace a different view of morality. In this view, moral thinking is more like aesthetics. As we look around the world, we are constantly evaluating what we see. Seeing and evaluating are not two separate processes. They are linked and basically simultaneous.

As Steven Quartz of the California Institute of Technology said during a recent discussion of ethics sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, “Our brain is computing value at every fraction of a second. Everything that we look at, we form an implicit preference. Some of those make it into our awareness; some of them remain at the level of our unconscious, but ... what our brain is for, what our brain has evolved for, is to find what is of value in our environment.”

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know.

Moral judgments are like that.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:59 AM on April 14, 2009

It's said by Wittgenstein, particularly in his Lecture on Ethics, but he doesn't really lay out any clear defence of why he says it. Cora Diamond, a modern Wittgensteinian, has written more comprehensively on this in The Realist Spirit, specifically in the essays at the end of the book: Anything but Argument?, Missing the Adventure, Eating Meat and Eating People, Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is. To summarize: one of her points is to contrast two conflicting ways of seeing animals: as products of consumption, or as "fellow creatures". (There are other options too, but these two present a certain debate about the treatment of animals in clear terms.) One way of seeing them can enrich your experience life or impoverish it without being any more or less in line with the facts than any other way. Hence she tries to show how ethics can be a lot more than syllogistic reasoning and in particular she wants to steer us away from a conception of ethics as deducing actions from principles. For her ethics is a much broader response to life that can often be captured by narrative or poetry better than by argument. Hence you could say that it merges with aesthetics in a sense, although this isn't really how she phrases it. On her view, though, there are great similarities between ethics and aesthetics. You can never prove your view of an artwork to be right, but you can sometimes move someone to see it the way you do, and they might think your way of seeing it is superior -- this is how "conviction" works in aesthetics and in her version of ethics.

Also, are you familiar with the sentimentalist ethics of Hume, Adam Smith, etc.? It's not exactly what you're looking for, but it does make ethics very similar to aesthetics if not exactly a subset.
posted by creasy boy at 7:02 AM on April 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, now I've found it: on the last two pages of Enquire Concerning Human Understanding Hume says: "Morals and criticism are not so properly objects of the understanding as of taste and sentiment. Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived." He says very similar things elsewhere, for example in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste". Hume has more of a deprecatory, reductionist account of ethics as being just a matter of taste. For Diamond/Wittgenstein, the various constructive ways of framing experience that we see in ethics and aesthetics are themselves part of rationality, a part that has long been neglected by the philosophy of mind. So the two positions end up with the same general equation of ethics and aesthetics but really come from two different directions and stress the equation very differently.

This is all just my interpretation. Your mileage may vary.
posted by creasy boy at 7:26 AM on April 14, 2009

I.A.Ph.D.S.A.S.T.5.E.A.A.P (which, of course means, I am a Ph.D. student at a school with a top five ethics and aesthetics program).

I don't think aesthetics is "traditionally" thought of as a subfield of ethics in any sense. Philosophers sometimes use the term "Value Theory" to primarily pick out ethics, but the term also applies to aesthetics just as much (as well as some parts of epistemology, etc ...).

Many philosophers hold that ethics is a lot like aesthetics in that what is said when you express an ethical (or normative) statement is that you either approve or disapprove of the action in question. This has been likened to "liking" or "disliking" the action. The general class of views is called "Expressivism" or "Emotivism". There are lots of complicated details about making these views work out and not all views that go by those names accept what I said, but that's the general idea. I think this is the view that Brooks was on about (along with general methodological naturalism) in the NYT piece (which is definitely deeply flawed). See Allan Gibbard for the most through and best treatment of this type of ethical view. He has three books (I think). Wise Choices, something ... is probably your best bet.

Anyway ... I gotta run, but GL!

Ohh ... by the way, your question appears to more about metaethics than ethics. Looking for info on semantic claims in metaethics is probably your best bet. GL.
posted by singerdj at 7:59 AM on April 14, 2009

Kierkegaard is one source for this stuff, Burhanistan. His developmental arc goes from aesthetics to ethics to religious thought, modeling Hegelian dialectics and critiquing it through parody. (I got most of my sense of Kierkegaard from Lowrie's short biography and from Walter Kaufmann. I've only read excerpts and anthologized pieces by him in his own voice.)
posted by cgc373 at 10:13 AM on April 14, 2009

Well I'm no PhD but wasnn't this the thesis of Robert Pirsig's Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance?
posted by scalefree at 11:13 AM on April 14, 2009

Well, this is sort of the opposite of what you've asked for, but the source (I believe) of most of the modern notions that 'aesthetics is subjective and not absolute' and that 'morality is much more an absolute standard than aesthetics', along with many other ideas we have about art and beauty, came from Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement and especially the first section, "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment."
posted by koeselitz at 12:09 PM on April 14, 2009

Oscar Wilde, "The Soul of Man under Socialism", and maybe also William Morris, "News from Nowhere" at least state something like "there's no point to ethics without aesthetics" as far as I remember.
posted by runincircles at 3:05 PM on April 14, 2009

I think I agree with creasy boy.

1) There aren't any prominent philosophers who I am aware of who believe that the correct way to think about ethics is as an extension or subset of aesthetics. Wittgenstein sometimes seems to be saying something like this, but as creasy boy points out, he never fleshes it out or defends it with any rigor.

2) There are some philosophers who think that both ethics and aesthetics are of a kind: they are both grounded in sentiments, which are something like feelings, or the capacity to feel, and began with that bit of Hume that creasy boy has quoted. This position is a live one among contemporary philosophers, but it doesn't feel like exactly what you are looking for.
posted by Kwine at 5:06 PM on April 14, 2009

Lots of good stuff here to work through. The original impetus I had for posting this was an idea that the perception of beauty could the highest ideal in one's life so any behaviors or normative measures should be geared towards enhancing beauty in the world. Obviously, I worded it much more neutrally than that in the post to cast a wider net.

One could say that in an oblique way that is what religion should be, but I'd like to see a more hard nosed philosophical system. Failing an actual extant treatise in philosophy, maybe this is more in the realm of sociology--observing when behavior is directed towards preserving or creating beauty (however it might be subjectively or objectively defined). It's probably about time I became more familiar with Wittgenstien and Kierkegaard at any rate.

Thanks for your thoughtful responses, and please feel free to cite additional sources now that I've expounded a bit.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:37 PM on April 14, 2009

Eh, if you're interested in the particular strand of Wittgenstein's thought, don't bother reading Wittgenstein, just go straight to Cora Diamond. Seriously. She has actual thesis statements supported by arguments in essay form. Wittgenstein has scattered, cryptic remarks on the subject, nestled in among other weird remarks like "Why can't a dog lie? Is he too honest?" I'm currently writing my masters on Wittgensteinian ethics, and I can tell you for a fact that Wittgenstein has no ethics to speak of. Diamond is also interesting for the way she really weaves together philosophical and literary modes of argument.

Your clarification here -- basically that you're looking for something like beauty as the highest value -- is pretty far removed from the Hume/Smith line, emotivism, expressivism, etc. It's more a specific ethical position than a metaethical position, it seems to me, and it reminds me of Romantic poetry more than anything else -- Keats in particular.
posted by creasy boy at 4:26 AM on April 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Ah! Elaine Scarry is a wonderful way to consider what you want to consider, if I understand what you're saying, Burhanistan. Her small book On Beauty and Being Just argues that a wise appreciation of beauty can make us better people. I'm not convinced by its argument, but it's intelligently made and well worth considering. An online review praises the book for "its sheer otherness," and I agree with the assessment. It's a strange window. To understand what she means better, I read Dreaming by the Book—I find the cover oddly calming and soothing; sometimes I just look at it for a few minutes, meditating on it; no idea why—which tries to outline a methodology for the imaginative process of depiction. Some of the stuff in the book sticks with me, but mostly it seems muffled and unlikely to be true. Still, I found myself liking it, liking the way she tries to explain why we love stories and pictures and beautiful things.
posted by cgc373 at 6:37 AM on April 15, 2009

Peirce thought this. See, for example, this essay. That should give you a good starting point.

And as creasy boy and others have noted, it's somewhat plausible that Hume thought something like this. He explained the normativity of virtue in terms of its "moral beauty", which is a good phrase to search for. It led me to this abstract of Aesthetics and Morals in the Philosophy of David Hume by Timothy M. Costelloe, which seems like a book you might be interested in. It doesn't quite sound like Hume thought that morality was a subset of aesthetics, but it's close. (The 'context' section of the SEP page on Hume's aesthetics has a little more about his thoughts on the link between the two.)

Actually, given that your thesis seems like it might be a currently unoccupied position in logical space, it could be an interesting project for someone to take up. When I get a chance, I'll ask some ethicists in my department if they can think of anyone who currently holds this position. (Or if there is some reason why it is obviously wrong. Off the top of my head, it doesn't seem like aesthetic norms carry obligation in the same way that moral norms do. Not sure that's important, though. And Kant famously thought otherwise.)
posted by painquale at 12:22 PM on April 17, 2009

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