Sunday, September 10, 2006

Thoughts on aesthetics and morality

This post was prompted by a post and discussion on the BrothersJudd blog. Orrin Judd's provocative title for the post, "All is Aesthetics", prompts many questions, one of which is whether aesthetics comes before morality. Orrin's replies are uninformative, unsatisfying, and as usual dodge the question. He seems to subsume morality within aesthetics, so that what we find beautiful is simultaneously moral.

Yet that doesn't account for all those monsters from history in whom the aesthetic sense was very active. Take the Nazis, as an example. Hitler was a failed artist with a love of architecture, whose closest confidant, Albert Speer, started out as his architect and who designed a master building plan for Berlin to embody Aryan ideals, heavily borrowed from Classical Rome.

Judd's response is to say that their aesthetics were ugly, and thus immoral, which makes a thorough muddle of the question. Why were their aesthetics ugly? Is there anything inherently ugly about the art or architecture of the Nazis? We can enjoy the music of Wagner today for its inherent beauty, but Wagner's Nordic romanticism was highly prized by Hitler and the Nazis, and Wagner shared their antisemitism. If two people, one good and another morally abhorrent, can share the same ideal of beauty, then how can one make a connection between their aesthetic sense and their moral sense?

Now I believe that aesthetics are an important aspect of human experience to be valued, but I will always place that value below that of morality and justice. To me aesthetics are a "nice to have", not an imperative for civilized existence. Indeed, an over-emphasis on aesthetics poses a danger to morality, justice, and civilized decency. When aesthetic considerations play an overriding role in determining political and social policy, it does so at the expense of human freedom and human dignity.

To start with, aesthetics are hopelessly subjective. There are many expressions of art and design which are universally acclaimed as beautiful, but there are many more expressions that are hotly contested between those who find it beautiful and those who are repulsed by it. And aesthetic tastes change through time. People adapt to changes in their environment, and often come to treasure utilitarian artifacts that were originally designed with no aesthetic purpose. Brit's cloud machines come to mind. Another such unintended thing of beauty struck me the other day as I walked down a country road near my house. I will always associate country roads and electric/telephone poles and wires. There is something about their presence that adds to the natural beauty already present. Especially when nature has adapted to them, with birds perched on the wires, vines crawling up the grounding wires, and wooden poles weathered like driftwood. We will miss something when all electrical wires are buried in the ground.

Of course there is no right or wrong answer when the question is "what is beautiful?" We must all find beauty where we can, and put up with ugliness where it is. But there are some people who cannot accept this, but who think that beauty is an objective truth that can and should be regulated, if not imposed by government fiat. One group that comes to mind are the Crunchy Conservatives. Among other nonsense that Dreher spouts in his manifesto is article seven, which states "Beauty is more important than efficiency". Now this statement stops short at saying beauty is more important than freedom, but the logical result of a Crunchy-inspired purge of ugly efficiencies would be to restrict the freedom of commerce of many businesses and consumers. You can kiss goodbye to those low WalMart prices under a Crunchy administration, as well as those low-paying jobs, which are a lot better than no-paying jobs for low-skilled workers. A Crunchy regime would necessarily require a command economy, though the object of the economy would be to maximize aesthetic output, as opposed to economic output. Command economies have been tried, and the only thing they maximize is human misery, and a lot of ugliness to boot.

But the real danger in aesthetic ideals comes when it is not just the material artifacts of civilization that are controlled for beauty, but the social organization of people themselves which is judged for its beauty. Whenever Orrin speaks about his "lovely society" I cringe and grab for my gun. Here is a quote from the above-linked site on the Nazis:
"The dictatorship of genius" was precisely how he saw his project. It echoes the Nietzsche call in the "Will to Power" for the "Lords of the Earth:"

"-A new vast aristocracy based upon the most severe self discipline, in which the will of philo-sophical men of power and artist tyrants will be stamped upon thousands of years: a higher species of man which, thanks to their preponderance of will, knowledge, riches, and influence, will avail themselves of democratic Europe as the most suitable and supple instrument they can have for taking the fate of the earth into their own hands, and working as artists upon man himself. Enough! The time is coming for us to transform all our views on politics.\0xD3

The idea of shaping humanity occurs frequently in 19th century German texts. Schiller wrote that when an artist sets his hand to material he:

"... has no qualms about doing violence to it; he merely avoids displaying that violence. He will however seek to deceive any defender of the freedom of the material by pretending to respect it.

It is a quite different matter with the pedagogical and political artist, who uses human beings both as his raw material and as his project. Here purpose returns to the material, and only because the whole serves the parts may the parts lend themselves to the whole.

Thus the artist of the state must have a quite different respect for his materials than the sculptor pretends to have for his. He must protect the peculiarity and personality of his material, not subjectively, in order to produce a deceiving effect in the senses, but objectively for its true inner self.\0xD3

This echoes Goethe in calling for the artist of the state to protect the personality of the material to reveal its - \0xD2true inner self\0xD3 whereas Hitler would reform the state with the procrustean imposition of imperial order unconcerned with its natural character. "Politics, too, is an art,\0xD3 wrote Joseph Goebbels , Nazi Minister of Propaganda, in 1933, "Perhaps the highest and most far reaching one of all, and we who shape modern German politics feel ourselves to be artistic people, entrusted with the great responsibility of forming out of the raw material of the masses a solid, well wrought structure of a volk."

It is easy to make aesthetic judgments of societies. We find beauty in hard-working, suffering, poor or financially struggling people, and people who share a collective identity. There is something beautiful about such a well ordered society. Unfortunately what we value in the people of these ideal societies are the characteristics that we strive to avoid in our own lives. We crave freedom and individuality, not conformity. We seek prosperity and comfort, not poverty and struggle. We don't find beauty in a society of prosperous consumers and individualists, yet we all want to be prosperous consumers and individualists.

That is why the Quebec Catholic church pushed "survivance" on its flock for so long, trying to hold back the insidious secularizing and prosperizing effects of the Industrial revolution and urbanization imperative that would fracture their rustic, pious, ultramontanist vision of a medieval French society untainted by the Reformation, modernism and secularism.

A necessary outgrowth of social aestheticism is an intolerance with the particular failings and vices of individual human beings. To quote Lucy, "I love Mankind, it's people that I can't stand!" Social aestheticism is fundamentally collectivist and authoritarian. It will commit and/or permit the most cruel treatments of individuals to fit them into the Procrustean mold of the "lovely society". It is a perverse irony that the ugliest episodes of human history have been driven by a love of beauty.

Communist idealism is a form of social aestheticism. The Proletariat, that mythically noble working man who works only for the good of all and only takes what he needs in return, is a mold of perfection that has crushed every poor soul who has been forced into it.

This is why it is wrong to associate aesthetics and morality. Morality is necessary because life is often ugly. It is treating those people that repel us with the feelings of love that we give naturally to those people whom we find beautiful that defines the moral impulse. Our only moral actions are taken while holding our nose or repressing the impulse to vomit. We don't go to fancy dinner parties to commit morality, we go to leper colonies.


Blogger Harry Eagar said...

It happens I was thinking the same thing, only in fewer words.

I had had Connolly's 'Unquiet Grave' in the pile for a long time and picked it up last night. He spent 1942-3 'avoiding' politics and 'resisting' Propaganda (read: opposition to Hitlerism) in the service of Truth and Beauty (he wanted to read Poetry and mooch about France).

I contrasted this Aestheticism with Orwell's moralisti engagement. He wanted to be an aesthete, but he looked about him and decided that a man of conscience could not devote his time to writing pretty stories.

Connolly is nearly forgotten, Orwell read by high school students.


A better contrast for the evil man/artistic man in same body than Hitler might be the later renaissance popes, Alexander VI especially. Few will diss their taste.

September 10, 2006 11:27 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

What Orrin's argument boils down to is that any moral judgment is good so long as it is backed by a pretty ceremony and men in funny hats.

The basis of morality is reciprocity, a concept about which one can make concrete statements.

Aesthetics, especially with respect to morality, is nothing more than balloon juice.

(Somewhat OT, but I finally got myself banned from BrosJudd. It seems that contradicting Orrin about the fact that Soviet designs never worked -- in relation to a post about a failed ICBM test -- by noting that the Soyuz booster series is the most reliable ever, was simply beyond the pale. How someone who has the intellectual ethics of Ward Churchill and admits only psychophants can pass judgment on moral issues without a hint of irony is beyond me.)

September 10, 2006 8:50 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I like 'psychophants'

September 10, 2006 9:33 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I agree with everything in Duck's post.

But Orwell is remembered because he was a great writer in the field he chose, not just because of the field. Byron and Shelley are also studied by high school students.

September 11, 2006 5:48 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

hey skipper wrote: "...but I finally got myself banned from BrosJudd..."

Congrats! :-)

September 11, 2006 9:51 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Out of curiosity, I googled aesthetics + morality. This stuck out as being at least a tolerable informative explanation.

However, it brought back, like the memory of a blind date gone horribly wrong, my first experience with Philosophy in college.

The article discusses Kant's exposition on the relation between aesthetics and morality, using a universal finding of beauty in nature as the basis for morality.

...this interest is akin to the moral. One, then, who takes such an interest in the beautiful of nature can only do so in so far as he has previously set his interest deep in the foundations of the morally good.


Now, I say, the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, and only in this light (a point of view natural to every one, and one which every one exacts from others as a duty) does it give us pleasure with an attendant claim to the agreement of every one else, whereupon the mind becomes conscious of a certain ennoblement and elevation above mere sensibility to pleasure from impressions of sense, and also appraises the worth of others on the score of a like maxim of their judgment.

Well, there are two problems here. The most obvious is the sheer subjectivity of the concept of beauty, hardly suitable ground upon which to base morality. The second, more subtle problem, is the problem of using nature as the basis for beauty. IIRC, Kant died in the early 1800s, before the germ theory of disease, and long before Darwin's Beagle voyage.

This has nothing to do with evolution, per se, and everything to do with beauty in Nature. For to arrive at that conclusion, one must be astonishingly selective about which bits of nature to include. All manner of dangerous bacteria and wholly offensive parasites (which Darwin discovered on his voyage) are part of nature, too.

Are they beautiful, also? If not, what is criteria other than sheer tautology might one use to exclude them?

I think this appeal to "aesthetic" morality is part and parcel of Mr. Judds frequent referral to The Word. In both cases, someone must be the arbitrator of what constitutes beauty, or The Word, to which everyone else must submit.

Alternatively, looking to reciprocity as the basis for morality removes the subject from airy-fairy nonsense, and grounds it in terms practically anyone can understand and apply.

Meaning people really are best served by making these decisions for themselves.

But to the OJ's of the world, demanding conformity with their preconceived notions, that conclusion is anathema.

September 11, 2006 12:25 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Aesthetics, especially with respect to morality, is nothing more than balloon juice.

So says the man who seethes at Muslim calls to prayer in Dearborn and who thinks the Ten Commandments on a wall in a courthouse is oppression.

September 12, 2006 3:51 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


So says the man who seethes at Muslim calls to prayer in Dearborn ...

Perhaps you need to adjust the focus on your WayBack Machine just a tad.

It was the Christians in Dearborn who were seething.

And how the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls relates to the usefulness of aesthetics with respect to morality is way beyond me. Perhaps you could 'splain.

September 13, 2006 7:55 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Calm down now. The Dearborn story is as you reported it--we weren't there, so once again, we are relying on Skipper-pixels, not Skipper. I don't recall all the details, but I do recall a spirited homily on the menace of group rights to ring church bells or call Muslims to prayer and how the individual rights of sleep-deprived secularists should trump them.

Let's put that aside and talk about Judge Moore. I suggest the following propositions are both compelling and logical, untainted by any irrationalisms or messy aesthetics:

A) No judge, religious or otherwise, is likely to be guided in the exercise of judical functions by a plaque of the Ten Commandments in his/her courthouse, nor by its absence. Nor is any lawyer likely to be influenced thereby in his/her argument;

B) Had the plaque/sculpture never been installed, it is likely that 99% of religious people would never have thought about it or even noticed;

C) Had the plaque been there since time immemorial, it is likely that 99% of secularists would have never noticed or cared.

D) No one would either convert to or abandon faith because The Ten Commandments are on the wall of a courthouse.

Yet somehow the issue captured the strong, opiniated attention of millions of Americans, drove another wedge between large segments of the population and captured the close attention of an airline pilot a thousand miles away, who saw it closely connected to his liberty.

Let's try this another way. Imagine you are an airline passenger and someone whispers in your ear that the man beside you (to whom you have not spoken) is the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. What do you do? Stare straight ahead and ignore him in a fit of simmering righteousness, right? Now imagine he slips out to the washroom and comes back covered dressed in white robe and hood. Are you going to tell all the agitated black folks around you that they should calm down because it is all balloon juice?

September 13, 2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

You confused me on that last one. I don't understand it's connection to the discussion of aesthetics as it relates to morality. The grand wizard's white robes are not an aesthetic statement, they are a statment of racial hatred. What is balloon juice is the notion that there is any moral component to aesthetic judgments.

To second Skipper, we're not the ones complaining about Muslim calls to prayer over loudspeakers. We're the ones complaining about religious people who won't sell us fried chicken on Sundays, remember?

September 13, 2006 3:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


Perhaps I have misunderstood or we need a referee on this one. My argument is that, different as morality and aesthetics are, the notion that they can be separated into a meaty main course for serious, rational folk and a frivolous, dispensible dessert for the excitable masses is nonesense. Almost all the great contoversies over moral issues arise and impassion over symbolism.

However, I confess I can never go very far discussing aesthetics before this pops into my head.

"If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a
man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms, and
plant them ev'rywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of
your complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter of a
transcendental kind.

And ev'ry one will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man
must be!"

Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days which have long
since passed away,
And convince 'em, if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne
was Culture's palmiest day.
Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever's fresh and new, and
declare it's crude and mean,
For Art stopped short in the cultivated court of the Empress

And ev'ryone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
"If that's not good enough for him which is good enough for me,
Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth this kind of youth must

September 14, 2006 4:02 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

My argument is that, different as morality and aesthetics are, the notion that they can be separated into a meaty main course for serious, rational folk and a frivolous, dispensible dessert for the excitable masses is nonesense.

When I think aesthetics I don't think of excitable masses, but egotistical, narcissistic elites. I'm with the masses on this one. Ordinary folk normally put aesthetics in proper perspective, they don't have the luxury of idle time and money to indulge refined tastes. But even your garden variety aesthete does no more damage than make himself an insufferable snob in polite company. I'm more worried about that dangerous mix of aesthetics and philosophy, the kind of aesthetics that confuses the pleasing with the good.

September 14, 2006 5:36 PM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


I do recall a spirited homily on the menace of group rights to ring church bells or call Muslims to prayer and how the individual rights of sleep-deprived secularists should trump them.

Like I said above, your WayBack Machine (tm) needs some work on the temporal distance focus adjustment module.

My "homily" highlighted the hypocrisy of Christians who wished to deprive Muslims of their own call to prayer. Because there is no upper bound on the religious groups desiring to broadcast their own calls, allowing one group the privilege is an invitation to cacophony.

NB, it was the Christians who were complaining of the noise.

The alternative is to allow no preferential group exception to noise ordinances, and disallow all such calls to prayer.

Unless, of course, one welcomes the opportunity to demonstrate why one religious group deserves such an exception, but that no others do. We can leave aside, for the moment, how "aesthetic" it is to impose upon everyone a noise some are bound to find ugly and intrusive.

A) ... D)

I trust you choose to ignore Judge Moore's own intent, and goals for just such a display.

Fine. Taking your A) through D) as stipulated, one can only ask "And Judge Moore's point would be?"

Other than relegating the Ten Commandments to so much banal theological wallpaper (as the "under God" phrase is in the US Pledge of Allegiance), that is.

imagine he slips out to the washroom and comes back covered dressed in white robe and hood. Are you going to tell all the agitated black folks around you that they should calm down because it is all balloon juice?

What you mean by "it," and what I mean by "it," seem to be two entirely different things.

IT, in this case, is using aesthetics as some basis for morality. What is particularly ironic here is that those advocating such a thing seem to be proponents of objective morality, and typically claim to possess such.

In what must be the googleth example as to how irony is the driving force of the universe, appeals to aesthetics could scarcely be exceeded in the consequence of making morality completely subjective.

In that sense, all such appeals are balloon juice.

September 15, 2006 10:30 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Peter, as a factual matter, the reason Judge Moore feels the need to post the Commandments is that he does believe having it there will influence the outcome of court decisions.

Anyone who has spent as much time as I have in Southern courtrooms would not doubt it, either.

I recall, long ago, Orrin denying aethetic value to, eg, Japanese art. He did not say so at the time, but presumably he argues in the opposite direction from us -- that morality determines the validity of aesthetics, whereas, say Connolly, argues that aesthetics determines morality.

I don't think there is any connection.

September 15, 2006 3:00 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...


the reason Judge Moore feels the need to post the Commandments is that he does believe having it there will influence the outcome of court decisions.

Not unless he believes the statue has totemic powers, he doesn't. What he presumably believes is that adherence to Judeo-Christian morality will influence court decisions and that symbols can reinforce this adherence or at least general respect. The poor boobie doesn't understand that aesthetics are just balloon juice.

But you rationalists do and you see no connection between aesthetic symbols and moral substance. Flag-burning is not indicative of loyalty and patriotism, right? So why would you care about whether the statue is there or not, anymore than you would care whether the Smithsonian is displaying a Gutenberg Bible? It's not part of a religious ceremony, nobody is forcing anyone to defer to them or even read them and they aren't part of the civil law.


September 16, 2006 4:16 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Symbolism is a special category, I don't think that it fits in well with the overall discusion of aesthetics. A symbol has aesthetic aspects to it, but symbols aren't chosen based on their aesthetic appeal. Noone chooses their religion or country based on which symbols or flags appeal to them most. Noone says "I would be an American, but the horizontal stripes make me look fat".

And symboloic alliegances aren't the same as moral impulses. Symbols are identity markers, they denote our alliegance to a group or a set of ideas or values. But symbols represent a very small subset of the aesthetic universe. One can adopt the symbols of identity for a group without making any other aesthetic commitments.

Aesthetics goes too far when it drives moral judgments. As an example, I once heard a caller to a radio station say that he could never be friends with someone who listened to Kenny G. The Crunchy Con Caleb Stegall made the statement that he considered people that pursued the corporate career path to be barely human. I believe that you religious have a term for this kind of image worship: idolatry.

September 16, 2006 5:41 AM  

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