Ethics and Aesthetics

Morality, it is sometimes said, represents the way that people would like the world to work. And Aesthetics could be said to represent the way people would like the world to look.

Ethics and Aesthetics can be grouped together in philosophy under Value Theory, the implication being that the two principles derive from the same fundamental instinct; from the same part of the human mind.

As Wittgenstein put it: “Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.” (Thanks to Michelle Joelle for this.)

Now a moral world where no one suffered would be a beautiful thing for sure, but there’s a strong negative aspect to this correlation between ethics and aesthetics too.

Imagine that your home has been invaded and trashed. You come home to find books strewn over the floor, dirt smeared on the walls, overturned furniture, ornaments out of place, broken glass scattered about. Your aesthetic sensibility tells you how to put this right – put the objects back neatly, clean the dirt, replace the damaged items with new ones.

But what if we approach the world of ethics in the same way? The moral landscape that surrounds us is far from perfect. Everywhere we look we see disorder and chaos. We are surrounded by problems that need fixing, and people who appear broken.

These people are not like us. They are out of place in our neatly imagined moral world. They are untidy people, with bad habits.

Morality, to a large degree, often tends towards prohibition, condemnation, and punishment. So if we start applying it to the people who appear out of place, things quickly take a turn for the worse.

Who are these people who are out of place? Every society has a long list. It’s the outsider. People with different sexual practices, people with the wrong skin colour, folk who talk funny, men with long hair, women with short hair, men with beards, men without beards, gypsies, people who go to the wrong church, people who don’t go to church at all, people who go to church too often, people who vote differently, ugly people, people who can’t read, people who read too much.

Everywhere we look, we see someone who is different, who is untidy, who must be cleaned. Everywhere we see moral decay and a need to ban, outlaw and punish.

But we should remember that Morality and Aesthetics, although they may share a common root, aren’t the same thing at all. Beauty isn’t always the truth. Order isn’t necessarily good.

So in fact a moral world is not a neat and tidy place. It’s a very messy world, full of strange people doing things that we don’t approve of. But in a truly moral world, we would permit them to get on with it, provided they do no harm to others. A moral world might have a different kind of beauty from the classical, ordered, symmetric aesthetic. In fact it might look like rather like this:


Many thanks to Paula Beardell Krieg for permission to reproduce this beautiful collaborative image.

21 responses to “Ethics and Aesthetics

  1. I love this perspective, i never thought of it like that.
    But i feel the confusion between law and morality, your arguments seem to presuppose that morality is relative, i disagree i think only opinion and law are relative to culture, environment and a long list of factors i dare not mention lest i ran out of characters for the first time ever on WordPress.
    Morality is in unison because its not a law in a holy book or a cultural experience or even reliant on psychology, i think even the most severe psycopaths know that killing is wrong, they may enjoy it but they know it is wrong.
    And i don’t know i believe true morality is always aesthetically pleasing,
    for example not a single person or religious order can disagree with the beauty of Mother Teresa’s work or the steadfast truth in buddhist scripture, or even the true good evident in philanthropic actions.Don’t you?
    Our problem is we let law and opinion inform us more than true morality that is literally written on our very existence.Don’t you think?
    I apologize for the lengthy response but this was a really great piece.

    • Hi impostorpawn, thanks for your comment! My argument does indeed presuppose that morality is relative, just as all human thought and feeling is.

      Different faiths have very different perspectives on morality. My friend, who is a Catholic priest, has very different views on morality to myself. What he finds abhorrent, I have no problem with. Yet crimes I find unacceptable, he is ready to forgive.

      Morality is different in different times, cultures and places, and is not universally held by all within a single culture, in my experience.

      The idea that morality and aesthetics derive from the same instinct is relatively new to me, but is one that I think offers profound insight into human behaviour.

  2. And wow thank Paula again for the beautiful image…

  3. Very aesthetically pleasing image, of great value, at least according to my values 🙂

    Interestingly, there have been societies that equated morality with order. The ancient Egyptian concept of Ma’at, both a goddess and sense of order, is often today equated with morality, although it’s not clear that the ancient Egyptians had a separate sense of morality apart from order. And Confucianism is crucially concerned with order and everyone knowing their place.

    Our modern sense of morality puts it apart from law and order, but that may be a western artifact of Christianity developing initially outside of established power structures. In the Muslim world, the distinction seems to be a lot less intuitive.

    • Thanks Mike. Morality and order are strongly linked. People do like an ordered world, often equating order with security, and there are no doubt good reasons for that.

      While Christianity may have developed outside power structures, that didn’t last for long, and for most of the past two millennia, Christianity was the dominant power structure! I find that I like Christians best when they are radical and subversive, rather than conservative.

      • Definitely for most of its history Christianity was firmly ensconced in the established power structures. But my comment was made from the observation that its sacred narratives come from when it was outside of power, when it was subversive, and I think that may have had an effect on the western outlook, particularly in how we look at morality.

  4. Wonderful post (and thank you for the mention!) and a fascinating take on the subject. I’ve always taken the comparison to refer to the subjectivity of both ethics and aesthetics, with Wittgenstein pointing out the murkiness of many of our moral claims. I’ve taken it as a warning that sometimes what seems very important to us are often matters of personal preference, rather than matters of great objective importance. I’ve found it a call to humility, rather than control, and a call to be very careful /not/ to fall into the trap you describe here.

    But your post offers a fascinating new way to take this – you are definitely right that people mix the two dangerously (and at the cost of both). It might be a better strategy in some cases to actively disentangle the two to accomplish both the goals of morality (to ensure that we treat each other well) and aesthetics (to produce and surround ourselves with beauty). As your art selection shows, the former often begets the latter, but as your examples show, the latter most often does not beget the former. Thank you for this new look at the concept!

    Perhaps would could see these value judgements in inverse, rather than concert. Meaning, we would apply ethics inwardly (applying moral standards to ourselves and how we treat others, making ourselves behave better) while using our aesthetic judgements outwardly (towards fairly innocuous things like what art we like or what food we enjoy). But this, of course, is an oversimplification, and many are still likely to confuse the two, making it just as faulty as the original supposition.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    • Thank you, Michelle. If I unwittingly interpreted this idea in an unconventional way, then I am very pleased 🙂

      I like the idea of morality as a call to humility, rather than control. That’s rather like the teachings of Jesus, rather than the way the established Church often behaves. Applying our own moral yardsticks to others might make for good drama, but not always a happy world.

      On the other hand, I can’t ignore the idea that evil thrives when good people fail to speak out, so there’s always the need to stand up for moral reasons when they seem to have a solid ground. Where the solid ground lies is unfortunately not always crystal clear. Being a good person isn’t easy, and is made even worse if we can’t be sure what “good” is!

  5. Chris Bonnett

    Beware the tyrant’s will… first and foremost one’s own.

    Order is a siren disguised as a goddess. Her mission is to trick us into a false sense of arrival at the cessation of possibility, to wreck us on the rocks of unreadiness.

    When her voluptuous voice sounds in my head, telling me it’s time to stop looking and listening, I pray for the courage to look and listen some more.

    Thanks for the great post, Steve.

  6. Yes, morality and aesthetics are both about making value judgments (grouped together under Value Theory), but I feel pretty certain that the value judgments I make about beauty are fundamentally different from the value judgments I make about right or wrong behavior. Both realms can value order but can accommodate disorder. The Romantic aesthetic might prefer excess and overflow to the neat classical symmetries. Ethical systems also vary in how much diversity they can tolerate. I think in general that religion-based ethics tends toward your “prohibition and punishment” norm but secular/rational ethics tend toward your other norm of tolerating all diversity so long as it “does no harm.”

  7. Interesting concepts here. We tend not to think of aesthetics and ethics in the same realm, but it makes a certain amount of sense when you see the two historically, looking at the art and ideas and politics of various time periods. The great chain of being in England, for example, was based on a religious hierarchical order and there you see the aesthetic and ethical closely intertwined. I’ve been watching a lecture series on England’s history and I’m finding this chain of being fascinating in the way it worked in ordinary lives (which I didn’t know much about). Nearly every aspect of daily life pertained to your station, your “natural” place in the cosmos. It wasn’t just fear of the king that kept you in place, it went down to an individual’s religious and aesthetic sensibility…which came from propaganda and lack of education and news from external sources, of course, but it worked to keep the peace, relatively speaking, and depending on the ruler.

    Perhaps we could look at order as if on a continuum? Or maybe different types? What do you think? For instance, there’s hierarchy, but also monotonous simplicity (maybe politically this would look like a communal monastery, aesthetically pretty boring…or the flip side, meditative)? If you look at various works of art, there are various levels of “discord” or “disorder” within the order, and some amount of disorder tends to be aesthetically pleasing. I wonder how much our political and ethical ideals inform our aesthetic sensibility and vice versa. The sixties brought us tie-dyed t-shirts, after all. 🙂

    • Thanks Tina. There have certainly been artistic movements with strong ethical or political ideas entwined with them – like the Futurists in 1930s Italy, that went hand-in-hand with Fascism, but I’m thinking more of the personal way that we derive our own “natural” moral ideas. Helping people out seems ordered and beautiful, whereas spreading harm and discord seems, well, messy and ugly.
      But sometimes messiness is the best way forward. There was a lot of messiness in 20th century art, and a lot of messy political ideas too. The worst were authoritarian in nature, of course, which is the ultimate top-down ordered approach.

  8. Morality is tough to grasp. On one hand, tolerance is praised as a virtue – forgive, do not judge, etc. or, in your words, just let people be there way they are. But that includes tolerating unethical and criminal behavior – rape, murder, stealing, cheating, and lies. But once I start making exclusions from what I tolerate, where do I start and where do I stop? And what brings worse consequences: tolerance to crime or intolerance?

    • Absolutely. Morality is a balancing act. Even if we all adhered to our moral beliefs, the fact that we don’t know the “right” course of action half the time would make us behave badly. Conversely, even when we know the “right” course of action, we don’t always follow it. It’s hardly surprising the world is messy!

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