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.