Nature, Aesthetics, Pleasure, and Ethics

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

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"The perception of beauty is a moral test."
Henry David Thoreau

The distinction often made between emotions and judgements gives rise to a host of conflicting accounts of morality. Yet, in the same way that the distinction "observer-observed" is false, so is the distinction between emotions and judgements. Emotions contain judgements and judgements are formed by both emotions and the ratio. Emotions are responses to sensa (see "The Manifold of Sense") and inevitably incorporate judgements (and beliefs) about those sensa. Some of these judgements are inherent (the outcome of biological evolution), others cultural, some unconscious, others conscious, and the result of personal experience. Judgements, on the other hand, are not compartmentalized. They vigorously interact with our emotions as they form.

The source of this artificial distinction is the confusion between moral and natural laws.

We differentiate among four kinds of "right" and "good".

The Natural Good

There is "right" in the mathematical, physical, or pragmatic sense. It is "right" to do something in a certain way. In other words, it is viable, practical, functional, it coheres with the world. Similarly, we say that it is "good" to do the "right" thing and that we "ought to" do it. It is the kind of "right" and "good" that compel us to act because we "ought to". If we adopt a different course, if we neglect, omit, or refuse to act in the "right" and "good" way, as we "ought to" - we are punished. Nature herself penalizes such violations. The immutable laws of nature are the source of the "rightness" and "goodness" of these courses of action. We are compelled to adopt them - because we have no other CHOICE. If we construct a bridge in the "right" and "good" way, as we "ought to" - it will survive. Otherwise, the laws of nature will make it collapse and, thus, punish us. We have no choice in the matter. The laws of nature constrain our moral principles as well.

The Moral Good

This lack of choice stands in stark contrast to the "good" and "right" of morality. The laws of morality cannot be compared to the laws of nature - nor are they variants or derivatives thereof. The laws of nature leave us no choice. The laws of morality rely on our choice.

Yet, the identical vocabulary and syntax we successfully employ in both cases (the pragmatic and the moral) - "right action", "good", and "ought to" - surely signify a deep and hidden connection between our dictated reactions to the laws of nature and our chosen reactions to the laws of morality (i.e., our reactions to the laws of Man or God)? Perhaps the principles and rules of morality ARE laws of nature - but with choice added? Modern physics incorporates deterministic theories (Newton's, Einstein's) - and theories involving probability and choice (Quantum Mechanics and its interpretations, especially the Copenhagen interpretation). Why can't we conceive of moral laws as private cases (involving choice, judgements, beliefs, and emotions) of natural laws?

The Hedonistic Good

If so, how can we account for the third, hedonistic, variant of "good", "right", and "ought to"? To live the "good" life may mean to maximize one's utility (i.e., happiness, or pleasure) - but not necessarily to maximize overall utility. In other words, living the good life is not always a moral pursuit (if we apply to it Utilitarian or Consequentialist yardsticks).  Yet, here, too, we use the same syntax and vocabulary. We say that we want to live the "good" life and to do so, there is a "right action", which we "ought to" pursue. Is hedonism a private case of the Laws of Nature as well? This would be going too far. Is it a private case of the rules or principles of Morality? It could be - but need not be. Still, the principle of utility has place in every cogent description of morality.

The Aesthetic Good­

A fourth kind of "good" is of the aesthetic brand. The language of aesthetic judgement is identical to the languages of physics, morality, and hedonism. Aesthetic values sound strikingly like moral ones and both resemble, structurally, the laws of nature. We say that beauty is "right" (symmetric, etc.), that we "ought to" maximize beauty - and this leads to the right action. Replace "beauty" with "good" in any aesthetic statement and one gets a moral statement. Moral, natural, aesthetic, and hedonistic statements are all mutually convertible. Moreover, an aesthetic experience often leads to moral action.

There is a principle of aesthetic resonance at work. Works of art and beauty evoke in us associations with nature: white marble is strongly evocative of the naked human form, for instance. The resonance is both qualitative and pertains to intensive aesthetic properties, such as texture, color, “warmth”, or shape (as in the aforementioned example) and quantitative (as when aesthetic pieces refer to and enhance each other so as to yield an emergent whole.) This deeply-felt resonance may be at the heart of aesthetics’ affinity with morality, especially with the “natural law”.

An Interactive Framework

It is safe to say that, when we wish to discuss the nature of "good" and "right", the Laws of Nature serve as the privileged frame of reference. They delimit and constrain the set of possible states - pragmatic and moral. No moral, aesthetic, or hedonistic principle or rule can defy, negate, suspend, or ignore the Laws of Nature. They are the source of everything that is "good" and "right". Thus, the language we use to describe all instances of "good" and "right" is "natural". Human choice, of course, does not exist as far as the Laws of Nature go.

Nature is beautiful - symmetric, elegant, and parsimonious. Aesthetic values and aesthetic judgements of "good" (i.e., beautiful) and "right" rely heavily on the attributes of Nature. Inevitably, they employ the same vocabulary and syntax. Aesthetics is the bridge between the functional or correct "good" and "right" - and the hedonistic "good" and "right". Aesthetics is the first order of the interaction between the WORLD and the MIND. Here, choice is very limited. It is not possible to "choose" something to be beautiful. It is either beautiful or it is not (regardless of the objective or subjective source of the aesthetic judgement).

The hedonist is primarily concerned with the maximization of his happiness and pleasure. But such outcomes can be secured only by adhering to aesthetic values, by rendering aesthetic judgements, and by maintaining aesthetic standards. The hedonist craves beauty, pursues perfection, avoids the ugly - in short, the hedonist is an aesthete. Hedonism is the application of aesthetic rules, principles, values, and judgements in a social and cultural setting. Hedonism is aesthetics in context - the context of being human in a society of humans. The hedonist has a limited, binary, choice - between being a hedonist and not being one.

From here it is one step to morality. The principle of individual utility which underlies hedonism can be easily generalized to encompass Humanity as a whole. The social and cultural context is indispensable - there cannot be meaningful morality outside society. A Robinson Crusoe - at least until he spotted Friday - is an a-moral creature. Thus, morality is generalized hedonism with the added (and crucial) feature of free will and (for all practical purposes) unrestricted choice. It is what makes us really human.


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