Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Does attending to everyday experience aesthetically make us more moral?

Many philosophers, including Sherri Irwin, argue that if we attended more (in an aesthetic way) to everyday experience then we would have richer lives. I think the truth of this is fairly obvious. However, Irwin also holds that doing so will make us more moral. This seems more problematic. First, drawing from Richard Shusterman, she argues that attending to everyday phenomena will contribute to self-knowledge. This seems true enough, although we need to still distinguish between kinds of self-knowledge and determine the value of these kinds in relation to other values. Second, she believes our ability to appreciate these ordinary pleasures should not be dismissed as insignificant: for doing so would involve us in a kind of philosophical or ascetic renunciation. This seems right to me, but seems unrelated to the issue of morality. Third, and more cogently, Irwin argues that people are often dissatisfied in our consumerist society since gaining the products they want only gives short-term and partial satisfaction followed by an escalating need for something bigger and newer, which leads to the destruction of the natural environment and to many other ills of our time. She then suggests that this focus on consumer satisfaction involves a denial of the aesthetic. In response, she believes we should “focus on moments that do not involve Humvees or iPods or designer jeans” i.e. on aesthetic experiences “already available to us.” Doing so, she argues, might give us time to help others, which would then provide an even greater source of satisfaction. This seems more problematic since all of these consumer products are appreciated aesthetically: for example one might see the designer jeans as "cool" or even "beautiful." Thus it is not clear that turning to consumer products is a turn away from the aesthetic. And making do with what we already have will, in our society, involve making do with consumer products anyway. Admittedly, they will be older ones and hence making do with them will be more environmentally sensitive. But even granting this, it is not clear that a pared down hedonism that makes do with what we already have will necessarily contribute to our helping others. Tending ones own garden can be just that. Fourth, Irwin also thinks that attending to everyday aesthetic phenomena will “contribute to our ability to sustain projects undertaken in the pursuit of moral and other values.” Of course the development of any skill might contribute to the ability to sustain certain sorts of projects. The question is whether there is anything moral to this call to attend aesthetically to the everyday phenomena that are not consumerist- oriented. Irwin’s point is that if, for instance, one wants to become a vegetarian for moral reasons it is best not to see this as giving something up, and one can take this approach if one focuses on the aesthetic pleasures of a vegetarian life, or “by finding different ways to indulge the tastes that were once satisfied by meat consumption.” This last point seems sound to me: moral agency can be helped out by including an aesthetic element in our shifting behavior. Still, it seems to me that one could focus more on, for example, the pleasures of shifting air on one's skin, and not become the slightest bit more moral.

Sherri Irvin. "The Pervasiveness of the Aesthetic in Ordinary Experience," British Journal of Aesthetics, 48:1 (2008) 29-44.

1 comment:

Glenn Russell said...

Your comments, Tom, contain a real wisdom.

Aesthetic sensibilities leading to moral action?

As to the historical facts, one need only look at those Nazi leaders and SS officers who committed atrocities during the day and listened to Bach and Mozart in the evening. This bitter irony is the subject of Jonathan Lattell’s novel, The Kindly Ones, where the first-person narrator, a former Nazi SS officer, recounts his classical Greek education (he memorized Plato’s Symposium and was intimately familiar with many other works of ancient literature), his love of great works of art and classical music, and his participation in all the horrors of Nazism.