Saturday, January 15, 2011

Where does Ethics Leave off and Aesthetics Begin?

I have long wondered about the boundary between ethics and aesthetics although I am not sure I have anything interesting to say about it.  There do seem to be two different types of person:  those who primarily see the world through the eyes of ethics and those who primarily see it through the eyes of aesthetics.  The second group seems to be much smaller.  I tend to find myself in the second group, but I do not know why and cannot really justify it.  If I look at my typical day I do not seem to have very many ethical choices to make, whereas my life seems filled with aesthetic phenomena.  Of course I am fortunate enough right now not to face any dire ethical dilemmas:  the situation can change fast!  In general I tend to see ethical dilemmas as things to get through so as to be free to pursue what is really important in life, aesthetic enrichment.  But others look at it another way:  the really important stuff for them may be living a more virtuous life...doing more moral things.

Marcia Eaton in an article called "Aesthetic Obligations" (Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 66:1, 2008, 1-9) explores the territory between aesthetics and ethics.  One example of an in-between case is when I have a moral obligation to tell a good story about someone, as in when I write an obituary.  I agree that telling stories about others is an important phenomenon of everyday life, and here one finds both moral and aesthetic requirements.  Morally, I shouldn't tell stories about people that hurt them, and perhaps I should also tell stories about them that help them, especially if they are deserving, or if I have certain familial or friendship obligations to them.  Obviously if those stories have good plot lines, are appropriately humorous, are elegant, and so forth, then they will do better at helping people.  It is not clear to me that this is really an in between case though.  It just seems that there are two levels of evaluation:  telling an aesthetically good story may help out the mourners better and hence help one to fulfill one's moral obligation on the occasion, but producing a good story and fulfilling a moral obligation are different things. 

I suspect that a lot of choices the moralists see as moral choices can be seen as primarily aesthetics choices by aesthetes.  For example, currently there is a debate over whether to revise Huckleberry Finn to leave out certain offensive terms.  A moralist would talk about this issue in terms of rights, whether author's rights or the rights of oppressed minorities.  An aesthete would talk about it in terms of taste:  some aesthetes might see it as bad taste to revise the book, whereas others might see it as bad taste not to.  So how do you know whether an issue is one of taste or morality? 

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