the morality aesthetic

There is a class of things in this world that people have difficulty with because they seem to be neither objective nor subjective, but somewhere in between: art, beauty, and music are three of the most-discussed examples. On the one hand, everyone has their own personal quirks and tastes, and it is completely valid and undeniable that these are real subjective differences. On the other hand, there are some cases about which there are mass consensus and that everybody (or almost everybody) agrees upon, and it would be stupid to deny that these near-universals do exist.

This “gray area” of aesthetics bothers a lot of people. People who like things to be very orderly in this chaotic universe of ours (e.g. scientists) spend a lot of time studying the universals of aesthetics to try to come up with laws or explanations governing the shared aspects: why are most people attracted to the things that most people are attracted to? What is it about musical pieces that are “generally accepted” to be great music that qualify them as  such? Of course, all of this research ignores the fact that some people just darn well like weird music, or are really really attracted to people that don’t normally turn a lot of heads. At this point these scientists murmur something about “normal distributions” but don’t really incorporate variation into their theory per se.

On the other hand, you have those people who look at the differences and throw up their hands and say, “Well, it’s all completely personal, there is nothing objective about it at all!”  That’s nice in theory, but it’s quite simply not true. That’s like saying that just because my child might be happier at Antioch than Harvard that therefore it’s impossible to say that some schools are “better” than others. It’s a ridiculous over-generalization. Obviously, there is some objective–or at least culturally consensual–aspect to aesthetics. Some art really is better than others, and pulling somebody with weird taste out of a casebook somewhere isn’t enough to disprove that.

So there is a gray area for art, music, beauty… and I would like to add one more item to this list, in this same category: morality.

I don’t think people normally put morality into the same bucket as music and beauty, but I really think that it does belong there. I think it might be helpful, in fact, to spend some time specifically thinking of morality as an aesthetic sense: morality as a kind of taste, like one’s taste in music, or taste in physical beauty.

Because like music and attractiveness, morality lives in this liminal area between subjective and objective. And also very similar to music, art, and attractiveness, this bothers a lot of people.

Moral RelativismOn the one hand, you have the people who want to find some kind of objective anchor for their morality, some way to take it out of the hands of the individual and make it a product of something external to each individual alone.

Historically, many people have turned to religion as that external grounding for morality. Interestingly, long ago it was also fashionable to turn to religion as the objective validation and justification for aesthetics, as well: people were convinced that “good art” was objectively good because it was that art that expressed the divine in the world and honored God’s creation.

More recently, many scientists have sought to find objective theories of morality not grounded in religion, yet still struggling with taking responsibility for deciding what is moral out of the hands of each individual person separately.

The reason for wanting to take this responsibility out of the hands of the individual is the fear of complete “moral relativism.” This is the fear that in the end someone can say: “Because there is no objective source of morality out there in the world, I can just make up any old morality system I want and you can’t question it, because there is no way of objectively judging my moral system as any less valid than yours!”

That’s the fear. Of course, it’s a silly fear, for the same reason that it’s silly to say that “Some people are really turned on by short fat bald men, therefore there is absolutely no objective aspect to physical beauty!” I’m sorry, and no offense taken, but just because there are differences in taste, and just because there are some people who are attracted to things outside the norm, doesn’t mean it’s some kind of all-bets-are-off subjective free-for-all. There are obviously some factors that produce a “societal consensus” about physical attractiveness, and to deny that is silly. Similarly, there is some society consensus about morality, and to deny that just because “it’s possible for someone to think that killing people in some circumstances” is equally silly.

In the end, morality–like the asthetics of music and art and many other things–is governed simultaneously by the forces of the individual, the family, the social circle of the individual, and the culture at large and its particular moment in its own history. It makes morality, like other aesthetics, both “up to the individual” and “not up to the individual” at the same time.

Is this ambiguity ok? Naturally there are people who will say this is unacceptable: we must have a concrete theory that clearly determines what is right and what is wrong in a universal way! Other people will throw up their hands and say, “Oh, it’s just each person’s choice! Let them decide what they want!” As far as my own position goes, I’m clearly not going to come up with the definitive answer here. You will have to wait for my book. 😉

But in the mean time, I do encourage you to do this: think about the comparisons between morality and beauty, between morality and music and art. Think of morality as a kind of aesthetic taste. I think that’s a useful, and enlightening way of thinking about the topic that not many people appreciate. And it may lead you to some interesting and unexpected conclusions.