Aesthetics are moral judgments

I often hear people say things like “It’s ridiculous to judge that someone’s a bad person because of his musical taste!” People assume it’s obvious that aesthetic judgments have no moral weight.

For me, aesthetic judgments are a kind of moral judgment.

I understand “morality” to basically cash out as “priority structure”, “values”, and related concepts. What matters most to me, and what would matter most to me if I knew more and thought more clearly.  With that definition, when I say that kindness is “good” and I say that Camembert is “good”, I’m not using two unrelated meanings of the word — cheese and kindness are both valuable to me.

Aesthetic preferences aren’t really arbitrary; they say things about what you value and how you see the world.

For example, I like Bach.  There’s a pretty well-established correlation between liking Bach and liking math. Godel, Escher, Bach is a pretty strong marker of membership in my tribe.  And I don’t think that’s arbitrary.  The words I’d use to describe Bach’s music are complex and orderly.  Polyphony gives the impression of a giant, intricate clock, moving according to regular mechanisms, steady as the stars in their courses and endlessly interesting.  It gives me a sense of cosmos, of natural law.  And the fact that I like that says something about what my priorities are more generally.

These sorts of connections are associative and probabilistic rather than determined. Not literally everyone who likes Bach is getting the same associations from the music as I do. But associations and resonances can be real tendencies in the world even if they’re not strict logical entailments.  Metaphors can be apt. There are some synesthetic/metaphorical connections that correlate across human minds, like the bouba/kiki effect.  In a “clusters-in-thingspace” sense, it can be sort of objectively true that Bach is “about” cosmic natural order.  You can’t stretch these intuitions too far, but they aren’t completely fictitious either.

And it’s possible to learn aesthetic intuitions.

I used to only like paintings with very crisp, precise textures, rather than the cloudy, fuzzy textures that show up in John Singer Sargent or Turner paintings.  The art blog Opulent Joy taught me to appreciate the soft textures; when I realized “oh! he’s appreciating a broader power spectrum than I am!” I immediately noticed that his aesthetic was like mine, but stronger — more general, more nuanced, and therefore an upgrade I would like to make.

Another example: when I was a kid,  I found industrial landscapes horribly ugly.  Machines seemed like a blight on nature.  The more I came to understand that good things are produced by machines, and that machines are made with care and skill, the more I started to see trains and bridges and construction sites and shipping containers as beautiful.  Factual understanding changed my aesthetic appreciation. And if learning facts changes your aesthetic views, that means that they aren’t arbitrary; they actually reflect an understanding of the world, and can be more correct or less so.

Judging people for aesthetics isn’t crazy.  If someone loves Requiem for a Dream,  it’s a small piece of evidence that they’re a pessimistic person.  If you think pessimism is bad, then you’re indirectly judging them for their taste. Now, your inferences could be wrong — they could just be huge Philip Glass fans — once again, we’re looking at Bayesian evidence, not logical entailments, so being overconfident about what other people’s tastes “say about them” is a bad idea.  But aesthetics do more-or-less mean things.

For me, personally, my aesthetic sensitivities are precise in a way my moral intuitions aren’t.  My “conscience” will ping perfectly innocent things as “bad”; or it’ll give me logically incoherent results; or it’ll say “everything is bad and everyone is a sinner.” I’ve learned to mistrust my moral intuitions.

My aesthetic sensibilities, on the other hand, are stable and firm and specific. I can usually articulate why I like what I like; I’m conscious of when I’m changing my mind and why; I’m confident in my tastes; my sophistication seems to increase over time; intellectual subjects that seem “beautiful” to me also seem to turn out to be scientifically fruitful and important.  To the extent that I can judge such things about myself, I’m pretty good at aesthetics.

It’s easier for me to conceptualize “morality” as “the aesthetics of human relationships” than to go the other way and consider aesthetics as “the morality of art and sensory experience.”  I’m more likely to have an answer to the question “which of these options is more beautiful?” than “which of these options is the right thing to do?”, so sometimes I get to morality through aesthetics. Justice is good because symmetry is beautiful.  Spiteful behavior is bad because resentment is an ugly state to be in.  Preserving life is good, at root, because complexity is more interesting and beautiful than emptiness.  (Which is, again, probably true because I am a living creature and evolutionarily wired to think so; it’s circular; but the aesthetic perspective is more compelling to me than other perspectives.)

It always puzzles me when people think of aesthetics as a sort of side issue to philosophy, and I know I’ve puzzled people who don’t see why I think they’re central.  Hopefully this gives a somewhat clearer idea of how someone’s internal world can be “built out of aesthetics” to a very large degree.

10 thoughts on “Aesthetics are moral judgments

  1. Aesthetic judgments are only moral judgments if all judgments of preference are moral judgments – and there’s a good case for that. But if they are, they’re no different from preferences wrt food (there’s a reason both are called “tastes”): if you like sushi, certeris paribus you should have sushi, but that says nothing about whether others should have it, and the same goes for art. There are also some correlations between one’s culinary preferences and other beliefs (e.g. I’d expect a correlation between liking sushi and accepting homosexuality), but that’s because they’re cultural markers and cultures vary in their evaluation of what’s good. But you still probably wouldn’t judge someone for disliking sushi, even if that makes them more likely to be anti-gay, and even though there may be a common factor that causes them to both dislike sushi and support anti-gay policies.

    It once seemed intuitive to me that there’s a strong connection between aesthetics and morality, but I’ve come to realize that the correlation and causation aren’t much stronger than they are for food. Most people who share my moral beliefs don’t share my aesthetic tastes, and most people who share my general aesthetic tastes don’t share my moral beliefs. While there are some correlations – I’d expect someone who likes Bach to be higher-IQ and on average to have some cultural differences from someone who likes Kanye West – they’re not strong enough for me to be able to predict what else the Bach-lover likes.

    • I don’t expect, that if you chose two of my preferences at random, that people who agreed with me on one preference would be much more likely to agree on the other. I *do* think you’d see correlations between causally related or associated preferences.
      I think that I probably value “subjective” (metaphorical, associational, etc) thinking more than you do; I might actually use it more, or I might just be more conscious of when I’m using it, but I’m pretty sure that it’s a large part of how humans navigate the world. (And not just when we make cognitive bias errors; intuitive associations are also a large part of what we get *right.*)

  2. The initial line seems to me to have a very simple explanation: aesthetic judgements are terminal, while morality is largely instrumental. In particular, it is instrumental to cooperation between agents with competing goals. Most of the essay seemed compatible with this. But at the end you make aesthetic judgements of moral goals, which is not really compatible.

  3. In aesthetics, I only care about the things good taste correlates with. I don’t care about the “act” at all. What do I mean? I don’t care intrinsically about whether or not a person listens to Miley Cyrus. I only care about it as a proxy for these other things that I care about: openness to experience; what emotional state a person wants to put themselves in (e.g. power, serenity, or wistfulness); preferences for complexity; or what in-group the person identifies with. If an intelligent, open-minded, well-informed, emotionally agreeable alien just happened to prefer Miley Cyrus to Arvo Pärt because of arbitrary differences in how our central nervous systems operated, I wouldn’t begrudge them. This does not hold for the ethical. I’m not merely cornered with characteristics ethical behavior correlates with, I actually care about the specifics—I really don’t want the alien hurting people.

  4. I agree with you completely on this one — aesthetic judgments reveal a side to the person that you normally wouldn’t be able to get from words or actions alone. The problem with words, especially, is that we use them all the time so we’ve gotten quite good at using them to mask our true intentions/feelings.

    Modern philosophy, like a lot of other fields, got more specialized during the 20th century, and I think the disconnect we have now between aesthetics and morality/ethics is partly because of that.

    I think making personal judgements based on aesthetics is actually a really useful tool, and it has kept me out of trouble a number of times. But for me it’s not so much about deciding whether someone is good or bad, but more for getting a better understanding of what people value and seeing if we might have a connection there.

  5. Pingback: Forbearance | Otium ~
  6. “oh! he’s appreciating a broader power spectrum than I am!” applied to painting is one of the greatest pieces of crazy wisdom, satori-like realisation I have come across in a long time. Thanks!

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