Monday, June 11, 2012

Morality and the Aesthetic Conception of Life

In a numerous writings for this blog, I’ve distinguished between moral and aesthetic standards, and referred to Nietzsche’s argument that slave morality becomes obsolete with the embarrassment of theism by modern science and that this morality needs to be replaced by a new, aesthetic conception of the ideal life. But what is the aesthetic perspective and how is it superior to a moral one?

Morality and the Naturalistic Fallacy

Instead of following Nietzsche’s atheistic reason for abandoning what we think of as morality, I’d like to give a different one. The problem I have in mind is that morality comes to suffer inexorably in comparison with scientific knowledge. Here’s how this has come about. In the first place, morality in the sense of rules for what people ought to do or to avoid doing, arose in a social context, as people found themselves living in larger and larger groups (as hunting and farming methods were improved, and so on). Resolving conflicts by violence, prompted by each individual who deems himself wronged, would defeat the point of living in society as opposed to the wild, which is precisely to escape what Hobbes called the “war of all against all” in which each creature’s life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And so members of society stipulate certain modes of conduct to govern group behaviour. Note, for example, that the Ten Commandments presuppose a set of social circumstances: what’s forbidden is the killing of another, the stealing of another’s possessions, the worship of other gods, and what’s prescribed is the honouring of your parents and the performance of the religious rituals that bind the society together (the Sabbath, for the ancient Jews). In this respect, morality and religion functioned together, as ways of maintaining social cohesion.

As cognitive scientists such as Jonathan Haidt point out, reason evolved as a way of measuring status in a social hierarchy, of persuading others in a Machiavellian, egocentric fashion, as opposed to being a matter of impartial, objective logic or science for discovering the absolute Truth. Just as religions were terribly biased in favour of each self-interested tribe, reason was biased in favour of each individual who must balance the tribe’s interests with his or her own. This state of affairs was eventually unsettled by human curiosity, which led to the discovery of cognitive methods that undermined rather than upheld social institutions such as the Catholic Church. With the ascent of modern science, European rationalists elevated pure Reason as a precondition of social progress, which is to say that these rationalists duly ridiculed social conventions and overturned traditions. Modern rationalists learned how nature actually works and developed technological means of applying that knowledge, which created modern civilization, typically held, according to the scientistic fallacy, to be an unqualified improvement on primitive, benighted ways of life.

Shortly after these developments, hyper-rationalists (empiricists, positivists, skeptics) took modern science to be the standard for all beliefs, which means that, as David Hume said, nonscientific writings should figuratively if not actually be set to the flames, including metaphysical and theological texts. With progress in view--which is to say liberalism in the classic sense, relative to which current “centrist” liberalism is a cover for postmodern nihilism and a pragmatic ideology for enforcing the oligarchs' control of the mob--rationalists thus became aware of the startling paradox that while the science-centered worship of Reason generates social progress at one level by enabling higher degrees of happiness, with greater control of natural processes, this progressive society threatens to destroy itself.

For along with pseudoscience, superstition, and theological dogma, morality appears to be a set of beliefs not acquired by the approved scientific methods, which is to say roughly, by observation or by mathematical logic, as Hume put it. As Hume pointed out, moral statements about how we ought to act don’t follow rationally from scientific statements about what the natural facts are or from analyses of concepts or definitions. Just because humans actually want to live together instead of alone in the wild, for example, doesn’t mean we should live peacefully, respecting our neighbours. All that follows is the calculation that living peacefully is a more or less effective means of holding society together, and thus a means of satisfying our desire to preserve society. But the moral force is lost in this pragmatic translation of a moral imperative. And so rationalism tends to reduce morality to pragmatism, which applies technoscientific standards of knowledge-driven human empowerment, to the social sphere. Likewise, just because we actually stipulate that stealing is wrong and assign a linguistic label to that concept, doesn’t mean the stipulation is morally right; after all, evil people can devise a concept for their antisocial purposes and if they’re sufficiently persuasive or powerful, as in a dictatorship, the stipulation can become conventional (popular). Might doesn’t make right, nor does popularity.

This is the essence of the naturalistic fallacy, which was discovered due to the hyper-rationalist’s contrast of modern scientific beliefs (i.e. of certain mental representations held to be true or false) with any other kind. Scientific statements are justified by induction, deduction, appeal to the best explanation, or some other rational method, whereas moral commandments, needed to maintain social order, are unscientific and thus as suspicious as any anti-progressive dogma. Arguably, the current postmodern period exhibits the social disharmony and fragmentation that result from greater awareness of how the liberal’s scientistic notion of progress ironically threatens to implode so-called advanced societies. Modern noble lies and science-centered myths no longer enchant; on the contrary, they terrify when their radical implications are appreciated. As Nietzsche showed, rationalism destroys theism and morality, which have always been needed to pacify clever, power-seeking animals like us. Rationalists such as postmodern liberals attempt to compensate by combining their faith in Reason with oligarchy-subservient consumerism, as though Nietzsche and Lovecraft had not already shown that hyper-rationalism, the consistent application of reason in all walks of life, renders a person insane, not to mention unhappy, and as though the cliché hadn’t already been disseminated that money can’t buy happiness.

To be sure, modernists proposed other secular defenses of morality besides pragmatism, such as Kant’s duty-based approach and Bentham’s utilitarianism. In each case, the name of the game is Scientism and the game is to provide a pseudoscientific justification of moral judgments, as though any normative statement follows from the fact that our cognitive faculties work by generalizing (Kant) or from the pretense of quantifying and calculating moral values such as happiness (Bentham). Because of the naturalistic fallacy, these secular theories obfuscate or take as self-evident some initial moral ideal, whether it be duty or happiness, since rational argument alone can’t justify such an ideal. As for Aristotle’s virtue ethics, his theory relies on the quasi-teleological notion of biological function, which makes his theory comparable to theistic divine command theory. In either of the latter cases, we have anti-naturalistic anthropocentrism, a projection of the human notion of purpose onto the whole of nature.

So much for traditional morality. Note, though, that the problem stems from morality’s social aspect. The point of moral judgments was to regulate society by offering incentives to compromise. Instead of preying on each other or acting as vigilantes, we should strive to be good, to be in the moral right, even if that means we must sacrifice for the group’s greater well-being. This social function invites reason to replace violence as the mode of resolving conflicts. Rationalists become radicalized with the Scientific Revolution, which leads to the discovery of the naturalistic fallacy, which in turn delegitimizes morality.

The Aesthetic Perspective

Aesthetics, however, lacks this social function and thus needn’t collapse under its weight as does morality. Whereas moral rules are about how to behave in a group, aesthetic judgments are individual reactions to certain qualities. Take, first, the aesthetic distinction between beauty and ugliness. As the psychologist Rachel Herz shows, in That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, we each have a culturally learned hostility to disgusting sensations, because these tend to remind us of our mortality of which we’re terrified, and thus we associate them with poisonous foods against which a universal form of disgust evolved as a warning mechanism. For example, however politically incorrect this reaction might be, a malformed human body revolts us because the offending spectacle shows that we’re produced by mindless natural forces with which we can’t sympathize. Our sense of physical beauty is also instinctive, evolving not just as the complement of our fear of ugliness, but as a way of measuring the fitness of a potential mate, given certain outward indicators of health such as symmetric, average, and youthful facial features and proportionality in waist-hip ratio. In either case, the individual rather than the group is central to the aesthetic sense--although indirectly the question of genetic fitness bears on the health of future generations. Second, there’s the modern aesthetic preference for originality over the cliché. Again, this distinction is about the individual, not the group--in this case, about individual achievement; indeed, the ideal of originality is the antisocial one of overcoming social pressures, including popular standards and all manner of received wisdom, and daring to be different, to heroically pursue a creative vision.  

Now, were you to try to rationally support your preference for beauty or for originality, entering your judgment as the conclusion of a logical argument or a scientific experiment, you’d run up against the naturalistic fallacy just as in the case of a moral judgment. For example, you’d have to cite the fact that we have an inborn distaste for certain sensations and thus naturally incline to their opposites, and then you’d have to call a halt to the proceedings since no normative or value-laden statement follows just from such a factual one. However, the intrusion of reason into the aesthetic sphere is arbitrary in a way that it isn’t in the moral one, and so there’s no self-destructive dialectic in the former as there is in the latter. There’s no need to rationally prove the merit of an aesthetic preference, just as there’s no need to compare the taste of an apple to that of an orange. Taking up an aesthetic perspective is just the having of a taste for certain sensations and a primitive opposition to others, the putting aside of our empirical understanding of something as we attend to its surface features and to their subjective impact on us; thus we distinguish between beauty and ugliness. In the case of clichés, we hope for progress in the future and, buoyed by the undeniable advances in science and technology, we’re ashamed of backwards institutions that bind geniuses in red tape; we prefer originality as a sign of insight or vision and we loathe cliché as an indicator of somnolence.

How Aesthetics Can Replace Morality

How, then, does aesthetics bear on morality? Well, if we put aside the preoccupation with the goal of unifying society, we can recover moral distinctions in aesthetic terms. Take, for example, the prohibition of parasitic behaviour, including murder, theft, rape, and so on. All such behaviours are viscerally disgusting, if nothing else, because they involve violence or sadden the victim, and the sight of blood, tears, or facial expressions of pain alert us to our mortality and thus arouse our primal fear of death. Moreover, parasitic behaviour counts as clichéd, because it blindly follows low-level natural law. A parasitic person resorts to trickery, calculating, in effect, that he can preserve his genes best by exploiting the docility of those who play by society’s rules, if only the parasite is sufficiently sneaky to avoid getting caught. More generally, parasitism follows the iron-clad biological principle that the vicious abuse the docile.

What’s original, morally speaking? One answer seems to be this, rebellion against nature, as demonstrated by mystical ascetics and by so-called omegas (“dysfunctional,” antisocial drop-outs). Of course, defined broadly enough, everything in the universe is natural, so there’s no unnatural behaviour. But the freedom to refuse to play the evolutionary game, on some level at least, is a surprising development, placing personal integrity and a unique sense of propriety above biological or social function. Again, defined broadly, everything that happens in society, including the partial or complete dropping out thereof, fulfills some social role. But in a more interesting sense, ascetics, drop-outs, or at least jaded and apathetic postmodernists are socially dysfunctional, threatening social collapse with their skepticism and misanthropy, because they’re disenchanted with the promise of what they regard as inauthentic happiness from the assimilation of consensus reality. Instead of succumbing to pressures from biological urges or from the Matrix of conventional wisdom, these rebels dare to risk public disapproval and to sacrifice those pleasures that require ignorance, opposing the whole world like Job who called God down from his throne to account for the apparent injustice within Creation.

This latter biblical allusion shows the need to distinguish between what we might call theological and philosophical aesthetics. The story of Job is theological in that the bulk of it assumes the exoteric, anthropocentric perspective, according to which there’s a personal cause of nature who can be blamed in the first place. The story ends with a hint of the esoteric, philosophical viewpoint, namely that of mysterianism or cosmicism, according to which people aren’t central to the universe. Thus, God humiliates Job by insulting him in his littleness and in his ignorance of the inhuman plan that any being capable of creating the cosmos would likely devise. Of course, a full-blown cosmicist tale, such as one penned by H. P. Lovecraft, would dispense with a personal First Cause altogether and really rub our noses in our cosmic insignificance.

I raise this point because a modern aesthetic reconstruction of morality should value originality, identifying the latter with the progressive genius that artistically overcomes the horror of appreciating our existential predicament. A traditional, theological reconstruction, however, might also celebrate originality while defining the latter as anything made in God’s image, in which case moral behaviour becomes that which is godlike. But originality isn’t simply rarity. The problem with a theological conception of our creativity is that this creativity is highly limited since we must each conform to God’s revealed plan. Even God’s creativity is often thought to be limited by his moral nature. At any rate, the theological notion of originality is opposed to the modern one, since the latter always allows for the possibility that contravening a tradition is progressive.

The point, then, is that the aesthetic distinction between originality and cliché captures the difference between heroic independence and conformity, which in turn can be used to reconstruct basic moral values. This doesn’t mean that a shift from a moral to an aesthetic perspective on normative questions is arbitrary or superficially semantic. On the contrary, morality’s social context means that someone who thinks in (theologically or scientistically) moral terms will be partial to conservative values, whereas someone with a modern aesthetic perspective, at least, favours liberal, progressive, and indeed antisocial ones. This isn’t to say that an aesthetic moralist preys on the traditional one, since as I said, the aesthetic ideal precludes predatory behaviour. But unlike morality, aesthetics also devalues conformity and compromise for group welfare; it’s just that, while a predator refuses to compromise when satisfying his base, clichéd and thus aesthetically repellent desires, an aesthetic moralist prioritizes his personal pursuit of a creative vision above any need for moderation for the sake of preserving socially useful delusions.

To see how this works, let’s take the example of altruism (and see also these case studies). Morally speaking, selflessness is justified because God, Reason, or natural function commands it. Either way, there’s a moral rule which everyone in society needs to follow. This framework breaks down with the rise of science, once scientific knowledge came to be contrasted with all other contenders; in particular, the rational defenses of moral imperatives convince no one but cloistered academic philosophers, and the actual reigning values in a postmodern capitalistic society aren’t just antisocial; they’re the grim social Darwinian preconceptions of vain, duped consumers and of sociopathic oligarchs. The public outcry against Wall Street stems not from moral opposition but from jealousy or from fear of being the victim rather than the ruthless winner in the prevailing wild competition between selfish agents.

So what would the aesthetic moralist, which is to say someone who replaces moral with aesthetic reasoning, say about altruism? On the one hand, self-sacrifice for someone else’s benefit can be clichéd, especially if it follows straightforwardly from evolutionary theory. Moreover, theistically motivated charity is hideous when it brings to mind the thought of God, the latter being a transparent strategy for dealing with the fear of our mortality. And yet the value of helping others follows from the ideal of originality when the latter is construed as that of rebellion. After all, the motivation for avoiding clichés, for being creative rather than conforming, is disgust for what passes for normal. There would be no reason to progress were the present state of affairs ideal, and it’s because someone with an artistic frame of mind is appalled by so much in nature that he or she is driven to create something superior. But someone who’s antagonistic to so much of what’s normal is bound to pity fellow victims of those commonplace abuses, and that pity will motivate the person to be altruistic. So whether the aesthetic defense of moral values preserves altruism depends on how the altruistic act is motivated and performed.

Another difference between the moralistic and the aesthetic approach to how we should live is found in the general outlooks. A moralist views a person as a follower of socially useful rules. Modern morality is scientistic and so obscures the difference between a rule and a natural law, giving morality the appearance of being scientific. By contrast, an aesthetic moralist sympathizes with a person as a victim of some degree of suffering who copes best by interpreting her actions as artworks. Artists are known for their civil disobedience, but when moral values are understood as merely aesthetic, all human endeavours are viewed from an artistic perspective. At her best, an artist is a creative genius, obeying not political compromises, but her inner voice, her flashes of insight that provide her a vision of what ought to be.

This is the essence of personal and social progress: such progress depends not on the technoscientific standard of control, but on faith in the rightness of inspired novelty, on the prospect that an uplifting and comforting home for poor humans can emerge even in a universe of horribly undead natural forces. By elevating society above the individual, the moralist restrains genius, turning the individual into a conformist. (Even Kant, who did much to illuminate human autonomy, says in effect that the individual is bound by the dictates of the general form of Reason which is common to everyone.) Because our existential situation is absurd and tragic, blind obedience ultimately to the avoidable evolutionary processes that set the stage for our suffering is as disgraceful as the treachery of those Jewish kapos who gained favour with the Nazis by collaborating with them in concentration camps. The wrongness of conforming to natural norms, which traditional moral rules tend to rationalize, is perceivable from an all-encompassing aesthetic perspective, from the sense that compromising with society against your inner creative promptings is distasteful.


  1. If deluding ourselves to ignore the harsh reality of our existential situation is cliched, then how can avoiding ugliness because it reminds us of our mortality be an aesthetic virtue?

    1. In my view, avoiding ugliness can indeed be bad in the aesthetic sense, especially if the avoidance isn't based on any creative vision, but proceeds merely by conforming to social norms that degrade us. The ideal isn't just to avoid ugliness, but to overcome it, to face up to our mortality and to sublimate the horror we feel by creating for ourselves an original life, one that doesn't so straightforwardly serve our biological functions or social expectations based on obsolete myths.

      My point about disgust is that this instinctive response is a root of moral judgments. How we channel that feeling determines whether we're living with any aesthetic taste. So beauty isn't that which avoids ugliness at all costs, even by cowardly means such as deluding ourselves that we're really immortal. On the contrary, the theistic gambit is now one of the primary cliches.

      Beauty is that which is seen in light of an imaginative ideal that deals heroically with our finitude and with the rest of our existential plight. Beauty is subjective and changes depending on the myths and values a person brings to bear. I take the moral task to be transcending ugliness by creating artworks in our minds and in our life decisions, artworks that overcome the undeadness of our bodies and of our beastly functions, reversing natural facts through ascetic rebellion. For more on the last point, see this article:

  2. Hi Ben.

    Where in your view does the use of pornography and the act of masturbation fall into? Would you consider these as unoriginal responses to our existential situation?

    1. Well, I've written something on pornography (link below). I have more to say on that subject, specifically on the addiction and downward spiral aspects, and on the peculiar way fetishists try to recapture the magic of their introduction to more and more perverted types of sex, by using descriptions to remind themselves of that moment. As I see it, porn is a sort of trap like any addiction.

      As for masturbation, it just falls into the sex category for me. I'm not telling people to stop expressing their sexual urges in any way. Obviously, people's sex lives are none of my business. My blog is about possible ideals for naturalists and social outsiders. It's hard to say what the ideal is for dealing with sex. Is it complete abstinence, because any form of happiness is grotesque in the midst of so much suffering in the world? Not really, because I suspect it's quite unhealthy to not release the pent-up fluids, just as it would be unhealthy (and impossible) to hold your urine in on a permanent basis.

      What interests me more are the attitudes and intentions that go along with our behaviour. I'm not saying that existentially authentic people have to be constantly miserable. On the contrary, comedy is a big part of my worldview, as is artistic joy. But those with esoteric understanding are likely going to have their joys sullied by dark thoughts that keep creeping up. It's a matter of keeping the tragic big picture somewhere in the back of your mind, no matter what you're doing. However you understand that picture should inform what you decide to do with yourself, and this will depend on your particular inclinations and background.

      Maybe you're getting at the possible originality of masturbation as a substitute for sex. The thing is, though, there are a million creative ways to have sex itself, as demonstrated by internet porn. What annoys me about sexual pleasure is that many people don't feel bad about the rank hypocrisy of indulging in their humiliating animal urges and then going to work in their business suits and acting like civilized custodians of the planet who are above it all. I'd just like to see more honesty and self-awareness. But the downside of losing that delusion is that you're going to have worse sex or perhaps none at all.