An Essay Featured in The Fate of Beauty by O.G. Rose
On Particularity and How Ethics Without Aesthetics is Legalistic, Inefficient, Uninspiring, and Risks Totalitarianism
If I find something beautiful, I treat it with care. If there is a vase in the kitchen that is notably elegant, I make a point not to bump into it, but if there is a vase made of plastic that I bought for cheap, though I won’t intentionally break it, I won’t be nearly as careful, and if I have to make a hard choice between catching the plastic vase from falling off a ledge and catching a glass, I could easily choose the glass. Beauty corresponds with value, and if I find something beautiful, relative to the degree I do, I naturally and willing take care of it. This isn’t to say that beauty is necessary for me to care, but it is to say that beauty naturally inspires consideration and concern without anyone coming along and threatening to put me in jail if I don’t act better.
When I behold a beautiful sunset, it suspends me: I enter a state of awe. Similarly, when I see a beautiful painting, I am similarly suspended. If I am running by someone and the person turns and I see beauty, I can be halted or find myself slowing down. This isn’t to say I cannot choose to fight against the beauty and run on (or even commit a horrid act), but it is to say that beauty stops me and makes me think twice.
If we find something beautiful, we value it. No law or threat is required: if we find a person, artwork, tree, or the like beautiful, by our own volition, we will treat the thing well and with care. This isn’t to say it’s impossible to destroy a beautiful painting, but it is to say that the beauty will make it incredibly hard to carry out the act. Beauty forces us to think twice, and if we hold a flame up to something beautiful, our hand will tremble.
Beauty emergently creates ethics. When I am surrounded by beauty, I naturally and willingly treat my surroundings with care and love. Law forces ethics: when I am surrounded by laws, I may willingly follow them, but it will not likely be natural, and furthermore I will know I am under threat (though that’s not to say I’ll constantly and consciously consider this threat). Ethical action that results from threat are much more fragile and/or existentially unsettling then ethical action that results from will (for we cannot “say for sure” the ethical act under law isn’t merely legalistic). Beauty naturally directs the will in its favor, and if this is true, then a key to ethical life is aesthetic cultivation. If we fail to train people to be able to see beauty in the world around them, then emergent ethical behavior will likely wane, and we will likely try to fill the gap with law, guilt, and the like.
What is beauty? This question is explored fully in “On Beauty” by O.G. Rose, and though I will not repeat the entire argument here, I will note that everything is potentially beautiful, and that thus it is possible for us to emergently treat everything ethically and like something that should be treated with care. When I behold the beautiful, it “calls” something out of me that meets me in my radical particularity; it reminds me that I exist because I hold a subjectivity which can witness the beautiful, and at the same time suspends me with an acknowledgment that there is something greater than myself, something sublime. Thus, though I am reminded of my individuality, I am not encouraged to be selfish; in fact, it’s the exact opposite: in the experience of beauty, individualism forsakes selfishness. As opposed to degrading or deifying it, beauty puts the self in its rightful place by “forgetting it” in reverence of the particular and individual (in line with Timothy Keller’s work on “self-forgetfulness”). Today, we conflate “individualism” and “selfishness,” but I fear this is a terrible mistake, yet understandable in a society where the aesthetic wanes. Perhaps if we could regain a sense of the aesthetic, we could return to maintaining individuality without at the same time praising selfishness. Furthermore, if we understand everyone is a work of art, we could emergently want to take care of everyone, as opposed to feel like we should out of guilt, law, politics, etc. — the likelihood of social and communitarian supports could increase. Hence, an increase of individualism could easily invite an increase of brotherly love (which, paradoxically, is traditionally associated with socialism and anti-individualism, especially in America).
“The Fate of Beauty,” another paper by O.G. Rose, argues that the fate of a society’s beauty is the fate of that society as a whole. Again, I will not spell out that entire argument here, but I will say that the fate of beauty seems to also be the fate of ethics, especially if we hold a distinction between the “ethical” and the “legal.” No, a society does not need the aesthetic to “have the motions of ethical life,” as stipulated and enforced by law, but it does need the aesthetic for ethics to be emergently ethical, and thus meaningfully ethical (in being clearly distinguishable from the legal). The difference, in my mind, between “legal” and “ethical” has a lot to do with human will: if I don’t punch someone I want to hit because it’s against the law, I act “legally,” but if I don’t punch someone because I am in awe of his or her particularity, I act “ethically.” Emergent behavior has a lot to do with the ethical, and emergent behavior is radically shaped by the aesthetic. The more I choose to cultivate my aesthetic sensibilities and see beauty in the world, the more I will choose to cherish life.
“On Beauty” argues that most of the world is “invisible” to us, like a doorknob that works (to allude to Heidegger), but that beauty makes a thing “visible.” It is hard to be ethical toward what is “invisible” to me, and though I may ignore the stranger on the street (and thus it “appears” that I am ethical, for I have not harmed the stranger), it can hardly be said that I have actually been ethical, as opposed to simply “go through the motions” of the ethical. To allude to a distinction made in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose, perhaps I “tolerate” the stranger, but am I humble and neighborly? Hardly, and certainly a world filled with “the motions of ethics” might be a world lacking harm (and certainly better than a world of active harm), but I doubt it would be a world filled with anything that “feels good.” In fact, I think such a world would feel empty.
However, when my aesthetics sensibilities have been trained and I can see the stranger as beautiful, the stranger suddenly becomes “visible,” and so it becomes possible for me to treat the stranger ethically in a meaningful way. In fact, to the degree I find the stranger beautiful, I will feel “moved” to meet the stranger and make him or her even more “visible,” turning the stranger more into a person, then more into an individual, and maybe into a friend. Beauty compels me to go deeper, and at the same time, it suspends my selfishness: it says, “This is not about you.” In the aesthetic, it is precisely as a sense of the individual and corresponding particularity increases that my selfishness decreases: it is the exact opposite of what is generally supposed. This is a key point: the more I focus on the individual aesthetically and thus ethically, the more the self practically “vanishes.” I fear it is in an aesthetically illiterate society like ours that “the individual” and “the self” have been so terribly inflated and difficult to divide.
Many literary critics are adamant that a key to great art is particularity. ‘Is specificity itself satisfying?’ James Wood wonders, concluding, ‘I think it is, and we expect such satisfaction from literature. We want names and numbers.’¹ If the art feels general and vague, the emotional power is lost: we can’t understand it, envision it, or relate to it. Beauty is found in particularity, and so the more I treat the world in its particularity, the higher the chance I will encounter beauty and emergently become ethical. Furthermore, the more the people around me become individual works of art, the less the world becomes about me, not because I consciously decide to abandon my self (which runs serious risks of self-deprecation), but because I just stop thinking about myself and just use my self, like a thumb (again, to allude to Timothy Keller’s work). Emmanuel Levinas describes “the face” as insisting of us certain ethical demands, and I believe the more our aesthetic sensibilities are increased, the more we will see beauty in the face and want to treat it with care. Additionally, as “On Beauty” argues, where this a sense of beauty, there is a sense of joy and hope, as well as a sense of a mystery that I want to explore (a mystery that the more I learn about, the more I will find left to learn that I will want to learn about). Thus, if I am surrounded by a world of individual and breathing artworks, then I have plenty of resources to forget about my self forever, and thanks to such an environment, I myself am always an individual who is meaningfully definable from a self (not to say that I don’t have both, but the emphasis shifts). If I am surrounded by mysteries that I can always want to explore, then a sense of the beautiful will not only increase my desire to be ethical, but it will also increase my desire to be alive. I will desire to be art, for I will desire to rise up and be worthy of the art I find myself amidst.
To close the section, please note that if “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose is correct and ethics is mostly a matter of “ethics games,” then it could be understood that my aesthetic appreciations increase my likelihood of following “the rules” of an “ethics game” in the right way. If I tell my friend I will meet him at the park at five, my feeling that my friend is a beautiful work of art will increase my desire to actually be at the park at five. My friend is not “just another person”; rather, my friend is the only person in the world who will ever be that person — extraordinarily rare. How terrible would it be for me to miss an appointment with someone of such value? If President Obama or Shakespeare wanted to meet me in the park at five, could anything stop me from being there? Why should my friend be any different? After all, my friend is a “one of one,” just like President Obama or Shakespeare.
But an objection arises: is it really true that beauty compels ethical action? After all, don’t people steal paintings? Yes, but first off, perhaps the painting is stolen not because the person finds it beautiful, but because the thief finds it valuable (the same could be said about kidnappers, etc.)? If this is the case, the thief is after money, and beauty plays no role to him, even though to us it could be seen as “theft for beauty.” But for the sake of argument, let’s say a person does in fact steal a painting because it is beautiful: in this situation, the thief wants the painting to take care of it. Perhaps the thief believes the museum doesn’t do a good job? Or maybe the thief just wants it in order to be in its presence? In this situation, yes, a law is broken, but a law is broken for the sake of treating something with care. And if we recognize that “legal” and “moral” are different categories, it is not absurd to think that someone could break a law in order to do something ethical. In totalitarian regimes, it likely happens often.
Is it possible for people to want to defile or destroy something that they find beautiful? I suppose, but if this were to occur, I would wage that their motives would be complex. Perhaps they felt the cathedral was too beautiful for the world and that people weren’t worthy of it? Perhaps they felt the art was beautiful but not as beautiful as they imagined it should be, so the painter destroyed it out of despair? Note in these examples, beauty is destroyed for the sake of beauty, not out of a hatred of beauty. It is impossible for me to treat something that I believe is beautiful in a manner that doesn’t honor the beauty, even if it seems like I dishonor the beautiful in the eyes of others. This point cannot be overstressed: if I find it beautiful, my disposition toward it is of care, even if to others I seem careless.
Is it possible for people to treat who or what they find beautiful in a way that they interpret as “ethical” but that is actually horrible? Perhaps — I’m in no place to entirely rule out a possibility — but I believe such strange logic would prove incredibly rare, and frankly, considering how I define “beauty” in “On Beauty” by O.G. Rose, I don’t think it is possible at all. But assuming it was, I believe it would be such a rare occurrence, that the aesthetic disposition would still prove far superior to the “passionless” ethics people try to employ today (and what’s the alternative?). Additionally, it would take complex, odd, and difficult ethical reasoning to do something horrible in the name of beauty, and the more complex a theory or rationality becomes, the fewer the number of people who will follow it. Considering this, in practice, I believe “aesthetic ethics” will prove far superior to “nonaesthetic ethics.”
Alright, but another objection: is everyone really beautiful? Everyone is certainly potentially beautiful, and the more we see them as individuals, the higher the likelihood that potential will be realized. But must it be necessarily? No, which means we must work at our aesthetic sensibilities to see and do the best we can. Also, we need to do our best not to hinder and impede our own beauty. The Mona Lisa cannot treat us with a bad attitude, and the Grand Canyon cannot hide itself with self-loathing, but humans are “living artworks,” so we have a unique capacity to hinder and ruin the art of ourselves. If we are short-tempered, inconsiderate, uninteresting, and the like, we may prove to be the worst enemy to our own heart. We will hinder the vision we could be, and thus make it more difficult for people to treat us ethically as opposed to legally. That’s not to say others can’t treat us ethically, and perhaps a saint is precisely someone who can see beauty in the most vile of people, but it is to say that it will be harder on others. Could that difficulty make the ethical action more meaningful and more ethical? Perhaps, but the benefits will not benefit us: we will not become a saint by acting like a demon who others can become saints through. Perhaps monsters can create saints, but creating saints doesn’t make monsters martyrs.²
Even if we are all beautiful, we can act in a way that makes our beauty harder to experience. Does this mean we are less beautiful? Practically, I’m not sure if this question matters. If a painting is hidden, in a sense, it is less beautiful, but it is also hard to find the painting to say for sure. We perhaps practically reduce our beauty, but not actually, and the power of a saint seems to be the capacity to see our actual beauty despite how practically ugly we might be at the time. Then again, perhaps we do actually reduce it — I don’t think we can say for sure (though do note this doesn’t mean we can reduce the potential for beauty, only perhaps it’s realization). Thus, a pragmatic consideration takes over for me: by choosing to believe human beauty is ontological versus based on action, no one can ever do anything to lose their beauty, and so I always have the choice to try to see their beauty even if it’s hard. However, if I choose to believe people can reduce their beauty, if I don’t see their beauty, I can absolve myself any responsibility to try to see it. The easier road is to believe beauty is contingent to action, and so I personally choose to believe beauty is noncontingent, only something that can be hidden. Additionally, that means there is always hope for me if I only take the step to change how I behave, not because behavior changes the presence of beauty itself, but because behavior influence my capacity to see and express it. Alternatively, if I can lose my beauty, it’s possible for me to fall out of redeemability.
Well, perhaps all this just means that “acting nice” is what is beautiful as opposed to people themselves? So perhaps the ethical leads to beauty versus the beautiful lead to the ethical? Again, I think the ethical and beautiful are deeply linked to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one begins and the other ends; in fact, “acting ethical” is the natural response to “beholding beauty.” We don’t so much “act beautiful” when we see a stunning work of art, for in that moment, it is the role of the artwork to “act beautiful.” Instead, we just try to focus on treating it right and with the awe it deserves: if it is beautiful to us versus merely pretty, we don’t try to hog the attention. Hence, if beauty is present, ethics will be present too, thus making them seem identical (and indeed, they are deeply related).
Generally, most people we encounter “act nice”: they don’t yell at us or launch an attack. By far, the majority of human actions are “nice,” but it is not these acts that I would consider “beautiful” (they are more just “civil,” which isn’t to say they are bad). It’s only those deeply moving and sacrificial acts of goodness that move us into a state of awe, and when we see these acts, it is easy to consider them “beautiful.” They are ethical too because they are emergent, but the moment we see these acts, their beauty and the beauty of the person blur, and indeed, perhaps it is the emergent and ethical act that makes the person beautiful by unveiling the beauty always present. Hard to say.
Where there is ethical action, there is also beauty, and where there is beauty, there is also ethical action. I don’t think we can say which always comes first, nor that it matters: what really counts is grasping the relation between ethics and beauty (a line of thought Elaine-Scarry has worked on for years) and the importance of cultivating aesthetic sensibilities. It also important to recognize that “the motions of ethical acts” without beauty is legality, and legality is not equivalent to ethics (though that’s not to say it’s necessarily bad). Legality is far more fragile and prone to cause oppression.
Personally, I think ethics and beauty confirm one another: the fact someone acts ethically toward something gives us “reason to think” that something is in fact beautiful, as ethical action gives us “reason to think” the person acting is in fact beautiful. When we experience beauty, we have “reason to think” there are things in the world that are worthy of being treated “ethically,” that the world cannot and should not be reduced to means and ends. There’s something higher about it, and beauty provides us a glimpse of that higher reality.
Considering this, a point of clarification: this paper does not intend to claim Ethics classes are irrelevant and can be “replaced” with Aesthetic classes. There are still moral quandaries (especially in big systems and for the organizers of those systems), and although I can be critical of Ethics classes (as discussed in “(Im)morality” by O.G. Rose), I do not deny the importance of learning how to think ethically. Rather, this paper has meant to argue that aesthetics has a role in ethical life (especially in terms of motivation), and that it should be combined and/or ordered with ethics. My point is that aesthetics helps me “be” ethical, which doesn’t mean the ethical vanishes, but “merges with” a way of aesthetic life. In this schema, ethical and aesthetic living combine. Yes, I do think there is something primary to aesthetics over ethics (as will be discussed), as the heart is primary to the hand, but that does not mean Ethics classes are irrelevant any more than my hand is irrelevant because I can survive without it. There’s a place for learning how to use my hand, and furthermore, there are plenty of Aesthetic classes that fail to cultivate aesthetic sensibilities.
That said, since I do think aesthetic sensibilities naturally lead to ethical action, if one must choose, I do think it makes sense to focus on cultivating aesthetic sensibilities first before focusing on ethics. After all, if I learn ethics but not aesthetics, I’ll know what’s right, but perhaps lack the motivation to do it, while if I see people as beautiful, I’ll act ethically without even perhaps knowing the name of Kant. There’s a better chance of ethics being included in aesthetics than aesthetics being included in ethics, though hopefully everyone gives time to both.
Individualism and/or what could be called “particularism” is an orientation to the world that is more likely to encounter beauty and consequently act ethically, but unfortunately “individualism” is a word that’s hard to use today without Conservative connotations. Artists and critics discuss the importance of particularity in good art, and they note how good characters are “particular people,” but another term for “a particular person” is “an individual.” It is toward individuals we can experience beauty, but in “individualism” today being conflated with “Capitalism” and “greed,” many of us have cut ourselves off from an orientation that could increase beauty in the world.
As defined in this paper, “socialism” is the opposite of “individualism,” while “central planning” is the opposite of “free markets” I am not interested in the economic understandings of individualism and socialism: what I am interested in is socialism and individualism as contrasting systems of value and orientations to the world. Furthermore, and paradoxically, I will argue that individualism may actually increase the impetus for central planning, because if every person feels like a work of art, we will want to take care of them all. In fact, I believe socialism has hurt efforts to create central planners, for it hurts our relations to individuals and turns them into abstractions, members of a collective we can never directly experience, and thus impedes our motivation to take care of the people around us. And as generalities hurt artistic creations, so general identities hurt ethical engagements and the aesthetic experiences of people.
There is not a clear line we can draw from socialism to central planning or individualism to free markets — to proceed in this paper, that line of logic needs to be deconstructed. Perhaps free markets are superior to central planners or vice-versa, and perhaps individualism should lead to central planning — that is another question for another time. Here, to emphasize, I only want to discuss how individualism is a better orientation to the world than socialism for encountering beauty, and as a result, individualism is more likely to produce emergent ethical behavior.
Socialism is a value system that emphasizes the social, while individualism is a value system that emphasizes the individual. Both are ways of seeing, and where the goal for the individualist is the thriving of the individual, the goal of the socialist is the thriving of the social. Deepest reality and truth for the individualist is located in the individual, while for the socialist, it is located in the collective (please note that most people are a mixture of these two perspectives, similar to how few if anyone is purely an introvert or an extrovert). The individualist could almost be tempted to say the social doesn’t ultimately exist, where the socialist might be tempted to say the individual amounts to nothing without social support. And there are truths to both of these views, so the question is this: is a society more likely to arise and thrive out of individualism more than an individual is likely to arise and thrive out of socialism? Which view is best for arising to the other without losing either?
Artists who make the mistake of writing in generalities tend to believe they cover more ground. If I say “chair” versus a precise description of a chair, I can believe I leave more room for readers to imagine the chair they want to imagine; the story can be customized and more universal. Ironically though, readers tend to see a (general) “chair” as nothing at all, but if they are offered a particular chair, paradoxically, as understood by many critics, the chair in its particularity does a better job at representing “all chairs” then it would if a general chair was described. Perhaps this is because all chairs are ultimately particular chairs, and all chairs are thus “universally particular chairs” — it’s hard to say. Regardless, the point is that efforts of an artist to be universal by being general result in art that fails to connect emotionally or aesthetically, while an artist who describes a particular chair in a particular place is more likely to connect with people universally. It is a strange paradox, but critical for artists to grasp. We know about general cups from particular cups, not the other way around, so if we want a sense of the general, it will be found in the particular.
Similarly, when we try to take care of humanity and society versus individuals, we fail to take care of anyone at all. We do not live in a world of “people,” per se, but of Sarahs, Bens, La’Tashas, and Manyas. We know humanity through individuals; we do not know individuals through humanity. The less we focus on individuals for the sake of taking care of humanity, like the artist who is general in hopes of being more universal, the more we fail (as Dostoevsky shows). But if we learn how to be like artists and really describe and “know” the particular, we will also really “know” individuals and how to love them. As a result, as artists can increase our love of houses in general by making us love a particular house (for example), so our love of humanity can grow when we learn to really focus on individuals.
Critically, please note that my argument here does not rest on questioning the ontology of generalities and their reality: perhaps that argument could be made, but I’m not making it here. Do not mistake me as I saying that individuals should be our prime focus because they are “more real” than collectives; rather, I am saying they should be focused on because better art is found in particularity. I am more likely to find beauty in the particular than the general, and thus emergently act ethical when encountering the particular than when encountering the general. Furthermore, in this particular encounter, I am more likely to develop a feeling of care for the universal and for humanity in general. The socialist desires us to love humanity by focusing on humanity, but the secret of the great artist is knowing that it is by focusing on individuals that our love for humanity grows. Central planners tend to possess the exact opposite value system for helping them achieve their goals.
Perhaps you disagree that we cannot find collectives beautiful? You may say that you find humanity beautiful, for example, but I would argue that though you may think you love collectives, you really just love groups of people you know (while perhaps being “open” to others). When imagining your family, you do in a sense love “a group,” because you love each individual in that group. But in this example, you love “a collection of individuals” versus “a group,” per se. There is an “individualistic” relationship with each person, and so you love the group “bottom up” versus “top down.” If when referring to this group you argue “I do love a collective,” there is a sense in which it is true, but also the word “collective” in this context means “a group of individuals you each love individually” versus “a group I love in its groupness.”
The bigger the collective, the less likely it is that we relate to each person “individually,” even if we think we do. And eventually, say when referring to “America,” it becomes downright impossible (even if we think it isn’t). When we imagine America and love it, we actually envision and/or experience an impression of collectives that are “groups of individuals we each love individually”: we are projecting our relationship to “a group of individuals” onto “a collective we only know in its groupness.” We are carrying out a bait and switch on ourself.
This is not to say we can’t be “open” to loving people we’ve never met, and in fact, if we are “open” to beauty, we will be. Rather, this is to say we can’t skip a step and love humanity all at once versus love humanity one encounter and person at a time. Of course, it’s impossible to love everyone “one person at a time,” but that’s partially the point: it’s in fact always impossible to love humanity, for we either love an abstraction or are always left with more individuals to meet. But if we accept this and let beauty be our guide, this reality won’t be discouraging, but necessary and the key to living with beauty. We must all live with some degree of failure, but a beautiful failure is more wonderful than an abstract failure — there is far more redemption.
To be fair though, if by “I love humanity” we mean “I am open to every individual I meet,” the phrase “I love humanity” can be meaningful, but I fear the phrase is dangerous in that it suggests there is no work left for me to do; after all, I already “love humanity.” Indeed, the idea of seeing people as potential artworks is to remain open to them, and in a sense, if we do this, we “love humanity,” but we must stay ever-vigilant to keep our minds focused on individuals versus abstractions. Our brains like generalities and universals — “low order complexity” versus “high order,” to use terms from “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose — and given a chance, it will start “loving humanity” without loving individuals at all. And we’ll start doing the same without realizing it, and certainly the phase “I love humanity” can contribute to our self-deception. Loving humanity can indeed be an ideal, a goal to keep us moving, but if we’re not careful, it might convince us that we’ve finished work that we’ve only just begun.
To close this section, do note that the argument laid out here can be similarly applied to generalities: we may think that we enjoy generalities in our literature, that universals don’t bother us, and believe me, I used to think this myself. But the trick is that when we enjoy a general “cup,” it is because we imagine “a particular cup” when we come across the generality (likely without realizing it). The redemption of generalities in literature rests upon the idea that they give us “space” to imagine a particular cup we can relate to: it is not the generality itself we like, but the “space” it makes for us to imagine a particularity. Now, as we learn from the great critics, we actually love general “cups” more when we encounter particular cups, that the idea of making “space” for particulars in generalities is less effective at its own goals then describing a particularity. No one likes generalities and universals directly, for the are unimaginable, un-experienceable, and cannot be engaged with directly. If we think we do, we are deceived from an impression we carry over from “particular” encounters, or because the generalities create “space” for us to project in something particular. Generalities and universals are always “means to an end” — even when we call them ends, we treat them as means.
If we want our society to love humanity, we should train people to feel like they are encountering a work of art when they encounter a person. From this experience, their love of the universal will grow. This means we need to train people to be individualists as opposed to socialists, and this is because for individualists to meet people is for them to “arrive” at their goal, while for a socialist to meet people is to encounter parts of a goal — “social welfare” — but never a whole. Unfortunately, collectives can never be encountered and are purely abstractions, and as the good artist knows, works that are too abstract are works that cannot generate emotional responses and be experienced as beautiful. Perhaps the collective of our family can move us, for it is not too abstract, but the collective of humanity will likely prove too much.
The goal of the individualist is the individual: when an individual is encountered, the individualist has arrived. Now, it’s time to be present and in awe. Whatever breaks the connection with the individual or gets in the way must be done away with: if it is drama, we must learn to deescalate; if it is worries, we must learn not to worry; and so on. On the other hand, the goal of the socialist is social welfare, and though the individual is part of the social welfare, the individual is certainly not the goal. And if the individual is a threat to social welfare, then the individual must be somewhat sacrificed for the social welfare; otherwise, what matters will be ruined. Drama, worry, and the like for the socialist are not necessarily bad things, for though they can inhibit a relationship with an individual, they could perhaps be means for increasing social or national welfare (there are many kinds of collectives), and thus justifiable. Perhaps they are bad, but it’s not so clear cut, and perhaps it’s never clear cut, setting the socialist up for confusion.
Worse yet, the socialist can never arrive at or encounter a collective — a collective is necessarily an abstraction — and thus a socialist can easily fall into feelings of discouragement and despair (and furthermore never be sure when a goal is accomplished). The socialist can always feel like something is broken, for indeed, for the socialist, individuals are not works of art, but more like fragments, and fragments are broken. And since the socialist can never arrive at the collective, there is no hope for the socialist to overcome a sense “that something is incomplete” or broken. The individualist, on the other hand, has a hope of overcoming brokenness, for it is possible to correct whatever is coming between them and other individuals: the goal can be reached. On the other hand, the goal can also be missed for the individualist and undeniably missed, while the socialist can always believe that they will arrive soon enough. To combat feelings of brokenness, the socialist can thus turn to idealism, and for a time, that can perhaps ease the pain.
Paradoxically, when we encounter individuals versus fragments of collectives, we can be more inspired to care for humanity; when we encounter fragments, what’s the point? After all, all we can do is trade one failure for another: we can never arrive at a collective whole. Also, if we can never deeply know a collective, we can never have a confident sense that a positive social welfare has been achieved, whereas if I really know an individual, there is a hope of knowing how that person really feels (though that’s not to say it’s easy). The socialist is setup for failure from the start, while the individualist is not so doomed. The socialist encounters people with a feeling of them not being the goal, while the individualist encounters people with the feeling that the goal has been met.
Particular people are fragments, incomplete, and parts for socialists, while they are artworks, complete, and wholes to individualists. Similarly, the bad artist considers particular cups as lacking meaning and depth precisely because they aren’t “universal cups” and can incorporate generalities and universals into their work in hopes of achieving a deeper meaning, but ultimately, this creates no meaning at all. The same happens for socialists: they focus on humanity for the sake of saving it, and yet can make it feel like there’s nothing there worth saving. But the individualist, in seeing art in individuals, actually loves humanity.
Ethics has always struggled with the question of “What is ethical?” but there is a second question that is more challenging: “How do you get people to be ethical?” (Do note that when people want to act nicely, ethics are not needed, but unfortunately people don’t always want to act nice.) Kant believed that motivation could be established if people were convinced that it was rational to be ethical, but Kierkegaard laughed and asked, “Why be rational?” Adam Smith tried to avoid the problem by directing self-motivation toward production which would indirectly lead to an increase of the quality of life for everyone, and if Deirdre McCloskey is right that Capitalism actually trains us to be morally better, then perhaps free markets are the answer to the question of how to motivate people to be ethical. And indeed, this might be true, but I have my hesitations, as laid out in “The Tragedy of Us.” However, regardless, beauty can address the problem. When we experience beauty, we are then and there motivated to treat people like they are beautiful and with care. We are given a reason to be ethical: the reason is that the thing is beautiful; it is worthy of care. Where there is a reason, there is a motivation, and so beauty can help us overcome the problem of motivating ethical action. It turns out that the rational justification for ethics is found not in the intellect, but in the aesthetic.
In closing, we have been led to believe that aesthetics are second to ethics, that until we get our ethics right, aesthetics can wait, but I’m here to say that we never get our ethics right until our aesthetics are properly cultivated and ordered. Aesthetics are primary, and after them, ethics can follow (and should). The beautiful does not follow the good; the good follows the beautiful.
Where there is ethics but not aesthetics, there is law and force, and where these are present, there can be existential anxiety and a feeling of being oppressed. When people feel oppressed, they can rise up, even if the law is put in place for the sake of helping them. Law is not necessarily bad, but its chances of holding the world together and making it a better place fade in proportion to the death of beauty. Beauty helps us feel existentially stable, and though it’s a funny point, if we discovered an alien society, if it was more advanced then us, I believe it would be because they were smart enough to figure out that aesthetics should be primary. An advanced civilization doesn’t care more about rationality and less about art; it cares more about art.
Socialism naturally relies on law, guilt, and so on to generate “ethical motions” because beauty is not found in the general: the seeds of its failure are sown into its values.³ If you favor central planning and State action, my advice is that you become an individualist and abandon socialism. Socialism is why central planning models have so often devolved into systems of law, oppression, and totalitarianism: they lose the beautiful amongst the general and collective, and so lose the ethical. That said, where there is individualism but not beauty, there will be selfishness, and I fear Capitalism today tends to destroy the aesthetic (as argued in “The Tragedy of Us” by O.G. Rose). If this is true, then though individualism could save Capitalism, it will likely ultimately become self-centered; at the same, a central planning system based on socialism will probably devolve into oppression. Beauty is what can make the difference, but it’s incredibly difficult for beauty to survive. It’s all up to us, and most of us aren’t even aware there is a challenge we need to face.
Beauty divides individualism from selfishness, but where beauty is lacking, individualism and selfishness are merged. Here, individual action will not likely be ethical, and in fact will likely be immoral. And so we are tempted with the idea to abandon the individual and turn instead toward the social and the collective. But as all great artists and literary critics know, beauty is not found in the general. Particular characters and particular settings are necessary for great art, and in the same way, they are necessary for emergent ethics. We cannot emergently desire to treat people we don’t know ethically; we can only so treat our ideas of them, and so we are only treating ourselves. When we favor the collective, we favor our ideologies, but the individual forces us to awaken out of ourselves. And if we see the individual as a work of beauty, we will be glad of it. We will feel alive for something more.
¹Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York, NY: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2008: 70.
²Do note that people who treat the downcast and “wretched” ethically tend to be people who “see beauty” in the least fortunate, hinting at the relationship between beauty and ethics.
³Note that “ethical motions” could actually be ethical, but problematically, we can’t say for sure: it’s like a Schrödinger’s Cat. Because there is law, we cannot know for sure the person would act ethically if he or she wasn’t so forced, and this uncertainty can create existential anxiety (the consequences of which are explored in “Belonging Again.”)
1. Just because I like art, it doesn’t necessarily follow that I possess a strong sense of the beautiful. In fact, the more I participate in “art culture,” the more art might be a mere commodity to me, destroying my aesthetic sensibilities. As I’ve argued elsewhere, “art” and “beauty” are not similes, though art can indeed be beautiful and might even be a unique way humans can tap into the beautiful.
2. Socialists stress the importance of diversity, but this diversity tends to be collectivist, not individualistic. True diversity and resulting beauty is found between individuals, for there are for more diverse individuals than diverse categories (there are perhaps two hundred categories and eight billion people). Diversity indeed can aid beauty, but collectivist and general diversity cannot aid beauty as well as can individual and particular diversity.
3. But can’t the beauty of a woman inspire a stalker to attack? It can, but the attitude there is primarily to possess the beauty. Yes, someone can claim that they attacked someone because they were “jealous of their beauty,” but really the person themselves didn’t find the person beautiful; instead, the person thinks others find the person beautiful and is jealous of that social consideration.
4. When we ourselves find something beautiful, our relationship to it is one of care, preservation, and honor, even if that looks like (to others) hatred, destruction, and dishonor. It is always an ethical consideration even if it leads to unethical and/or illegal actions.
5. As socialists demand justice, they remove the orientation that makes justice through emergent ethics probably, reducing the probability of justice. If justice then wanes, the socialist can demand more socialism, causing justice to wane more — on and on.
6. Our tendency to describe “advanced civilizations” in purely technical terms hints at how controlled we are by instrumental rationality. Ask a person what they believe aliens are like, and their values can appear.
7. Although it is theoretically possible for immoral and illegal acts to be committed out of a love for beauty or an ethical sense, I emphasize that this will likely not be the majority at all, and I strongly believe there won’t be more immorality if aesthetic capacities are improved. Additionally, the presence of emergent ethics does not mean there shouldn’t be any laws at all: to desire an increase of ethics is not to necessarily desire a decrease in legality. If it is still illegal to steal a painting, then even if a person wants to steal it out of some ethical and aesthetic rationality, it must be considered that the person might end up in jail for doing so, which would keep the person from enjoying the art. Hence, the person aesthetic desire to experience the art would come in conflict with possessing it, and also how could the person enjoy the art if he or she was always worrying about getting arrested? Although ethics reduces the need for law, the presence of law helps prevent strange instances of ethical and aesthetic rationalization by creating a cost/benefit analysis that favors not breaking the law.
8. “On Materialism, Purpose, and Discernment” by O.G. Rose suggests that the “visibility” of things can suggest materialism, and yet in this work “visibility” is associated with beauty as a good thing — what gives? Please note that “On Materialism, Purpose, and Discernment” did not claim that “visibility” was innately bad, only that it could be problematic if it desynchronized a person from their everyday life; furthermore, without focus (or intentional thought), it would be impossible for anything in the world to be meaningful at all. We must find a balance between thinking and perceiving, not simply do away with one or the other.
A beautiful object is one that is “visible” because it calls me to a higher dimension, while a broken object is “visible” because the dimension I operate on ceases to run smoothly. In a sense, one “visibility” makes me look up, while the other makes me look down. There is a “visibility” that makes everything I don’t see more meaningful, and there is a “visibility” that makes the world seem out of joint. Yes, “visibility” is always a risk to synchronization, but risk is required for value.
8.1 Also, the “brokenness” of the doorknob is in something external to us, while the “brokenness” of a beautiful thing draws us in to participate in that “brokenness,” for in the beautiful object suspending us with “awe,” we cease to operate in the world as we normally do. And if it is the case that the world is “broken,” then perhaps we need to be “broken” relative to the world to be fixed.
David Hume’s “philosophical journey” in mind (as discussed in “Deconstructing Common Life” by O.G. Rose), the person who lives their daily life without ever being “broken out of” their daily routine never leaves their “common life,” per se, but the person who spends all their days studying “a broken doorknob” is then like the philosopher who remains in a state of “abstract life” and never returns to a “common life” to embed his or her self. An experience of beauty is like a complete “philosophical journey,” for it breaks us out of our everydayness, suspends us in a state of abstraction that simultaneously unveils the possibility of breaking everydayness and “higher reality,” and then sets us out to return to our everydayness while carrying that experience with us, seeing as an experience of beauty is internal and external to us (while the “broken doorknob” is just external). Beauty changes us, while a “broken doorknob” might just change our way of life.