Saturday, February 10, 2007

Morality and Art

For a course on moral ethics (yes, at NYU School of Law) I'm reading Moral Judgment and the Acceptance of Norms by Allan Gibbard. From this reading and an earlier one (Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives by Philippa Foot), I get the impression that there's a recognition among philosophers and ethicists of the the similarities among art, etiquette, and morality. These three areas of life can be contrasted with more 'scientific' domains where we tend to readily accept notions of absolute right or wrong and, although there may be debate and misdirection as we search for it, where we believe that the 'truth' can be discovered. Things do get a bit more contentious in these fields when we ask why the truth is true, and ultimately much of science does hinge upon some founding assumptions. If we can modify these assumptions and get results that are still consistent with reality then we really have nothing to help us arbitrate between the validity of the different assumptions. I'm most familiar with this in mathematics/geometry, where most of what we learn in grade school is based on an assumption that two parallel lines never intersect. This is patently untrue if you consider the surface of a sphere (something like our planet, for example). It turns out that you get a valid but different geometry depending on whether you accept that the may intersect or can't intersect. One is used every day when you drive or walk or mow your lawn. The other is used everyday by pilots flying around the world.

In Morality, in Art, and in Etiquette, we take a much more skeptical approach. While there may be a broad consensus on how to live (do not kill, honor your family, be kind to strangers), even those broad maxims are violated by 'well-intentioned' people every day. We have capital punishment, war, and murder justified as self-defense. We have different ways of honoring family, and should we really honor them to the extent that we defer to them above all other things? Should I go out of my way to be kind to strangers? To all strangers? To the neediest? To the nearest?

What first intrigued me about the readings was the analogy to etiquette. Polite society has norms that are much like ethical norms. There are things we "should" do and things we "shouldn't". But it's not clear why those rules are the rules, or why we subscribe to them, or why we're subject to opprobrium for breaching them. It seems trite at first to compare the great moral and ethical conundrums to the question of why a table should be set a particular way or what honorific to use during formal introductions of two mutual strangers, but the underlying dynamics at play are, according to the authors cited and to my mind, quite similar.

What next intrigued me, and what sparked this post, is the idea that Art or Beauty or Aesthetics may be similar as well. What we consider beautiful or artistic and what we condemn as ugly or unsightly seems to be controlled by similar forces. I'm not sure if they're individual, or societal, learned or evolved, chemical or psychological, but I like the idea that they're similar.

It strikes me that studying human responses to art (I'm thinking pictures and sound, more than theater and stories) may be incredibly helpful to studying human responses to behavior. In art, we have generally accepted norms. We work to make sense of outliers, and to develop theories that account for just what it is that is beautiful, much less how or why we have the notion to begin with. If we can make progress in our understanding in this realm, which to my mind is free of (or at least less burdened by) the political weight of ethics and lacks the daily import of both ethics and etiquette, then maybe we can also make progress in the moral realm.









1 comment:

Ben Kleinman said...

Commenting on my own post -- there's an explicit supreme court mention of the link between morality and art in National Endowment for the Arts, et al. v. Karen Finley, et al., 524 U.S. 569 (1998). In this Supreme Court Opinion about the Congressional reaction to the NEA's funding of "avante garde" artists, Justice O'Connor wrote the majority opinion. And she says that it seems unlikely that evaluating "decency" or "respect" "will introduce any greater element of selectivity than the determination of "artistic excellence" itself.".

Basically, part of the Court's opinion treats "decency" as equivalently (in)determinable to "artistic".