Thoughts on Morality

[Author's Note: The other lengthy essay I wrote for philosophy senior year, this one dating from May-June 2008. The composition bookended a May 31 wedding in Iowa which came in the midst of one of my happiest periods in recent memory. I believe it's a stronger piece than "Thoughts on Beauty" and shows the culmination of my philosophical shift that year away from moral relativism toward surer, if not absolute, judgments. The format of this "moral handbook" is that of a letter to my child leaving moral guidance in the event of my death. I've removed irrelevant citations.]

My child, if you are reading this, I am dead, unless the coroner is in grave error or the doctors sadly mistaken. I am an ex-Parrott. You can’t imagine how long I’ve been dying to spill these fatal jokes—I hope they, like Sam’s champagne in Casablanca, take the sting out, allowing you in your present and me in mine to just breathe and carry on. My sincerest regret (the statement already seems to contract inside me with sorrow) is that I could not spend an eternity with the people I love best (love, life, humanity—all so bittersweet), that I could not continue to be your father, to see who you’ll become. That breaks my heart. Worse still, though, would be to leave you swamped with truncated parenting, to abandon you to a disrupted upbringing with no last, meaningful words of guidance. Let this, then, be the culminating piece in your moral construction to the extent that I can offer one, and I am not so arrogant to think that I can offer one in full.

First, I think it’s important for me now to swear off any overtly religious concerns in writing this. As you know, I am not and have not been religious in any sense. I do not believe in any human conception of divine, nor do I consider the unknowable metaphysics of the universe to have any meaningful bearing on moral considerations. I feel there is a great problem, an absence of good thinking, in every religious tradition—I could elaborate on this elsewhere. However, religion is certainly not incompatible with a life well lived, and, indeed, many teachings associated with faith have undeniable secular merit, and this influence I will not disavow. Above all, I have always wanted for you to make your own decisions in the world, in religion as in all things, trusting to the intellect I know you to possess; and so, I hope you will find my ideas worthy of the love I have for you, whatever these decisions have been.

Because we will not be borrowing preexisting moral tenets from religion, we will have to fashion our own. If morality is action in accordance with entrenched values or overarching good, we must first establish the clearest way to understand what these might be—an umbrella to cover most individual cases. Aristotle outlined these as a series (not necessarily finite) of virtues that are the mean between two opposing vices, one excessive and the other deficient—for example, pride as the virtuous mean of vanity and humility, friendliness of obsequiousness and sulkiness. There are a number of problems in this approach. We may have limited understanding of where exactly extremes and means lie, as not all moral considerations fit a clear continuum. In addition, following the central of whatever three signposts we can generate doesn’t necessarily constitute a virtuous action. The mean between passivity and aggression is reactionary violence, and we as of yet have no reasons for taking that as virtue on its own merits.

There is a missing piece, a greater, less tenuous value that we can, and do, pursue consistently. Many, Aristotle included, would call this happiness. I would argue that happiness, correctly understood, is just a function of the inherent value of life. I feel that needs some emphasis: life. Life informs our understanding of all things, just as the fact of our own existence may be the only thing we truly know. An interest in the thriving success of our own species, especially, is fundamentally sound, inseparable from our biology. In nonmoral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is bad thinking, as the tribal belief cited by Louis Pojman that “deformed children belong to the hippopotamus” is a false conjecture. Similarly, in moral considerations, a rejection of the value of life is basically immoral, a slight against all humanity.

Our moral actions can now have a purpose: to affirm life and to provide quality lives for ourselves and others, in which a degree of benevolence is implied. Already, we see a certain duality emerging—a conflict between self-interest and altruism that will need to be thoughtfully resolved, perhaps on a case-by-case basis. Ayn Rand famously renders the former as the virtue and the latter as the sin, but I’m inclined to agree with Pojman—her sharp dichotomy between the two is a false dilemma. To consider life in a moral way is to consider all life, however tempered this consideration is by our perspective, inevitably and not improperly. It is biologically correct that we should balance the two impulses—preserving and enriching our own lives, enabling all other actions, while seeking the lasting prosperity of our species and according particular “high altruism” to those closest to us. The balance between these should not necessarily be knowable, or even balanced. Love, for instance, is not a rational force, but it is common to all human life and should therefore not be denied as a factor among others in moral decision-making. The failure to account for this breed of selfishness is one of the shortcomings of utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill stated that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” but a moral decision that has been computed with almost mathematical rigor is potentially flawed. One value is weighed against others, even one person’s happiness against others—but the end result may not make numerical sense.

There are always other principles at stake, perhaps because “life” is a very difficult entity to fathom before breaking it down, and from this process we have derived the majority of moral principles. However, this approach has been radically varied over the course of human history and has undeniably yielded beliefs that are radically incongruous with one another. It must be allowed, then, that many principles at least called “moral” are culturally relative; however, at the same time, it must also be allowed that many may be incorrectly derived from a value of life. The difficulty is whether to pursue moral absolutism, even when it may be ill-fitting or founded on incorrect principles, or to opt for variable-case relativism, which is, I will admit, philosophically and practically imperfect. Pojman observes that conventional ethical relativism founded on a virtue of tolerance quickly falls apart, because “if morality simply is relative to each culture then if the culture does not have a principle of tolerance, its members have no obligation to be tolerant.” Later, he concludes that we ourselves should be the arbiters of morality, acting on reason and compassion. This, I believe, neatly avoids the problems associated with rigid absolutism without slipping into the quagmire of relativism. Because moral absolutism asks us essentially not to judge, merely to react on the basis of sharply drawn lines between right and wrong, it may be infinitely inappropriate under principles with less than 100% universal applicability. On the other hand, life in constant and careful judgment necessarily risks errors in judgment, but it is a worthier moral cause because the human insight on which it is founded can bring us much closer to the central and subsidiary values that drive our existence, that we know almost intuitively.

The problem with the categorical imperative, accordingly, is that it is unconditional—although this deters a kind of moral waffling, life, as well as moral dilemmas, comes charged with conditions. From the value of life, we are lucky to derive even a few principles that may essentially be given as categorical imperatives, perhaps to 99.9% accuracy, with their potential for error being unknowable or ridiculously unlikely. The least problematic categorical imperatives are those most directly respectful of life—for instance, “Do not abuse others” is among the best I can think of, because physical, sexual, emotional abuse and cruelty are profanely negligent of the value of life.

I think we have developed a clear outline for how to act morally, even if moral decisions can never be made for us by unshakeable absolutes and what is right will always be difficult to discern. It is important, finally, to remember that we should act morally, because it is logical and correct to provide for a better world. When religion and fates beyond death are cleared from the picture, we are left with a view of a world that is (for our purposes) continuous, that stretches out far beyond the bounds of our transient existence. Anyone who feels healthy compassion for the rest of humanity will see the importance of life, and a respect for life as universally beneficial. Just as I have taken care to provide for your existence even when I can no longer live to see it, so must we all consider the larger tapestry that gives us some semblance of purpose and profound beauty in our actions.

Thoughts on Beauty

[Author's Note: I wrote the following essay for philosophy back in December 2007, which seems to be the month to beat so far. Like the previous two essays I've posted, and like countless others, I wrote it at the last minute and in a great hurry. It was due the last day of class before the winter break, and I stole away from pep rallies and empty classrooms to churn this out in the library. Looking back on it, I'm less proud of it than I remember being at the time, but there are still a few good ideas cited, and I couldn't possibly resist posting something that Mr. Pinsky expressed fondness for. Perhaps one day I'll give it the doctoring it needs to emerge stronger.]

Beauty is an ideal or concept that is so widely, diversely, and inconsistently cited that it would seem impossible in any valid sense to arrive at a core truth or set of absolute criteria. The term is applied with equal regularity to the stars at night, high-profile fashion models, and the pyramids at Giza. Is it then to be abandoned as a word whose usages have far exceeded a central, contained meaning? Even more problematic are variables in perceptions of beauty, that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring can move some listeners to tears but incited a riot at its debut. Who, then, if anyone, is the arbiter of beauty? Is beauty relative to individuals, groups, cultures—that is to say, meaningless and entirely subjective—or absolute, immutable, and universal? The answers, if they exist, lie in carefully separating beauty into its numerous and disparate connotations.

First, and perhaps at the forefront of a pedestrian conception of beauty, is physical beauty, the quality of human appearance that is inherently pleasing. Typically, we judge that physical beauty can’t be enhanced, only realized to its fullest potential—one can only be born with it, or grow into it. For example, an ugly person who wears flattering clothes may create an impression of goodness on another level—perhaps aesthetic—but the fact of his or her ugliness remains. A beautiful person who wears flattering clothes has only found the ideal social construct for highlighting a trait he or she already possesses.

Physical beauty does not correspond to sexual attractiveness. The former is a striking and pleasant appearance emulating an intuitive ideal; the latter stems from a viewer’s individual chemistry and psychology. There is undoubtedly overlap (along with, I would suggest, a third attribute of physical attractiveness, cuteness), but not by default. The beauty that is, to borrow from the saying, skin-deep seems to be generally agreed upon within a reasonable extent—allowing that not everyone is of equal capacity to judge beauty (as this evaluation requires a degree of mental faculty) and excepting varying cultural standards of beauty that function on a more aesthetic level. Across various social divides, and even from infancy, human beings react more positively to certain facial and body structures and forms, which often correlate to particular ratios. This would suggest physical beauty as a reflexive and inborn perception, an extant ideal. While not everyone will agree upon the one most beautiful person, most will agree upon a general dichotomy of beautiful versus average versus ugly.

Second is “inner beauty,” or, more appropriately, social beauty. Physical beauty and social beauty represent the two central aspects in which human beauty can be evaluated at face value. Social beauty is a reflection of merit as can be conveyed through social interaction. Intellectual brilliance is a compelling example, as is wisdom, wit, kindness, sympathy, charisma, serenity—all endearing traits of inherent value and goodness. This is the beauty of human nature on an individual, rather than cultural, basis.

Third is artistic beauty, which spans every medium in which art is created. To look at a specific example, music, helps focus ideas about how beauty may occur in art. Listeners who judge a work of music to be beautiful typically have sufficient knowledge about its composition and forms. Because of my familiarity with and study of opera, I have seen the beauty of the art form where the vast majority of my peers can’t. Conversely, because I have only recently applied myself to a fuller appreciation of jazz, I have not responded in kind to that genre. Forms to which I am ignorant are not beautiful, despite their indisputable potential to be so. Artistic beauty seems to represent divergent experience and standards enough to suggest it is not everyone’s intuitively as is physical beauty.

Once the listener has achieved the necessary degree of experience, beauty in music seems to rest largely on its humanity. Most music that I associate with beauty feels like a spark of brilliance, a wildflower confection of artistry, usually expressing profound pathos, or at least passion. This represents another profound departure from physical beauty, because artistic beauty does not reflect some existing ideal, but rather is new or at least derivative invention, in which it may be notably imperfect and still beautiful.

Just as physical beauty should be disambiguated from sexual attraction, musical beauty should be separated from the release of endorphins in the brain that accompanies music that is sensually pleasing. Because beautiful music does not necessarily have to be sensually pleasing, it may not even be pleasant to listen to. The Velvet Underground song “Heroin” is sketched out in two chords, a fluttering drumbeat, and an abrasive viola, and, because of the emotiveness running just beneath the cold surface, is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know.

Key to artistic beauty is the recognition of excellence. Not to be confused with perfection or even near-perfection, excellence corresponds moreover to the idea of brilliance or lasting value.

Fourth is aesthetic beauty, which seems to stem from adherence to inherently pleasing notions of order, pattern, and arrangement. Many of the structural delights through which art achieves beauty fall under this heading—the acts in a play that block out segments of dramatic action, for instance. Cited examples of beauty in process, even on a fairly mechanical level, such as the mass production consumer goods, stem from the evenness and efficiency of their work. Some material that is classified as art may have a beauty that is more aesthetic along these lines. The artwork of Andy Warhol expresses an absolute void of pathos—it is the evenness and mass quantity of his works, their mechanical perfection and invariability that render his oeuvre beautiful. Evenness, as it is aesthetically beautiful, does not necessarily dictate sameness. Evenness of diversity, as long as it is an absolute and perfect diversity, is also beautiful.

Aesthetic beauty also encompasses natural beauty. Geographical and ecological forms are beautiful in their pattern and classification, sense of order and hierarchy. Snow melts in the mountains and forms streams, which join into rivers, which flow out to sea, where water is evaporated and the cycle repeats—that the world around us functions with often clear predictability and of its own accord is beautiful, or else our sense of aesthetic beauty is drawn from the world around us.

Fifth is the beauty of human civilization, stemming from the range of experience, potential, and accomplishment seen in all human societies. Language, whether it is spoken or written, has an aural or visual charm that exists independently of meaning or comprehension; Italian or Arabic may sound beautiful even to someone who has no knowledge of the language, and a similar beauty can be found in pen strokes, no matter the language or degree of legibility. As long as an understanding of human societies has been cultivated (and in extreme cases of neglect or mental retardation, it hasn’t), beauty can be perceived and understood.

As beauty of any kind that I have witnessed occurs in one of these forms, beauty itself and perceptions of beauty may be evaluated according to these five examples. Together, they would suggest that beauty is both relative and absolute, individual and shared. Beauty is perceived relative to one’s range of experience, from a lifetime’s scholarly devotion to the works of one writer, say, and the common experience of human existence. Beauty is absolute—relative to certain delineations of psychology, intellect, and experience. On the whole, perceptions of beauty are more shared than not, for, as Immanuel Kant observed, arbiters of beauty “[judge] not merely for [themselves], but for all men, and then [speak] of beauty as if it were a property of things.”