Beauty and Morality

When we first see the elephant man without his burlap mask in David Lynch’s 1980 film, our first impression is that he is ugly. We then come to understand throughout the movie that he is a beautiful person. This extreme example represents the confusion in which we often find ourselves between morality and beauty. People who are physically beautiful can be later seen as ugly because of the immoral behavior; likewise, someone initially thought ugly may be seen as beautiful through their high moral character and behavior.

The Elephant Man movie poster.

Panos Paris asks us to reexamine the moral-beauty view in this article published in Aeon. The moral-beauty in its simplest form states that morality and beauty (and immorality and ugliness) are intrinsically linked. In other words, moral virtues, like honesty, kindness, empathy, etc., are beautiful traits in a person. Deceit, meanness, and other moral vices are then ugly whenever found in people. He believes that this view has fallen out of fashion for the wrong reasons. There hasn’t been a strong argument against it. It has been assumed to be wrong.

Philosophical skepticism about moral beauty, presumably alongside other cultural factors – such as secularisation in the West, a rise in scientism coupled with skepticism about the value of the arts and humanities, and a focus on physical appearance as the exclusive locus of human beauty, in part courtesy of the so-called beauty industry – has accomplished something important and, I think, quite damaging. It has shaped the way we think about beauty and goodness, and the relationship between them.

Panos Paris, “More Than Skin Deep,” Aeon, June 6, 2019.

There is a history in philosophy from Francis Hutcheson to Immanuel Kant that makes beauty distinct from morality. But this distinction does not necessarily mean that there is no relationship between them. Somehow beauty has become associated with the shallow or the elite, but morality is viewed as a more substantial topic with which to engage, especially in more academic circles. But beauty (and aesthetic taste) are highly pervasive topics in the wider society. The view that human beauty is exhausted in physical appearance seems to be part of the problem. Physical appearance is important because it is the first thing we notice about other people. But we need to recognize the common sense truth that physical is clearly not the whole person.

Toward showing the importance of the connection between beauty and morality, Paris mentions two main misconceptions. First, he writes that it is wrong to assume that only perceptible objects have beauty. Someone’s character that we don’t see directly (only its affects) can be beautiful. There is a beauty in codes and formulas, according to computer programmers, engineers, scientists, and chess players.

Second, it has been a traditional view to believe that beauty relates to form. While Paris rejects this view as at least incomplete, he admits that there is something true about it. Most aesthetic properties (proportion, unity, radiance, etc.) relate to an object’s form. He seems to take issue more with form being associated exclusively with sensuous qualities, rather than with the notion of form in itself. The more promising understanding of form is that it consists of “certain elements woven together in light of some sort of purpose or function.”

Paris concludes his article by bringing it back to the relationship between virtues (and vices) with aesthetics qualities. Aristotle claimed that virtues helped us to perform our function as human beings. If function is connected with form and form is connected with beauty, then human beauty can be derived from the virtues that help us live up to our function: living in community with others, having a family, having meaningful work, etc. It should be noted that the idea that humans have a function is not to be confused with the idea that all humans have the same exact function. Any function humans may have will be broad enough to be instantiated in millions of ways.

Lest we get too wrapped in this intramural debate, the more important point that Paris makes is that people that perform virtues are seen as beautiful people, regardless of their physical appearance. And people are often viewed as ugly in accordance with their vices. Works of art, especially chronological works of literature and film, help us to see the various good and evil character traits in people in acute and artistic ways.

In trying to show the importance of his position, Paris concludes that we should treat virtue aesthetically. Perhaps, we are missing out on some aspects of virtue by considering it separately from aesthetics. Also, beauty is attractive, so it should help guide us to a virtuous life, if the virtuous life is also more attractive as it relates to beauty. Finally, in an age where interactions continue to be more digital, rather than in person, we should want to develop a more conscientious sensitivity to the beauty of character as we relate to people more diverse backgrounds and abilities.

For further reading:

Berys Gaut, Art, Emotion and Ethics, Oxford University Press, 2009.

Marcia Muelder Eaton, Merit, Aesthetic and Ethical, Oxford University Press, 2001.

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