Virtue and the Beautiful

The relation between morality and beauty continues to capture attention. Philosophers, especially moralists like Anthony Cooper (aka Shaftesbury), connected the ability to comprehend beauty to a person’s virtue. Making this explicit, Shaftesbury referred to this innate ability to understand beauty as the moral sense. Part of the basis for this belief was the idea that beauty, truth, and goodness connect with each other. Diminishing one of these would presumably diminish the others.

In The Spoils of Poynton, Henry James draws a contrast between Mrs. Adela Gereth and Mona Brigstock. The contrast arises because Mrs. Gereth, who spent years decorating the house of Poynton with beautiful objects reflecting her exquisite taste, is about to lose it all to Mona Brigstock, who is marrying her son Owen Gereth. Owen will inherit the estate, and Mona will become in charge of all of Poynton’s possessions. Describing Mona as having vulgar taste, Mrs. Gereth steals all the possessions away to her new dwelling, the much less desirable Ricks cottage. But after being forced to return all the possessions, except one of her choosing, a ‘mysterious’ fire consumes Poynton, leaving nothing. Henry James displays the connivances alongside the exquisiteness of Mrs. Gereth’s character, as if a subtle meaning about whether good taste and good character really require each other.

It’s true that people in the eighteenth century used taste to establish a line between the civilized and uncivilized. If you had “good taste” according to their understanding, then you were civilized. This clearly demonstrates elitism and a lack of cultural understanding. However, the idea that virtue and taste might connect is not necessarily bad because it was misused.

Because of the elitism or ethnocentricity associated with connecting beauty and morality, people don’t connect them as strictly as they once did. However, one common phrase reveals that we maintain some connection between goodness and beauty. Suppose you’re asked to name someone you think is a “beautiful person.” Would you pick someone who is horrible, mean-natured, or evil? It seems highly unlikely that someone would assert it’s merely “a matter of taste” to describe a known serial killer as a beautiful person. Despite differences about who is the most beautiful or the most virtuous, we forge a connection between someone’s character and them being a beautiful person. This character may not contribute to answering the question about who is equipped to properly perceive beauty in objects or other people. It highlights only the relationship between being beautiful and being virtuous (or moral).

In his book, The Aesthetic Brain, Anjan Chatterjee explains that we tend to think people with attractive faces “are more intelligent, honest, and pleasant.” (84) Before we judge too harshly our predecessors, we need to consider that we are hard-wired to make these judgments, despite them being a bit nonsensical. The main difference now is that we understand more about how the brain works and why we adapted with inclinations toward these kinds of judgments. Past philosophers mistakenly reasoned from a description of what people do to a broader pronouncement about human nature and hierarchies of groups of people. While a connection between beauty and virtue is ingrained in our brains, we don’t have to act on our inclinations. We can step back from our judgments and examine all the evidence about a person (or thing). But we need to be aware that we connect beauty and virtue in this way, which has real consequences with how we interact with others.

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