Ugly: Part 3, Ugly ethics

Thinking over my last post on ugly and in response to comments and questions raised by you and in my class at church (where I'm teaching about this) I want to come back and clarify my project. (And to be honest, "project" is too grand a word. It's more like some half-baked ideas I think, maybe, might hold together in an interesting way. We'll see.)

The clarification has to do with ugly and ethics. In my last post I stated that when push comes to shove things in life boil down to "aesthetics," the felt experiences we have in the face of life events. If this is the formulation I'm positing then am I not open to the charge of ethical relativism?

First, I could state that the ugly model is a pedigreed ethical theory. This position was, famously and notoriously, articulated by David Hume. Specifically, Hume claimed that ethics really just boils down to sentiments (what I'm calling aesthetics). That to say "X is wrong" is merely a different way of saying "I disapprove of X" or "I don't like X." Or, in my words, there is no right or wrong, just aesthetic judgments.

Obviously, people recoil at the relativism in Hume's position. Immanuel Kant, for example. The critique is if ethics boils down to sentiment then what do we do with people who like to hurt others? Where is our leverage against their unethical behavior? Also, ethical judgments are qualitatively different from other aesthetic judgments. We allow each other to disagree on all sorts of issues. But we don't allow this latitude on moral judgments. We don't tend to treat issues of, let's say refraining from murder, as something you can choose to opt in or opt out of, like choosing wallpaper for your living room. Moral judgments are universalizing.

At this point the the whole of Ethics 101 opens up before us. I don't want to go down that road, just to note that the "ugly as ethics" formulation isn't new but does has a historical tradition behind it if I wanted to defend in on those grounds.

But what I'd actually like to do is clarify and change some of what I said last post and offer something that is less extreme. What I would like to say is that ugly is prior to ethics, not a replacement for ethics (although, as I noted, you could make that claim). That is, as we move through life we carve up the world into like/dislike, approach/avoidance, love/hate, or, in the dichotomy of this series, ugly/beautiful. Buddhism has long noted that this bipolarity of sentiment is a root problem in human suffering. The problem as I see it is that this slicing of the world often comes to us instinctively and unreflectively. A feeling of wrongness (or rightness) just comes to us. The problem is that this felt wrongness (or rightness) is taken to be authoritative, ethically speaking. We use our emotions as ethical guides and warrants.

This tendency is deeply problematic. Too often I allow my feelings and instinctive judgments to lead me astray. A truly ethical response might ask me to linger with the ugly and seek to transform it. But if I act unreflectively, simply moving quickly away from the ugly, then I never get the opportunity to act ethically and lovingly. This is what I meant when I said that ugly is prior to ethics. Ugly is an unreflective, instinctive sensory or emotive appraisal of a situation, a felt experience of rightness or wrongness. These feelings might be accurate, ethically speaking, or they might not. But for ethical reflection to take place the ugly must be suspended and mastered. Too often it isn't.

Let me be concrete. Too many Christians can't think ethically about how homosexual persons are treated in society because the ugly is trumping the conversation. That is, the aesthetic judgment of "wrongness" (I've heard someone call it the "yuck factor") is dominating the conversation. The ugly here is, perversely, prior to ethics. It's getting in the way.

Another example is the Christian response to the poor and homeless. There are sensory obstacles and aversions that must be mastered in working with very poor and homeless populations. Smells, lice, trash, illness. It is easier--less ugly--to deal with these populations from a distance (e.g., charity). Too few Christians move into the ugly, because, well, it's ugly. Ugly is again trumping ethics and love.

So in the end, although my model could be situated in Hume's ethical tradition, I think it is a better fit with the virtue ethics tradition. That is, I'm less interested in using ugly to create ethical warrants or to adjudicate between ethical principles and acts. Rather, standing with the virtue tradition, my interest is in the transformation of the sentiments and behaviors of people. The goal is to sanctify our sentiments so that we might begin to master the dichotomizing tendency of ugly/beautiful in the hope that if we suspend and transcend the ugly we might be able to move into forsaken places with grace and mercy.

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12 thoughts on “Ugly: Part 3, Ugly ethics”

  1. Whew. I was afraid you were going to go with Hume's emotivism, and I'm relieved that you went a different direction. One with which I largely agree, though that isn't a big concern.

    So then - aesthetic judgements are pre-rational, pre-ethical, and so on. They are, honestly, very complex and hard to address. So how do you change them? Desensitize people to the "yuck" or the Ugly by encouraging them to get closer to it for longer and longer? Try to change their perceptions of what is beautiful? (i.e. dignity is beautiful, or justice is beautiful, rather than a good smell or a lack of lice or heterosex)

  2. Richard, Doug,

    It may be that we have to transcend not the ugly but the beautiful. On a previous post in this series Richard placed the crucufixion portrait of the Eisenheimer triptych alterpiece. Is it beautiful or ugly or is it both beautiful and ugly. My grandchildren (both under ten years of age) would say it is ugly. I look upon it and see it ugly as well but for different reasons. 1) I do not accept penal substitutionary atonement as a primary. 2) I think it is possible to find horror pleasing and, hence, "beautiful."

    But I think what is missing here in your posts is that very transcendent element that Edmund Burke wrote about: the Sublime. Neither beautiful nor ugly, the sublime combines both at a different level of perception.


    George C.

  3. Professor,
    First. I just want to thank you, from another "lurker" of your blog. I would be repetitive to explain why, so I'll just leave it at that.

    Two comments:
    1) Why not remain with Hume on this? The recoil against relativism will force us to honestly evaluate on what basis we make our moral judgments, out from under the "safety" of a "universal moral ethic". We might find God, there.

    2) Why are emotions not a good basis to form a judgment? Take for example, "If it feels good, do it." I would posit that the first time an individual tries something that "feels good", their emotions are fighting against it, thus the anxiety of a (for lack of a better example, your mileage may vary) first sexual encounter or first toke of weed. "Something" tells us we shouldn't be doing this.

    I've learned from my children that the first time they rebel and disobey is a very emotionally charged time for them, their conscience reacting at that point. But from that time on, we've convinced ourselves that the reward is worth the pain, and we condition our emotions to be ignored, or even changed in response to those ethical judgments. NOW, our emotions aren't a reliable basis, simply because we've actively confused them to this point. (Although, I believe that quasi-"pure" state can be returned.)

    Rather than continue to ramble I'll leave it at that for consideration.


  4. Richard - nice clarification. I didn’t feel as concerned as others about relativism. My sense was that it’s fair game in exploratory (“half-baked”) stages of discovery to want, as in math, to isolate on a single variable at a time (ugliness), relative to the toolbox of all the other variables which you might hold dear. For example, when you red-lined choice (“there is no choice”), I took it that you meant only to rule out certain paradigmatic versions of choice, mostly choice as conscious calculations, drawing on our so-called computational resources. If I read you right, I think that’s pretty much where you stayed with your clarification, saying aesthetic feelings are prior to ethics. But if you want, you can always re-introduce choice as a variable under certian conditions. If that's where you're lead.


  5. > What I would like to say is that ugly is prior to ethics, not a replacement for ethics ...

    So what should we do with our intuitions about good and evil? I assume you want something between "disregard them completely" and "accept them at face value", but how do you get there?

    (observation: the first option seems to map to moral relativism, and the second seems to map to deontological ethics, which is one reason I assume your answer is likely to map to the "middle ground" or "you're asking the wrong question" approach of virtue ethics.)

  6. Okay, let me try to give some answers and responses. It's getting late, so these will be quick hits.

    I think education helps, like what this blog series is trying to do. But more needs to be done. I'd say your suggestion is in the right direction: Repeated experiential exposures and engagements. And if we are dealing with poor populations the engagements shouldn't be hierarchal but egalitarian and relational. What this looks like in practice would have to be worked out by the faith community given their make-up, goals and circumstances. And this doesn't need to be rocket science. For example, if you want to stop being racist then be intentional about making friendships outside of your ethic group.

    Tonight in the church class someone brought up just that point about the sublime. I had not heard about that formulation and today I heard it twice! I'm thinking about how to pull that into this series but I don't want to write about something I don't know a lot about. We'll see. Thanks for the angle.

    Hi Justin,
    Thanks for commenting for the first time.

    When push comes to shove, I tend to go with Hume on ethical questions. It's just a natural place for a psychologist to be. But I do recognize that there are significant arguments contra-Hume. The point being I didn't want this series to get caught up in that particular debate. That is, I could state my model strongly (and make it Humeian) and get sidetracked into ethical debates or state it more weakly and get wider buy in.

    Regarding emotions as the core of ethical thinking I tend to agree with you (as I've noted). I think the universal law we appeal to in ethics is, as I stated a few posts ago, an appeal to a common bedrock of human flourishing. The question arises however if two groups disagree sharply on their notions of flourishing is there any principle outside of their worldviews that can adjudicate between them? That's a difficult question that I don't have a great answer for.

    You know, I say a lot of contradictory and confusing things about choice in this blog. I don't know if I've been very consistent. Overall, I struggle with causality, volition, freedom, and human choice. I'm always looking to find better metaphors to describe "choice." Currently, I like the idea of volition as an "unfolding," like a blooming flower. That is, if someone asks what human volition is like I'd point to the spring bloom and say "It's like that."

    You may have caught me making too fine a distinction. One way to reconcile the two is to say that deontological ideas help define the "good" (e.g., Kant's categorical imperative, Rawls' veil of ignorance, Jesus' Golden Rule) and the "ugly" (i.e., virtue ethics) helps us think about how we need to shape our minds to follow through with the good. That is, I think the projects can be mutually reinforcing.

  7. "mastered"--must we master ugly?

    Or must we discipline ourselves and our response to ugly?

    What about an aesthetics and ethics of the uncomfortable?

  8. Richard - on ugly/aesthetics as “prior to ethics.” Thinking: empirical studies in child development exposing children to pictures/narratives of physical abuse, with young children judging physical abuse as wrong, and saying it’s wrong whether rules even exist saying so: studies marshaled as supporting inferences regarding shared intuitions of justice. On the other hand, the degree of cognitive elaboration and justification of our ethical codes is amazing, really. That Rudolf Otto (maybe Burke on “sublime”) argues with such intellectual force that the irrational is at the center of theology, bivalently (less coherently than Burke’s sublime?), “mysterium tremendum et fascinosum.”

    Our ever asymmetric plunges into Jesus’ otherwise integrative charge: love God with all your heart, all your mind .... alas, with mea culpa.

    "Ugly" has me spinning.


  9. Kirk,
    Interestingly, the "ugliness" of West Texas can function as an example of what I'm after in this series. Initially, people find very little beauty here. Some never do. But as a PA native, I've come to find beauty here. Even after visiting more "beautiful" places (like back home in PA) I miss certain features here, landscape-wise. In short, the ugliness or beauty isn't an intrinsic property of the place, it’s an assessment that often tells us more about the landscape of our souls than the one I see with my eyes. When people say West Texas is "ugly" I've learn in that statement more about their internal environment than anything about the external environment.

    I think we mean the same thing. By "master" I meant getting control of our initial responses to life so that our ethical behavior isn't determined by our gut reactions. You word "discipline" is perhaps better.

    The developmental psychology angle is interesting. One wonders what a "natural" or "innate" aesthetics would look like uncontaminated by environment. How close would that be to Jesus' ethic? For me it often goes back to the debate between Hobbes and Rousseau on the goodness of human nature.

  10. Richard, this is supposed to be fun. You're making me work too hard.

    I’m guessing (wildest guess) that the sheer combinatorics of aesthetics in an Edenic “uncontaminated environment” is a number beyond my imagination. Did Eve give Adam a fruit salad combinatoric from the all-you-can eat, and, “it was pleasing to the sight” Edenic buffet? - with just the right spin of socially-learned didact, so Adam couldn’t trace the poison? - a garden salad of all the good stuff, mixed with a fateful botox-enhanced beautified version of that one, single, but beautiful fruit that destroyed that “uncontaminated” ecology?

    Adam to Eve - "honey, it looks so pleasing! And, yum! How wise, sweetie!"

    He was married, after all!

    Paul Bloom says that “God is an Accident” in our current environment of strangely mixed determined and random factors. Minimally, several of our false conceptions of God must be both accidental and ugly as against the benchmark of an “uncontaminated” vision?

    I sure don’t have the answers on the Hobbes and Rousseau question, but I’m guessing that Malthusian (ugly) considerations or the Second Coming (ugly depending on perspective) will take over before that debate is settled.

    There’s one: ugly in apocalyptic?


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