Saturday, 27 December 2008

Ethics and Aesthetics

I had an amazing discussion with a devoutly Christian friend this week. We have discussed religion before, and one of the things that we agreed was not at issue was a question of morality: we agreed that it was inherent, that living a moral life requires no external dictum (such as the Ten Commandments). Our trains of thought departed on the origin of this moral sense (the product of evolution acting on social animals versus a gift of God), but it was refreshing not to have to defend my ability to make moral decisions without God.

This week we returned to the topic, and expanded it to include other things that are (at least commonly considered to be) uniquely human, which he and others have thought evidence of a divine hand. Among those things was ethics, the ability of humans to act in a fair and just manner even to our detriment. But, I contended, we are social animals; experiments with other social animals have shown at the very least a rudimentary sense of justice or of fair play. Our consciences are a safety mechanism that allows us to live together, to rely on one another. I contend that the conscience has its root in the ability to empathise, to imagine ourselves in the place of others. "How would I feel if someone treated me the way that I am thinking of treating this other person?" is perhaps one of the most fundamental questions that we can ask ourselves on a day-to-day basis, and it guides our behaviour in ways too varied and subtle to describe.

Our conversation moved on, and my friend appealed as well to a sense of the spiritual that most people have, the ability to be awed by nature, as well as by great works of humankind. This is something that neither of us had thought much about: where does that sense of awe come from? What would its predecessor be in our pre-human forebears? Again, he thought this to hint at the divine: God gave it to us, a gift with which to appreciate our world. At one point my friend described the feeling that he got admiring a beautiful sunset as "hollow".

Another friend, who was sitting in on the whole conversation, did not quite get what he meant, but think that I did. This is not the bad sort of hollow that we equate with guilt or loss or failure. It is a feeling of inadequacy, of humility, that we can appreciate something so much vaster and more beautiful than ourselves. But, I said, we also feel a sense of gratefulness: we know how much talent and hard work goes into making something beautiful, and we appreciate the sacrifice of those who invest such skill and energy in making beautiful things. It is our ability to empathise with others that gives us this ability -- we put ourselves in the place of the artist, and see how poorly we would do in creating work of such power, and we thank them for having done that for us.

To give an example, there has been and will forever remain, for instance, only one Johann Sebastian Bach, and nobody will ever be able to write what he did. The level of brilliance in his music is so far beyond that of anyone most of us will ever meet that to contemplate it being played -- to contemplate it being written -- for us is to imagine ourselves indebted beyond any hope of repayment. It was not written for us, and unless we are very priveleged we will not ever even experience it being played for us, but we can still appreciate it, and we are grateful beyond words for it. (Of course, one can replace Bach with any icon of artistic brilliance if this example does not stir one's own emotions. I could argue that this would be evidence of a deficiency in taste or exposure, but I will leave that for another argument.)

But what of our ability to appreciate nature? Scientists have possibly the highest proportion of atheists amongst the professions, and yet what drives one to be a successful scientist is exactly this sense of wonder. How can one feel indebted to the Universe? And yet, how can one not? We exist, we experience things. As scientists we appreciate (I cannot honestly say "understand") just how complicated and contingent everything is: how fragile is that existence, how precious is that experience. We empathise with the Universe, knowing at the same time just how impossible it would be for one of us to create the thing being appreciated, and we feel indebted to the Universe for having made it for us. There is a sense of guilt at not being able to repay it -- ever -- and a sense of duty to appreciate it. But more than that, there is a sense of gratefulness, that it is there to be appreciated, and that we are here to appreciate it.

All of this springs from our conscience. It is not the primary function of our conscience, but it is hardly a bad side-effect. It is also not something that I would have connected before this conversation: ethics and aesthetics are not things that I would guess were intertwined, but I am drawn to the simplicity and elegence of this idea. I have no clue how original it is, but I think that I rather like it.