On Axiology, Value, and the Objects of Morality
Thus far in these essays, I have argued from my metaphilosophy to my general philosophy of commensurablism, which is any philosophy that is neither dogmatic nor cynical, and neither transcendent nor relativist.
Then I explored the implications of commensurablism on the philosophy of language, including both logic and rhetoric; and its implications concerning reality and knowledge, including ontology, mind, epistemology, and education.
In this essay I will now start to explore its implications on the specific subtopics of philosophy concerning morality and justice, beginning with axiology.
Axiology (from the Greek word axio, meaning "value") is the study of value. As mentioned in my earlier note on ethics, I reckon axiology to be analogous to the field of ontology, and so something like the meta-ethical subfield of moral ontology; but not literally, as I hold ontology to be entirely a descriptive matter and all moral topics to be entirely prescriptive matters, so strictly speaking, on my account, there is no ontology of anything to do with morality. But just as ontology is about the objects of reality, axiology in this sense is about the objects of morality, in the sense of the word "object" that means purpose, end, aim, or goal: it is about the states of affairs to be sought after and brought about by moral actions, the states of affairs and the things therein that are of value.
Meanwhile, however, I also reckon the field that I call "deontology", concerned with what constitute just means, to be analogous to the field of epistemology, and so something like the meta-ethical subfield of moral epistemology. Ontology and epistemology of course have some bearing upon each other, but they are still separate fields; and an ontological claim, about what is real, is not necessarily an epistemological claim, about what is knowable – or vice versa. So likewise please bear in mind throughout this essay on the subject of value that this is not my complete ethics laid out here at once: this concerns only what is a good end, but I am not saying that any means in pursuit of such ends is thereby justified, and I will go into further details on what means are just and why in a later essay.
Just as in ontology philosophers distinguish between concrete existence and abstract existence, so too in axiology we distinguish between two types of value, which are called "predicative" and "attributive". Attributive value is value in the sense of being good at or good for something, without any regard for whether that something is in itself an intrinsically good thing, in the usual moral sense. Predicative value, in contrast, is the value of something intrinsically good in itself, in a moral sense.
I do not draw a sharp division between all value into one of these two categories, but rather hold them to overlap significantly, with the vast majority of valuable things being attributively valuable toward the ends of, i.e. good at or good for, bringing about things of predicative, moral value. Those are things of instrumental value. This is much like how, in ontology, I hold that most of the things we consider real are to some extent abstractions, that are nevertheless real inasmuch as they explain more concrete phenomena.
In the remainder of this essay, I will first discuss things of predicative value, and then proceed to discuss instrumental and purely attributive value.
On Predicative Value
As should be expected from the positions already argued for in my previous essays on commensurablism, and especially against relativism and against transcendentalism, my general position on the nature of morality is hedonic moralism. To recap the argument for that position:
- The task of philosophy is to find a way of discerning correct answers from incorrect answers to questions of any kind, whether about what is real or true or existent, or about what is moral or good or valuable.
- The position that there is such a thing as a correct opinion, in a sense beyond mere subjective agreement, is to be called "universalism", and its negation "relativism".
- If we assume relativism rather than universalism, then in case there does happen to be such a thing as the correct opinion after all, we will never find it, because we never even attempt to answer what it might be, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume universalism, rejecting relativism.
- Universalism about morality or value is to be called "moralism": holding that some things are actually morally valuable, not just merely desired or intended.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy about morality or value (axiology) we must at least tacitly assume moralism.
- The position that there is always a question as to which opinion, and whether or to what extent any opinion, is correct, is to be called "criticism", and its negation "dogmatism".
- If we assume dogmatism rather than criticism, then in case our opinions do happen to be incorrect after all, we will never find out, because we never question them, and we will remain incorrect forever.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism.
- The position that any contest of opinion is to be settled by comparing and measuring the candidates against the common scale of the experiential phenomena accessible by everyone, and opinions that cannot be thus tested are thereby disqualified, is to be called "phenomenalism", and its negation "transcendentalism".
- Phenomenalism is entailed by criticism: if we are going to hold every opinion open to question, we have to consider only opinions that would make some experiential, phenomenal difference, where we could somehow tell if they were correct or incorrect.
- Therefore, since to successfully do philosophy at all we must at least tacitly assume criticism, rejecting dogmatism, we must likewise at least tacitly assume phenomenalism, rejecting transcendentalism.
- Phenomenalism about morality or value is to be called "hedonism": appealing to appetitive experiences for prescriptive justification.
- Therefore to successfully do philosophy about morality or value (axiology) we must at least tacitly assume hedonism.
- Therefore to successfully do axiology we must at least tacitly assume hedonic moralism.
That is to say, to hold that there definitely is a universal morality, as opposed to any kind of relativism, which hold that what is moral is relative to someone's intentions or desires, or else (as I consider equivalent to those) that nothing is actually moral at all. But to also hold that the content of that morality is entirely hedonic in nature, that if something is good or bad, it is so in virtue of the pleasures and pains, suffering and enjoyment, that we experience from it compared to what we would experience otherwise, and the whole of that thing's moral value lies in those hedonic differences.
It is important to note here that by hedonism, I don't mean relating to intentions or to desires, but specifically to appetites, as differentiated in my previous essay on language; just as when I speak of empiricism in my essay on existence, I don't mean relating to beliefs or to perceptions, but to sensations, also called observations, as also differentiated in that previous essay on language. On my reckoning, pain or suffering is simply the dissatisfaction of an appetite. But pleasure or enjoyment is not the same thing as an appetite already being sated. That would be more a state of tranquility, equanimity, or unperturbedness, what the ancient Greeks called "ataraxia", and what Buddhists call "nirvana".
Pleasure, rather, is the juxtaposition of that with pain, as when an appetite is in the process of being satisfied. For illustration, hunger may be described as a kind of pain or suffering, but merely being non-hungry is not in itself pleasurable or enjoyable, in the way that becoming non-hungry is, the pleasure or enjoyment of eating a satisfying meal. Because it is this juxtaposition between satisfaction and dissatisfaction that characterizes pleasure, mindful gratitude, awareness of how much one is not suffering and in pain, is also a way to increase effective pleasure and enjoyment.
So by "hedonic moralism" I mean the view that a state of affairs is universally good, and to be aimed for by moral action, in proportion to how well it sates all the appetites of everyone, how much it brings pleasure and enjoyment and relieves pain and suffering. This focus on appetites rather than desires or intentions, and the aim to satisfy all appetites in whatever way possible even if it's not what anyone initially desired or intended, is similar to the maxims to
focus on interests, not positions and to
invent options for mutual gain that form a core part of the method of principled negotiation, as pioneered by Roger Fisher and William Ury.
This appeal to appetitive experience might be considered a form of moral sentimentalism or moral sense theory, that being the so-called "empirical" branch of moral intuitionism (which in turn is the view that moral knowledge is not inferred from non-moral knowledge, but known directly in its own way). But whereas that position usually holds people to have an extra sense that somehow intuitively detects the morality of a situation and prompts an emotional response by which we can come to know moral facts, I hold instead that appetites are the moral analogue of senses, and that we have many different ones just as we have many different senses.
In other words, I hold that it is not the emotional responses we have to things we observe that justify opinions about morality, but rather the appetites themselves; in the same way that it is senses, not perceptions, that justify opinions about reality. And I hold that there are not properly speaking such things as moral facts, as facts are descriptive, but rather that there are universal prescriptive norms that can be justified this way, the moral analogue of universal descriptive facts justified by empirical observation through the senses.
My view is also very similar to the definition of good consequences, or utility, given by the traditional normative ethical model called utilitarianism, as promoted by philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (whose ontology is likewise very similar to mine); but I am not here promoting the consequentialism that underlies traditional utilitarianism. I agree with utilitarians about what good ends are, but I do not hold that those ends flatly justify any and all means; as explained already in my earlier note on ethics, I hold means to be of equal importance to ends, and I will elaborate further on the topic of just means in my later essay on justice.
This hedonic moralism is a kind of value monism, as opposed to the position called value pluralism, promoted by philosophers like Isaiah Berlin, which holds that there are multiple equally valid scales of value between which we cannot translate measurements of value. In contrast, a value monism like mine holds that there is a single scale of value against which everything can be evaluated and compared. Yet I do still agree with many of the practical conclusions put forth by proponents of value pluralism; I simply deny that they entail that there are separate, incommensurable scales of value.
The archetypical example given by value pluralists is that for a given woman, a life as a mother and a life as a nun, while incompatible, may both be of value, neither able to be ranked as a better life than the other. I agree that in principle that may be true, for some particular women; but I contend that for other women one or the other life may be a universally better choice; and that even for those for whom one cannot be ranked above the other, that is because the two choices rank equally on the same scale of value.
Value monism as I support it does not entail any sort of absolutism, that says that certain kinds of choices are always better than other kinds of choices for all people in all circumstances. It only entails that for any particular person in some particular circumstance, it is possible in principle to weigh their options against each other, and determine either which one is better than the other, or that they are of equal value, on the same scale.
Establishing the criteria of that common scale of value against which to compare different possibilities is where the work of philosophy in this area ends, and the ethical sciences proposed in my previous note on ethics are to take over. Just as ontology, on my account, only goes so far as establishing what it means for something to be real, or the criteria by which to judge the reality of things, but says nothing at all about what in particular is real, leaving that work up to the physical sciences, so too axiology, on my account, only goes so far as establishing what it means for something to be moral, or the criteria by which to judge the morality of things, but says nothing at all about what in particular is moral, leaving that work up to the ethical sciences.
Just as it does not suffice in practice to simply say that reality is whatever satisfies all observations, even if that is strictly true, because the physical sciences still need to do the further work of actually figuring out what abstract objects postulated by what theories do satisfy all observations, so too it does not suffice in practice to simply say that morality is whatever satisfies all appetites, even if that is strictly true, because the ethical sciences still need to do the further work of actually figuring out what things of attributive value, employed by what strategies, do satisfy all appetites.
On Attributive Value
As explained in my essay on existence, I hold the fundamental constituents of reality to be what Alfred North Whitehead called
occasions of experience, but I elaborate upon that concept, holding those experiences to be fundamentally interactions that can equally be seen, from a different perspective, as behaviors: the behavior of various things upon another thing constituting the experience that thing has of the various other things; each thing being defined by the function from its experiences to its behaviors, the experiences constituting the input to that function and the behaviors constituting the output.
The specifics of those functions in turn constitute the structure of the instrumentally abstract objects that make up most what we usually think of as reality, actually explaining the experiences that are in themselves the only wholly concrete objects on my account. Likewise, it is in those instrumentally abstract objects and their functions that we find the behaviors that are of instrumentally attributive value: the things that are good at or good for achieving things that are morally good.
As ontology is about the kinds of things that really do exist and the kinds of events that really do occur, that are the causes of our experiences, so too axiology in this sense is about the kinds of things that morally ought to exist and the kinds of events that morally ought to occur, that are the purposes of our behaviors. In this sense, purpose is the prescriptive analogue of the descriptive ontological abstraction of causation: cause is about how something does come to be, while purpose is about why something should come to be.
(Aristotle actually considered these two different senses of the Greek word for "cause", differentiating them as the "efficient cause" and "final cause", along with what he called "formal cause" and "material cause" which were what we would today call just "form" and "substance".)
Similarly, the prescriptive analogue of the descriptive ontological abstraction of substance is wealth: wealth is stuff of value, like substance is stuff that exists. And just as in my ontology I hold existing substance to be constituted entirely by the things they cause to happen (ala
to be is to do), so too I hold that the value of wealth is constituted entirely by the purpose that it serves: a thing is of value for the good that can be done with it.
Furthering the analogy between axiology and ontology, in many cases the very definition of a thing as a particular kind of thing at all hinges on it being used for some purpose. For example, a rock or stump can be "made a chair" not by changing anything about it physically, but merely by using it to sit upon; another rock or block of wood may be likewise "made a hammer" merely by using it to drive nails; etc.
This concept of wealth can be further decomposed into the familiar economic concepts of capital and labor, which in turn can be further decomposed to familiar physical categories: capital is of value for the matter and space that it provides, while labor is of value for the energy and time that it provides. And just as matter is ultimately reducible to energy, so too capital is ultimately reducible to labor: capital is the distilled product of labor, worth at least the minimal time and energy it takes to obtain or create, and no more than the maximal time and energy it can save elsewhere.
(This view constitutes something of a hybrid between the two most common competing theories of value: the labor theory of value, which holds it is the labor that goes into creating something that determines its value, and the market theory of value, which holds that it is how much something can be traded for that determines its value. On my account, it is at bottom always labor that is indirectly being traded, and so labor cost or labor savings that constitute the buyer's minimum and seller's maximum willingness to trade, respectively, and thus market value.)
Similarly, just as physical work happens when matter and energy flow through space and time, what we might call "ethical work" happens – good gets done – when wealth flows in an economy, each kind of wealth diffusing from where it is in higher concentration to where it is in lower concentration. The similarities between physical and economic systems are explored in more detail in the economic fields of thermoeconomics or more generally econophysics.
On Emergent Instrumental Attributive Value
The simple form of evaluating wealth outlined above, which we might call its use value, is only the fundamental level of wealth, in the same way that in the physical sciences mass-energy is the fundamental kind of substance. But just as in the physical sciences there are other kinds of stuff that emerge from configurations of that mass-energy, while remaining reducible to it, as detailed in my previous essay on existence, so too there are other kinds of value that can emerge from this fundamental use value, while still remaining reducible to it, and so remaining of instrumentally attributive value for its ability to achieve predicatively valuable, hedonic, moral goods.
One level further up, and so analogous to chemical substance in the physical sciences, is exchange value. With exchange value, something may be of little if any use value for either of the immediate trade partners, but it was before, or is expected to be later, of use value to someone else. So it will cost something to get it from its ultimate source, and be worth something in sale to its ultimate destination, making it indirectly valuable to anyone in possession of it along the way, even those who have no use value for it themselves. But trade cannot create or destroy use value, only distribute things to where they are most useful, and do ethical work as they move; just like chemical reactions may be endothermic or exothermic, absorbing or emitting heat, but still cannot actually create or destroy any energy.
Another level up, and so analogous to living organisms, is the investment value of some organization of wealth. Just as living organisms, driven by the chemical reactions that compose them, can grow over time, so too some arrangements of capital and labor, such as into a business corporation, can over time increase in value through their trading interactions. Thus, owning such an organization, or a part thereof, is a means to obtain continual new value. But again, just as living organisms do not actually produce or consume energy, but merely collect it from their environments, refine it, and retain it for later use, so too nothing of investment value is actually creating (or destroying) value, but rather only collecting, refining, and storing it.
And one more level up, and so analogous to the brains (and thereby minds and wills) of living things, is control value. Control value is where something is the exclusive source of something of value, some good or service, and so owning that thing allows one to control the entire market for that – or to prevent someone else from doing so, and consequently to retain free access to it oneself. But that, of course, depends entirely on the thing in question, the thing that has control value, having some kind of investment value, being something that collects, refines, and stores something of exchange value, that is of use value to someone. Control of the sole source of something completely useless, or worthless, or of nothing at all, is itself utterly worthless.
Like with the stack of emergent and reducible layers of abstractions in my ontology, I suspect that we commonly desire these kinds of value from the top down. As social beings, it is control value, power, or keeping others from having such over ourselves, that is at the forefront of our volition. It's only when we think a little more deeply that we understand the value of control as access to investment value, to an ongoing source of further value. And it takes further thought to realize that the output of such investment, such means of production, is something of value to us for its ability to persuade others to give us the goods and services we really need; needs that, ultimately, are satisfied by the use of something to relieve some kind of pain or suffering, or to bring some kind of pleasure or enjoyment.
On Pure Artistic Attributive Value
When we consider attributive value that is not instrumental to predicative value like any of the emergent kinds of value above, something that's not good because it's good for achieving something that's good in itself in a moral way, but good simply inasmuch as it's good at something, we enter the realm of purely artistic value. Becoming good at something just for the sake of being good at it – for the sake of showing off, even if only to oneself, and not for any more practical end – is to adopt that something as an art form.
In my previous essay on rhetoric and the arts, I gave a definition of rhetoric, as the foundational form of art, as being all about the packaging and presentation of speech-acts, and a definition of the arts more broadly as similarly being anything presented to an audience to as to evoke some reaction in them. But just being a work of art is not all it takes to be good art. Just as good rhetoric, rhetoric that excels at being rhetoric, is rhetoric that is successful in doing what it was meant to do, in making its audience feel some intended way about the things being said, so too any kind of art in general is good only inasmuch as it succeeds in doing whatever it was meant to do, provoking whatever reaction in its audience it was meant to provoke.
This intended reaction can again vary with who is judging the art: the artist may mean to provoke one reaction, different audiences may mean to have different reactions provoked in them, different societies may mean for art to serve some particular purpose or another, and there maybe be some universal standard by which to judge what any art should do. But whatever the art is meant to do by whichever standard it is being judged, it is only good art, by that standard, if it succeeds at doing that. (Though it is nevertheless still art, even if it fails at that; it is merely bad art instead, in that case).
So an artist may mean some art piece to shock or offend the audience, and if it succeeds at that, then it is good art to the artist; but if the audience does not mean themselves to be shocked or offended, but were simply minding their own business when something caught their attention and then turned out to be something horrible they wished they hadn't experienced, then it can simultaneously be bad art to the audience. Whether there is any such thing as universally good art depends on whether there is anything that art universally ought to be doing, any reaction that art universally ought to be provoking.
There are many different things that art can be meant to do. It can be meant simply to engage, to be something interesting that catches people's attention and makes them stop to consider it, with no particular further reaction or another meant beyond that simple engagement, though further reactions may nevertheless occur. It can further be meant to amuse, to provoke a pleased reaction in the audience.
Some philosophies of art consider works of whatever media that are simply meant to engage and amuse with no further purpose to be not art at all, but merely entertainment. But while I am fine to apply the label "entertainment" to works meant to engage and amuse, which not all art might be meant to do, I hold that entertainment thus categorized is still a subset of art as I characterize it.
Even art works that are meant to do more than merely engage and amuse often do still intend to amuse or at least to engage, and so are still themselves entertainment even though they might also belong to some other, nominally loftier category of art as well. I dispute that there is some hard line between art and entertainment, with entertainment somehow more base than art; entertaining, engaging and amusing, is just one of many things art can do, and it is a fine thing for art to do.
But art can also be meant to do other things, that are in some sense more noble than mere entertainment. Art can also be meant to inspire, as in to convey attitudes towards ideas (which is to say, opinions, as defined in my earlier essay on language), and in that respect art, of any medium, is most like rhetoric as traditionally defined, as being about persuasion.
(Conversely, rhetoric as I define it might not always be strictly about persuasion per se; the same concerns for arrangement, style, and delivery, appealing to emotion and character, might instead be used to tell a joke, or cheer someone up, or tell someone off, or otherwise do something, to provoke some reaction, other than to persuade someone of some opinion).
Those opinions that art might mean to convey may be descriptive or prescriptive in nature, intending to make people feel either that something is true (or false), or that something is good (or bad). This can be construed as art being used to educate, either in the descriptive sense that word commonly connotes today, as conveying facts about reality, or in a prescriptive sense now found slightly archaic, as conveying moral norms.
Art can also be meant to educate in a less paternalistic fashion by conveying not statements, either about facts or norms, but rather questions about either, intriguing its audience by prompting them to wonder what is actually real, or actually moral; or more still, about what is possible, or what is permissible, exploring other worlds and ways of life, exotic other options of what could be real or could be moral. That, I think, is perhaps the most noble of purposes for which art can be meant.
Contrary to those positive purposes, some art can be meant specifically to provoke a displeased reaction in an audience. Sometimes provoking a displeased reaction could be part and parcel of a nobler purpose, as in teaching people an uncomfortable truth. But sometimes it is just for the purpose of displeasing the audience, often for the entertainment of the artist, turning the audience themselves into the art and the artist into the audience. Since the advent of the Internet, speech-acts with this purpose are often called "trolling", named after a fishing technique where a lure is dragged through waters from a passing boat to stir up activity among the fish. Many Internet trolling communities actively think of their trolling activities as an art form, and even develop a variety of their own unique trolling aesthetic styles.
One of the most important questions in the philosophy of art is whether the quality of art can be judged by any universal standards or only relatively. I reject both of the more extreme types of view on that topic, that hold respectively either that there is no such thing as universal quality to art, or else that some specific kind of art held in high status by some culture is the one universally good kind of art and everything else is bad art for its failure to comply with that standard. I hold instead that art can only be judged universally inasmuch as the art itself can be considered a kind of action, a communicative action, a speech-act really, but in a broader variety of media than merely literal speech.
What that art is meant to do is thus fundamentally important in how it can be judged. I hold that art meant merely to entertain can only be judged by its success at being a pleasurable experience for many people, for I hold that people being pleased is a universally good thing, of predicative value, as detailed earlier in this essay. Conversely, I hold that art meant specifically to be displeasing, like something meant just to shock and offend, not merely as a side-effect or a means to some other good end but just as an end in itself, is intrinsically bad art, even if it is good at doing what it sets out to do, because I hold it is universally bad for people to be displeased.
But what any person finds pleasurable is still a relative matter, and so art as entertainment retains always a degree of relativity in its judgement. However, art meant to educate can be judged by the same universal standards that the opinions it means to convey can be judged, and so in that sense some art can be more strictly judged as being universally good or bad art.
For instance, a story with a universally bad moral can for that reason be judged a universally bad story, even if it excels in technical aspects at conveying that moral successfully; just like art that means solely to shock and offend might be judged bad art by the standard that being shocked and offended is bad, even if that shocking offensive art is technically proficient at being shocking and offensive.
It is important to note, however, that this does not mean that every work of art that in any way depicts something universally bad or universally false is therefore universally bad art. It may actually be universally good art if it depicts such things so as to raise the question of whether they are (or could be) good or bad, true or false, and prompt the audience to try to figure out what is real or what is moral, what is possible and what is permissible.
The art may also be presenting bad or false things merely for their engagement or amusement value, as entertainment, without meaning to make any claims or raise any questions at all, only to present some interesting or pleasing possibility, which can only be relatively good or bad art to the extent that each member of the audience finds it interesting or pleasing. It is only if the art means to depict bad things as good, or false things as true, that it thereby becomes universally bad art, regardless of its technical proficiency at delivering that wrong message.
Circling back again to rhetoric, as the archetypical medium, for illustration: an argument that successfully persuades someone to believe something false or to intend something bad is thereby universally bad rhetoric, even if the speaker meant his words to do so and so would relatively consider his rhetoric good for its success. Because by universal standards false things are not to be believed and bad things are not to be intended and so rhetoric is not meant, by those standards, to persuade people to do so, and in succeeding at doing what it is not meant to do, that rhetoric thereby fails at doing what it is meant to do, and is thereby bad rhetoric.
This clearly illustrates the difference between predicative and merely attributive value. The ability for something to be "good art" in an attributive sense (as in technically proficient art that achieves what it sets out to do), yet also "bad art" in a predicative sense (as in art that sets out to do a morally bad thing), is analogous to how a logical argument, despite being logically valid and so "good" inasmuch as technical proficiency at logic goes, can still be an unsound and so overall bad argument if its valid inferences are from false premises or to a false conclusion.
This notion of the beliefs or intentions that art can inspire being an important factor in the judgement of the art segues into another central topic of the philosophy of art: beauty. Philosophers of art, and aesthetics as that is sometimes distinguished from it, question what the nature of beauty is, and whether it is inseparable from art, as in whether un-beautiful things can be art, and whether beautiful things are thereby automatically art.
I have already answered above that I hold art fully capable of being un-beautiful, and I likewise hold that beauty does not only apply to works of art, but to any experience at all, even ones not put forth by some artist for the purpose of provoking a reaction, but just happened upon in the world. The same beautiful vista that might be captured by a photographer and turned into photographic art was already beautiful before it was made into art. Just as art does not need to be beautiful in order to be art, beautiful things do not need to be art in order to be beautiful.
As to the nature of beauty, I hold that beauty is, broadly speaking, the experience of apprehending something that seems good. Beauty may be found in some lofty moral triumph of good over evil; it can be beautiful in a sense to see justice prevail. But it may also be something as simple and relative as apprehending something to be in some way desirable. Flowers and fruits and other healthy, vibrant flora may be beautiful because they, on at least a subconscious level, signal bountiful food, which is desirable. Huge open vistas may be beautiful because they signal a lack of predators or competitors, and hence freedom and relative abundance of resources.
Other people may be beautiful because their features signal that they are in good health, and so safe company, reliable companions, or possibly potential sexual partners. All manner of things can be beautiful to us just because they seem, on an emotional level, to signal some kind of simple, primitive good to us as animals. The common factor in all of these diverse kinds of beauty is that they are all experiences of something seeming good.
Specifically artistic beauty is thus somewhat analogous to logical soundness, in the same way that attributive value was earlier analogized to logical validity: where soundness is validity plus correct premises, artistic beauty is attributive value, i.e. artistic proficiency, plus predicatively good, pleasing content. Soundness and beauty can thus both only be judged by some pre-formed standards of truth or goodness: we might think something is sound or beautiful, if we think its premises or content to be true and good, only to later learn more about something wrong with it in some way, and then be unable to see it as beautiful or sound anymore.
Since beauty on this account is all about something seeming good, and on my account of predicative value above actual predicative goodness is nothing above or beyond things seeming good – appetitively, phenomenally – beauty can in a way be considered the fundamental kind of value, even as associated with attributive value as it is. A beautiful world is a pleasant world, and a pleasant world is a morally good, predicatively valuable world. This is much the same as how in my ontology, I simultaneously hold concrete reality to consist entirely of empirical phenomena, and yet also to be itself an entirely abstract structure, the one that we are those empirical phenomena are a part of. As that ontological view is called "mathematicism", this analogous axiological view may likewise be called "aestheticism".
Beyond these concrete forms of beauty, there are also more abstract aspects to beauty, to be found in the form or structure of a phenomenon (be it natural or a work of art) rather than in its relation to reality or morality, though this abstract sense of beauty also factors into the concrete kinds discussed above. This is beauty as in elegance, which is to say, the intersection of a phenomenon being interestingly complex, but also comprehensibly simple. Complexity draws one's attention into the phenomenon, seeking to understand it; and if that complexity is found to emerge from an underlying simplicity, beauty can be experienced in the successful comprehension of that complexity by way of the underlying simplicity.
That is to say, symmetries and other patterns, that allow us to reduce a complex phenomenon to many instances and variations of simpler phenomena, are inherently beautiful in an abstract way detached entirely from whether the phenomena are concretely real or moral. This is the kind of beauty to be found in abstract, non-representational art, and also in places besides art such as in mathematical structures.
The tension here between interesting complexity and comprehensible simplicity is, I think, what underlies the distinction many artists, audiences, and philosophers have made between what they call "high art" and "low art".
- Those who prefer so-called "high art" are those with enough experience with the kinds of patterns used in their preferred media that they are able to comprehend more complex phenomena than those less experienced, but simultaneously find simpler phenomena correspondingly uninteresting.
- Those who prefer so-called "low art" (so called by the "high art" aficionados, not by themselves) instead find more complex phenomena incomprehensible, but are simultaneously more capable of taking interest in simpler phenomena.
Unlike the attitudes evinced in the traditional naming of these categories, I do not think that "high art", a taste for complex phenomena, is in any way inherently better than "low art", a taste for simple phenomena. In each case, the aficionados of one are capable of appreciating something that the other group cannot, while incapable of appreciating something that the other group can.
In my opinion, if any manner of taste was truly to be called universally superior, it would be a broader taste, capable of comprehending complex phenomena and so appreciating "high art", while still remaining capable of finding simple phenomena interesting and so appreciating "low art". In that way, audiences with such taste would be best capable of deriving the most enjoyment from the widest assortment of phenomena, both natural and artistic.
On Comedy and Tragedy
A sort of mirror image of beauty, I hold, is drama, by which I mean an umbrella category encompassing both comedy and tragedy. The common factor to comedy and tragedy, and what I hold makes drama like a mirror image of beauty, is that while beauty is about experiences of something seeming in some way right, comedy and tragedy are both experiences of something seeming in some way wrong.
The distinguishing difference between comedy and tragedy is how they approach that wrongness: comedy approaches it frivolously, with levity, making light of whatever is wrong; while tragedy approaches it seriously, with gravity, taking the wrong thing to be a weighty matter. This wrongness can be of either a descriptive or prescriptive kind, just like the rightness of beauty can be.
I think this is best illustrated in the wide varieties of comedy, ranging from slapstick (where people experiencing physical violence is treated lightly instead of as a matter of grievous injury) and roasts or other jokes explicitly at someone's expense (that are treated as an acceptable transgressions of social norms), which are both making light of prescriptively bad things; to jokes that hinge on setting up and then subverting expectations (where something that was thought to true turns out to be false), including postmodern comedy that violates medium conventions such as breaking the fourth wall, and even things like puns where the wrongness is just the use of the wrong word in place of the expected one.
All comedy hinges on something being, in some way or another, wrong, and yet treated as not a big deal. Tragedy, on the other hand, depicts something being in some way wrong, and makes a big deal out of it being wrong. Both of them are, for that wrongness that they depend on, in some way un-beautiful. Yet both can nevertheless be, in the end, beautiful in their own way. Comedy, in making light of bad things, shows them as not so bad, and so correspondingly good, at least relatively speaking, and thereby beautiful in a way. And tragedy, in treating bad things as weighty matters, can speak hard truths about bad experiences that people can really have, and so, for that truth, also be beautiful in a way.
Continue to the next essay, On the Will, Freedom, and the Subjects of Morality.