Friday, April 30, 2010

Beauty and ugliness

Up to three kinds of good can be involved in a beautiful object:

  1. The intrinsic value of the beauty.
  2. The intrinsic value of the production of something beautiful.
  3. The aesthetic appreciation and pleasure in those who behold the object.
It is important to the point I am making that (3) is not all there is to the value of the beautiful object: it will matter little if you deny (1) or you deny (2), as long as you don't deny both (1) and (2) and anything like them. Here are some arguments that (3) is not all there is. Renoir - The Terrace If (3) is all there is to the value of beauty, then Renoir would have done something in every way more valuable had he made his paintings somewhat less beautiful (say, 20% less beautiful, if that makes any sense) but worked to ensure that they would have twice as many viewers. That is absurd. Furthermore, although this intuition is not shared by all, it appears wrong to me to destroy a beautiful vase for no good reason even if nobody would ever again see it. Moreover, it does not appear to be silly to write a poem even if no one would ever read or hear it. (Maybe one's own appreciation of it while writing it counts for something, but maybe it does not count for enough to do justice to the intuition here.) Furthermore, if (3) were all there was, then for a fixed average amount of pleasure and appreciation, the value of a beautiful object would be directly and precisely proportional to the number of beholders who appreciate and take pleasure. And that numerical equality is surely wrong.

Now, in the case of something ugly, there is obviously the disvalue of the aesthetic disappreciation and displeasure in the beholders. But I think that is all there is that is bad about the ugly object. And here lies a conceptual asymmetry between the ugly and the beautiful. There is reason to preserve or create a beautiful object even if no one will perceive it; but there is no corresponding reason to destroy or refrain from creating an ugly object when no one will perceive it. If I am to set out to build a wooden telescope, that it would be beautiful is a reason in favor of the production, even if the telescope is only going to be in contact with people in the dark of night and no one will see its beauty. But that it would be ugly is no reason against the production, if no one will see the ugliness. (Maybe the fact that I will see it in my mind's eye might be a reason, but that underscores the analog of (3).) The amount of disvalue in an ugly thing, for a fixed average amount of displeasure and disappreciation, is exactly proportional to the number of beholders, whereas no similar proportionality holds in the case of beauty.

So ugliness is disvaluable in fewer ways than beauty is valuable.

All this may be an aspect of the way evil is but a parasite on the good. Moreover, it may help show an asymmetry between good and evil that is relevant to sceptical theism and the argument from design. The sceptical theist thinks that the evils of the world might contribute to goods beyond our ken. An atheist might reasonable counter that this undercuts any argument from design, because the goods of the world might contribute to evils beyond our ken. However, it may be that the space of possible goods is much more complex than the space of possible evils. For instance, plausibly there can be exceedingly complex aesthetic goods beyond our ken. But can there be exceedingly complex aesthetic evils? Maybe not: all the evil in ugliness, if the above is right, reduces simply to the evils of displeasure and disappreciation, which are in themselves subjective and easily accessible to our minds.

1 comment:

Alexander R Pruss said...

The post also shows why there is no problem of ugliness over and beyond the problem of suffering. For ugliness is only a problem to the extent it causes suffering.