To what extent should our emotions be considered an important aspect of our ethical and aesthetic judgments?
Emotions are one of the most significant factors that affect our life. They accompany us most of the time; sometimes we don’t realize that, but they have a giant influence on our life. Occasionally this influence is dreadful, especially in formation of aesthetical and ethical judgements. That’s is why men always wanted to define the extend of its use as an aspect of our ethical and aesthetic judgements.
Aesthetic issues have been discussed since classical times, but they would not then have been so described. ‘Aesthetics’, deriving from the Greek word aesthesis (‘perception’), was coined by the German philosopher, Alexander Baumgarten, in the middle of the eighteenth century. By it, he meant ‘the science of sensory knowledge’, though the term soon began to be confined to a particular area of such knowledge and understood as ‘the science of sensory beauty’, the examination of taste.
Aesthetics judgements have always been considered a matter of personal taste and therefore subjective. Attempts to look at aesthetics objectively go back to the ancient Egyptians who devised precise mathematical systems for proportioning their structures and art. More refined systems were cultivated by the classical Greeks and Romans and later revived by renaissance Europeans.
First when I thought about aesthetical judgements I couldn’t find any other factors than emotions on which those judgements can be based. But later I discovered that some of our aesthetical judgements are not only based on emotions. They are most of the time implicated but are combined with other like: reason, experience or logic. That idea has its fundaments in Wolff’s and Baumgarten`s works. Also Kant, like them, considered Logic and Aesthetics as conjoined sciences. He described it in his ‘Scheme of Lectures’, where he proposed to “throw a glance at that of taste, that is to say, at Aesthetic, since the rules of one apply to the other and each throws light upon the other.”
Kant also distinguished aesthetic truth from logical truth using Meier’s example of the beautiful rosy face of a girl which, when seen distinctly, i.e. through a microscope, ceases to be beautiful: “The cheeks of a beautiful girl whereon bloom the roses of youth are lovely so long as they are looked at with the naked eye. But let them be examined with a magnifying glass. Where is their beauty?”1 We can also say, that it is aesthetically true that the sun plunges into the sea, but it is false logically and objectively. But to what degree it is necessary to combine logical truth with emotions the erudite have never yet been able to decide, not even the greatest aestheticians.
To construct aesthetical judgements we can use our knowledge or reason. Those judgements are objective but unfortunately limited: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world”2. As an example of that we can take the aesthetical judgements made on flowers. Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly any one but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste and emotions to judge of its beauty.
Even the biggest knowledge of flowers will not allowed anyone to make a valid aesthetical judgement. We can also talk about the correlation of logic and emotions in formation of an aesthetical judgement about flowers. For instance, by a judgement of taste we describe the rose at which we are looking as beautiful. The judgement, on the other hand, resulting from the comparison of a number of singular representations: Roses in general are beautiful, is no longer pronounced as a clearly aesthetic judgement, but as a logical judgement founded on one that is aesthetic.
Our aesthetical judgements can also be based on our imagination and past experience. We can relate this to the Cezann-Berenson approach of looking on art3. This is an approach in which, art is not a specifically visual experience. The art should move us, forces us to imagine in the situation ‘on the picture’- moving in imagination among buildings, landscapes. It is furthermore parallel to music and poetry. Poetry and music has got a power of bringing before us not only words or sounds but also whole images.
This kind of art forces us to use our imagination and experience. There are also other ways of looking on art. For example when we are looking at something that we have never seen before, like Cï¿½zanne’s pictures: “His landscapes have lost almost every trace of visuality. Trees never looked like that;” “A bridge is no longer a pattern of colour… it is a perplexing mixture of projections and recessions, over and round which we find ourselves feeling our way as one can imagine”4. The aesthetical judgement about such painting would be based on our imagination and emotions, because we don’t have a record of something similar in our mind, to what we can relate it.
There are many grounds on which, we can base our aesthetical judgements. In each of them we can see a seed of emotions. The emotions are an important aspect of our aesthetic judgement but not the most important. They are used and should be but to what extend we cannot define it.
Ethical judgements correspondingly to the aesthetical judgements have their fundaments in similar aspects. To make them we use emotions, reason, logic and other ways. We need to answer a very complex question: whether we can use emotions in ethical judgements? And if yes, to what extent should we use them?
As we know all judgements based on emotions are subjective. If ethical judgements ought to be objective, we need to base them on reasoning. If reason is not taking under consideration in ethical judgements, then it is almost impossible to resolve ethical disputes between people with clashing emotional attitudes or values. It is very hard to use this theory in real life. It is not easy how entrenched opponents can resolve their differences over a matter like abortion, for example. But many people believe that there is such a principle. This would mean that if those who favour and those who oppose abortion understood the nature of ethics and the rational basis of ethical argument, they would be able to reach the same conclusion about the justifiability of abortion. If they would use only emotions such agreement would not be possible.5
From that we can conclude that all moral judgements should be supported by good reason. If someone tells us that a certain action would be wrong, for example you can ask why it would be wrong, and if there in no satisfactory answer, you may reject that advice as unfounded. In this way, ethical judgements are different from mere expressions of personal preference. If someone says ‘I like coffee’, he does not need to have a reason, because he makes a statement about his personal taste. But moral judgements require backing by reasons, and in absence of such reason, they are merely arbitrary.
Also Kant argues that we should exclude emotions from our ethical judgements. Kant argues that when we abstract all feelings, we are left with only the pure form of the rational moral law, which, since it holds for all rational beings, must be universal in its form. Thus Kant reaches his famous categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law’.
A limited us of emotions in ethical judgements can be also argued, that emotions can cause in people lose of self-control. For example when somebody says: ‘all products of brand X are bad and it is immoral to buy their products, because they are exploiting people to manufacture them’. When we don’t have any connection with that brand we will say that it is a right judgement – to do that we will use only our reason and logic. But in case when we are somehow connected with the product, for example that’s our favourite brand, we will say that it’s not true and that there is nothing wrong about this brand – in this case our emotions become more important and drive us to a formation of a false judgement. Use of emotions in ethical judgements ‘is like fast running – you cannot stop exactly where you want’. 6
Use of emotions in ethical judgements is also undermined by the idea of utilitarianism. This idea accounts that we should us reason for making the largest amount of subjects happy. As an example of that we can use a case of Siamese twins Jodie and Mary, who were operated this year in UK. The operation involved dividing two sisters, who without the operation would die. The problem of the operations was that one of them had to die to safe the other one. Here comes in the idea of utilitarianism by saying that it is morally justifiable to sacrifice one life to safe the other one.
An alternative idea of looking at the extent to which we should use emotions in ethical judgements is proposed by David Hume. He argues that reason has only a very limited role to play in influencing what we decide to do. Hume furthermore argues that, it is not possible for reason to establish what is good or evil – for to recognize that something is good or evil must influence our action, otherwise ethics would have no point. At the end Hume concludes that we can only distinguish good and evil using feelings not reason.
The same opinion as Hume has the Aristotelian philosophy:
“In any, case for us moral virtue is a disposition to express emotions or passions
(such as anger, fear, desire for food, etc.) appropriately, i.e., in the right degree, neither excessively nor deficiently, at the right time, towards the right object, etc. For us moral virtue and experiencing the emotions are compatible.”7
I think that now we can answer the question: whether we can use emotions in ethical judgements. The answer is yes, we can use them but the extend is not very big. Emotions are more important in aesthetical judgements than in ethical. But in both cases there is no exact formula for a perfect judgement. The extent varies from case to case and should be considered differently in each of them.
– Peter Singer “Ethics”
– Peter Singer “A Companion to Ethisc”
– Anthony Quinton “Utilitarian Ethics”
– David E. Cooper “Aesthetics -The Classical Readings”
– Benedetto Croce “Aesthetics”
1 G.F. Meier “Anfangsgrunde” ï¿½23
2 Albert Einstein
3 R.G. Collingwood “The Principles of Art”
4 R.G. Collingwood “The Principles of Art”
5 P. Singer “Ethics” – The Role of Reason
6 An Imaginary Stoic-Aristotelian Conversation – www.wku.edu/~garreje/twoethix.htm
7 An Imaginary Stoic-Aristotelian Conversation – www.wku.edu/~garreje/twoethix.htm