Monday, October 14, 2013

Beauty-driven morality

In a waiting room today, I talked with someone I met about suffering by animals in nature. His reply was that suffering isn't really bad, and because nature is beautifully complex and intricate, we should try to keep it the way it is as much as possible. I've gotten this reaction many times, including from several close friends. For these people, nature's aesthetic appeal outweighs all the suffering of the individual insects and minnows that have to live through it.

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory describes five principal values that seem to underlie many moral intuitions:

1) Care/harm
2) Fairness/cheating
3) Loyalty/betrayal
4) Authority/subversion
5) Sanctity/degradation.

The last of these is partly driven by feelings of disgust, which seem to move from the visceral realm to the moral realm in some people by acquiring a higher sense of "absolute wrongness." A classic example is a thought experiment involving completely safe and harmless sex between a sister and brother. Some people say, "I can't explain why, but it's just wrong."

It seems there's a reverse side of disgust-driven morality, one which probably has much more sway over more liberal-minded types. It's what I'm calling "beauty-driven morality," and it's slightly different from Haidt's "moral elevation" concept. In beauty-driven morality, outcomes are evaluated based on how aesthetically pleasing, complex, amazing, and sublime they seem to the observer. So, for example, the intricacies of ecosystem dynamics -- complete with brutal predation and Malthusian mass deaths shortly after birth -- are seen as so elegant, such a wonderfully harmonious balance, that to replace them with anything more bland, sterile, or civilized would be morally tragic.

Our sense of beauty and awe is part of a reward system designed to encourage exploration and discovery. Identifying patterns, figuring things out, and otherwise tickling our aesthetic intellectual senses makes us feel good. In those with beauty-driven moral intuitions, this feel-good emotion seems to be not just a personal experience, like the pleasant taste of chocolate, but also a morally laden experience: The sense that "this is right; this is how the world should be."

Of course, care/harm-based morality is fundamentally very similar. Our brains feel reward upon helping others and punishment upon seeing others in pain, and we regard this not just as a private emotion but a reflection on how the world should be, i.e., it should contain more helping and less suffering.

A pure care/harm moralist like myself can tell the beauty-based moralist: "You don't understand. Beauty is just a reaction you have to imagining something. It doesn't mean we should actually work toward the scenario you picture as beautiful. The real deep importance of acting morally comes from improving the subjective experiences of other beings." The beauty-based moralist can reply: "No, you don't understand how transcendent this higher beauty is. It's so fundamentally important that it's worth many beings suffering to bring it about. This is where the deepest moral purpose lies."

Of course, I don't agree with the beauty-based moralist, but this fundamentally comes down to a difference in our brain wiring. Similarly, I can't talk a paperclip maximizer out of pursuing its metallic purpose in life. The paperclip maximizer tells us: "No, you both don't understand. The ineffably profound value of paperclips rises far above both of your petty concerns. I hope one day you see the shiny truth."

That said, there is more room to change the minds of beauty-based moralists than paperclip maximizers insofar as the former are humans who also tend to have care/harm intuitions. The aesthetic approach makes most sense from a "far mode" perspective -- looking at whole ecosystems or inter-agent evolutionary dynamics on large time scales -- but if you see in a near-mode way this particular gazelle having its intestines ripped out while still conscious, even the aesthetics of the situation may seem different, and if not, hopefully care/harm sentiments can enter in.

Since beauty-based morality presumably originates from aesthetic reward circuits, we would predict that people with more of these circuits (artists, poets, mathematicians, physicists, etc.?) would, ceteris paribus, tend to care more about making the future beautiful than average.

As a postscript, I should add that even if we don't agree with beauty-driven morality, there are good strategic reasons to compromise with people who do subscribe to it. For that matter, there are even good strategic reasons to compromise with paperclip maximizers if and when they emerge.

In addition, if we're preference utilitarians, we may place intrinsic weight on agents' desires for beauty or paperclips. In general, we should strive for a society in which other values are respected and in which we do cheap things to help other values, even if we don't care about them ourselves.


  1. "A pure care/harm moralist like myself can tell the beauty-based moralist: "You don't understand. Beauty is just a reaction you have to imagining something. It doesn't mean we should actually work toward the scenario you picture as beautiful."

    I think what also happens with beauty-based moralists is that when they perceive something as aesthetically pleasing, because aesthetically pleasing things tend to be pleasurable (in the hedonic utilitarian sense) when viewed, the care/harm (with respect to their own mental states) intuition gets added to their beauty-based moral intuition, making the phenomenon appear to be morally good. They might think it's morally good for aesthetic reasons, but really most of the moral intuitional force comes from caring about the pleasurableness of their own mental states.

    I also think this happens with the opposite sense of disgust. Because feeling disgust can be uncomfortable (maybe not exactly painful, but certainly in the direction of negative utility), this mental discomfort causes those who experience it to think there is something morally bad about whatever disgusts them. It is almost like an implicit affirmation of utilitarian intuition (or perhaps it should be called egoistic intuition, since they don't extend their consideration to the mental states of other beings).

    If only individuals such as these could transcend their own points of view, they would realize that this pleasurableness and painfulness is experienced by other things, and whatever pleasure you get from watching animals suffering is almost certainly outweighed by their pain. Likewise, whatever pain (or discomfort) the homophobe experiences when observing gay people is almost certainly outweighed by the pleasure of gay people feeling comfortable being out (in both senses) in public and accepted and not ostracized by society.

    Sadly, the empathy needed for adopting and maintaining such an attitude, whereby you allow slight sacrifices of your own utility for the greater gains of others, is not strong enough in many individuals to overcome their hedonic egoistic attitude.

    1. I agree, Nick. Thanks for that explanation!

      It's possible that some beauty-driven motivations are genuinely principled stances separate from personal emotional reaction, but I suspect a lot of what's going on is insufficient abstraction away from one's own hedonistic feelings.

    2. Agreed. Among consequentialist theories, the main rival to hedonism (be it utilitarian, prioritarian, egalitarian, altruistic, or egoistic) is perfectionism, or maximizing "excellence", however that is interpreted. I sometimes wonder if hedonism could be considered a species of perfectionism, where "excellence" is interpreted in terms of pleasantness and unpleasantness of mental states.

      I don't mind this interpretation, but however I look at it, all the other forms of perfectionism, where "excellence" is interpreted by artistic, intellectual, athletic, or some other non-hedonic standards, seem hopelessly arbitrary.

      To me, and probably others who share my moral intuition, pleasantness of mental states is the only thing that contains the categorical "to-be-pursuedness," and unpleasantness of mental states the categorical "to-be-avoidedness". All other ends seem completely arbitrary or only valuable as a means to hedonic value. Some are downright harmful, like I'm sure Hitler operated under some twisted form of perfectionism, where "excellence" was interpreted in some racist, nationalistic manner.