What is beauty?

This perennially vexing question, posed to neophyte college students and seasoned academics alike, has never been been answered to universal satisfaction.  Beauty is one of those concepts, like Truth or Goodness, that can be explained at length but never authoritatively defined.

Yet the question of what constitutes beauty is the animating query of formal aesthetics.  And aesthetics is the twin sister to ethics.

Within the domain of philosophy, under most generally accepted taxonomies, one of the top-order divisions is value theory, and value theory has two primary branches — aesthetics, and ethics.  Aesthetics concerns itself with what is beautiful, and ethics concerns itself with what is right.

These questions are two sides to the same coin, insofar as each doesn’t admit to one correct answer, but rather point to a process by which individual instantiations of beauty or rightness are assessed.

In fact, there was a healthy business by the British Moralists of the 18th century, most notably Adam Smith, to tie aesthetic sensibility to moral analysis.  Some of them argued that we are motivated by “moral sentiments” that are operatively no different from aesthetic judgments.  And there’s something compelling to this:  Much of what we think of as morally right is a pre-rational judgment that, to put it crudely, is identical in form to our judgment of a particular particular painting or symphony as being beautiful.  We might be able to retrospectively provide a logical and thoughtful analysis of why we concluded as we did, but the rationalization follows rather than precedes the act of judgment.

Some contemporary commentators suggest that there has been a loosening of moral consensus about a whole host of issues.  They argue that there was a time, not long ago, when a sizeable majority of Americans had the same basic perspective about what constituted appropriately moral behavior.  Although this assertion is certainly open to debate, there is enough evidence of this that I’ll let the debate slide and simply accept the premise as true:  Average citizens don’t seem to share a larger and self-consistent public moral framework as once they did.

Why is this the case?  Perhaps it’s related to a simultaneous loss of shared agreement about what constitutes beauty.

Once upon a time, not only did most people have similar ideas about what divided right from wrong, but people had pretty similar ideas about what was noble and beautiful, and what was crass and base.  This changed, starting in the 1920s but taking off in the 1950s. 

Now, we have greater avenues for individuation.  We can pursue our own ideas of truth, and beauty, and live a life bordering on solipsism.  Libertarians and diversity advocates should rejoice.

But we’ve lost something significant — a shared pool of meaning by which we might, as a collective, ascribe propriety and beauty to objects and acts within the public square.

Is this a good thing?  An evolution of human society?  Or something that should cause worry?  I wish I had an answer.

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