David Hume’s thoughts on moral beauty
Can a Van Gogh painting move me to donate to charity? Can a Beethoven symphony inspire me to recycle? Today I explore the suggestion by Enlightenment thinker, David Hume, that art can make us more moral human beings.
How can the thoughts of someone who lived three centuries ago still be relevant today? Well, Hume proposes that moral ugliness – vices and poor behaviour for example—stem from a lack of appreciation of beauty, or what he called a lack of ‘delicacy of taste’. Those without delicate taste fail to recognise moral beauty, and are instead drawn to moral ugliness – they overlook the beauty in the lines of an aged veteran and are blind to the ugliness of unkind words. In other words, much of what is wrong in society stems from a failure to recognise true beauty. Its remedy is thus a cultivation of taste—a development of appreciation for things that are truly beautiful. This was true in Hume’s 18th Century Britain, and no less true in our society today.
Why do we not appreciate beauty?
We have lost the attraction to things that are truly good and beautiful, and crave in their place things of little worth. As a high school art educator, I observe how true this is in my classroom every day: my students find no pleasure in Shakespeare, because the art they really enjoy is on Instagram, in heavily filtered selfies of celebrities with their #browsonfleek. I don’t blame these teenagers for developing such tastes in art, of course, because they’ve been raised in a society where the things that are good for you – Shakespeare, boiled vegetables—are always tasteless. It’s what I call a culture of SUPO: ‘Suck it Up, Power On’.
In this culture where self-denial is virtue and self-indulgence is decadence, we as educators make no attempt to present Shakespeare as beautiful. We’ve emphasised goodness: “It’s good for your linguistic, analytic and critical skills!” We emphasised truth: “you’ll learn so many important facts about the world through Shakespeare!” But we’ve never thought it necessary to showcase its beauty.
Art is truth, goodness and beauty.
Without beauty, art is impoverished. When students don’t see its beauty, they will never develop a taste for it.
They’ll suck it up and do it anyway. This is how they’ve always lived. As children, they’ve grit their teeth and forced themselves to eat their veggies, reasoning that these will help them stay slim. As adults, they will force themselves to do jobs they hate because they know how much they need the money. In a perfectly rational society, civilised man is always able to subdue his passions with his mind, so that there is no need for an enjoyment of beauty.
He will, of course, be forever trapped between the joylessness of that which is ‘right’ and the shame of indulging in his guilty pleasures.
What’s wrong with not appreciating beauty?
Even if taste is misguided so that we are attracted only to that which is ugly, our rationality usually suppresses these dark passions. However, there are always the slip-ups, when our feelings get the better of us: when we have a ‘cheat meal’ or binge on the things we know are bad for us – junk food, pornography, smoking and other ‘vices’.
These slip-ups don’t seem too severe, but imagine if our moral tastes were equally misguided. Imagine if we had genuine desires for the ‘junk food’ of morality (paedophilia, violence and the worst of vices). Imagine if the only thing stopping us from acting on these desires was our rationality; we reason ourselves out of doing these acts because we want to stay out of prison. Rationality may win on most occasions, but it may also give way to occasional slip-ups, and when it comes to matters of immorality like this- even one slip-up is too many.
The education of reason alone is never enough. We need to educate the passions, because they are the true motivators of our will.
Won’t teaching them to reason make them better people?
David Hume argues that reason cannot be our primary driving force. We cannot simply educate students to have an intellectual knowledge that ‘committing crimes is bad’. We need a deeper education of the tastes; Just as children can gradually learn to love salads and dislike deep fried foods, they can also develop a taste towards things which are truly beautiful – to feel natural attraction towards aesthetic and moral beauty.
When they learn to love what is truly beautiful, they will no longer have to be torn between the instructions of their head and the desires of their hearts.
Why do we need art to teach them to be better people?
Taste for beauty is cultivated not through head knowledge but heart knowledge; not through didactic teaching about the facts alone, but through personal experience and exposure over time. We cannot simply be told that discrimination is ugly. We need to experience it ourselves, to step into the skin of the character and walk around in it. When we have imaginatively experienced that moral ugliness in a novel, we can learn to recognise it in the real world and reject it.
When we look at a Dali painting and nothing in it strikes a chord of beauty in us, we take a pause and consider it more closely. We think about its context of production, the people it’d been produced for, the way they saw the world. So we learn never to impose our own narrow-minded standards of beauty on a work far removed from us.
So an appreciation of art teaches us to withhold judgment, to empathise. It connects us with people and cultures we wouldn’t otherwise meet. In David Hume’s society, Abolitionist poets were helping to humanise the distant slaves in the eyes of the British public; they were writing about the experiences and feelings of these colonised individuals, showing the public that these were brothers who shared their common humanity. We see this happening in our world today as well; through art, we are seeing hearing the narratives of people in refugee camps and migrant workers’ dormitories. (See my previous post https://aestheletic.com/blogs/aestheletic-blog/5-inspiring-projects-that-bring-art-to-the-people for more on migrant workers’ poetry).
When we’ve learnt to appreciate the beauty of their humanity, then art has truly taught us to be better.
This post is an adaptation from my research essay on David Hume and moral beauty. Please find the full essay here: https://oxford.academia.edu/joellelam
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