octopus_by_cardenaslosky-d60yg3dIncreasingly, as I turn to questions of ethics, I find myself wondering about things we could describe as “absolute values”.  These are things we esteem and value for their own sake such as love, friendship, beauty, compassion, health, and so on.  It’s easy to see why we value things such as health, beauty, and friendship for their own sake (though maybe these are more mysterious than they might initially seem).  It’s more difficult, I think, to understand beauty.  This is above all the case within a naturalistic framework.  When I read architectural theory written during the Middle Ages, Rennaissance, and early Enlightenment period, beauty is an index to truth.  It resonates with us because our ability to discern it is a sort of index of the divine that dwells within us; it is that which draws us towards the divine or God and that which indicates God’s signature on his creation.  In a naturalistic framework all that falls away.  We find we must give an immanent account of beauty.  The question then becomes that of why we find the beautiful beautiful, of why we encounter the beautiful at all.  This is not a question– at least at first –of what we find beautiful.  In other words, it is not a question where discussions of harmony, pattern, and proportion would be appropriate answers.  Again, the question here is not what is beautiful, but why such things would be beautiful to us at all.  What is the ground of the ability to have, as Kant put it, “disinterested pleasure” or the ability to find things beautiful?

Initially this question might seem rather abstract.  However, I suppose one reason I find it interesting is that a central component of neoliberal capitalism lies in instrumentalizing all that is.  All of being increasingly comes to be understood in terms of use-value and exchange-value.  For example, we no longer really talk about the intrinsic worth of education and knowledge as things that are desirable for their own sake, but instead talk about them in terms of “getting jobs” and how they can (economically) benefit the world.  Part of combatting neoliberal capitalism lies in cultivating a sensibility for those things that are valuable in their own right, that have a worth that isn’t a use or for the sake of a profit.  I am not suggesting that beauty will save it.  Beauty is just one example of those things that are valuable for their own sake or that contribute to a life being a life worth living or a good life (especially within immanence where there’s no longer recourse to a transcendent “afterwards”).  I do think, however, that beauty might play a key role with respect to environmental issues and how we relate to other living organisms, but I’ll save that for another day.  I just wonder why it is that I find something beautiful or what is reflected back to us about ourselves in those things we find beautiful.

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