'Aesthetics and Ethics'
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #27
‘AESTHETICS AND ETHICS’
CAERS SUBSTACK ARTICLE #27
If I asked you about your favourite food, you would likely respond along the lines of: ‘Oh, I just love ______’. I would fill in the blank with ‘pasta’. If I asked you what you most admire about your best friend, you might answer along the lines of: ‘Oh, I love them for their honesty, or their compassion or their generosity’, or something similar.
I suspect that the ‘love’ you have for your favourite food is not the same kind of ‘love’ you have for your best friend and the qualities they exemplify. For example, you might miss eating your favourite food, but you would likely miss your friend a lot more. You might be disappointed if your favourite food was not prepared properly, but again you might be far more disappointed if your friend ceased to have that quality you most admire about them. Why the difference?
Your favourite food appeals to you on an aesthetic level because you enjoy it. It may not matter that much to you if anyone else likes your favourite food because you know that taste is highly personal; beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or in the taste buds of the diner.
However, that quality you so admire in your friend often has a very different sense to it, in that it reflects something that you think is fundamentally good, something you would like everyone to exhibit. There is a longing for it to be universal, independent of personal tastes. We consider such things as honesty, compassion and generosity ethical in nature because they speak to how we ought to behave in the world and treat others.
The distinction between aesthetic and ethical is important but it can also seem blurry. For example, we are surrounded by protocols and conventions which dictate what is customary or ‘de rigueur’, but these are often rooted more in aesthetics than in ethics. Addressing someone who has a title in a way that etiquette dictates may satisfy the aesthetics, but how you treat them otherwise reflects the ethics. Calling me ‘Doctor’ then badmouthing me behind my back may satisfy the aesthetics of custom and convention, but may fail at the level of ethics.
Sometimes acting ethically can come into conflict with the aesthetics of one’s culture. Going along with the crowd, or following certain protocols, may be less risky and unpleasant then following one’s conscience. You might be deprived of a promotion at work, or membership in a club, or access to a venue, if you have ethical reservations about them, even though you might enjoy them at an aesthetic level. The job promotion may require collusion in unscrupulous activities in the workplace, or turning a blind eye to bigotry in the club you desire, or tolerating unjustifiable segregation policies at a favoured venue.
Aesthetics are very personal and revolve around what we enjoy and want to experience. Ethics addresses how we should treat others and the kind of world we want to live in. Have there been times when we have been challenged to weigh aesthetics and ethics during the pandemic? Are we happy with the choices we have made, and the choices that have been made for us? Sometimes the first step is to recognize the difference between the two and then decide which is more important. It isn’t always easy, but doing the right thing, not just the enjoyable thing, often isn’t.
J. Barry Engelhardt MD (retired) MHSc (bioethics)
CAERS Health Intake Facilitator
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