Aesthetics and Ethics

Aesthetics and Ethics

  • Aesthetics and Ethics are interdependent on each other
  • Steps to an Ecology of mind

Why do good? Why be moral?

  • Do good because its a good value for a virtuous person
  • Do good out of compassion and love for others
  • Do good because it is good for one’s self
  • Do good because world outside is none other than yourself. (Vedantic Perspective)

Aesthetics

  • of Design
  • of Arts
  • of Performance Arts
  • of Rituals
  • of Traditions
  • of Narrative Arts
  • of Culture
  • of Architecture
  • of Actions
  • of Thoughts
  • of Senses
  • of Emotions
  • of Values
  • of Experience

Key Terms

  • Virtues
  • Values
  • Aesthetics
  • Arts
  • Morals
  • Ethics
  • Good ness
  • Art and Morals
  • Aesthetics and Ethics
  • Beauty and Goodness
  • Ist person and 2nd Person
  • Integral Theory
  • Ken Wilber
  • Self, Culture, Nature
  • I, We, It/Its
  • Immanual Kant
  • Wittgenstein
  • Sameness and Otherness
  • Difference
  • Boundaries and Networks
  • Hierarchy and Networks
  • Plato and Aristotle
  • Action Learning
  • Reflexive Action
  • Social Ethics
  • Communities of Goodness
  • Environmental Ethics
  • Inter-objectivity
  • Inter-subjectivity
  • Subject and Object
  • Phenomenology and Hermenutics
  • Virtue Ethics
  • Development and Relations
  • Internal vs External
  • Individual vs Collective
  • Culture, Society, and Ethics
  • Narrative Arts
  • Intentions and Actions
  • Sewa and Service
  • Altruism
  • Philosophy of Arts
  • Aesthetics of living culture
  • Traditions, Rituals, and Culture
  • Classical Education
  • Arts and Humanities
  • Dance, Music and Performance Arts
  • Universals
  • Transcendentals
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Nondual Vedanta (Advait Vedanta)
  • Steps to an Ecology of Mind
  • Value Theory
  • Virtue Theory
  • Art Criticism
  • Taste, Style, Manners
  • Relational
  • Aesthetics and Relatedness
  • Consciousness
  • Nondual Awareness
  • Interconnectedness

Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’S Critique of Moralization of Ethics

This study found a new idea of ethics to bridge the gap between morality and aesthetics. This new idea is called aesthetics morality. This study concluded as follows: 1) ethics as morality is in the form of teleology, deontology and virtue ethics; 2) ethics is a synthesis of aesthetics and morality; and 3) ethics is aesthetics in the form of care of the self. 

Ethics as Style:
Wittgenstein’s Aesthetic Ethics and Ethical Aesthetics

An inquiry into Wittgenstein’s ethics and aesthetics has to start with the following questions: Can an aesthetics and/or ethics be extracted from his philosophical texts at all? If yes, what kind of aesthetics and/or ethics does Wittgenstein offer beyond his well-known aphoristic comments on the subject? Finally, how can we understand the meaning of his claim that ‘‘ethics and aesthetics are one’’? This article responds to the above questions by presenting an account of Wittgenstein’s ethical aesthetics and aesthetic ethics, elucidating both through the prism of his notion of style as ‘‘general necessity seen sub specie eterni.’’ It explains how logical necessity implodes within the limits of propositional language to open onto the realm of style, within which ethical necessity is to be understood in terms of aesthetic life-form and aesthetic expression is to be understood in terms of ethical enactment.

Es ist klar, daß sich die Ethik nicht aussprechen läßt. Die Ethik ist transzendental.
(Ethik und Ästhetik sind Eins.)

[It is clear that ethics cannot be expressed. Ethics is transcendental.
(Ethics and aesthetics are one.)]
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection

This book brings together a number of new essays in an area of growing concern, namely the intersection or overlap of aesthetics and ethics. Recent developments aside, for the past thirty years or so in Anglo-American philosophy, aesthetics and ethics have been pursued in relative isolation, with aesthetics being generally regarded as the poorer, if flashier, cousin. The attention aestheticians have recently given to moral aspects of art and art criticism, and that ethicists have recently paid to aesthetic aspects of moral life and moral evaluation, give hope of ending this rather artificial isolation, though without necessarily forcing us to accede in Wittgenstein’s gnomic dictum that “ethics and aesthetics are one.”

The intersection of aesthetics and ethics can be understood to comprise three spheres of inquiry. The first is that of problems or presuppositions common to aesthetics and ethics, the two traditional branches of value theory. The second is that of ethical issues in aesthetics, or in the practice of art. And the third sphere is that of aesthetic issues in ethics, theoretical and applied.

As it turns out, the concerns of the present collection do not span the full intersection of aesthetics and ethics as just explained. For reasons of both unity and manageability, the decision was made to foreground aesthetics in the present venture. The result is that the essays fall under the first and second, but not the third ways of understanding the intersection of the two fields.

2 – Three versions of objectivity: aesthetic, moral, and scientific

How does the objective validity of aesthetic judgments compare with the objective validity of moral judgments and scientific beliefs? There are two traditional answers. According to one, aesthetic and moral appraisals both utterly lack the cognitive authority of scientific inquiry, since neither kind of appraiser has access to a fact independent of her own judgments and neither is in a position to claim that all who are adequately qualified would share her judgment. For example, emotivists deprive both aesthetic and moral judgments of both kinds of objectivity. According to the other tradition, well-formed aesthetic and moral judgments have the same cognitive authority as wellformed scientific beliefs, because in all three realms the judgment maker is often in a position to assert a truth independent of her judgments, in a claim to which all adequately qualified inquirers would assent. For example, Kant puts the three realms on a par in both ways.

Each of these traditions has distinctive liabilities, which jointly suggest the need to explore a third alternative. The debunking tradition, depriving both aesthetic and moral judgments of all the authority of science, is hard to reconcile with the pervasive aspirations to truth and interests in impersonal argument of apparently rational people engaged in moral and aesthetic judgment. On the other hand, the claims to universality in the elevating tradition often seem wishful thinking.

Elsewhere, I have defended a view of morality and science that rejects the association in both traditions of rational access to appraiser-independent truth with epistemic universality.

5 – Art, narrative, and moral understanding

With much art, we are naturally inclined to speak of it in moral terms. Especially when considering things like novels, short stories, epic poems, plays, and movies, we seem to fall effortlessly into talking about them in terms of ethical significance – in terms of whether or which characters are virtuous or vicious, and about whether the work itself is moral or immoral, and perhaps whether it is sexist or racist. Undoubtedly, poststructuralists will choke on my use of the phrase “naturally inclined,” just because they do not believe that humans are naturally inclined toward anything. But that general premise is as needlessly strong a presupposition as it is patently false. And, furthermore, I hope to show that my talk of natural inclinations is hardly misplaced here, for we are prone to respond to the types of works in question in the language of moral assessment exactly because of the kinds of things they are.

Moreover, we do not merely make moral assessments of artworks as a whole and characters in particular; it is also the case that these moral assessments are variable. That is, we find some artworks to be morally good, while some others are not; some are exemplary, while some others are vicious and perhaps even pernicious; and finally other works may not appear to call for either moral approbation or opprobrium. So, though we very frequently do advance moral assessments of artworks, it is important to stress that we have a gamut of possible evaluative judgments at our disposal: from the morally good to the bad to the ugly, to the morally indifferent and the irrelvant.

Problems at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

The Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

Ever since the publication of Kant’s Critique of Judgment, the concept of taste has been severed from its moral sense and reduced to a merely aesthetic one.1 Since then two trends have predominated in moral philosophy. The first is a rationalist view of ethics, which proposes the need to subsume particular actions under universal laws. Deontological and utilitarian theories both have this paradigm in common. The second is the refraction of this position, which marginalizes any discussion of moral feeling as a psychological question of emotivism or subjectivism.2 This trend of positivism dismisses feelings as mere emotive states, questions of psychology, subjective, and therefore not binding.

In order to recapture the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience, one needs a view of aesthetics that is not limited to reflections on the beautiful and sublime in nature or art and that is not reducible to an allegiance to taste and manners; and one needs a continuity principle that enables reflection on morality to be true to experience. Two process philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey, present a metaphysics of experience which enriches ethics by illustrating the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience. Where the traditions outlined above view reason as the pivotal faculty in navigating the moral landscape, process philosophy emphasizes the aesthetic categories of feeling and imagination as operative in moral experience.

Those skeptical of “aestheticizing morality” often invoke the show-stopping reference to the Nazi Regime, one which consciously and politically recruited aesthetic ideals toward the crystallization of immorality.3 This is the Reductio ad Hitlerum to which the title refers. Fascism and Nazism in particular habituated a marriage between politics and aesthetics, and took up the goal of making politics a triumphant and beautiful spectacle.4 Art, music, and aesthetic symbols were recruited as instruments toward fulfilling this goal.5 Nazi Germany held “countless historical pageants, Volk festivals, military parades, propaganda films, art exhibitions and [erected] grandiose buildings”6 in order to exemplify “the fascist desire to invent mythic imperial pasts and futures,”7 while stirring the passions of the people for its war efforts. The Nazis denounced any allegiance to liberal political texts such as the Versailles Treaty “in favor of decisive political action based on fatal aesthetic criteria — beautiful vs. ugly, healthy vs. degenerate, German vs. Jew.”8 It is warranted to invoke this as the problem for those who “aestheticize” morality. The Nazi problematic, illustrated by an analysis of two films surrounding the immorality of the Nazi Regime, James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day (1993) and István Szabó’s Taking Sides (2001) illuminates the limitations and failures of the tendency to “aestheticize” morality. These films help show the nuances that reside at this tense intersection between aesthetics and ethics. However, tension between aesthetics and ethics, as depicted by the two films, dissolves once one’s understanding of aesthetics ceases to be reductive and narrow.

The aesthetic dimensions of moral experience in the philosophies of Alfred North Whitehead and John Dewey provide a basis for defining the continuity between ethics and aesthetics. For Whitehead, an aesthetic vision which builds on insights of his descriptive metaphysics enables us to see moral experience as aesthetic. For Dewey, the imagination works on the possibilities at hand in order to resolve morally problematic situations, and the grist for the imagination’s mill is experiential, perceptual, and aesthetic, not merely rational or conceptual. Thus, the broad use of aesthetics advocated herein enables us to draw moral distinctions in the face of Nazi atrocities instead of blindly serving the ideal of artistic creation. Nor does it reduce aesthetics to a fetish for manners. Rather, as including imagination, perception, taste, and emotion, an aesthetic orientation to ethics can encompass the limits posed by these films, and it can morally condemn the Nazi Regime and avoid the Hitler-reductio.

A.N. Whitehead at the Intersection

A sketch of Whitehead’s metaphysics is necessary in order to show how the foundations for moral action may be subsumed under the category of aesthetic experience. According to Whitehead’s systematic metaphysics, the world is a process of becoming. It is ultimately composed of self-creating “actual occasions.”9 The act of self-creation is the “concrescence” of an actual entity, “the final real things of which the world is made up.”10 Thus an “entity” describes an occasion or event in the mode of concrescense, the act of an occasion having prehended its environment. Events create themselves by virtue of their interdependence. The mode of relation each entity has toward others and toward its possibilities in general is “feeling.” “Prehensions” are the feelings which each entity has of its environment, which includes the entire universe, as each entity pulsates and vibrates throughout the cosmos in its process of self-creation.11 Since Whitehead holds that relations are more fundamental than substance, these prehensions constitute the actual entity. Where in traditional metaphysics, substance is primary and the relations among substances are described as secondary attributes, in Whitehead’s description entities are internally related, constituted by their relations. In this process metaphysics, relations are not secondary but primary in that they constitute the entities. When an actual entity prehends its environment, the entity constitutes itself and makes itself what it is.12Each entity serves as the subject of its own becoming and the “superject” of others, imparting itself to other entities in their becoming.13 Actual entities, in process metaphysics, are events, occasions in time, and always situated in a complex, interdependent environment of other entities. Thus, Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics is relational, not atomistic.

This speculative picture of reality lends itself to reflections on moral experience, including an account of Whitehead’s theory of value. In Process and Reality, Whitehead’s theory of value uses strong aesthetic language. He describes intensity of experience as “strength of beauty”: the degree of feeling in an occasion’s prehension of its environment. 14 Further, as John Cobb notes, “The chief ingredients [to beautiful experience] are emotional.”15 The actual entity prehends its environment, feeling its aesthetic surrounding in a chiefly emotional comportment. Because the locus of value is the intensity and harmony of an experience and the emotional sphere contributes chiefly to beautiful experience, emotion need not be corralled by reason, but channeled toward the achievement of beauty. Further, Whitehead shows that philosophers who treat feelings as merely private are mistakenly taking a phase of concrescence to be the whole of experience. For Whitehead, “there is no element in the universe capable of pure privacy.”16 The impossibility of pure privacy undermines the conceptual option of positivists and others who atomize and privatize feeling in order to dismiss its role in moral experiences as subjectivism or emotivism, both of which result in relativism.

Moral experience and aesthetic experience work dialectically: “The function of morality is to promote beauty in experience,”17 but emotions inform morality by adding to the value of experience. Sensation and emotion are not passively received, private reifications; instead, they seamlessly compose the environment we inhabit. Cobb contends that “the purely aesthetic impulse and the moral one exist in a tension” and that “the good aimed at for others is an aesthetic good — the strength of beauty of their experience.”18

Whitehead writes:

In our own relatively high grade human existence, this doctrine of feelings and their subject is best illustrated by our notion of moral responsibility. The subject is responsible for being what it is in virtue of its feelings. It is also derivatively responsible for the consequences of its existence because they flow from its feelings.19

That our existence flows from our feelings reveals the foundation of moral action on aesthetic, αἰσθηματικός, “sensuous” experience. When Whitehead contends that our moral actions flow from our feelings, he places a primacy upon our emotional comportment. The main contribution we make to others is our spirit or attitude.20This spirit is a comportment and temperament, an angle of vision. If our vision is broad and seeks to contribute to the strength of beauty of others’ experience, it is continuous with moral experience. Moral vision is attitudinal and acting according to calculation, deliberation, and reason, while poor in spirit, is not moral action. Whitehead posits a theory of value where our goal is to realize a strength of beauty in our immediate occasions of action. Taking a calculating attitude towards future consequences endangers this goal.21 It is misleading to think that one can calculate rationally toward that best action.22 Rather, such moral rationalism can justify activity that we feel is inhumane, evil, ugly, unjust, and wrong. It can sever means from ends and justify that which our sentiments would impeach.

Whitehead’s speculative metaphysics, by using humanistic and aesthetic language, includes a description of moral experience. Occasions of activity become harmonious with their environment by acting in the service of beauty. Actions emanate from feelings, and right action is not the function of rational deliberation, but of whole-part relations, of fitting the variety of detail and contrast under the unity of an aesthetic concrescence. Whitehead’s is a seductive account of reality, but nowhere in it do we find something like evil. Those skeptical of such an aesthetic description of moral experience may ask, “Where is the Holocaust in this picture?” Thus, below a recourse to two films about Nazism, aesthetics, and morality enables the skeptic to reexamine the continuity between ethics and aesthetics and consider a broader, less reductive, understanding of aesthetics itself. Before addressing this question, another account of how process philosophy maintains continuity between ethics and aesthetics is in order.

John Dewey at the Intersection

In order to outline Dewey’s description of the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience, a cursory illustration of the continuity at work in his metaphysics of experience and theory of inquiry is in order. Dewey described the generic traits of human experience as both precarious and stable.23 Indeterminate situations produce the conditions of instability.24 Subjecting a precarious situation to inquiry constitutes it as problematic, enabling an agent to identify possible means of resolving the situations within the constituent features of the uniquely given situation. Our employment of imaginative intelligence directs our activity in an effort to resolve the situation by rearranging the conditions of indeterminacy toward settlement and unification.25

In a manner similar to Whitehead, Dewey refers to the creative integration of the entire complex situation with the term “value.”26 One constituent in the activity of unifying the problematic situation is the end-in-view, which functions as a specific action coordinating all other factors involved in the institution and resolution of the problem. The value is the integration and unification of the situation. When the end-in-view functions successfully toward the integration of the situation, the resultant unification is a “consummatory phase of experience.”27 Dewey wrote, “Values are naturalistically interpreted as intrinsic qualities of events in their consummatory reference.”28 Their naturalistic interpretation renders the experience of value and the process of valuation continuous with other natural processes. That is, the ends-in-view, whether or not these are moral ideals, do not exist antecedent to inquiry into the complex, historical, and uniquely given situation, as the rationalists would have it. The general traits of moral experience are found within aesthetic experience — dispelling the need dichotomize experience into the cognitive and the emotional — because values are qualities of events.

The ability to examine the aesthetic dimensions of moral experience depends on the way Dewey defines an aesthetically unified and integrated experience as consummatory. The consummation refers to the experience of the unification of meaning of all of the phases of a complex experience.29 Thus, the aesthetic experience gives a holistic meaning to the precariousness of its parts. The value of an experience, including moral value, refers, as in Whitehead’s description, to whole-part relations and the unification of various elements therein.

Art is the skill of giving each phase its meaning in light of the whole. Art unifies each function of the experience, giving reflection, action, desire, and imagination an integrated relation both to each other and to the possibility of meaningful resolution.30 Thus, Dewey refuses to parcel out a separate faculty at work in isolation in any meaningful experience, whether that is reason in cognition or emotion in sympathetic attention to a friend. The consummatory experience is one in which we employ imaginative intelligence in appropriating aesthetic, felt elements of experience above and beyond their immediacy and one in which the instability of their immediacy is seen imaginatively as a possibility toward its meaningful integration.31

Thus, artful conduct includes moral conduct, but in a way that both avoids the need to import ideals transcendent to our experience and gives moral ideals their reality in the meaning that ensues in the consequences of their enactment. The features of artful conduct inherent in moral behavior concern the ability to see possibilities in the elements of precariousness, “to see the actual in light of the possible.”32 Where the rationalist searches for a universal concept to justify a given, isolated action whose justification could be known but not felt, the moral imagination enables the agent to envision in her environment the constituent possibilities in order to reconstruct the situation.

Both Whitehead and Dewey treat moral experience as continuous with the aesthetic experience of intensity, meaning, unification, and harmony found in the consummatory phase of experience, or in Whitehead’s terms, in concrescence. Both treat vision and imagination, not calculative rationality, as operative in navigating morally problematic situations. The general trend running through these process philosophies that maintains continuity between ethics and aesthetics concerns whole-part relations. The individual in morally charged situations must harmonize her particular conduct to the whole of her environment broadly construed. She must imaginatively find the proper fit of her conduct with her greater cultural context. If she succeeds, she harmonizes her experience and the part coheres with the whole. Value, harmony, and stability ensue. Whitehead and Dewey describe our moral experience at a sufficient level of abstraction, one which could include the hosting of a dinner party or the conducting of an orchestra. Each part must cohere with the whole — harmony is the motivating ideal.

Much like Whitehead, Dewey gives us a processive account of reality which seems to cohere with personal experience; however, Dewey’s description of the pattern of inquiry has been accused of being so broad and vague that the Nazi resolution of the Jewish problem could be described according to it..33 The Germans under Hitler constituted their situation during the Great Depression as problematic. Their economy was in shambles, and their national pride was wounded. They found within their situation the constitutive elements, marginally-German, supposed conspirators and enemies of all sorts, to employ in resolving their situation. They achieved a sort of integration of their experience and a distorted sort of harmony in armament and invasion to reincorporate native Germans outside of their truncated borders. They consciously recruited aesthetic ideals and played on the national emotions of soil and blood. Thus, according to the Hitler-reductio, to condemn morally their actions with the language of Dewey or Whitehead is no easy task. The reductio causes moral philosophers to long for universality in any of its rationalist iterations.

The British Problem at the Intersection: The Remains of the Day

The philosophical depiction of aesthetic experience, of which moral dimensions compose a part, is problematic if individuals acting under aesthetic norms, guided by manners and in service of harmonizing part-whole relations, engage in outright immorality or shy away from moral duty in the face of evil. This is the “British” problem because to highlight it, we must attend to the British characters in The Remains of the Day. While much has been written on the film (and the Ishiguro novel upon which it is based), about the role of class and the symbolic nature of British imperial politics, the film also serves as an excellent test case for the continuity between aesthetics and ethics.34 The setting of The Remains of the Day, the aristocratic estate of Darlington Hall in rural England, announces an aesthetic emphasis on beauty and order which persists throughout the film. Most of the action in the film occurs in the pre-war 1930s, but the film flashes forward to the post-war 1950s to show “present” character interactions. The central characters are an emotionally-repressed butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), his superior and owner of the estate in the 1930s, Lord Darlington (James Fox), and his fellow caretaker of the estate, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson). The problematic relationship between aesthetic orientation and morality comes into view by focusing on Lord Darlington’s demeanor throughout the events of the 1930s, and Mr. Stevens’s comportment to the politically and morally problematic events that unfold at Darlington Hall.

Lord Darlington had a friend in Germany against whom he fought in the First World War, with whom he intended to sit down and have a drink after the war. But this never happened, as the German friend, ruined by the inflation that ensued in the post-Versailles Weimar Republic, took his own life. Lord Darlington exclaims to Mr. Stevens, “The Versailles Treaty made a liar out of me.” Darlington laments that the conditions of the treaty, (debt reparations, guilt clause) were too harsh: “Not how you treat a defeated foe,” as Darlington puts it. With this as his proximate motivation, Lord Darlington uses his influence to broker the policy of appeasementtoward Nazi Germany. It appears that Lord Darlington puts manners before moral duty. He hosts the delegates from Germany, France, and the United States at his home, and they dine dressed in black tie, served by the army of under-butlers commanded by Mr. Stevens.

One is tempted to view Lord Darlington’s behavior as kind, if not for other telling incidents. He temporarily agrees to employ two Jewish refugees at his estate, and it is made clear to the viewer that he understands the dangers they faced in Germany and that his home is serving as a sanctuary. However, after reading the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Lord Darlington orders that two German, Jewish maids should be discharged, as he considers their employment inappropriate for his German guests. Mr. Stevens carries out the order without reflection, while Miss Kenton threatens to resign in protest, but fails to follow through out of self-admitted weakness.35 Thus, Darlington knew of the Nazi policies in Germany, understood the potential plight of the maids, but fired them anyway in service of behavior “appropriate” for his German guests.

Darlington’s elevation of manners above duty reappears as he cannot even tell his godson (Hugh Grant), whose father has died and who is soon to be married, about the birds and the bees. He asks Mr. Stevens, his butler, to do it for him. Darlington seems unwilling to confront the issue of sexuality as it offends his Victorian manners and sensibilities. Thus, manners, while they can be seen as the outward display of inner character, here get in the way of the more difficult, unmannerly, and inappropriate conduct commanded in the face of negotiation with the Germans, the employment of the Jewish maids, and the acceptance of surrogate fatherly duties.

Mr. Stevens’s motivations are more opaque to the audience. He is so univocally driven to serve and fulfill his duty to Lord Darlington, that he almost fails to portray any moral subjectivity.36 But as the head butler, his service is also for the aesthetic ideals of orderliness and cleanliness. The prospect of a dustpan being left on the landing frightens him, such that he rushes to retrieve it before his employer notices his shortcoming. Mr. Stevens’s single-minded focus is best displayed when his own father, also an employee, is dying. Stevens attends to the dinner of the foreign delegates without pain or pause, while his own father lies on his death bed. His relationship with Miss Kenton, central to the development of his character, reveals his coldness, emotional repression, and narrowly driven service toward aesthetic ends. Miss Kenton first extends kindness to Mr. Stevens by putting flowers in his office, but he asks that they be removed so as not to distract him. She falls in love with Mr. Stevens and ends up in tears when she tries to break through his emotional wall and communicate her love to him. But he ignores her and asks to be excused to attend to his duties. Before her eventual departure and engagement to another man, she insults Stevens out of manifest distress that he has never expressed any emotional interest in her, but he still remains unmoved. After his reunion with her in the 1950s, Stevens departs for Darlington Hall in a deluge of rain. Kenton cries, but Stevens, still fails to demonstrate any feeling and only raises his hat out of politeness. While Stevens’s class-based subordination could explain his failure to fulfill his duty to his father, his coldness to Miss Kenton illustrates that he was a cold rationalist in service of aesthetics — thinly defined aesthetics.

Reflecting on Mr. Stevens’s relationship to Miss Kenton reveals two sides of the problem at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. First, because he serves only the aesthetic ideals of order, beauty, and cleanliness, he does a disservice to the human and intersubjective dimensions of moral experience. He is polite but inattentive and stoic in the face of obvious human suffering, from the firing of the Jewish maids, to the death of his father, to the jilted and regretful Miss Kenton. Does this pose a problem for the continuity between aesthetics and ethics? Stevens serves beauty at the cost of moral duty but also interpersonal sympathy. Since an emotional angle of vision is the necessary condition for attending to moral circumstances, his aesthetic orientation is too narrow. While he has an aesthetic ideal as his motive, he has a rational methodology to achieve it. He acts in each situation as if subsuming his particular action under the universal conceptual criteria of serving beauty and order. He does not allow his actions to flow from his feelings as Whitehead would prescribe. His contribution to others is his spirit, but this is a cold, deliberate, and rational spirit. Thus, with Mr. Stevens as a test case, a conception of aesthetic experience needs to be broad enough to include emotional comportment. Failing to do so through operating in service of a narrow ideal of beauty reveals an impoverished sense of aesthetics which results in immorality.

American Congressman, Mr. Lewis (Christopher Reeve) of The Remains of the Dayserves as a pivot to the American problem at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics discussed at length below. Laughed at as nouveau riche by the British delegates, Lewis attends the conference with the intent of resisting the policy of appeasement. Because he fails to recruit the French delegate, Dupont d’Ivry (Michael Lonsdale), to his side (D’Ivry is busy attending to his sore feet), Mr. Lewis resorts to making an impolite toast at the black tie dinner. He argues in favor of the Realpolitik of professionals, rather than that of “honorable amateurs,” which is his epithet for the noblemen in his company and the Lord who is his host. In his toast “to the professionals” he embodies the moral high ground against the Nazis and the unmannerly and barefooted behavior of a stereotypical American on aristocratic soil; thus he hammers in the wedge that separates manners from morals. Apparently, Americans stand up for right against wrong even at the expense of politeness and pretty conduct. Lewis is a representative character for those skeptical of continuity between aesthetics and ethics. He knows that aesthetic ideals, when reducible to the appreciation of good taste and mannerly behavior, can dull moral distinctions. Yet he fails to unify the precariousness of his situation in a manner which Whitehead or Dewey describe.

The American Problem at the Intersection: Taking Sides

Taking Sides tells the story of Dr. Wilhelm Furtwängler, (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the most respected German conductors of the 20th century, who chose to remain in Germany during the Nazi regime. After Germany’s defeat, he fell victim to a ruthless investigation by the Allies. The major in charge of the investigation is a stereotypically uncultured American, Major Steven Arnold (Harvey Keitel), who works in the insurance business. Arnold tries to uncover how complicit Furtwängler was. Furtwängler was appointed to the Privy Council, he was Hitler’s favorite conductor, and Goebbels and Goering honored him. However, he never joined the Nazi party, he helped numerous Jews escape, and several witnesses testify that he tried to protect Jewish musicians under his direction.

The audience is left to judge Furtwängler morally. On the one hand, Arnold has the moral high ground. The Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust, and the Allied victory ended it. Justice awaits the guilty. But Major Arnold is no Congressman Lewis, who has the outward appearance of a British Peer but falls short of their mannerly conduct only by degree. Arnold is a bullying interrogator, somewhere between the caricature of an ugly American and a down-to-earth pragmatist who thinks musical genius is no excuse for collusion with Nazism, and he is willing to employ an overbearing rudeness to expose this. For Arnold, the question is all about strength of will, and he deems Furtwängler weak. However, Arnold seems to misunderstand most of Furtwängler’s replies to his questions, and at times, his interrogation seems like self-righteous taunting and badgering. The viewer is left wondering whether the distressed conductor or the clinched-fist interrogator is acting more like a Nazi.

In one telling exchange, Furtwängler claims that art has mystical powers, which nurture man’s spiritual needs. He confesses to being extremely naïve. While having maintained the absolute separation of art and politics, he devoted his life to music because he thought through music he could do something practical: to maintain liberty, humanity, and justice. Arnold replies with sarcastic disdain, “Gee, that’s a thing of beauty. […] But you used the word “naïve.” Are you saying you were wrong in maintaining the separation of art and politics?”37 Furtwängler replies that he believed art and politics should be separated, but that they were not kept separate by the Nazis, and he learned this at his own cost. Furtwängler is in an obvious bind here. He cannot hold the following propositions together without internal contradiction: (1) Art has mystical power which nurture’s man’s spiritual needs; (2) Art and politics should be kept separate; (3) Art can maintain liberty, justice and humanity; (4) Art was not kept separate from politics during Nazi rule in Germany, and this was a bad thing. If art nurtures man’s spiritual needs, but art must be kept separate from politics, are man’s spiritual needs distinct from questions of community and well-functioning societies? Put otherwise, can music perform its practical function of maintaining justice, while being separate from politics? It would not seem so.

In what follows this interrogation, Arnold accuses Furtwängler of weakness, of selling out to the Nazis for ordinary petty reasons of fear, jealousy of other conductors, and selfishness. Arnold’s two subordinates are offended by his demeanor and his denigration of a national artistic genius and hero. His assistant eventually refuses to participate. She claims that Arnold is embodying the demeanor of the S.S., which she witnessed firsthand. But Arnold shows her a film of corpses being bulldozed into mass graves, and he tells her that Furtwängler’s friends did this, and by virtue of the fact that Furtwängler actually helped some Jews escape, he knew what they were doing.

The moment of supposed revelation for the viewers of the film comes by way of archival footage, in which Furtwängler is shown shaking hands with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels after a concert. Furtwängler’s face reveals the complexity of emotions at work — placidness, fear, and contempt. Furtwängler wipes his hand on his leg, revealing his disdain for his patron, but remains reserved and inoffensive. At once the viewer feels he is redeemed, because his true feelings for Goebbels and the Nazi project are revealed, but Furtwängler’s weakness is evident, as Arnold would have pointed out. Ultimately Furtwängler served the harmonious sensibility of artistic creation. Indeed, throughout the film the German admiration of him is severe, especially when contrasted to Arnold’s unimpressed frankness with him. The German temperament and faithfulness to aesthetic appreciation is manifest in a scene where the German audience stands in the rain, listening to Furtwängler conduct a symphony. To leave would offend, and service to the aesthetic ideals cannot give way to pragmatic considerations — how “American” that would be! One imagines Arnold thinking “what insensible dolt stands in the rain to listen to music?” Perhaps Congressman Lewis’s willingness to offend at the black tie dinner can be seen as a middle ground between Arnold’s bullying and Furtwängler’s and Darlington’s inverted values. However, this might only translate conduct into class, hiding the one true moral question beneath another layer of social convention. Arnold would insist that knowing where your salad fork belongs may not prevent you from colluding with murderers.

The Continuity between Ethics and Aesthetics

For both Whitehead and Dewey there are no universal moral situations. Our occasions of experience are always contextual and specific, never occurring in vacuous actuality. But this calls for a more general approach to descriptive ethics, not a more particularized prescription of universal moral laws. Both philosophers begin with a description of the general traits of experience and each uses highly aesthetic language. Each treats imagination and vision, not rationality, as operative in navigating morally problematic situations. Whitehead, by making feeling a metaphysical category, gives emotion a primary role; Dewey, in collapsing the gap between scientific, practical, and moral inquiries, gives imaginative intelligence primacy.

Neither of our two films presents the ideal character, with an emotional comportment and an intensity of experience able to serve as the causally efficacious and morally demanding superject in its environment. Nor do they offer a character of superior imaginative intelligence who finds and applies the elements of her problematic situation as means toward the valuable integration of meaning. This is not a surprise. England appeased the Nazis; the Holocaust occurred and so did the very limited prosecution of the guilty by the Allies afterwards. Furthermore, ugly, but welcomed, Americans plodded onto European soil either on the model of Major Arnold, at worst, or on that of Congressman Lewis at best. (He eventually buys Darlington Hall and retains Mr. Stevens as his butler, but he installs a ping-pong table there, of all aesthetic affronts). Does the “American” problem recur in summer retreats to European museums and cafes? Americans plod, loud and entitled, over the artistic feats of the Continent, and their European hosts translate aesthetic missteps into moral offense.

Where did each character fall short, and what did their shortcomings reveal about the intersection of aesthetics and ethics? Lord Darlington employed his servants to erect a mannerly and orderly veneer between him and that which is ugly. However, he can be viewed as a tragic figure because his mild manners and sensitivity to common cultural (and aesthetic in the narrow sense) values with the Germans were used against him. He ended in disgrace as the news of his involvement in the appeasement was publicized by the press. But his heightened sense of manners disabled him from confronting the soil of moral problems as he did not want to get dirty — (that’s what the servants are for). The head butler, Stevens, was not the emotionally comported or spontaneously active character tacitly advocated for by Whiteheadian ethics, but the coldly rational and deliberative agent serving a narrow aesthetic end. Miss Kenton and Furtwängler demonstrated a weakness of will in the face of wrong-doing, and for that they are condemned, not by an aesthetic measure, but by a pragmatic one. Their beliefs were their propensities to act, and their inability to act revealed a weak belief in their moral ideals.38 But the American characters are not morally pure. As the victors, the

tools they had at their disposal to resolve their situations were ready at hand, and they too were constituted by their prehensions of their environment. Denigrating an artistic genius does not show the service of a moral ideal, but only the privileged position of Major Arnold of judging Furtwängler’s weakness from outside his context.

These films do illustrate the tension at work at the intersection of aesthetics and ethics. While both films depict the limitations and failures of the tendency to “aestheticize” morality, they do not prove the need to import a falsely universal moral ideal antecedent to the experience of a particular problematic situation in order to judge right from wrong. Insofar as the tools needed to make these judgments are had in experience, they have been, accurately described by figures like Whitehead and Dewey, in aesthetic language. The Reductio ad Hitlerum only succeeds if the meaning of aesthetics is deflated and reduced to something much narrower than either Whitehead or Dewey intended, such as reflection on artistic creation. The broad use of aesthetics advocated here does not fail to draw moral distinctions in the face of Nazi atrocities while blindly serving the ideal of artistic beauty or mere manners. Rather, as including imagination and emotion, an aesthetic orientation to ethics encompasses the problems posed by the characters’ shortcomings, even if their moral shortcomings run parallel to their heightened aesthetic and misguided sensibilities.


  1. Hans Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, (London: Continuum, 2006), 31. Nöel Carroll makes the further claim that because of Kant’s aesthetic theory and its interpretation, twentieth century philosophers have neglected the ethical criticism of art. (Noël Carroll, “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research,” Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp 350). ↩︎
  2. Thomas Alexander, “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination: Beyond Putnam and Rorty toward a Postmodern Ethics,” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, (Summer 1993), 373. ↩︎
  3. For a complex examination of this problematic, see George Kateb, “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility,” Political Theory, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 5-37. ↩︎
  4. See Noël Carroll, “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research,” Ethics, Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 350-387. Carroll highlights the problematic relationship between ethics and art criticism by examining the immorality and aesthetic value of The Triumph of the Will, among other artifacts. ↩︎
  5. Boaz Neumann, “The National Socialist Politics of Life,” New German Critique, No. 85, Special Issue on Intellectuals (Winter, 2002), p 120. ↩︎
  6. Paul Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism: The Case of Nazi Modernism,” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), 546. ↩︎
  7. Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism,” 547. ↩︎
  8. Betts, “The New Fascination with Fascism,” 547. ↩︎
  9. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (London: The Free Press, 1978), 18. ↩︎
  10. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 18, 22. ↩︎
  11. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 19. ↩︎
  12. Harold B. Dunkel, “Creativity and Education,” Educational Theory, Volume XI, Number 4, (1961), 209. ↩︎
  13. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 29. ↩︎
  14. John B. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value,” religion-online.org Accessed 2/27/2015. ↩︎
  15. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  16. Whitehead, Process and Reality, 212. ↩︎
  17. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  18. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  19. Process and Reality, 222. ↩︎
  20. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  21. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  22. Cobb, “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” ↩︎
  23. Dewey, Later Works Vol. 1, Ed. Boydston, (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990) 42-45. ↩︎
  24. Dewey, Logic The Theory of InquiryLW 12: 110. ↩︎
  25. Dewey, LW 12: 121. ↩︎
  26. James Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, (New York: Humanities Press, 1972), 132. ↩︎
  27. Dewey, LW 10: 143. ↩︎
  28. Dewey, LW 1: 9. ↩︎
  29. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 150. ↩︎
  30. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 151. ↩︎
  31. Gouinlock, John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value, 152. ↩︎
  32. Alexander, “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination,” 384. ↩︎
  33. Richard Posner*, Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy*, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 45. Posner claims that pragmatism, via Darwinism, has nurtured philosophies including Nazism. ↩︎
  34. See, for example, Meera Tamaya, “Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day: The Empire Strikes Back,” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (spring, 1992), pp. 45-56. Tanaya focuses on the relationship between Darlington and Stevens as one of colonizer and colonized, subject and object. ↩︎
  35. See Geoffrey G. Field, Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981). ↩︎
  36. See McCombe, “The End of (Anthony) Eden: Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day” and Midcentury Anglo-American Tensions,” 78. ↩︎
  37. See Page R. Laws, “Taking Sides by Ronald Harwood; India Ink by Tom Stoppard,” (review), Theatre Journal, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), pp. 107-108. Laws makes note of the fact that the Nazis used art in the service of politics. ↩︎
  38. Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers (1958-1966), Vol. 5, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds., (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 400. ↩︎

References: 

Alexander, Thomas. “John Dewey and the Moral Imagination: Beyond Putnam and Rorty toward a Postmodern Ethics.” Transactions of the Charles Sanders Peirce Society. Vol. XXIX. No. 3. (Summer 1993).

Betts, Paul. “The New Fascination with Fascism: The Case of Nazi Modernism.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 37. No. 4. (Oct., 2002).

Carroll, Noël. “Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.” Ethics. Vol. 110, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 350-387.

Cobb, John B. Jr. “Whitehead’s Theory of Value.” www.religion-online.org.

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 1, Ed. Boydston, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 10. Ed. Boydston, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dewey, John. Later Works Vol. 12. Ed. Boydston. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967-1990.

Dunkel, Harold B. “Creativity and Education,” Educational Theory. Vol. XI. No. 4. (1961).

Field, Geoffrey G. Evangelist of Race: The Germanic Vision of Houston Stewart Chamberlain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981.

Gadamer, Hans Georg. Truth and Method. London: Continuum, 2006.

Gouinlock, James. John Dewey’s Philosophy of Value. New York: Humanities Press, 1972.

Ivory, James. The Remains of the Day. Merchant Ivory Film, 1993.

Kateb, George. “Aestheticism and Morality: Their Cooperation and Hostility.” Political Theory. Vol. 28. No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 5-37.

Neumann, Boaz. “The National Socialist Politics of Life.” New German Critique. No. 85. Special Issue on Intellectuals (Winter, 2002), pp. 107-130.

Peirce, Charles Sanders, (1958-1966) Collected papers. Vols. 1- 6, Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, eds., (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press).

Posner, Richard. Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Szabó, István. Taking Sides. Paladin Production S.A., 2001.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. London: The Free Press, 1978.About the Author: 

Seth Vannatta earned his PhD in philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University, where he won the university award for research and scholarship in 2012. He studies the history of philosophy and American philosophy and is interested in philosophy’s relationship to other dimensions of culture including law, politics, education, and sport. He is the author of Conservationsim and Pragmatism in Law, Politics, and Ethics(Palgrave Macmillan, 2014) and editor and contributor to Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal (Open Court, 2012). He has published articles in The Pluralist, Contemporary Pragmatism, The European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy, Education and Culture, and others.

Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics

By David George Haskell

A sense of beauty is a rigorous, perhaps even objective, foundation for environmental ethics. Our human aesthetic judgment integrates many strands of experience: intellect, emotion, bodily senses, and all we know from our interactions with others, both human and non-human others. From this integration, we understand the good.

Of course, an aesthetic sense is subject to the whims of desire, passing fads, and superficial impressions. So a well-grounded ethic depends for its rigor on a mature sense of aesthetics. By “mature,” I mean a sense of aesthetics that emerges from many years of lived relationship with a place and its community of life, both human and non-human. Such experience allows us to “unself” our judgment into the wider experience of the community. Our aesthetic and then our ethic will thus emerge not just from the limited confines of our own self, but from the knowledge that lives within the networks from which communities are made.

Once we—collectively—have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place, and, from there, I believe we can begin to form an objective—or near-objective—foundation for ethical discernment. Answers emerge from the community of life itself, filtered through human experience and consciousness.

What do I mean by that? Years of experience in a particular place will open us to the lives of other people and other species in that place, so our sense of aesthetics will incorporate their realities. Once we have that, we have a ground for moving forward and making ethical decisions that are actually deeply rooted in the physical, biological realities of a place, rather than coming only from abstractions of a seminar room or dogmas in a philosophy born in another ecosystem.

Aesthetics is often presented as something that’s very subjective, divorced from the reality of the world. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A sense of ecologic aesthetics comes from a very gritty, sensually rich experience that has its tendrils in the realities of a place.

None of this can answer the ethical nihilist who poses the question, “So, what? Ethics are vaporous illusions carved into the human nervous system by evolution.” But if some ground for ethics does exist in this universe, then a sense of aesthetics can, I think, help us find this ground by a process that fully acknowledges and embraces our existence as evolved members of ecological communities. This is a fully biological foundation for ethics.

On a practical level, if we try to answer questions about how to live in particular places without first listening to the realities and particularities of the place itself, our answers are going to be unmoored and will have terrible consequences. Understanding how to live ethically in a place is an extraordinarily complicated, important, and difficult challenge. Moving forward with answers that are not based on deep engagement with a place and its inhabitants is a recipe for disaster. So action in the world demands, first, a practice of listening.

Religious and philosophical traditions have known this for many millennia: contemplation and action go together, just as the inhale and the exhale go together. Monastic communities are deeply contemplative, but also have engaged in action in the world—whether that action is caring for other people in hospitals, or agricultural action, or caring for the sick. This history evinces the truth that we need open, contemplative spaces within our lives, especially lives of action. I think there’s a hunger for that kind of open space. Without it, we feel a desperation and a feeling that we’re up against the wall without a good way forward. Contemplative practices create spaces for new ideas, new connections to emerge. That sounds like a rather goal-oriented way of putting it, but I do think that one of the fruits of contemplation is an increased ability to come up with new ideas or to see old ideas in a new light.

In the environmental community, there are some instances of people making decisions about the fate of ecosystems when the decision-makers have never experienced the ecosystem at stake. When NGOs, governments, or businesses have decision-making structures that are divorced from the lived experience of a place, then the outcomes will most likely not be good for that place or the people in them. We need to bring lived experience of ecosystems back into the decision-making process.

Call: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age – British Society of Aesthetics Conference

Published: AUGUST 20, 2020

Call for Abstracts

British Society of Aesthetics: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age
27th and 28th May 2021
Cambridge, UK
https://fass.open.ac.uk/research/conferences/AEDA

Submission deadline: 31st December 2020

Submissions are invited for the upcoming conference British Society of Aesthetics: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Digital Age. The conference will take place on 27th and 28th May 2021 in Cambridge, UK.

The aim of this conference is to explore some developments in recent practice that raise new and interesting questions for the philosophy of art. Artists, working independently in different parts of the world, are creating new forms of technological interfaces and experimenting with the biological, the nano and the digital. At the heart of all their works is a deep ethos of balancing the aesthetic and the ethical in how we relate with others and our environment, whether in the same physical space or as distributed bodies. The spheres of the arts, sciences, and (in particular) technology overlap both to explore and to attempt to change the way in which we live in the world. These artistic practices raise questions about the interaction between aesthetics and ethics that go beyond those familiar to us in discussions over the past decade or so.

Abstracts of up to 1000 words should be submitted as an email attachment to Satinder Gill (spg12@cam.ac.uk) and Derek Matravers (derek.matravers@open.ac.uk). Please include the talk title, author’s name, affiliation and contact details in the body of email; and please write “BSA Conference Submission” in the subject line.  Abstracts should outline a talk lasting 25 minutes, on a topic related to the topic of the conference. The deadline for submissions is the end of 31st December 2020.

There will be no registration fee for the conference. UK-based contributing speakers will be encouraged to apply for the BSA Travel Stipend to cover travel and accommodation costs. The conference will adhere to BPA/SWIP Good Practice Scheme.

The conference website is https://fass.open.ac.uk/research/conferences/AEDA. For more information, please email Satinder Gill or Derek Matravers (emails above).

This conference is generously supported by the British Society of Aesthetics.

https://materialworldblog.com/2015/03/aesthetics-and-ethics-an-enquiry-into-their-relationship/

The relationship between aesthetics and ethics has long been the topic of scholarly debates, from Kant’s (1928[1790]) insistence that the experience of beauty involved disinterested contemplation and, subsequently, the separation of aesthetics from ethics, or Wittgenstein’s (1961[1889]) enigmatic proposition that ‘ethics and aesthetics are one’, to the numerous enquiries into the ethical aspects of art and art criticism or the aesthetic aspects of moral life and moral evaluation (e.g. Bourdieu 1984, Foucault 1985, 1986, Eco 1986, Eagleton 1990, Guattari 1995, Korsmeyer 1998, Levinson 2001, Rancière 2006, Osborne and Tanner 2007).
How has anthropology related to these debates? Thompson (2006[1973)], Bateson (2006[1973)], or Boone (1986), for example, in the tradition of a holistic anthropology, have analysed local concepts of beauty and illustrated the ways in which these concepts articulated with religious and moral values. Gell (1998), to give another example, through his notion of the artwork as an index, which enables the observer to make causal inferences about the artist’s intentions, has theoretically paved the way for inquiries into the morality of intentions. Furthermore, how can anthropology contribute to these debates, especially in light of its increasing interest in ethics (e.g. Lambek 2010, Faubion 2011, Robbins 2013, Keane 2013, 1014, Fassin and Lézé 2014, Laidlaw 2014)?

Participants have been invited to address the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in anthropology and to consider the following questions:
i) do the definitions of aesthetics and ethics currently in use in anthropology help or hinder us in our reflections on their relationship?
ii) when are the questions of aesthetics and ethics similar?
iii) what kind of theoretical framework is appropriate for reflecting on this relationship? (e.g. value theory; then the questions might be: how does aesthetic value relate to the notion of value generally? how does ethical value relate to the notion of value generally? are these types of value incompatible?)
iv) what kind of ethnographic topic is appropriate for reflecting on this relationship? (only those where there is an explicit expectation that aesthetic principles are guided by ethical considerations, such as Qur’anic art and Islamic fashion?)
v) should a third term, that is, politics, be also taken into consideration in order to better understand the relationship between aesthetics and ethics?

https://philpapers.org/browse/aesthetics-and-ethics

About this topic 

SummaryBroadly construed, Aesthetics and Ethics concerns the relationship between art and morality. Here we ask: Can artworks provide moral knowledge? Can artworks corrupt and instruct morally?  More narrowly construed, the category concerns the relationship between aesthetic and moral value. The chief question is this: Do moral flaws with works of art constitute aesthetics flaws? In addition, we can ask if aesthetic value is morally significant. This last issue has important implications for environmental ethics.
Key worksThe most important collection on the topic is Levinson 1998. The majority of the work on the topic is in essay form, but there are a few influential books. Gaut 2007 is an important, recent monograph. 
IntroductionsAlthough a bit out of date, Carroll 2000 provides an excellent overview of the area.  Gaut 2001 is also an excellent introduction.

References

Art and Ethical Criticism: An Overview of Recent Directions of Research.

Noël Carroll – 2000 – Ethics 110 (2):350-387.

Art and Ethics.

Berys Gaut – 2001 – In Berys Nigel Gaut & Dominic Lopes (eds.), 

The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics. Routledge. pp. 341–352.

Art, Emotion and Ethics.

Berys Gaut – 2007 – Oxford University Press.

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection.

Jerrold Levinson (ed.) – 1998 – Cambridge University Press.

AESTHETICS & ETHICS: OTHERNESS AND MORAL IMAGINATION FROM ARISTOTLE TO LEVINAS AND FROM UNCLE TOM’S CABIN TO HOUSE MADE OF DAWN

In recent years, American Studies have taken a turn toward the political. However, although poststructuralism and deconstruction have undermined numerous of the moral-philosophical dogmas of the Western metaphysical tradition, many of the political claims that the revisionist turn in American Studies has voiced still rest, if tacitly, on these moral and ethical assumptions. As the latter often collide with the theoretical axioms that inform these revisionist works, some resort to what one could call the “pathos of marginality” and rather vague concepts of “otherness.” Moreover, these political-ideological readings often completely blot out aesthetic aspects, as these are suspected to be carriers of implicit and hegemonic strategies of representation.

In the first part, this study analyzes what role “otherness” plays in the most influential moral-philosophical approaches to date – from Aristotle and the Neo-Aristotelians (Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum) via Kantianism and its deconstructors (Jean-François Lyotard, J. Hillis Miller) to the works of Paul Ricoeur and Emmanuel Levinas – and sheds light on its highly problematic status in Western notions of justice. Moreover, on the background of these analyses it examines the role that aesthetics plays not only for, but within these approaches, with a special focus on what task literature is accorded to dramatize the clash of sameness and otherness.

Starting from a revised notion of the sublime, the second part “applies” the different approaches to four American novels: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, and examines how far the moral-philosophical systems carry to elucidate these texts. What becomes clear is that none of these works can be captured in their complexity by either one moral philosophy or one political agenda, in that every literary “exemplification” of such theory inevitably falls prey to the treacherous dynamics of the example – a dynamics that inhabits literature and haunts ethics, and that defies literature’s instrumentalization by either ethics or ideologies.

Keywords: American Studies, Aesthetics, Ethics, the Sublime, the Other, Otherness, Immanuel Kant, Jean-François Lyotard, J. Hillis Miller, Martha Nussbaum, Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Emmanuel Levinas, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Herman Melville, Billd Budd, Richard Wright, Native Son, N. Scott Momaday, House Made of Dawn, Ecology.

Contents

List of Abbreviations for Reference Works

Introduction

American Studies Today

Enter (And Leave): The Aesthetic

Difficult Neighbors: Ethics and Aesthetics

The Novels

I. The Kantian Legacy of Deconstruction

1. Kant – for Example

2. The Ethics of Reading and the End of History

2.1. Ce dangereux exemple…

2.2. De Man’s Demands

2.3. …close the gap!

2.4. Giving the Li(f)e to Miller’s Lie

3. Toward a Politics of the Sublime: Jean-François Lyotard

3.1. The Idea of the “Idea”

3.2. Lyotard Just Gaming?

3.3. The Sacrificial Sublime

II. The Return of Aristotle: Alasdair MacIntyre and Martha Nussbaum

4. Going Back Home: MacIntyre and the Greek Polis

4.1. The Price of Historicization

4.2. The Polis Rebuilt

4.3. Virtual Ethics and Virtuous Reading

4.4. Ethics, Practice, and the Narrative Unity of a Human Life

5. A Mind too Refined to be Touched by an Idea: Martha Nussbaum’s Aristotelian Liberalism

5.1. Aristotle and the Virtues

5.2. The Tragic Muse as Éducation Sentimentale

5.3. The End of Tragedy and The Limits of Identification

III. Approaching the Other: Emmanuel Levinas and Paul Ricoeur

6. Oneself for the Other: Emmanuel Levinas

6.1. Facing The Other

6.2. Ethics, Politics, and Literature

6.3. The Other Sublime

7. Oneself as Another: Paul Ricoeur

7.1. Toward a Narrative Ethics

7.2. Narration and Alterity

7.3. A Tragic Encounter – Narrating the Other

IV. Toward an Ethics of Literature

8. Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

8.1. How to Turn a Thing Into a Man, or: Categorical Imperative vs. Golden Rule

8.2. Sentimentalism as Aesthetic and Ethical Strategy

8.3. The Economy of Religion and Politics

8.4. Face/Off

9. Herman Melville: Billy Budd, Sailor

9.1. Phronimos Goes To War

9.2. Literature, Responsibility, and Political Philosophy: Hannah Arendt and Paul Ricoeur

9.3. (Ef-)facing the Other – Melville’s Silences, Ethics, and War

9.4. Singular Madnesses, Maddening Singularities: Vere, Billy, and the “Hebrew Prophets”

10. Richard Wright: Native Son

10.1. Polis into Metropolis, or: How to Identify with a Rat

10.2. Whose Narrative Is It, Anyway?

10.3. The Racial Sublime

10.4.  Re(w)ri(gh)ting Native Son, Or: Who’s Afraid of Bigger Thomas?

11. N. Scott Momaday: House Made Of Dawn

11.1.  Polis into Pueblo, or: How to Identify with a Bear

11.2. “Evil Was”: Balance, Control, and the Ethics of Myth

11.3. To Kill or Not to Kill

11.4.  Excursus: Is there an other Other? Toward an Environmental Ethics

Conclusion

References

Index of Names

My Related Posts

Aesthetics and Ethics: At the Intersection

On Aesthetics

On Beauty

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness: Integral Theory of Ken Wilber

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful

On Classical Virtues

Indra’s Net: On Interconnectedness

Levels of Human Psychological Development in Integral Spiral Dynamics

Arts and Moral Philosophy

Human Rights and Human Development

Third and Higher Order Cybernetics

The Social Significance of Drama and Narrative Arts

Key Sources of Reserach

AESTHETICS AND ETHICS: THE STATE OF THE ART

Jeffory Dean

https://aesthetics-online.org/page/DeanState

Aesthetics and ethics

Tanner, Michael

https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/aesthetics-and-ethics/v-1

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection

https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/aesthetics-and-ethics/44B8E5696692AEEEF09A034CFDE57B8C

Problems at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Ethics

Seth Vannatta (Morgan State University)

https://responsejournal.net/issue/2016-08/article/problems-intersection-aesthetics-and-ethics

‘ETHICS AND AESTHETICS ARE ONE’

Diané Collinson

The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 25, Issue 3, SUMMER 1985, Pages 266–272, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjaesthetics/25.3.266Published: 01 March 1985

Aesthetics and Ethics in Gadamer, Levinas, and Romanticism: Problems of Phronesis and Techne

David P. Haney

PMLA Vol. 114, No. 1, Special Topic: Ethics and Literary Study (Jan., 1999), pp. 32-45 (14 pages) Published By: Modern Language Association 

The Marriage of Aesthetics and Ethics

Series: Critical Studies in German Idealism, Volume: 15

Editor: Stéphane Symons

https://brill.com/view/title/31979

Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’S Critique of Moralization of Ethics

October 2019

Project: Ethics as Aesthetics: Foucault’s Critique of Moralization of Ethics

Erwin Arellano Mallo

University of Southern Mindanao

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/336242982_Ethics_as_Aesthetics_Foucault%27S_Critique_of_Moralization_of_Ethics

“One and the Same? Ethics, Aesthetics, and Truth.” 

Eaglestone, Robert.

Poetics Today 25, no. 4 (2004): 595-608. muse.jhu.edu/article/177238.

Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics

By David George Haskell

Aesthetics & Ethics: Otherness and Moral Imagination from Aristotle to Levinas and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn

Thomas Claviez

Aesthetics & Ethics: Otherness and Moral Imagination from Aristotle to Levinas and from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to House Made of Dawn

(Heidelberg: Winter, 2008) 

http://www.claviez.de/?page_id=41

Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wittgenstein-aesthetics/

Aesthetics and Ethics

Aesthetics and Ethics  

Richard Eldridge

The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics

Edited by Jerrold Levinson

The Ethics of Aesthetics

Don Ritter Berlin, Germany

“Ethics and Aesthetics are One”: The Case of Zen Aesthetics

Bai, H. (1997).

Canadian Review of Art Education, 24(2), 37-52.

Ethics as Style:
Wittgenstein’s Aesthetic Ethics and Ethical Aesthetics

Kathrin Stengel

Independent Scholar, New York

Arts and Moral Philosophy

Arts and Moral Philosophy

This post is an extension of my last post on Aesthetics and Ethics.  How narrative arts such as Literature, Novels, Poetry, Films and Dramas interact with moral ethical concerns and emotions of human beings.

Key People/Terms

  • Martha Nussbaum – Aristotle
  • Iris Murdoch – Plato
  • Noel Carroll
  • Hall of Mirrors
  • Hall of Reflection
  • Literature
  • Novels
  • Films and Dramas
  • Narrative Arts
  • Aesthetics
  • Ethics
  • Moral Philosophy
  • Ethical Criticism of Arts
  • Virtue Ethics

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions, Ethics, and Literature

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions, Ethics, and Literature

Martha Nussbaum has been recently described as a “philosopher of feelings” and indeed, throughout her career, she has written on disgust, shame, desire, sex, patriotism, love, empathy, and most recently, anger. According to Nussbaum, there is ethical value in emotions, and we are wrong to ostracize them outside the sphere of philosophical relevance. Understanding our emotions helps us build a morally just society and relate to one another in a way that is deeply respectful and moral. It helps us extend our humanity toward people we have previously rejected as “the other,” and is a crucial part of building a healthy democracy.

Emotions are extremely significant to our efforts of living a good life. In Love’s Knowledge (1990), Nussbaum maintains that feelings have unrightfully been banished from philosophy under two equally false pretexts. Critics have either portrayed them as these blind, irrational impulses that have nothing to do with cognition and have to be strictly controlled by the reins of rationality, or maintained that if they do have any cognitive value and can indeed tell us something about the world, what they tell us is simply false. The first objection equates an emotion with an instinctual appetite, an animal need, a mere bodily function. Yet, Nussbaum argues, we can agree that grief, for instance, is very much different from hunger, and in fact due to developments in anthropology, cognitive science, and psychology, this view has become antiquated. Besides, we don’t need scientific evidence to acknowledge that grief cannot be compared to hunger, as grief is sustained by a variety of assumptions with epistemic value. Which leads us to the second set of objections.

Emotions do have cognitive value, so it should only follow logically that they must have some ethical value as well. To continue with the example of grief, the experience of the feeling presupposes the belief that someone has been lost, that the loss is irrevocable, that the person lost had tremendous and irreplaceable value, etc. To give another example, Nussbaum’s account of anger unfolds the various assumptions that underlie this emotion, amongst which the idea that there is some kind of cosmic balance that has been upset when a person has been wronged, and that directing his or her fury at the wrongdoer will somehow restore that balance.

Some emotions encompass beliefs about the world that upon scrutiny do indeed turn out to be wrong, but this is precisely why we need to take them seriously and subject them to careful investigation. It can be expected that upon discovering that certain emotions are unwarranted or unfounded, we will discard them, just as we do with beliefs when we discover they are false. Some emotions are indeed irrational, but so are a vast number of beliefs, yet it has never occurred to philosophers to banish beliefs from philosophy altogether. Furthermore, it is inconsistent, Nussbaum argues, to discredit emotions as insignificant and untrustworthy, while simultaneously recognizing that a change in one’s feelings also brings with it a change in one’s beliefs (see, for instance, the role emotions play in advertising or politics). We are wary of a political discourse suffused with emotions, as it can be much more effective than one that fully ignores our feelings. The Sophists, masters of rhetoric that they were, knew and fully embraced this, but Nussbaum points out that they weren’t the only ones. Pre-Socratic philosophers and poets were much more supportive of an entanglement between art, emotions, and philosophy, before Socrates/Plato came along and drew a dichotomy between them (pp. 14–15).

“Belief,” Nussbaum writes, “is sufficient for emotion, and emotion necessary for full belief” (p. 41). If a person believes that X was the most important person in her life, and X died, then that person will be affected by grief. If she doesn’tbelieve in the significance of X, she will not experience grief. Conversely, if a person maintains that she is a feminist, for instance, and witnesses an act of abuse against women and yet has no reaction (i.e., outrage), this would make us question the sincerity of that person’s convictions. We should admit, along with Aristotle—a philosopher Nussbaum reveres and draws significantly from—that emotions are “discriminating responses closely connected with beliefs about how things are and what is important” (ibid.). Sometimes, they might be even more reliable as our moral compasses than detached intellectual judgements, since they embody our most deeply rooted views about the world.

If emotions indeed have cognitive value, why do we still reject them? Nussbaum suggests that the main objection brought to emotions is that “they involve value judgements that attach great worth to uncontrolled things outside the agent; they are … acknowledgements of the finite and imperfectly controlled character of human life” (p. 42). To counter this vulnerability, Western philosophy has aspired to a kind of self-sufficiency, a belief that nothing bad will ever happen to those who do everything right.

In the uncertain world of ancient Greece, being human was seen as both supremely beautiful and fatally doomed. In a world governed by capricious gods, man felt subjected to tuche (fate or luck, or as Nussbaum explains it, that which just happens to a person as opposed to that which is her own doing). Many thus aspired to regain some form of control, some way to escape being at the mercy of tuche. This control came in the form of Platonic, rational self-sufficiency. Use your reason and you will be in touch with the divine forms. Nothing bad can happen to a good person. This rational self-sufficiency aspires to make “the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason” ([1986] 2001, p. 3). At its roots lies Socrates’s claim that a good person cannot be harmed, as expressed by Plato in the Apology (41c-d).

Nussbaum urges us to recognize, along with the Greek tragic poets, that mankind is fragile.  In The Fragility of Goodness (id., p. 5), she writes that her position acknowledges

That I am an agent, but also a plant; that much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being; that I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing some wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that it is equally problematic to entrust one’s good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them—all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of lived practical reason.

These “everyday facts of lived practical reason” may be central to morality, but unfortunately, our lives are limited. Building on Aristotle’s views in his Rhetoric and Poetics, Nussbaum reminds us that “we have never lived enough” and that our experience is “too confined and too parochial” (1990, p. 47). Fortunately, however, there is something that can compensate for the inevitable shortness of our lifespan and the limited breadth of human experience: literature.

Literature extends our life and our experience, “making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling” (ibid.) One of the main points of literary art is to present us with moments where “habit is cut through by the unexpected” (p. 43), testing our aspirations to live a good life through events outside of our control. This way of reading becomes a way of moral learning, a way of training ourselves to recognize the important features in a moral situation. No prefabricated principle can help us here, but we can only learn experientially, step by step, guided by the novel.

Nussbaum describes moralities that are exclusively based on general and universal principles as “ethically crude” (p. 37) and instead proposes the view influenced by Aristotle, which focuses on practical wisdom. General principles can only help us so much, and, following Aristotle’s analogy between ethical judgement and the arts of a navigator, there will always be the “unexpected” to face, our version of the Greek tuche, and inevitably, principles will prove insufficient. Here is where perception will prove more useful, defined as the ethical ability to discern the important features of one’s particular situation. Perceptions, in combination with a healthy dose of moral responsibility, are the ethical antidote to principles. We should bear in mind that “perception without responsibility is dangerously free-floating, even as duty without perception is blunt and blind” (p. 155).

Literature widens our experience and expands our moral imagination. It gives us the opportunity to vicariously explore seemingly infinite instances of lived practical reason. In her essay “Finely Aware and Richly Responsible,” Nussbaum makes the case for the novel as a “paradigm of moral activity” (p. 148). It gives us the uniquely privileged position from which we can explore situations deeply, but from afar. It allows us to be emotionally involved while also maintaining neutrality. In this sense, we inhabit a place that is “both like and unlike the position we occupy in life” (p. 48), perfect for awakening ourselves to moral perceptions. Much like a rehearsal before the live show, novels give their readers the opportunity to explore ethically demanding situations from a place of safety.

James’s novel The Golden Bowl serves as an example of a literary piece that provides the reader with moral perceptions, those nuanced insights into some of the infinitely varied instances of human existence. Because of the privileged position that the literary form of the novel offers, “Most of us can read James better than we can read ourselves’’ (p. 162). It is only once we’re aware of these fine complexities and reach a state of “perceptive equilibrium” that we can hope to act morally. To ignore the particularities, the contingencies and the “context-embeddedness” (1990, p. 38) of human experience is to be morally blind. “By themselves, trusted for and in themselves, the standing terms are a recipe for obtuseness” (p. 156). Instead, to respond with the right emotions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right aim, and in the right way, is what is appropriate and best, and this is characteristic of excellence” (Aristotle EN 1106b21-23, quoted in Nussbaum, 1990, 156). Analyzing The Golden Bowl, Nussbaum puts forth the two main characters of the novel as two moral agents, two people who managed to act altruistically toward each other without relying on rules and concepts of duty, but instead “improvised” with the particulars given to them. Perceptions assume priority over rules, and the particulars of a situation over general principles.

Artistic narratives are sometimes the only possible way of rendering life in an accurate fashion:

Certain truths about human life can only be fittingly and accurately stated in the language and forms characteristic of the narrative artist. With respect to certain elements of human life, the terms of the novelist’s art are alert winged creatures, perceiving where the blunt terms of ordinary speech, or of abstract theoretical discourse are blind, acute where they are obtuse, winged where they are dull and heavy. (1990, p. 5)

Nussbaum invites us to suppose, along with Proust, that ‘The most important truths about human psychology cannot be communicated or grasped by intellectual activity alone: powerful emotions have an irreducibly important cognitive role to play” (p. 7). If we combine this with the assumption that there is an organic connection between form and content, then novels emerge as a unique medium for truth-telling. Style is not incidental to the content it aims to convey, Nussbaum suggests, but rather the adequate fit between form and content is almost absolute, in the sense that once something is appropriately conveyed in a rich artistic form, it cannot be expressed equally well in, for instance, rigid academic terms. Paraphrasing in a completely different style will fail.

If we accept all of the above, is there anything left for the philosopher to do? Should Nussbaum herself not have written the 400-page Love’s Knowledge because the novels she writes about speak for themselves?

Firstly, it was necessary to explain—philosophically—why not taking novels seriously would be a great loss to philosophy. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, once again inspired by Aristotle, Nussbaum does advocate a philosophical style that, while different from the expressiveness typical of literary texts, can also be “their natural ally” (p. 18). While the critical skills proper to philosophy can be substantially helpful, it is imperative that philosophy assumes a much more modest role.

Philosophical commentary should only gesture toward concrete particulars, nudging us toward responsible perceptions, providing a mere “sketch” or “outline” of the “salient features of our moral life” (p. 161). The awareness that such an outline does not contain life itself, but can only “quote life” as it were from the literary text, places philosophical commentary in a “posture of sufficient humility” (ibid.).

It will be interesting to see if more philosophers embrace this newly defined role. Given the reaffirmed importance of emotions in our ethical lives, and the significance of artistic narratives, the philosophical style, as reimagined by Nussbaum, is presented with new requirements. It must clarify in a way that is enriching, explain without being oppressive, and illuminate the fineness of human experience while still protecting its fascinating multiplicity. The readers of Love’s Knowledge will hopefully agree that in terms of style and philosophical commentary, Nussbaum herself has managed to live up to the standard that she so graciously elevated.

Ana Sandoiu is a writer, researcher & philosophy lover living in Brighton, UK. She also writes on her personal blog, On a Saturday Morning.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/25/martha-nussbaums-moral-philosophies?verso=true

The Philosopher of Feelings

Martha Nussbaum’s far-reaching ideas illuminate the often ignored elements of human life—aging, inequality, and emotion.

What I am calling for Nussbaum writes is a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.
“What I am calling for,” Nussbaum writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”Photograph by Jeff Brown for The New Yorker

Martha Nussbaum was preparing to give a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, in April, 1992, when she learned that her mother was dying in a hospital in Philadelphia. She couldn’t get a flight until the next day. That evening, Nussbaum, one of the foremost philosophers in America, gave her scheduled lecture, on the nature of emotions. “I thought, It’s inhuman—I shouldn’t be able to do this,” she said later. Then she thought, Well, of course I should do this. I mean, here I am. Why should I not do it? The audience is there, and they want to have the lecture.

When she returned to her room, she opened her laptop and began writing her next lecture, which she would deliver in two weeks, at the law school of the University of Chicago. On the plane the next morning, her hands trembling, she continued to type. She wondered if there was something cruel about her capacity to be so productive. The lecture was about the nature of mercy. As she often does, she argued that certain moral truths are best expressed in the form of a story. We become merciful, she wrote, when we behave as the “concerned reader of a novel,” understanding each person’s life as a “complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles.”

In the lecture, she described how the Roman philosopher Seneca, at the end of each day, reflected on his misdeeds before saying to himself, “This time I pardon you.” The sentence brought Nussbaum to tears. She worried that her ability to work was an act of subconscious aggression, a sign that she didn’t love her mother enough. I shouldn’t be away lecturing, she thought. I shouldn’t have been a philosopher. Nussbaum sensed that her mother saw her work as cold and detached, a posture of invulnerability. “We aren’t very loving creatures, apparently, when we philosophize,” Nussbaum has written.

When her plane landed in Philadelphia, Nussbaum learned that her mother had just died. Her younger sister, Gail Craven Busch, a choir director at a church, had told their mother that Nussbaum was on the way. “She just couldn’t hold on any longer,” Busch said. When Nussbaum arrived at the hospital, she found her mother still in the bed, wearing lipstick. A breathing tube, now detached from an oxygen machine, was laced through her nostrils. The nurses brought Nussbaum cups of water as she wept. Then she gathered her mother’s belongings, including a book called “A Glass of Blessings,” which Nussbaum couldn’t help noticing looked too precious, the kind of thing that she would never want to read. She left the hospital, went to the track at the University of Pennsylvania, and ran four miles.

She admired the Stoic philosophers, who believed that ungoverned emotions destroyed one’s moral character, and she felt that, in the face of a loved one’s death, their instruction would be “Everyone is mortal, and you will get over this pretty soon.” But she disagreed with the way they trained themselves not to depend on anything beyond their control. For the next several days, she felt as if nails were being pounded into her stomach and her limbs were being torn off. “Do we imagine the thought causing a fluttering in my hands, or a trembling in my stomach?” she wrote, in “Upheavals of Thought,” a book on the structure of emotions. “And if we do, do we really want to say that this fluttering or trembling is my grief about my mother’s death?”

Nussbaum gave her lecture on mercy shortly after her mother’s funeral. She felt that her mother would have preferred that she forgo work for a few weeks, but when Nussbaum isn’t working she feels guilty and lazy, so she revised the lecture until she thought that it was one of the best she had ever written. She imagined her talk as a kind of reparation: the lecture was about the need to recognize how hard it is, even with the best intentions, to live a virtuous life. Like much of her work, the lecture represented what she calls a therapeutic philosophy, a “science of life,” which addresses persistent human needs. She told me, “I like the idea that the very thing that my mother found cold and unloving could actually be a form of love. It’s a form of human love to accept our complicated, messy humanity and not run away from it.”

A few years later, Nussbaum returned to her relationship with her mother in a dramatic dialogue that she wrote for Oxford University’s Philosophical Dialogues Competition, which she won. In the dialogue, a mother accuses her daughter, a renowned moral philosopher, of being ruthless. “You just don’t know what emotions are,” the mother says. Her father tells her, “Aren’t you a philosopher because you want, really, to live inside your own mind most of all? And not to need, not to love, anyone?” Her mother asks, “Isn’t it just because you don’t want to admit that thinking doesn’t control everything?”

The philosopher begs for forgiveness. “Why do you hate my thinking so much, Mommy?” she asks. “What can I say or write that will make you stop looking at me that way?”

Nussbaum is drawn to the idea that creative urgency—and the commitment to be good—derives from the awareness that we harbor aggression toward the people we love. A sixty-nine-year-old professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago (with appointments in classics, political science, Southern Asian studies, and the divinity school), Nussbaum has published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas. Honors and prizes remind her of potato chips; she enjoys them but is wary of becoming sated, like one of Aristotle’s “dumb grazing animals.” Her conception of a good life requires striving for a difficult goal, and, if she notices herself feeling too satisfied, she begins to feel discontent.

Nussbaum is monumentally confident, intellectually and physically. She is beautiful, in a taut, flinty way, and carries herself like a queen. Her voice is high-pitched and dramatic, and she often seems delighted by the performance of being herself. Her work, which draws on her training in classics but also on anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and a number of other fields, searches for the conditions for eudaimonia, a Greek word that describes a complete and flourishing life. At a time of insecurity for the humanities, Nussbaum’s work champions—and embodies—the reach of the humanistic endeavor. Nancy Sherman, a moral philosopher at Georgetown, told me, “Martha changed the face of philosophy by using literary skills to describe the very minutiae of a lived experience.”

Of course you still make me laugh just not out loud.
“Of course you still make me laugh, just not out loud.”

Unlike many philosophers, Nussbaum is an elegant and lyrical writer, and she movingly describes the pain of recognizing one’s vulnerability, a precondition, she believes, for an ethical life. “To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.” She searches for a “non-denying style of writing,” a way to describe emotional experiences without wringing the feeling from them. She disapproves of the conventional style of philosophical prose, which she describes as “scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid,” and disengaged with the problems of its time. Like Narcissus, she says, philosophy falls in love with its own image and drowns.

In several books and papers, Nussbaum quotes a sentence by the sociologist Erving Goffman, who wrote, “In an important sense there is only one complete unblushing male in America: a young, married, white, urban, northern, heterosexual, Protestant father of college education, fully employed, of good complexion, weight, and height, and a recent record in sports.” This sentence more or less characterizes Nussbaum’s father, whom she describes as an inspiration and a role model, and also as a racist. He was prejudiced in a “very gut-level way,” Nussbaum told me. “It was about shrinking and disgust.”

For the past thirty years, Nussbaum has been drawn to those who blush, writing about the kinds of populations that her father might have deemed subhuman. She argues that unblushing males, or “normals,” repudiate their own animal nature by projecting their disgust onto vulnerable groups and creating a “buffer zone.” Nussbaum thinks that disgust is an unreasonable emotion, which should be distrusted as a basis for law; it is at the root, she argues, of opposition to gay and transgender rights. Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”

Nussbaum once wrote, citing Nietzsche, that “when a philosopher harps very insistently on a theme, that shows us that there is a danger that something else is about to ‘play the master’ ”: something personal is driving the preoccupation. In Nussbaum’s case, I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. She celebrates the ability to be fragile and exposed, but in her own life she seems to control every interaction. She divides her day into a series of productive, life-affirming activities, beginning with a ninety-minute run or workout, during which, for years, she “played” operas in her head, usually works by Mozart. She memorized the operas and ran to each one for three to four months, shifting the tempo to match her speed and her mood. For two decades, she has kept a chart that documents her daily exercises. After her workout, she stands beside her piano and sings for an hour; she told me that her voice has never been better. (When a conductor recently invited her to join a repertory group for older singers, she told him that the concept was “stigmatizing.”) Her self-discipline inspired a story called “My Ex, the Moral Philosopher,” by the late Richard Stern, a professor at the University of Chicago. The story describes the contradiction of the philosopher’s “paean to spontaneity and her own nature, the least spontaneous, most doggedly, nervously, even fanatically unspontaneous I know.”

Nussbaum is currently writing a book on aging, and when I first proposed the idea of a Profile I told her that I’d like to make her book the center of the piece. She responded skeptically, writing in an e-mail that she’d had a long, varied career, adding, “I’d really like to feel that you had considered various aspects of it and that we had a plan that had a focus.” She typically responded within an hour of my sending an e-mail. “Do you feel that you have such a plan?” she asked me. “I’d like to hear the pros and cons in your view of different emphases.” She wasn’t sure how I could encompass her œuvre, since it covered so many subjects: animal rights, emotions in criminal law, Indian politics, disability, religious intolerance, political liberalism, the role of humanities in the academy, sexual harassment, transnational transfers of wealth. “The challenge for you would be to give readers a road map through the work that would be illuminating rather than confusing,” she wrote, adding, “It will all fall to bits without a plan.” She described three interviews that she’d done, and the ways in which they were flawed. Among other things, they hadn’t captured her devotion to teaching and to her students. One of the interviews, she said, had made her “look like a person who has contempt for the contributions of others, which is one of the biggest insults that one could direct my way.”

For our first meeting, she suggested that I watch her sing: “It’s the actual singing that would give you insight into my personality and my emotional life, though of course I am very imperfect in my ability to express what I want to express.” She wrote that music allowed her to access a part of her personality that is “less defended, more receptive.” Last summer, we drove to the house of her singing teacher, Tambra Black, who lives in a gentrifying neighborhood with a view of the churches of the University of Chicago. It was ninety degrees and sunny, and although we were ten minutes early, Nussbaum pounded on the door until Black, her hair wet from the shower, let us inside.

Nussbaum wore nylon athletic shorts and a T-shirt, and carried her sheet music in a hippie-style embroidered sack. Her fingernails and toenails were polished turquoise, and her legs and arms were exquisitely toned and tan. She stood beside Black’s piano with her feet in a ski-plow pose and did scales by letting her mouth go completely loose and blowing through closed lips.

The first aria she practiced was “Or sai chi l’onore,” from “Don Giovanni,” one of the few Mozart operas that she has never run to, because she finds the rape scene reprehensible. As she ascended in pitch, she tilted her chin upward, until Black told her to stop. She excelled at clarion high notes, but Black thought that a passage about the murder of the heroine’s father should be more tender. “Can you make it a little more pleasant?” Black asked.

The next aria was from the final act of Verdi’s “Don Carlos,” which Nussbaum found more challenging. She had to embody the hopelessness of a woman who, knowing that she can never be with the man she loves, yearns for death.

“Put a little longing and sadness in there,” Black said. “Don’t give too much too early.”

Nussbaum softened her tone for a few passages, but her voice quickly gathered force.

“You have too much power,” Black told her. “Save a little for the end.”

“I’ll have to work on that,” Nussbaum said, her eyes fixed on the sheet music in front of her. “It’s difficult to get all the emotions in there.”

Hours later, as we drove home from a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Nussbaum said that she was struggling to capture the resignation required for the Verdi piece. She couldn’t identify with the role. “I feel that this character is basically saying, ‘Life is treating me badly, so I’m going to give up,’ ” she told me. “And I find that totally unintelligible.”

 The Walking Dead American Horror Story Bates Motel or the Convention
“ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘American Horror Story,’ ‘Bates Motel,’ or the Convention?”

When Nussbaum was three or four years old, she told her mother, “Well, I think I know just about everything.” Her mother, Betty Craven, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, responded sternly, “No, Martha. You are just one person among many.” Nussbaum was so frustrated by this response that she banged her head on the floor.

Her father, George Craven, a successful tax lawyer who worked all the time, applauded her youthful arrogance. He thought that it was excellent to be superior to others. He liked to joke that he had been wrong only once in his life and that was the time that he thought he was wrong. The Craven family lived in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in an atmosphere that Nussbaum describes as “chilly clear opulence.” Betty was bored and unfulfilled, and she began drinking for much of the day, hiding bourbon in the kitchen. Nussbaum’s younger sister, Gail, said that once, after her mother passed out on the floor, she called an ambulance, but her father sent it away. Nussbaum’s half-brother, Robert (the child of George Craven’s first marriage), said that their father didn’t understand when people weren’t rational. “It was an emotionally barren environment,” he told me. “You were supposed to just soldier on.”

Nussbaum spent her free time alone in the attic, reading books, including many by Dickens. Through literature, she said, she found an “escape from an amoral life into a universe where morality matters.” At night, she went to her father’s study in her long bathrobe, and they read together. Her father loved the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernest Henley, and he often recited it to her: “I have not winced nor cried aloud. / Under the bludgeonings of chance / My head is bloody, but unbowed. . . . I am the master of my fate: / I am the captain of my soul.”

Her father’s ethos may have fostered Nussbaum’s interest in Stoicism. Her relationship with him was so captivating that it felt romantic. “He really set me on a path of being happy and delighted with life,” she said. “He symbolized beauty and wonder.” Gail Busch found her father’s temperament less congenial. “I believe he was probably a sociopath,” she told me. “He was certainly very narcissistic. He was extremely domineering and very controlling. Our mother was petrified for most of their marriage.” Busch said that when she was a young child her father insisted that she be in bed before he got home from work.

Nussbaum once wrote of Iris Murdoch that she “won the Oedipal struggle too easily.” The same could be said of Nussbaum herself. Busch told me, “There were very few people that my father touched that he didn’t hurt. But one of them was Martha, because they were just two peas in a pod. I know that he saw her as a reflection of him, and that was probably just perfect for him.”

Nussbaum excelled at her private girls’ school, while Busch floundered and became rebellious. In an interview with a Dutch television station, Nussbaum said that she worked so hard because she thought, This is what Daddy’s doing—we take charge of our lives. Of her mother and sister, she said, “I just was furious at them, because I thought that they could take charge of their lives by will, and they weren’t doing it.”

Nussbaum attended Wellesley College, but she dropped out in her sophomore year, because she wanted to be an actress. Playing other people gave her access to emotions that she hadn’t been able to express on her own, but, after half a year with a repertory company that performed Greek tragedies, she left that, too. “I hadn’t lived enough,” she said. She began studying classics at New York University, still focussing on Greek tragedies. She came to believe that reading about suffering functions as a kind of “transitional object,” the term used by the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, one of her favorite thinkers, to describe toys that allow infants to move away from their mothers and to explore the world on their own. “When we have emotions of fear and pity toward the hero of a tragedy,” she has written, “we explore aspects of our own vulnerability in a safe and pleasing setting.”

Nussbaum felt increasingly uncomfortable with what she called the “smug bastion of hypocrisy and unearned privilege” in which she’d been raised. She had spent her childhood “coasting along with assured invulnerability,” she said. In a class on Greek composition, she fell in love with Alan Nussbaum, another N.Y.U. student, who was Jewish, a religion she was attracted to for the same reason that she was drawn to theatre: “more emotional expressiveness,” she said. She associated the religion with the social consciousness of I. F. Stone and The Nation. Her father, who thought that Jews were vulgar, disapproved of the marriage and refused to attend their wedding party. Robert Craven told me, “Martha was the apple of our father’s eye, until she embraced Judaism and fell from grace.”

Four years into the marriage, Nussbaum read “The Golden Bowl,” by Henry James. She kept thinking about Maggie Verver’s “wish to remain, intensely, the same passionate little daughter she had always been.” She was so captivated by the novel that she later wrote three essays about the ways in which James articulates a kind of moral philosophy, revealing the childishness of aspiring to moral perfection, a life of “never doing a wrong, never breaking a rule, never hurting.” Nussbaum told me, “What drew me to Maggie is the sense that she is a peculiarly American kind of person who really, really wants to be good. And of course that’s impossible. She has a particularly demanding father, and, in order to be fully herself with her husband, she has to leave her father and hurt him, and she just had no way to deal with that. She was not prepared.”

Nussbaum entered the graduate program in classics at Harvard, in 1969, and realized that for years she had been smiling all the time, for no particular reason. When her thesis adviser, G. E. L. Owen, invited her to his office, served sherry, spoke about life’s sadness, recited Auden, and reached over to touch her breasts, she says, she gently pushed him away, careful not to embarrass him. “Just as I never accused my mother of being drunk, even though she was always drunk,” she wrote, “so I managed to keep my control with Owen, and I never said a hostile word.” She didn’t experience the imbalance of power that makes sexual harassment so destructive, she said, because she felt “much healthier and more powerful than he was.”

She soon drifted toward ancient philosophy, where she could follow Aristotle, who asked the basic question “How should a human live?” She realized that philosophy attracted a “logic-chopping type of person,” nearly always male. She came to believe that she understood Nietzsche’s thinking when he wrote that no great philosopher had ever been married. “I think what he was saying is that most philosophers have been in flight from human existence,” she said. “They just haven’t wanted to be entangled.” She rejected the idea, dominant in contemporary philosophy, that emotions were “unthinking energies that simply push the person around.” Instead, she resurrected a version of the Stoic theory that makes no division between thought and feeling. She gave emotions a central role in moral philosophy, arguing that they are cognitive in nature: they embody judgments about the world.

Ugh stop it Dadeveryone knows youre not making that happen
“Ugh, stop it, Dad—everyone knows you’re not making that happen!”

One of her mentors was John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of the last century. He stuttered and was extremely shy. She said that one day, when they were eating hamburgers for lunch (this was before she stopped eating meat), he instructed her that if she had the capacity to be a public intellectual then it was her duty to become one.

Utilitarian and Kantian theories were dominant at the time, and Nussbaum felt that the field had become too insular and professionalized. She was frustrated that her colleagues were more interested in conceptual analyses than in attending to the details of people’s lives. While writing an austere dissertation on a neglected treatise by Aristotle, she began a second book, about the urge to deny one’s human needs. In “The Fragility of Goodness,” one of the best-selling contemporary philosophy books, she rejected Plato’s argument that a good life is one of total self-sufficiency. She argued that tragedy occurs because people are living well: they have formed passionate commitments that leave them exposed. She began the book by acknowledging:

I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing something wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that it is equally problematic to entrust one’s good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them—all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of practical wisdom.

Nussbaum describes motherhood as her first profound experience of moral conflict. Her pregnancy, in 1972, was a mistake; her I.U.D. fell out. She had just become the first woman elected to Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and she imagined that the other scholars must be thinking, We let in a woman, and what does she do? She goes off and has a baby. Nussbaum carried on for nine months as if she weren’t pregnant. She ran several miles a day; she remained so thin that her adviser told her she must be carrying a “wind egg”; she had such a rapid delivery—with no anesthesia—that doctors interviewed her about how she had prepared for birth. She told them that “Lamaze was for wimps and running was the key.” She brought Aristotle’s Politics to the hospital. Her husband took a picture of her reading. She was at a Society of Fellows dinner the next week. “I wanted everyone to understand that I was still working,” she said.

Alan Nussbaum taught linguistics at Yale, and during the week Martha took care of their daughter, Rachel, alone. “Among the good and decent men, some are unprepared for the surprises of life, and their good intentions run aground when confronted with issues like child care,” she later wrote. They divorced when Rachel was a teen-ager. When Nussbaum joined a society for female philosophers, she proposed that women had a unique contribution to make, because “we had an experience of moral conflicts—we are torn between children on the one hand, and work on the other—that the male philosophers didn’t have, or wouldn’t face up to.” She rejected the idea, suggested by Kant, that people who are morally good are immune to the kind of bad luck that would force them into ethically compromised positions. She told me, “A lot of the great philosophers have said there are no real moral dilemmas. Well, we were saying, ‘No woman would make that stupid mistake!’ ”

Nussbaum left Harvard in 1983, after she was denied tenure, a decision she attributes, in part, to a “venomous dislike of me as a very outspoken woman” and the machinations of a colleague who could “show a good actor how the role of Iago ought to be played.” Glen Bowersock, who was the head of the classics department when Nussbaum was a student, said, “I think she scared people. They couldn’t wrap their minds around this formidably good, extraordinarily articulate woman who was very tall and attractive, openly feminine and stylish, and walked very erect and wore miniskirts—all in one package. They were just frightened.”

This was the only time that Nussbaum had anything resembling a crisis in her career. I was eager to hear about her moment of doubt, since she always seemed so steely. Projecting a little, I asked if she ever felt guilty when she was successful, as if she didn’t deserve it. “No—none of that,” she said briskly. “I think women and philosophers are under-rewarded for what they do.” After she was denied tenure, she thought about going to law school. “The doubt was very brief,” she added. “I thought about law school for about a day, or something like that.”

Instead, she began considering a more public role for philosophy. One of her mentors, the English philosopher Bernard Williams, accused moral philosophers of “refusing to write about anything of importance.” Nussbaum began examining quality of life in the developing world. She was steered toward the issue by Amartya Sen, the Indian economist, who later won the Nobel Prize. In 1986, they became romantically involved and worked together at the World Institute of Development Economics Research, in Helsinki. At the institute, she told me, she came to the realization that “I knew nothing about the rest of the world.” She taught herself about Indian politics and developed her own version of Sen’s capabilities approach, a theoretical framework for measuring and comparing the well-being of nations. Her earlier work had celebrated vulnerability, but now she identified the sorts of vulnerabilities (poverty, hunger, sexual violence) that no human should have to endure. In an Aristotelian spirit, Nussbaum devised a list of ten essential capabilities that all societies should nourish, including the freedom to play, to engage in critical reflection, and to love. The capabilities theory is now a staple of human-rights advocacy, and Sen told me that Nussbaum has become more of a “purist” than he is. When it comes to judging the quality of human life, he said, “I am often defeated by that in a way that Martha is not.”

Nussbaum went on to extend the work of John Rawls, who developed the most influential contemporary version of the social-contract theory: the idea that rational citizens agree to govern themselves, because they recognize that everyone’s needs are met more effectively through coöperation. Nussbaum argued that Rawls gave an unsatisfactory account of justice for people dependent on others—the disabled, the elderly, and women subservient in their homes. For a society to remain stable and committed to democratic principles, she argued, it needs more than detached moral principles: it has to cultivate certain emotions and teach people to enter empathetically into others’ lives. She believes that the humanities are not just important to a healthy democratic society but decisive, shaping its fate. She proposed an enhanced version of John Stuart Mill’s “aesthetic education”—emotional refinement for all citizens through poetry and music and art. “Respect on its own is cold and inert, insufficient to overcome the bad tendencies that lead human beings to tyrannize over one another,” she wrote. “Public culture cannot be tepid and passionless.”

By the late nineties, India had become so integral to Nussbaum’s thinking that she later warned a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education that her work there was at the “core of my heart and my sense of the meaning of life, so if you downplay that, you don’t get me.” She travelled to developing countries during school vacations—she never misses a class—and met with impoverished women. She said she felt as if she were “a lawyer who has been retained by poor people in developing nations.”

In the sixties, Nussbaum had been too busy for feminist consciousness-raising—she said that she cultivated an image of “Doris Day respectability”—and she was suspicious of left-wing groupthink. Once she began studying the lives of women in non-Western countries, she identified as a feminist but of the unfashionable kind: a traditional liberal who believed in the power of reason at a time when postmodern scholars viewed it as an instrument or a disguise for oppression. She argued that the well-being of women around the world could be improved through universal norms—an international system of distributive justice. She was impatient with feminist theory that was so relativistic that it assumed that, in the name of respecting other cultures, women should stand by while other women were beaten or genitally mutilated. In “Sex and Social Justice,” published in 1999, she wrote that the approach resembles the “sort of moral collapse depicted by Dante, when he describes the crowd of souls who mill around in the vestibule of hell, dragging their banner now one way now another, never willing to set it down and take a definite stand on any moral or political question. Such people, he implies, are the most despicable of all. They can’t even get into hell because they have not been willing to stand for anything in life.”

In 1999, in a now canonical essay for The New Republic, she wrote that academic feminism spoke only to the élite. It had become untethered from the practical struggle to achieve equality for women. She scolded Judith Butler and postmodern feminists for “turning away from the material side of life, towards a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest connections with the real situations of real women.” These radical thinkers, she felt, were focussing more on problems of representation than on the immediate needs of women in other classes and cultures. The stance, she wrote, “looks very much like quietism,” a word she often uses when she disapproves of projects and ideas.

In letters responding to the essay, the feminist critic Gayatri Spivak denounced Nussbaum’s “civilizing mission.” Joan Scott, a historian of gender, wrote that Nussbaum had “constructed a self-serving morality tale.”

When Nussbaum is at her computer writing, she feels as if she had entered a “holding environment”—the phrase used by Donald Winnicott to describe conditions that allow a baby to feel secure and loved. Like the baby, she is “playing with an object,” she said. “It’s my manuscript, but I feel that something of both of my parents is with me. The sense of concern and being held is what I associate with my mother, and the sense of surging and delight is what I associate with my father.”

She said that she looks to replicate the experience of “surging” in romantic partners as well. She has always been drawn to intellectually distinguished men. “I suppose it’s because of the imprint of my father,” she told me one afternoon, while eating a small bowl of yogurt, blueberries, raisins, and pine nuts, a variation on the lunch she has most days. Her spacious tenth-floor apartment, which has twelve windows overlooking Lake Michigan and an elevator that delivers visitors directly into her foyer, is decorated with dozens of porcelain, metal, and glass elephants—her favorite animal, because of its emotional intelligence. “I used to observe that my close female friends would choose—very reasonably—men whose aspirations were rather modest,” she told me. “That works out nicely, because these men are really supportive of them. I’ve thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to have romantic and sexual tastes like that? But I certainly don’t.”

After moving to the University of Chicago, in 1995 (following seven years at Brown), Nussbaum was in a long relationship with Cass Sunstein, the former administrator for President Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs and one of the few scholars as prolific as she is. Nussbaum said that she discovered her paradigm for romance as an adolescent, when she read about the relationship between two men in Plato’s Phaedrus and the way in which they combined “intense mutual erotic passion with a shared pursuit of truth and justice.” She and Sunstein (who is now married to Samantha Power, the Ambassador to the United Nations) lived in separate apartments, and each one’s work informed the other’s. In an influential essay, titled “Objectification,” Nussbaum builds on a passage written by Sunstein, in which he suggests that some forms of sexual objectification can be both ineradicable and wonderful. Straying from the standard line of feminist thought, Nussbaum defends Sunstein’s idea, arguing that there are circumstances in which being treated as a sex object, a “mysterious thinglike presence,” can be humanizing, rather than morally harmful. It allows us to achieve a state that her writing often elevates: the “abnegation of self-containment and self-sufficiency.”

Nussbaum is preoccupied by the ways that philosophical thinking can seem at odds with passion and love. She recognizes that writing can be “a way of distancing oneself from human life and maybe even a way of controlling human life,” she said. In a semi-autobiographical essay in her book “Love’s Knowledge,” from 1990, she offers a portrait of a female philosopher who approaches her own heartbreak with a notepad and a pen; she sorts and classifies the experience, listing the properties of an ideal lover and comparing it to the men she has loved. “You now begin to see how this lady is,” she wrote. “She goes on thinking at all times. She won’t simply cry, she will ask what crying consists in. One tear, one argument.”

Nussbaum isn’t sure if her capacity for rational detachment is innate or learned. On three occasions, she alluded to a childhood experience in which she’d been so overwhelmed by anger at her mother, for drinking in the afternoon, that she slapped her. Betty warned her, “If you turn against me, I won’t have any reason to live.” Nussbaum prayed to be relieved of her anger, fearing that its potential was infinite. “I thought it would kill somebody,” she said.

Anger is an emotion that she now rarely experiences. She invariably remains friends with former lovers, a fact that Sunstein, Sen, and Alan Nussbaum wholeheartedly affirmed. In her new book, “Anger and Forgiveness,” which was published last month, Nussbaum argues against the idea, dear to therapists and some feminists, that “people (and women especially) owe it to their self-respect to own, nourish, and publicly proclaim their anger.” It is a “magical fantasy,” a bit of “metaphysical nonsense,” she writes, to assume that anger will restore what was damaged. She believes that embedded in the emotion is the irrational wish that “things will be made right if I inflict suffering.” She writes that even leaders of movements for revolutionary justice should avoid the emotion and move on to “saner thoughts of personal and social welfare.” (She acknowledges, “It might be objected that my proposal sounds all too much like that of the upper-middle-class (ex)-Wasp academic that I certainly am. I simply deny the charge.”)

Martha Nussbaums Moral Philosophies

For a long time, Nussbaum had seemed to be working on getting in touch with anger. In the nineties, when she composed the list of ten capabilities to which all humans should be entitled—a list that she’s revised in the course of many papers—she and the feminist legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon debated whether “justified anger” should make the list. Nussbaum was wary of the violence that accompanies anger’s expression, but MacKinnon said she convinced Nussbaum that anger can be a “sign that self-respect has not been crushed, that humanity burns even where it is supposed to have been extinguished.” Nussbaum decided to view anger in a more positive light. “I thought, I’m just getting duped by my own history,” she said. In an interview a few years later, she said that being able to express anger to a friend, after years of training herself to suppress it, was “the most tremendous pleasure in life.” In a 2003 essay, she describes herself as “angry more or less all the time.”

When I asked her about the different self-conceptions, she wrote me three e-mails from a plane to Mexico (she was on her way to give lectures in Puebla) to explain that she had articulated these views before she had studied the emotion in depth. It was not full-fledged anger that she was experiencing but “transitional anger,” an emotional state that embodies the thought: Something should be done about this, in response to social injustice. In another e-mail from the air, she clarified: “My experience of political anger has always been more King-like: protest, not acquiescence, but no desire for payback.”

Last year, Nussbaum had a colonoscopy. She didn’t want to miss a workday, so she refused sedation. She was thrilled by the sight of her appendix, so pink and tiny. “It’s such a big part of you and you don’t get to meet these parts,” she told me. “I love that kind of familiarization: it’s like coming to terms with yourself.”

Her friends were repulsed when she told them that she had been awake the entire time. “They thought it was disgusting to go through the procedure without their consciousness obliterated,” she said. She wasn’t surprised that men wanted to be sedated, but she couldn’t understand why women her age would avoid the sight of their organs. “Here are the same women who were inspired by ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ ” she told me. “We said, ‘Oh, let’s not shrink from looking at our vaginas. Let’s not think, Our periods are disgusting, but let’s celebrate it as part of who we are!’ Now we get to our sixties, and we are disgusted by our bodies again, and we want to be knocked out.”

Nussbaum believes that disgust “draws sharp edges around the self” and betrays a shame toward what is human. When she goes shopping with younger colleagues—among her favorite designers are Alexander McQueen, Azzedine Alaïa, and Seth Aaron Henderson, whom she befriended after he won “Project Runway”—she often emerges from the changing room in her underwear. Bodily functions do not embarrass her, either. When she goes on long runs, she has no problem urinating behind bushes. Once, when she was in Paris with her daughter, Rachel, who is now an animal-rights lawyer in Denver, she peed in the garden of the Tuileries Palace at night. (Rachel was curt when we met; Nussbaum told me that Rachel, who has co-written papers with her mother on the legal status of whales, was wary of being portrayed “as adjunct to me.”)

Nussbaum acknowledges that, as she ages, it becomes harder to rejoice in all bodily developments. Recently, she was dismayed when she looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize her nose. Sinking cartilage had created a new bump. She asked the doctor who gives her Botox in her forehead what to do. “He is a minimalist,” she told me. “He’s very artistic.” He fixed the problem by putting filler above the tip of her nose. It wasn’t that she was disgusted. “But I do feel conscious that at my age I have to be very careful of how I present myself, at risk of not being thought attractive,” she told me. “There are women like Germaine Greer who say that it’s a big relief to not worry about men and to forget how they look. I don’t feel that way! I care how men look at me. I like men.”

In a new book, tentatively titled “Aging Wisely,” which will be published next year, Nussbaum and Saul Levmore, a colleague at the law school, investigate the moral, legal, and economic dilemmas of old age—“an unknown country,” which they say has been ignored by philosophy. The book is structured as a dialogue between two aging scholars, analyzing the way that old age affects love, friendship, inequality, and the ability to cede control. They both reject the idea that getting old is a form of renunciation. Nussbaum critiques the tendency in literature to “assign a ‘comeuppance’ ” to aging women who fail to display proper levels of resignation and shame. She calls for an “informal social movement akin to the feminist Our Bodies movement: a movement against self-disgust” for the aging. She promotes Walt Whitman’s “anti-disgust” world view, his celebration of the “lung-sponges, the stomach-sac, the bowels sweet and clean. . . . The thin red jellies within you or within me. . . . O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul.”

At a faculty workshop last summer, professors at the law school gathered to critique drafts of two chapters from the book. Nussbaum wore a fitted purple dress and high-heeled sandals, and her blond hair looked as if it had recently been permed. She appeared to be dressed for a different event from the one that the other professors were attending. As she often does, she looked delighted but not necessarily happy.

In one of the chapters, Levmore argued that it should be legal for employers to require that employees retire at an agreed-upon age, and Nussbaum wrote a rebuttal, called “No End in Sight.” She said that it was painful to see colleagues in other countries forced to retire when philosophers such as Kant, Cato, and Gorgias didn’t produce their best work until old age.

The libertarian scholar Richard Epstein raised his hand and said that, rather than having a national policy regarding retirement, each institution should make its own decision. “So Martha, full of vim and vigor, can get offers from four other places and go on and continue to work,” he said.

“Sure, I could go and move someplace else,” she said, interrupting him. “But I don’t want to.” If she were forced to retire, she said, “that would really affect me psychologically in a very deep way. And I have no idea what I’d do. I might go off and do some interesting thing like be a cantor. Or I might just get depressed.”

“Martha, it’s too autobiographical,” Epstein said. His concern was not that “Martha stays on. It’s that a bunch of dead wood stays on, as well, and it’s a cost to the institution.”

When another colleague suggested that no one knew the precise moment when aging scholars had peaked, Nussbaum cited Cato, who wrote that the process of aging could be resisted through vigorous physical and mental activity. Her celebration of this final, vulnerable stage of life was undercut by her confidence that she needn’t be so vulnerable. She said that her grandmother lived until she was a hundred and four years old. “Why do I have my outlook?” she said. “It’s a matter of the habits you form when you are very young—the habits of exercise, of being active. All of that stuff builds to the sense of a life that can go on.”

I would share but Im not there developmentally.
“I would share, but I’m not there developmentally.”

Not long ago, Nussbaum bought a Dolce & Gabbana skirt dotted with crystal stars and daisies. “It had a happy look,” she told me, holding the hanger to her chin. She planned to wear it to the college graduation of Nathaniel Levmore, whom she describes as her “quasi-child.” Nathaniel, the son of Saul Levmore, has always been shy. Saul told me, “Of my two children, this is the one that’s the underdog, and of course Martha loves him, and they talk for hours and hours. Martha has this total belief in the underdog. The more underdog, the more charming she finds them.”

Nussbaum has taken Nathaniel on trips to Botswana and India, and, when she hosts dinner parties, he often serves the wine. When I joined them last summer for an outdoor screening of “Star Trek,” they spent much of the hour-long drive debating whether it was anti-Semitic for Nathaniel’s college to begin its semester on Rosh Hashanah. Their persistence was both touching and annoying. Just when I thought the conversation would die, the matter settled, Nathaniel would raise a new point, and Nussbaum would argue from a new angle that the scheduling was anti-Semitic.

Recently, when I had dinner at Nussbaum’s apartment, she said she was sorry that Nathaniel wasn’t there to enjoy it. We sat at her kitchen island, facing a Chicago White Sox poster, eating what remained of an elaborate and extraordinary Indian meal that she had cooked two days before, for the dean of the law school and eight students. She served me heaping portions of every dish and herself a modest plate of yogurt, rice, and spinach.

I mentioned that Saul Levmore had said she is so devoted to the underdog that she even has sympathy for a former student who had been stalking her; the student appeared to have had a psychotic break and bombarded her with threatening e-mails. “I feel great sympathy for any weak person or creature,” she told me. She mentioned that a few days before she had been watching a Webcam of a nest of newborn bald eagles and had become distraught when she saw that the parent eagle was giving all the food to only one of her two babies. “The other one kept trying to eat something, and didn’t get it!” she said. “I thought it was possible that one of the eagles was getting weaker and weaker, and I asked my bird-watcher friend, and he said that kind of sibling rivalry is actually pretty common in those species and the one may die. I was really upset by this.”

“Isn’t that the sort of dynamic you had with your sister?” I asked.

“Yeah, it probably is,” Nussbaum said, running her finger along the rim of her plate. “It is, I guess.” She said that her sister seemed to have become happier as she aged; her musical career at the church was blossoming. “Well, this is what we’ll have to talk about in class tomorrow,” she said. “Can guilt ever be creative?” She licked the sauce on her finger. “ ‘Guilt’ might not even be quite the right word. It’s a kind of sorrow that one had profited at the expense of someone else.”

We began talking about a chapter that she intended to write for her book on aging, on the idea of looking back at one’s life and turning it into a narrative. “Did you stand for something, or didn’t you?” she said. She said that she had always admired the final words of John Stuart Mill, who reportedly said, “I have done my work.” She has quoted these words in a number of interviews and papers, offering them as the mark of a life well lived. The image of Mill on his deathbed is not dissimilar to one she has of her father, who died as he was putting papers into his briefcase. Nussbaum often describes this as a good death—he was doing his work until the end—while Nussbaum’s brother and sister see it as a sign of his isolation.

She said, “If I found that I was going to die in the next hour, I would not say that I had done my work. If you have a good life, you typically always feel that there’s something that you want to do next.” She wondered if Mill had surrendered too soon because he was prone to depression.

“It does sound a little bit final,” she went on, “and one rarely dies when one is out of useful ideas—unless maybe you were really ill for a long time.” She said that she had been in a hospital only twice, once to give birth and once when she had an operation to staple the top of her left ear to the back of her head, when she was eleven. It poked out, and her father worried that boys wouldn’t be attracted to her. “I just enjoyed having this big bandage around my head,” she said. “I was acting the part of Marley’s ghost in ‘A Christmas Carol,’ and it made quite an effect.”

She stood up to clear our plates. “You’re making me feel I chose the wrong last words,” she called out from the sink. She returned with two large cakes. “I think last words are silly,” she said, cutting herself a sliver. “Probably the best thing to do with your last words is to say goodbye to the people you love and not to talk about yourself.”

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Paul C. Taylor

Click to access b113f238e58cde43bc630fac6b8a02e05441.pdf

Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities – Updated Edition

Marth Nussbaum

Ethics and Aesthetics Intersections in Iris Murdoch’s Philosophy

Click to access 14917294.pdf

Does the ethical criticism of art make sense?

Simon Marcus

December 2010

Click to access Simon%20Marcus%20-%20Does%20the%20ethical%20criticism%20of%20art%20make%20sense%3F.pdf

Aesthetic Value, Artistic Value, and Morality

https://philarchive.org/archive/SAUAVAv1

THE ROUTLEDGE COMPANION TO AESTHETICS

Click to access Lopes_Dominic_Gaut_Berys_The_Routledge_Companiom_2001.pdf

Images of Reality: Iris Murdoch’s Five Ways from Art to Religion

Elizabeth Burns

Click to access 6.%20Burns%20Murdoch%20on%20Art%20and%20Religion%2C%20Religions%2007%2015.pdf

Morality by Words: Murdoch, Nussbaum, Rorty

TRACY LLANERA

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LITERATURE AND ETHICAL THEORY: ALLIES OR ADVERSARIES?

Martha C. Nussbaum

Click to access 364256942-Martha-Nussbaum-Literature-and-Ethical-Theory.pdf

IRIS MURDOCH ON THE ROLE OF ART IN MORAL PERCEPTION

Diana Reid

https://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/handle/2123/18825/Reid_Diana_thesis_S2_2017.pdf?sequence=1

WITTGENSTEIN AND LEAVIS:
LITERATURE AND THE ENACTMENT OF THE ETHICAL

Danièle Moyal-Sharrock

Click to access 269464e518438682467a98301d9b8e0da0fd.pdf

Renegotiating Ethics in Literature, Philosophy, and Theory

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Introduction:
The Double ‘‘Turn’’ to Ethics and Literature?

Michael Eskin

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PHILOSOPHY, LITERATURE AND THE HUMAN GOOD

Michael Weston

Click to access 1557312203-michael-weston-philosophy-literature-and-the-human-good-2001-routledge-.pdf

Moral Emotions

Ronald de Sousa

https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Moral-Emotions-Sousa/e4458ab6ac77c52fec371f582884671d6bccef81

The Concept of Intellectual Character and its Connection to Moral Character

Shari Tishman

Click to access ED386618.pdf

Li Yu’s Theory of Drama: A Moderate Moralism

Peng Feng

Philosophy East and West, Volume 66, Number 1, January 2016, pp. 73-91

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Art Invoked: A Mode of Understanding and Shaping the Political

Click to access 5684404a08ae051f9af0428b.pdf

Cultivating Humanity in Legal Education

MarthaC. Nussbaumt

http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5169&context=uclrev

Education and Democratic Citizenship: Capabilities and Quality Education

MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM

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Interview with Martha Nussbaum

https://papyrus.bib.umontreal.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1866/3293/2003v1_Nussbaum.pdf?sequence=1

EDUCATION FOR CITIZENSHIP IN AN ERA OF GLOBAL CONNECTION

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CONCEIVING EMOTIONS Martha Nussbaum’s Upheavals of Thought

Diana Fritz Cates

Narrative Emotions

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MARTHA NUSSBAUM AND THOMAS AQUINAS ON THE EMOTIONS

CARLO LEGET

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The Ethhical Criticism of Art

B Gaut

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The Wheel of Virtue: Art, Literature, and Moral Knowledge

Noël Carroll
The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism
Vol. 60, No. 1, 60th Anniversary Issue (Winter, 2002), pp. 3-26

At the Crossroads of Ethics and Aesthetics

Noël Carroll

Philosophy and Literature

Johns Hopkins University Press

Volume 34, Number 1, April 2010

pp. 248-259

Ethics and Aesthetics: Replies to Dickie, Stecker, and Livingston

The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 46, Issue 1,
January 2006, Pages 82–95,
Published:
01 January 2006

Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection

edited by Jerrold Levinson

The Ethical Criticism of Art: A New Mapping of the Territory

Alessandro Giovannelli

The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature

edited by Noël Carroll, John Gibson

Art and Ethical Criticism

Elizabeth Burns Coleman
Pages 375-376 | Published online: 21 May 2010

Narrative and the Ethical Life