The Aesthetics of Ethics

by Roger E. Bissell


A few years ago, I wrote a book on aesthetics (yet unpublished) that dwelt on (among many other things) the connection or parallel between one's abstract view of oneself and one's abstract view of the world. This parallel was inspired in part by what Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden wrote in their respective essays on sense of life in relation to art and romantic love. What seemed most striking, in comparing their essays, was how the visibility in a good personal relationship gives one something parallel to what one gets from good art.

At a private gathering in May 1999, this idea was re-ignited for me when Dr. Branden spoke about the importance of what he called "embodying in your own actions what you want to see in the world." This, he suggested, is the root of benevolence. When I heard this, it occurred to me that a person's fashioning for him/herself a benevolent (or non) life could be regarded as an aesthetic way of looking at ethics—and, in particular, the ethical issue of benevolence. I'd like to expand on that idea a little here.

By embodying in your self what you want to see in the world, you are making a sort of artwork out of your life, actions, character. You are, in the terms of Rand's definition of "art," selectively re-creating reality—taking the raw material of your mind, values, past experience, present context, future possibilities, etc. and fashioning them into a microcosm of what you find most significant about reality. You then, just as much as (perhaps more than) an external embodiment of your worldview artwork), become a living symbol of that worldview.

You are practicing what you preach—or, more deeply, what you believe. You are being congruent in action and character with your deepest principles. (Integrity.)

Moreover, I think that this relates not only to aesthetics, but to the psychology of friendship and romance—what Dr. Branden calls "visibility." What happens when you perceive an embodiment of your deep values and world perspective in another's character and actions is like what happens when you perceive it in an artwork. You are understanding that other person in the same profound way that you are understanding an artwork. And when the other person gets the sense that you are understanding them in that way, they have an externalized sense of the reality of what they are embodying in a way similar to the externalized sense of that reality when they perceive it in an artwork. So, it works for both the perceiver and the perceived! And I think that's why it's so powerful.

In conclusion, I offer this example to illustrate my point. George Bernard Shaw said: "The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art." Now, relate this to my point about how embodying what you want to see in the world can be regarded as a form of self-creation or you-as-an-artwork. Sir Thomas More refused to sanction Henry VIII's divorce and remarriage by lying under oath, and as a consequence of cleaving to his principles, he and his family lived in poverty for the last period of his life. He very much exemplified the attitude of the true artist described by Shaw.