Saturday, May 21, 2011

Modern and Postmodern Ethics

We do not often think of ethics as a creative endeavor. As a branch of philosophy, ethics has had to adhere closely to reasoned argument and to logical analysis, which we typically see as counter to or at least different from the creative leaps of imagination that characterize the arts, for example. That was not always the case. Ethics and aesthetics once shared a close relationship, epitomized in the ancient idea that truth (philosophy), beauty (aesthetics), and goodness (ethics) had an inseparable relationship with each other. 

The knot that tied them together, however, slowly unraveled over the last two centuries. Truth increasingly became the purview of the sciences, which demanded experimental data to establish the truth of a situation or phenomena, rather than just the reasoned arguments of philosophy. As a result of this, by the early 20th century, philosophy, which had given birth to science, once called “natural philosophy,” had begun to emulate and even imitate science, using mathematics and logic to make a philosophical argument in much the same way that scientists used these tools to assess experimental data.

Meanwhile, the link between aesthetics and beauty came apart as well. Edmund Burke’s recognition of the sublime, with its fascination with the terrifying or overwhelming, as the complement to the balance and order of beauty as traditionally understood, marks the beginning of that coming apart. Art over the 20th century became increasingly obsessed with the sublime, to the point where beauty has become a term almost never mentioned in aesthetic circles or said with a degree of embarrassment.

Ethics followed suit with its two classical companions. Nietzsche’s argument that claims of goodness served as a cover for the will to power and G.E. Moore’s observation that the good remained a simple un-analyzable object of thought represent just two of many late 19th and early 20th century efforts to equate ethics with subjective, intuitive, or emotive qualities that set it apart from the increasingly objective, logical, and rational nature of modern philosophy.

Ethics became isolated, not only from the mainstream of early 20th century philosophy, but also from aesthetics. In other words, just as truth and goodness go through a divorce – the facts of science, after all, are neither good nor bad – so too did the relationship between beauty and goodness. This began with claims by 19th century artists and critics who advocated “art for art’s sake,” and who sought to protect aesthetics from moral analysis or from having to make a moral point. The goodness of a work of art must rest upon its own aesthetic merits and not upon some nostalgic or didactic attempt to depict “goodness.”

That sundering of truth, beauty, and goodness underlay the scientism and abstraction of early 20th century modernism, a period in which ethics seemed to go into a kind of temporary eclipse. Morality became associated with 19th century “Victorian” culture, while the “good” 20th century modernist faced up to the unvarnished and even sometime terrifying facts of life, finding comfort in the utilitarian functionalism of the machine age.

Late 20th century Post-modernism represented, in some sense, the revenge of ethics. While post-modernists questioned the actual objectivity of science and the covert moralism of modern art and architecture, they also made ethics newly relevant with the advent of feminist ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and applied ethics of all sorts. Such post-modern ethics did not reverse the divorce of truth, beauty, and goodness, but it did show how ethics offered a powerful way of revealing and questioning the will to power that underlay a lot of modern science, technology, and art.

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