An architect, visiting Cambridge University on business, saw a poster announcing an ethics conference there, and he wondered what relationship the diverse and historic architecture of that university might have to the conversations about ethics at that conference.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell, once a professor at Cambridge University, wrote an essay in 1924 entitled “Styles in Ethics” that now seems almost quaint in questioning whether there exist any absolutes regarding sexual morality and the institution of marriage. Maybe most significant is Russell’s claim near the end of the essay that there is no “such thing as a ‘scientific’ ethics,” which, coming from a philosopher who admired science, shows how relatively little regard he had for ethics. He concludes that ethics is “the business of the mystic, the artist and the poet,” a matter of “style.”
We can dismiss style as something superficial or a matter of personal preference. However, style also tells us a lot about the people who create or work in a particular way, as Cambridge University itself shows, with its rich array of architectural styles ranging from the medieval to the modern. What, if anything, do these styles of architecture have to do with “styles of ethics,” as Russell put it?
Medieval ethics, with its emphasis on virtues such as faith, hope, and charity, may seem far removed from the Gothic architecture of Cambridge colleges like Kings, Queens, and Trinity. But when we see the monstrous gargoyles spouting water during storms or the names or statues of notable thinkers or patrons from the past in such buildings, they do bring to mind the focus of virtue ethics on the development of an individual’s character and on the inculcation of good habits, as Aristotle urged.
Likewise, when we look upon the Classical buildings at Clare College or Wren’s library at Trinity, much of them built during the wars and the political and religious conflicts of the 17th century, we can hear the echo of philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. They argued for social contracts that would ensure our collective security and offer political checks against the excesses of others – a yearning for order evident in the strict symmetries and balanced proportions of those Classical colleges.
At the same time, we see in the colleges built and added to throughout the 18th century an architectural equivalent of Kant’s ethics, with its categorical imperatives against treating others as means to our own ends and for our acting as if everything were to become universal. Kant’s emphasis on our duty to do the right thing seems clearly evident in the deference that 18th century architects paid to each other’s buildings at Cambridge, continuing the language, materials, and cornice heights from one to the other.
The 19th century’s utilitarianism, with its ethics aimed at doing the greatest good for the greatest number, also has its parallel in Cambridge buildings. The University library, for example, with its vast scale and stripped down Classicism, seems to epitomize the utilitarian urge to bring as much benefit – in the form of books, in this case – to as many people as efficiently as possible.
And the 20th century skepticism of ethics that we hear in Russell’s essay, has its architectural equivalent as well, in Cambridge’s history faculty building, for example. There, floors of offices overlook the glass-ceiling history library in a building as inward looking and self-referential as the ethics of its time. By the late 20th century, architects had become as much mystics, artists, and poets as ethicists. Whether that is good or not is more than a question of style.