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Is Objective Beauty Important?

While mostly everyone will agree that there exist some things that can be described as true or good or at least as false or evil, very few will argue in support of objective beauty.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is perhaps one of the few absolutes adhered to in our very relativistic age.

According to this popular aphorism, when we state that something or someone is beautiful, it is just an opinion or a way of describing a pleasurable reaction to a person or an object.  Others might disagree, but there are no criteria for judging whether an object itself is beautiful. It is just a matter of taste and thus really doesn’t matter.

In this post I want to demonstrate that it does matter whether beauty is objective. We need to realize the results of contending that beauty is merely a subjective opinion. Here are four negative consequences to denying objective beauty.

First, if there is no objective beauty, we would be unable to experience the beauty in objects because there would be none. In his essay “Beauty” for the famous Philosophical Dictionary (1764) Voltaire wrote that the toad thinks that his wife “with two great round eyes issuing from her little head, a wide, flat mouth, a yellow belly, a brown back” is beautiful.  Voltaire’s conclusion is that the beauty perceived by the senses does not exist objectively in the things perceived.  What we find beautiful is just a product of our culture.

These days the neurological and biological sciences claim to have bolstered Voltaire’s aesthetic relativism.  David McRaney writes in You Are Not So Smart, “To see and judge a face as beautiful is to experience a tempest of brain activity informed by your culture, your experiences, and the influences of your deep evolutionary inheritance.”

It should be noted that culturally distinct perspectives concerning the beautiful and chemical reactions in the head, let alone “deep evolutionary inheritance,” do not necessarily negate the objectivity of beauty.  At most, they only demonstrate that the experience of beauty is an interaction between the object and the one contemplating the object.

We don’t normally say or even think that our pleasure in an object has nothing to do with the object itself.  We say and feel that the sunrise, the piece of music or the girl next door are beautiful.  If I were to tell my wife that although I think that she is beautiful, Mr. Toad disagrees and so would I if my brain worked differently, she would probably tell me to go live on a lily pad.  More importantly, I would have lost the pleasure of experiencing beauty in another person.

We do not experience beauty as merely subjective.  A beautiful landscape or portrait or the beauty of a person has an attractive force.  We feel ourselves drawn to it, as if we are drawn out of ourselves into the other.

Naturally, if beauty does not inhere in an object, but is just an internal perception and feeling on our part driven by chemical reactions, then the sensation of being drawn out of ourselves is a figment of our imagination.  If beauty is not objective, then our deepest experiences of beauty are illusions and much of the glory of life is gone.  Voltaire and McRaney don’t actually explain the experience of beauty; they explain it away.  They have left human life much the poorer for it.

Second, if there is no objective beauty, we would be unable to discern different degrees of beauty or even to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly.  Without objective beauty we lack standards for discriminating between what is beautiful and what is ugly, between what is a decent workmanlike piece of art and an exquisite and powerful one.  Most would assume that my elementary school ash tray, while dearly cherished for years by my mother, does not compare as a work of art to Michelangelo’s Pietà. Most would even deny that my ash tray was a work of art, but if there is no objective beauty, there is no basis for judging between the two (Anyone interested in purchasing my ash tray?  Bidding starts at $10,000.  I’m modest; so I won’t ask for what some would pay for the Pietà.).

Third, if there is no objective beauty, there could be no development of the aesthetic sense and experience of beauty.  Sorry music, art and composition teachers.  If there is no basis to the claim that Jascha Haifetz’s rendition of Brahms is superior to the squeaks of a third grader’s first assault on the violin strings with his bow, then you cannot teach someone to play “better.”  The teaching of the creation of beauty in any field is a form of oppression, the teacher forcing his or her views on the student.  And, if you charge for it, it’s a scam.

Fourth, if there is no objective beauty, we would lose an important factor in developing the moral sense.  I’ve tried to treat the question of objective beauty a little playfully, but I want to be deadly serious, quite literally deadly serious here.  Most would adamantly deny that there is a relationship between sensitivity to beauty and the moral conscience or character.  They would be wrong, and history proves it.  When I teach the section on Nazi Germany to my students, I show them an excellent interpretative documentary called The Architecture of Doom.  It argues convincingly that central to the Nazi ideology and practice was an aesthetic, a vision of beauty, a perverted vision of beauty.

Dating back at least to Plotinus (AD 204-270), traditional aesthetics claim that beauty is the radiance of the good.  We are drawn to the good by the reality of beauty; therefore, what we find beautiful influences how we act. If we find ourselves attracted to evil, that is; if we find evil beautiful, as did the Nazis, we will begin to live evil lives.

Thus it does matter whether beauty is objective.  Now it may be that beauty is not objective, but then we need to face the music. Our so-called experience of the beautiful is an illusion, just a product of cultural conditioning and genetic inheritance, as are we.  Yet, I am inclined to think that beauty’s naysayers have started at the wrong end.  Maybe instead of believing that we have explained human experience by describing its material causes, we should ask ourselves whether these experiences point to man’s uniqueness and to a reality beyond the human.  Like the wardrobe in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia or even Dr. Who’s Police Box, human experience may be larger than it appears to be.

3 thoughts on “Is Objective Beauty Important?

  1. Great to see that you’re wearing your philosopher’s hat again. Do you know McGrath’s “THE OPEN SECRET” ? If not rush out and buy it. He seems to believe and so argues, that Natural Theology is a valid operation-AFTER one knows God,i.e. God’s people do know that beauty, goodness and truth are objectively real. But without that grounding, I’m afraid it’s hard to “prove” that beauty,etc is objectively real.
    But keep up the fight.
    Terry Morrison

    1. I have read that one by McGrath, although I’ve enjoyed and profited from several of his books. Yes, proving any of this would be difficult. What I do feel that we can do is show people the consequences of denying them and help them to realize that their “proofs” against them don’t really work either. Thanks for the comment. Please greet Mrs. M. for me.

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