Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Sublime and Beauty; Empathy and Ethics

Dacher Keltner has an article in Slate asking Why Do We Feel Awe? As it turns out, he has some answers as to what it is that awe does to and for us. He reports that "awe binds us to social collectives and enables us to act in more collaborative ways that enable strong groups" and that people who felt awe "were more likely to define their individual selves in collectivist terms – as a member of a culture, a species, a university, a moral cause. Awe embeds the individual self into social collectives." As a result,
awe – more so than emotions like pride or amusement – leads people to cooperate, share resources, and sacrifice for others, all of which are requirements for our collective life. And still other studies have explained the awe-altruism link; being in the presence of vast things calls forth a more modest, less narcissistic self, which enables greater kindness toward others.
So awe is good for bringing people together and making them more empathetic, which works to reinforce this feeling of togetherness.

We feel awe in the presence of the sublime. But the sublime is not the same thing as beauty. The tall eucalyptus trees Keltner mentions may be beautiful, but when you stand beside them, their size makes them feel more sublime than beautiful. Actually, if one were to get far enough from the trees to take them all in at once, they would appear beautiful, not sublime. Aristotle notes that for something to be beautiful, it can neither be too small nor too large. It has to be of a size that one can take it all in at once and see the details. (This is an early version of Francis Hutcheson's "unity in variety and variety in unity" definition of beauty.)

While the sublime creates awe and awe increases empathy and thus creates stronger social cohesion, the beautiful has been connected to virtue (Aristotle) and justice (Elaine Scarry). We have seen that beauty and the sublime are not the same (something also argued by Frederick Turner in his book The Culture of Hope). More, Paul Bloom recently argued that empathy and morality are not necessarily connected -- that"if you want to be good and do good, empathy is a poor guide."

While generally "empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference," Bloom also notes that
certain features of empathy make it a poor guide to social policy. Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data.
That empathy is biased is in fact supported by Keltner's work. He noted that awe creates both empathy and a view of ourselves as members of collectives. This might be fine if we define ourselves as part of the human race, but it is certainly problematic if it causes us to more closely identify with more narrow definitions of the word "race."  Empathy is equally felt more strongly for those we perceive to be more like ourselves. Which can in fact make us less ethical.

Empathy is felt one-on-one, which means we act ethically toward the person we perceive, but it does not transfer to unseen people. In fact, empathy can lead to downright unethical -- or at least unwise -- social policies. Politicians tell stories to make us feel empathy precisely to get us to support policies that help that tiny seen minority of whom they are speaking, but harm the majority they somehow fail to mention. Truly ethical policies are founded on good data and good understanding of the social systems, not on special cases.

Jesse Prinz also makes the argument that there is a difference between empathy and justice because, as he notes, we are often angry at injustice. Anger of course prevents us from feeling empathy, even as it may have some source in empathetic feeling. Anger prevents us from feeling empathy toward those against whom we are angry. In this sense, anger is dangerous. But one can also feel anger against discrimination and other inequalities, compelling one to try to do something against these injustices. Of course, one has to be careful here, as one should not act out of anger, even if anger is a good initial motivator. One should next try to find out what will in fact help rather than just go with whatever sounds good at the moment. Anger can over-motivate, causing us to act rashly.

Aristotle comes in to save us here. Aristotle argues that virtue is a golden mean between two unvirtuous extremes. Courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness. So rashness is an extreme. Acting rashly is an extreme against we can compare inaction. The virtuous mean is informed action. Thus will we act justly in response to injustice. And we can see the role of anger -- it has to have a role for there to be action at all.

If Bloom and Prinz are right, then in many ways morals and justice can be the opposite of empathy. They can be when we are talking about moral attitudes or justice toward out-groups. The experience of beauty makes us more likely to act ethically and justly toward others -- including Others. But the experience of awe makes us more group-oriented and more empathetic. And as we have seen, those two are deeply related to each other. The fact that the postmodernists have emphasized the sublime over beauty helps us to understand why they are also collectivists and embrace collective guilt as a social regulator. The feeling of God as sublime is also central to the creation of guilt culture.

Coincidentally, Frederick Turner associates beauty with the feeling of shame. And the Greeks -- a shame culture -- did certainly emphasize beauty over the sublime. Except in their tragedies, which not coincidentally, were in the transition of Greek culture from a shame to a guilt culture. However, beauty makes a comeback during the Enlightenment, when there is a responsibility culture. I do not think it is a coincident that there is an emphasis on beauty which emerges in more individualistic, cosmopolitan periods, while  there is an emphasis on the sublime which emerges in more  collectivist periods. It seems that these things are all deeply interconnected.

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