AESTHETICS VERSUS OBLIGATIONS
An ethical question I had on my mind recently:
Suppose that you are Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise.
Klingons are about to beam on to the bridge. Klingons have disruptors, which are designed purely to maim and kill.
You rush to the armory box and collect hand phasers. Starfleet phasers have (variations of) two settings, stun and kill.
Since the Klingons will be attacking you with deadly force in an unprovoked attack, does one have a moral duty to set the phasers to heavy stun, instead of kill? Or, is it perfectly moral to kill them (matching aggression with equal force), but merely aesthetically pleasing to stun them instead?
One reason why this question is of interest to me is that it highlights how muddy the difference between morality and aesthetics can appear.
- Morality is whether something is permissible or not. It should be primarily based off of logical reasoning, backed up by ethical intuition.
- Aesthetics is whether something is of good taste or not.
Most people get the two mixed up rather often. They have a disgust reaction to something, to homosexuality for example, and then base their moral declarations from a personal sense of taste, rather than computed morality. Thus, most people's morality is strongly bounded by their cultural origins.
This is also the reason why things like vice squads exist. There is no justifiable moral claim against prostitution, gambling, or drug-taking, and yet it is considered so distasteful that it receives moral condemnation.
Certain cultures, such as the Muslim and Jewish world, have gradations of obligation, e.g. specifications for 'forbidden' (haraam), versus 'frowned upon' (makruh). This adds significant nuance to how various situations can be interpreted, beyond mere sinful/not sinful.
As we move towards a more moral society, we must unlearn the behaviour of basing our declarative moral beliefs upon taste. There must be a firewall between the two like church and state; morals and aesthetics. To be truly good actors we must make moral rules purely upon universal first principles and applied logic.
One take on morality could therefore be the following:
- Good is simply the absence of evil
- Evil is defined as willfully or carelessly interrupting the agency of an agent against their will, for avoidable reasons, with the exception of protecting other agents.
- Pro-Social behaviour is not good, it is merely nice (possibly very nice). It is therefore possible to do Nice, but not possible to do Good, since good is merely an absence of evil action.
- One has a strict obligation not to do evil actions, but no strict obligation to be pro-social (however recommended and life-affirming doing so may be).