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Beauty and Justice

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Not So Beautiful After All
What is the relationship between beauty and justice? Should we treat all those things and events that appear beautiful, but conflict with some principle of morality, as non-beautiful because of such a conflict?

Those interrogatives, which may seem formulated in a rather abstruse language, are actually ordinarily raised in cognate forms. You listen to a song in a foreign language; you happen to think it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful; so you investigate about the band playing it and you come to discover that it’s a ballad from a Satanic Rock band; since you oppose that sort of music, you deem the piece as not beautiful after all. Or, consider this other case. You read a novel, which is quite moving; later on you come to discover that the author, just a few years before writing the novel, was a member of the the Nazi party and never officially apologized for that. Or, you watch a movie and you think that the protagonist is extremely beautiful; later on you discover that the actor is homosexual and, since you despise homosexuality, you decide that the actor is not that beautiful after all. Or, finally, suppose you visit your friend and she serves you a wonderful piece of stewed meat for lunch; you think it’s greatly executed and you have a wonderful aesthetic experience. Towards the end of the meal, you come to learn that you just had rabbit. You decide that it was not so good after all.

Whatever your moral standards are, thus, it seems that they influence the way in which we end up judging of the aesthetic worth of what we experience. Is that acceptable?

The Autonomy of Beauty
One may at this point argue that the above reasoning is not acceptable because art is autonomous. Among the authors that most clearly opted for such a position is Friedrich Nietzsche. For the German philosopher, when justice gets in the way of beauty, it is because of some defect on the part of the person who is evaluating. It may be cowardice, for fear of not being able to dare – say, dare to eat a rabbit, or dare to regard a homosexual actor as beautiful; it may be a jealousy, prompted by the incapacity of enjoying life to the point of letting herself go and dare.

Under this perspective, then, the solution to the contrast between beauty and justice shall be resolved in favor of the first one. Art cannot be moral. Art is beyond good and evil. And art is the ultimate way of living.

An Open Relationship
Nietzsche’s position, even when regarded solely in relationship to the philosophy of art, is quite radical. And yet it’s tempting. It suggests a neat separation between art and morality, a divide that shall be carried over also at the level of education. The exercise to the appreciation of art, in a Nietzschean view, shall be pursued as the ability to keep focused on beauty, to be able to love beauty, even when our morals may pull us away from it. On the other hand, of course, if you believe that morality has any role at all to play in human life, then you may want to teach to refrain from falling for beauty when that would be really bad. That is, just because a person is beautiful, but could make your life miserable, it does not mean you have to love her. Or, just because a manuscript is beautiful, if it comes from a morally objectionable person, does that mean that you ought to publish it.

Of course, the solution of dilemmas emerging from the conflict of justice and morality are easier to state than to accomplish. For the beauty of following a passion for music, a composer may arrive at annihilating herself to the point of dying. This is the typical life pattern of some geniuses and people whose sense of justice may be skewed also by a great passion. It is indeed the relationship between beauty and love another great chapter in the saga of beauty. Stay tuned!

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