Saturday, March 16, 2013

Is Beauty Intrinsically Valuable?

**This is from guest blogger, Nathan T.**

Yesterday in class, we considered John Stuart Mill’s hedonism, in which he maintains that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. I proposed that beauty (as well as truth) might also be an intrinsic good, and I wanted to flesh out some of my thoughts on that subject.

Intuitively, I consider some things to be beautiful and not pleasurable. For instance, when I read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” or nearly any Russian author, I am really uncomfortable and on edge, inevitably leaving the book or play with the feeling that the world is terrible. And yet, there’s something still terribly beautiful about the way these authors portray the world.

I think there are two ways of explaining this idea. One simply reads this situation into the context of Mill’s philosophy, that in some strange sense, I actually enjoy feeling terrible, like a masochist. Perhaps this fascination is similar to horror movies, in which we, for some bizarre reason, enjoy being scared and uncomfortable. However, this still seems to misrepresent the situation somewhat, in that I frequently finish one of these works of literature and say, “I hated that, I never want to read it again, and yet it was good.” Maybe I just have weird sensibilities, but it seems like the aesthetic experience I have of these works are different than most other pleasures I have. I think a good Millian response is to take a position like Michael’s which defines pleasure more broadly as “positive mental states,” which include states like mental peace and meditation, which are not inherently “pleasurable.” Maybe aesthetic experience is like this.

I don’t think it is. (As we've seen, it’s dangerous to rely on intuitions, but here I stand!) I have a particular notion of beauty in that art (something that has beauty) expresses a truth about the human experience in a manner that the viewer/perceiver discovers that truth for themselves. It is the perception of this truth that makes it a good (or valuable) experience. When I experience conviction or the broader realization that the world is not a good place, I feel really crappy but am also satisfied that I now know the world better; it seems bizarre, though, to say that it is good because it gives me this small degree of satisfaction (compared to feeling terrible for the rest of the day).

Those are my thoughts- what do you think?


Anonymous said...

There’s a difference between saying that ‘BEAUTY’ is intrinsically valuable and saying that ‘THE PLEASURABLE APPRICIATION OF BEAUTY’ is intrinsically valuable. Beautiful things have no value except that they give rise to pleasure in those who appreciate them. This applies to paintings, music, literature, sculpture, etc. And, as you suggest, perhaps disturbing things (horror movies, tragedies in literature, sad poetry) have certain aesthetic qualities that also give rise to a kind of pleasure. Of course, the reasons we find such things to be pleasurable have to do with how the human mind was shaped over the course of evolution.

Will Psilos said...

I’m totally with you on the idea of beauty having intrinsic beauty, but I think it can be shown in a possibly less controversial way than talking about the displeasure or depressing aspects of art (which, to be honest, I don’t think should really be very controversial, but, as you’ve already mentioned, Mills’ concept of “pleasure” is so amorphous that it becomes controversial). I think that it is possible for a person to appreciate the value in art without getting pleasure or displeasure from it. I think this can be most clearly shown by considering audience reactions to avant-garde, modern art. I’m imagining a person who isn’t specialized in the field of visual art or theater seeing something like a Rothko painting or a later Beckett play and, as a result, gaining nothing but confusion from the experience (and just to be careful, I’ll stipulate that this person just happened to pay to see this avant-garde artwork – he isn’t a sucker for confusion that haunts the halls of museums of modern art). The case could be made that these examples are actually fairly simple and approachable, so if you feel that way just replace them with whatever your idea of strange, confusing art is. I think it is possible for this person to say that although he didn’t “get” it and didn’t take any pleasure from it, he can see that the work of art did have some kind of value or that some value could be seen in it and that he doesn’t think it was a waste of time or money (even if it were feasible, he wouldn’t try to get his money back). I know this reaction does occur in the world. I think avant-garde art is appropriate because it is specialized and often requires background knowledge for pleasure to be derived and that people without this knowledge are often only confused by it. Admittedly, sometimes the reaction is anger and the spectator sees no possible value and is only upset with the state of the modern world, but my point is that this isn’t the only reaction that occurs. A Hedonist might argue that the ignorant spectator is only seeing the possibility of other people deriving pleasure and that is the source of his idea of its value. While that may be the case, I think that’s a fairly weak description of instrumental value – that instrumental value arises not only out of the possibility of giving oneself pleasure but also out of the possibility of giving anyone pleasure (which could be said to apply to basically everything). As an aside, I think this is one of the main problems in making pleasure a general principle – the concept of pleasure is contorted into something that has to fit the conditional, “If it has value, then it must give pleasure,” which can lead to some strange ideas about what pleasure is. If this thinly spread definition of instrumental value is insisted upon, I might have to concede that art doesn’t have intrinsic value, but that it is a means of appreciating an intrinsic value other than pleasure – the intrinsic value of other people’s efforts. (continued below)

Will Psilos said...

(continued from above)

It’s an economic fact that labor has value. A Hedonist might argue that this is only due to the fact that time spent laboring could be spent gaining pleasure – that a person’s time is valuable only as a means of gaining pleasure. I would argue that the value ascribed to other people’s efforts is far greater than the hedonist’s idea of opportunity costs. If the value of labor only equaled the opportunity cost of the laborer, things would be much cheaper. I should say here that I think money and prices are reasonable ways to determine what things are ascribed values (if you want to contest this, that’s another discussion entirely). I think with the Hedonist’s concept of value, the ignorant spectator, after seeing that his experience didn’t live up to his concept of $10 worth of pleasure (and that this cost was even greater than the amount of pleasure he or the creator of the work could have gotten instead), would have to say that the whole thing was a waste of money and, equivalently, had no value. And yet the ignorant spectator still sees value in the art he doesn’t understand, perhaps because it is the product of someone else’s honest labor or perhaps just because it’s art.

Chelsea R. said...

"It is the perception of this truth that makes it a good (or valuable) experience." Are we sure? I think that the perception of truth can be further distilled. Knowing that you've come upon a truth brings you pleasure. Truth has no intrinsic value- it just makes you more fulfilled. This sense of fulfillment- whether it rest on a troubling truth or a positive one, brings its owner pleasure.

Michael Dean Hebert said...

Nathan, I think you already caught on to part of what my objection to the idea of intrinsic beauty might be. I think it's important to notice that your example still relies on the subjective experience of a conscious agent. If beauty has an intrinsic value, then the value in the beauty of the book you read exists whether or not it is ever read (disregarding the writer, say a monkey accidentally pounded it out on a keyboard). "Anonymous" hints at a similar objection above. Or perhaps I'm misreading you? Let me know if that's the case and I'll try to address it differently.

Indeed, I won't argue that some things might be beautiful without pleasure. But even if beauty and pleasure are separable, this isn't really an argument that beauty is intrinsically valuable. For either you once again must resort to explanations of a subjective experience of beauty without pleasure, as you do, of which I will reply that this is a deeper positive mental state. This is art isn't it! A raw emotional connection, a visceral response, and sometimes not a positive one. We've all heard a song which has brought us to shed a tear or twelve. Or have you seen war photography? Even if the experience is not one you want to have, you still somehow feel better for it, as you note. This link between subjective experience and beauty is where the argument that beauty is intrinsically valuable breaks down. For it resorts to

I know this sort of response is annoying, but it's the best I can give here. I think the Hedonist will respond similarly by saying it is a higher pleasure. I'm not sure whether or not my response is really worth distinguishing from the hedonist's, so I do so here, but it would be academically dishonest to say that I know exactly how to cash the difference out, besides semantics, right now.

Michael Dean Hebert said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Dean Hebert said...

Another point - We should be careful with this talk of "perceiving truths." I think we all have an understanding of what is trying to be said in this phrase in regards to art, but let's not get wrapped up in the metaphor. If we want to go that route and start talking about whether "truth" is intrinsically valuable, we're going to have to start being more rigorous about what we mean by 'truth', and be wary of its relations to belief. I don't know much about theory of knowledge, but I don't think it can be disregarded in an argument for the value of 'truth' broadly or for the value in 'perceiving truth' whatever that means specifically.

Kelsen Alexander said...

I agree that there are things that have intrinsic qualities other than pleasure but I think pleasure is still the only intrinsic value. Let's take some examples because this probably sounds confusing at first glance. Consider a painting. With this painting it is easy to tell that it is well done. It is a beautiful painting and the beauty of the painting is from the specific lines, messages, or whatever needed to make the painting what it is. One can assess the beauty of a painting without deriving any pleasure from this. In this sense, the painting has a quality about it that is describable only by it's beauty. The question of whether the painting gives a person pleasure is a different thing. A person could dislike a painting or find it boring and see that it is beautiful or at the very least, crafted well. But the beauty doesn't add any value to the observer unless the observer is getting pleasure from the painting. This is not to be confused with the value the observe gets because the painting is beautiful or crafted well. This is not intrinsic as the value comes from the pleasure of seeing beauty. One would not own a painting that they got no pleasure from but they thought was a beautiful painting. For example, if I offered you a beautiful painting of Hitler to hang in your living room, you would turn me down. You could see that the painting was beautiful and this quality would not change but the value of the painting to you would be less than nothing. You would not want it.

Nathan T said...

I guess there’s more to say on this subject than I anticipated!

First, I again want to state that these thoughts simply as my intuitions, not as arguments; I don’t expect anybody to believe what I do, but I hope at the least that my thoughts are (somewhat) coherent. Also, I think that reading too much as a small child has given me very strange and at times romantic intuitions- oh well.

To Chelsea, I definitely see the weight of what you’re saying, that knowing the truth might be simply another pleasure. I definitely don’t deny that knowledge can indirectly give you pleasure, but I find it interesting that you use the word “fulfilled,” which I take to have connotations of value, in that fulfillment means the accomplishment or pinnacle of something’s purpose or function. So I think that I get pleasure from the fulfillment of knowing truth because it is intrinsically valuable/fulfilling. It gets to the problem of the order of explanation, and I don’t think the hedonist has any strong reasons for me to believe his position rather than my own intuition. But that’s just me.

(more to come)

Nathan T said...

To Will- you go man. I’m not sure what to say, but it’s interesting stuff ☺

To Anonymous, I think I simply have different intuitions, as it seems you assume that beauty is only good in that it gives pleasure to the beholder. That’s cool. If you’re noting the difference between beauty and the perception of beautiful things, then you should look below to what I have to say to Michael.

To Michael, I honestly think you have a more plausible view than I do ☺. To treat the experience of beauty as another positive mental state that has intrinsic value is perhaps the most logical consideration of beauty. But for the sake of defending my intuitions, here’s a response.

What is beauty? I agree with your intuition that beauty is a subjective mental experience, much like color perception or emotion. I think Moore’s point is pertinent, in that like yellow and lightwaves are conceptually distinct, art and nature are distinct from beauty. Where my intuitions disagree with yours is that the value does not come in the subjective experience of beauty, but rather the existence of the beautiful things. (I realize that this might get close to what you’re talking about perceiving truths, but I’m not fully tracking what your point is. I’d love to consider your objection if you want to respond to this.)

It sounds weird to say that, “If the Mona Lisa were buried and no one ever saw it, it would still be valuable.” Fair enough. Yet consider the Grand Canyon- the properties that make it beautiful all existed before anybody came to see it. I suppose nobody ascribed the property of “beautiful” to it until the first Native American or conquistdor discovered it, but the things that make it beautiful exist without the ascription of the property “beautiful.” Here’s where stuff gets weird, and I can only say that it’s just my intuition: beauty itself is not intrinsically valuable, but the things to which we ascribe beauty are. The existence of the Grand Canyon as it is is what is valuable, not the experience of it.

While this is counter-intuitive, consider being in love with somebody and the pleasure it gives us. Outside of puppy love and narcissists, we don’t love somebody because they make us happy, we love them because of who they are. It gives me joy to know that certain people exist in the world after I know who they really are and what they do with their lives. It comes back to this fundamental difference between myself and the hedonist, that the order of explanation is wrong: beauty qua mental state (as well as pleasure qua mental state) are not good in of themselves, but are instead the perception of what is good in the actual world. I think this is also what I’m trying to get at with my discussion of truth.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting discussion!

First, let's separate two different quesions:

1) Can beautiful things exist without anyone perceiving them to be beautiful?


2) Do beautiful things have "intrinsic value"?

The answer to the first question is surely "YES." As you note, the Grand Canyon existed before anyone was around to appreciate its beauty and there are things in unseen parts of the universe that are undoubtedly beautiful. (Yellow things exist even when nobody is around to notice or perceive them.) Agree?

In regard to the second question, let's distinquish three questons:

3) Does BEAUTY have intrinsic value?

4) Do BEAUTIFUL THINGS have intrinsic value?


As I noted earlier, 5) seems to be true. This sort of experience is valuable for its own sake and not because it is a stepping stone to something else ---- just as suffereing is intrinsically bad - and not because it leads to something else that is bad.

Now, it seems to me that beauty and beautiful things are only valuable in that they give rise to the pleasurable appreciation of them. Agree?

Anonymous said...

Here's another thought.

There are two sorts of properties or qualities that things have.

First, there are "intrinsic properties." These are properties that things have "in themselves." You don't have to look at anything else, just the thing itself, to determine if it has that intrinsic property.

Second, there are "relational properties." These are properties that are not intrinsic to the thing, but depend on some relation the thing has to other things.

On this view, the color of a thing is intrinsic to the thing. A yellow brick is yellow because of some intrinsic property of the brick. That the brick is next to a red brick is a relational property of the brick.

Beauty is a relational property of a thing. Granted, it does have some intrinsic properties that underlie its beauty, but its beauty is a matter of how it is perceived and appreciated by observers.

Is the same true in the context of moral goodness or badness? And does this imply that there are no "moral facts"?