Sunday, September 4, 2016

On the Beautiful and the Good 2

Intrepid reader and friend Miranda poses two good questions to my last post on the beautiful and the good. 
If the good is what is worth choosing, then couldn't something immoral be good? For instance, New Gingrich chose to cheat on his cancer stricken wife with his mistress. This benefited him in a number of ways. He gained a partner who he said understood him better and who was younger, more attractive and more energetic than his wife. He does not seem to have regretted his choice and, indeed, seems to have lived happily with his new partner ever since. His choice, then, seems relatively choice-worthy. But was it good?
I think that this question teases out the distinction between moral and non-moral goods.  If I choose to eat an apple rather than an orange, this is a non-moral choice.  If I choose to break a promise that turned out to be more costly than I anticipated, that is a moral choice.  What is the difference? 
I hold that the moral is a subset of the good.  Any time I am faced with a choice between something that seems better and something that seems worse, I am obviously exercising the capacity to distinguish between the two.  All living organisms have this capacity; animals, but not plants, can exercise it at the level of sentience. 
At least one animal (and probably a few more) can also distinguish between what looks good and what is good.  Whenever a human being is tempted to choose the first and not the second, the dimension of moral choice has opened up.  I think that even when such a choice is limited to pure self-interest it is still moral; otherwise, why do people often feel ashamed and guilty when they choose things (donuts and cigarettes) that they know aren’t good for them?  Why do they feel the same emotions when the doctor gives them the bad news? 
You explain well why the choice to dump one spouse and pick up another looked like a good choice.  To show that it was a bad one, you would have to show some set of criteria that is more authoritative or more comprehensive than the ones you mention.  Since I think that some grounds for divorce are legitimate (one of my relatives divorced a man who was abusing her sons) I would be hesitant to pass judgment without knowing more than I care to know about Newt Gingrich.  I would point out that any hope he had of appearing as a noble statesman (something I think he desperately graved) went out the window with his choice. 
Both Plato and Aristotle divided goods into three categories: those that are good in themselves (philosophy, for example); those that are good only in so far as they contribute to some other good (a visit to the dentist); and those that are both (noble actions on behalf of a republic).  Because we are talking about the good, we are always in the realm of calculation and action taken without full knowledge of the consequences.  This is why most moral choices involve judgment calls. 
Regarding beauty: If beauty is good, what do we call the quality we usually refer to as beauty when it describes something bad? Deadly storms or poison dart frogs come to mind.
Poison dart frogs are easy.  They are indeed good, to look at.  I have no trouble in calling them beautiful for that reason.  They are also beautiful, I expect, to a hunter who needs to whip up some poison darts to bring down a monkey from high up in the canopy. 
A harder question for my Socratic theory of the beautiful is why so much of our fiction (Shakespeare comes to mind) is about bad choices.  I am tempted to say that we sometimes acquire a taste for what is initially bad (bitterness comes to mind).  That is clearly insufficient.  It is better to say that the human soul is beautiful in its potential, at least, and such poetry reveals it to us better than anything else.  We become deeper by our witness.  In the best cases, it teaches us what choices not to make.  Lincoln said, I believed, that he learned about tyranny from Macbeth. 
As for storms, they are indeed beautiful from a distance and very ugly when you are in their path.  It is not hard to explain the latter.  As for the former, there is nothing so grand as the sight of a hurricane moving in with a clear sky behind it.  Light and towering force are a composition to be reckoned with.  If we want to get some good out of it beyond the awe of the view, it teaches us how small our powers are even in this shallow skin of air we call an atmosphere.  That is good to know. 


  1. I did not mean to imply that divorce was always bad. Gingrich's choice appears to many people as immoral because he abandoned his wife when she most needed him. You are right in noting that Gingrich's affair ruined his political reputation. But what if it hadn't? What if his choice made everything better for him, while making everything worse for his wife? Would it be considered choice-worthy? Let's say - over time - Gingrich remains happy and his wife remains miserable.

    To be good does something have to be universally worth choosing or does it only have to be the most beneficial choice for the person who is doing the choosing?

  2. These are very complex questions, but I will try to give a brief answer. The good is always "most beneficial choice for the person who is doing the choosing," if, as I argue, the good is the choice worthy. That doesn't mean that it is always the selfish choice. There may be (and I believe that there are) things that one ought to care about more than oneself. One may care about one's family, one's political community, or even about one's environment.

    Likewise, the "person" making the choice may be an individual or a community, as when we choose a president or decide to legalize divorce, or abortion, or marijuana.

    Because I wear different hats-individual, father, citizen-deciding what the good is can be very complicated. I should be prepared to make sacrifices for my children and my country; but how much and in which cases? Prudence is the virtue of choosing well in each circumstance, which is why Aristotle and Plato praised it so highly.

    Is there a universal good? Sure: the good life for oneself and one's family and the city (of man to be sure, and perhaps also the City of God).

  3. Thanks, Dr. Blanchard. This explanation makes sense.