Ascetic aesthetic

I have a the­ory that ethics come from aes­thet­ics. Values come from your view of what is pretty and what is not pretty. Let’s say that you value the strong pro­tect­ing the weak. I don’t be­lieve that peo­ple thought about this, did a game-the­o­ret­i­cal calcu­la­tion of out­comes, and con­cluded that “strong pro­tect­ing the weak” is the best strat­egy for so­ciety. In­stead, the strong pro­tect­ing the weak sim­ply seems right, just like a beau­tiful view of the moun­tains and woods looks good, even if you can think of a thou­sand rea­sons why liv­ing in such an en­vi­ron­ment is good for your health. We list good-sound­ing rea­sons for our val­ues, but in­stead they are de­rived from our sense of beau­tiful. The strong pro­tect­ing the weak seems right and looks good. It ap­peals to the same part of our minds as mu­sic we like, or beau­tiful views of na­ture.

Try­ing to ra­tio­nally calcu­late your ac­tions is good, be­cause “ra­tio­nal­ity” here means that you ac­tu­ally get to your goals (ra­tio­nal = the way that makes the most sense). But I find that a cer­tain kind of naive view of ra­tio­nal­ity leads some to ig­nore their sense of aes­thet­ics. I don’t mind peo­ple de­cid­ing to do the “ra­tio­nal” thing de­spite their aes­thet­ics, but I think they should at least be aware of their aes­thet­ics be­fore dis­card­ing them.

My own aes­thetic roughly re­volves around as­ceti­cism, so I have had the good for­tune to call it “as­cetic aes­thetic”. Con­sid­er­ing the things I value, most of them check the box for min­i­mal­ism, in­de­pen­dence, re­silience, or, more broadly, as­ceti­cism. From the type of clothes I like to wear to the type of ca­reer I’ve con­sid­ered, it always re­flects the same… style. It seems silly to com­pare my plain black shirt and stretchy black jeans with the type of per­son that I am, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. Not to say that my per­son­al­ity is plain, black or stretchy (?) but it val­ues the same un­der­ly­ing at­tributes as these clothes pos­sess: sim­ple, ap­pro­pri­ate for all oc­ca­sions (= always ready), flex­ible and so on.

I don’t like au­thor­ity and that is the main rea­son why I haven’t joined the army. But go­ing through train­ing and hard­ship—that has always been very at­trac­tive. Why? Pri­mar­ily be­cause be­ing calm and as­cetic is a key job re­quire­ment, and that’s the part that ap­peals to me.

I came to the thought that aes­thet­ics = ethics when I re­cently talked to a friend. I told him that I stopped reg­u­larly drink­ing coffee be­cause I didn’t want to de­pend on it—I felt ashamed when I got headaches af­ter not hav­ing coffee, and thought to my­self: “Really man? You’ve sunk so low that you’re ex­pe­rienc­ing with­drawal, like a junkie?” He was per­plexed as to why I seemed dis­gusted by the idea of be­ing ad­dicted to some­thing—in his view, be­ing ad­dicted to coffee was not much differ­ent than hav­ing to eat. He didn’t mind his own coffee ad­dic­tion—coffee was not harm­ful and he en­joyed hav­ing it a cou­ple of times ev­ery day. And that’s when I re­al­ized that we were look­ing at the same “paint­ing” but with differ­ent aes­thet­ics, and the paint­ing was ac­tu­ally val­ues. He’s not wrong—be­ing ad­dicted to coffee is not that differ­ent from hav­ing to eat. But eat­ing is kinda in­dul­gent as well, you know. My aes­thet­ics would pre­fer fast­ing.

There’s prefer­ence or­der­ing in sys­tems of aes­thet­ics, and if you’re a cap­i­tal­ist, prob­a­bly un­tapped mar­kets for un­der-served aes­thet­ics. For ex­am­ple, one prefer­ence or­der­ing in my aes­thet­ics would be: drink­ing wa­ter is bet­ter than al­co­hol bev­er­ages (be­cause the wa­ter is some­how… purer? I don’t know), but if drink­ing al­co­hol, then drink­ing dry gin is bet­ter than sweet cock­tails. And I don’t think that there is a con­sis­tent frame­work un­der which this works, it’s just a loose no­tion of in­dul­gence = bad, spread over val­ues, clothes, poli­ti­cal opinions, ad­vice given, cars driven, books read and so on.

In prac­ti­cal terms, it’s good to get ac­quainted with your aes­thet­ics. Whether you de­cide to go with or against them is your de­ci­sion, but it’s good, I think, to first have an un­der­stand­ing of what you find in­tu­itively pleas­ing, be­fore jump­ing to a “ra­tio­nal” calcu­la­tion.

The im­por­tant ques­tion though is where do aes­thet­ics come from? And is there even a gen­er­al­ized aes­thetic that man­i­fests it­self, or am I try­ing to tie to­gether com­pletely un­re­lated phe­nom­ena? I don’t know yet, and don’t know how I’d test it. But, for­tu­nately, my as­cetic aes­thetic val­ues the search for un­der­stand­ing, so at least I’m on the right path.