Ascetic aesthetic

post by Dominik Tujmer · 2020-01-14T12:58:31.894Z · score: 18 (13 votes) · LW · GW · 8 comments

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.

8 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-01-14T19:32:33.809Z · score: 9 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I generally agree, but I think that there's also a sense in which aesthetics comes from facts. See Propagating Facts into Aesthetics [LW · GW] (which is exactly about that), Identities are (Subconscious) Strategies [LW · GW] (one's sense of identity often includes lots of aesthetic considerations as well), and Book summary: Unlocking the Emotional Brain [LW · GW] (the kind of emotional learning described there probably drives many of these aesthetics).

comment by Charlie Steiner · 2020-01-15T14:15:21.871Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I thought "aesthetics come from facts" was going to go off into evolutionary psychology. Health being good for our genes is a fact that explains why (without explaining away) health is aesthetically better than sickness (for most people), etc.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2020-01-15T14:29:13.846Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well there's that too. I liked this take on it:

Everything is experienced through a series of filters. Filters are created by instinct and experience… The entire world looks and feels COMPLETELY different for each person, because no ones’ set of filters is the same.

The “deeper” the filter, the more influence it has over your perception of reality. Evolutionarily developed filters (instinct) occurred from millions of years of selection, and are very deep. Filters originated in your childhood that survive into adulthood are generally deep, etc. Someone calling you a mean word adds a filter that might last an hour.

These filters are stacked on top of each other like a house of cards. The deeper the filter, the more influential. But every filter effects one’s perception of reality… There are deep filters based on physical brain chemistry, instinct based on human evolution, etc. Layers of filter can be peeled away to see reality in a more “pure” way. Peeling away layers allows one to see things(reality) in a way they didn’t before, and reconsider “their” reality. Note: peeling away layers does not necessarily mean one will then go on to form a truer view of reality.

Some of the filters defining what's beautiful and what's ugly are going to be learned and others innate, with the learned ones being formed on the basis of the innate ones.

comment by Dagon · 2020-01-14T16:22:00.268Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This matches my general model. There are artifacts of human-style neural processing which don't introspect easily, and most attempts at explanation are ad-hoc and untestable. Emotions are a key element of this, and aesthetics are deeply related to, and possibly just the same as, emotions.

Note that these things are mutable over time, both for ineffable reasons and intentionally via practice. You can decide to see something as beautiful, and with a few months or years of practice, it will become so. And things you once adored become so-so or worse as you age and change.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-01-14T20:14:38.396Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

So I think you are right about the way aesthetics power ethical reasoning, and I think aesthetics is just a waypoint on the causal mechanism of generating ethical judgements, because aesthetics are ultimately about what we value [LW · GW] (how we compare things for various purposes), and what we value is a function of valence [LW · GW]. So to the extent I agree it's to the extent that I see ethics and aesthetics as applications of valence to different domains.

comment by lifelonglearner · 2020-01-14T21:29:09.472Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Whoa! I wrote about something similar here a while ago under the same name, at least about the aesthetics part.

comment by Dominik Tujmer · 2020-01-16T09:40:48.878Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hah! Nice! I'm now googling it and there's a surprisingly large amount of results for that phrase, I wouldn't have expected it.

Asceticism is a good framework for getting your dopamine back to normal, for sure.

comment by rosyatrandom · 2020-01-14T14:47:10.059Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm glad someone else thinks so, too. I'd also go so far as to say that our notions of rationality are also largely aesthetic.