Aesthetics and Ethics in Technological Environments

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The subject I want to address is today’s relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Both disciplines deal with courses of action, even if different ones, and reflect on such behaviours. Ethics has delved deep into the criteria and principles according to which we qualify our choices as “good” and, as such, we choose to adopt. Aesthetics has focussed on discussing what makes us consider a human creation as beautiful.

It is precisely such centrality of human action that is questioned in today’s scenario, in both disciplines. Nowadays, human action takes place in technological environments: in other words, environments where human beings are not the only ones who act, with some level of independence, but where devices provided with “Artificial Intelligence” act too. Therefore, the disciplines – aesthetics and ethics – that reflect precisely on such behaviours need to be deeply rethought and also need to change the very ways they can relate to each other. The present paper will try to discuss this topic.

Keywords: Aesthetics, Ethics, Beautiful, Good, Technology, Technological environments, Artificial Intelligence.

1. Aesthetics and ethics

The subject I want to address is today’s relationship between aesthetics and ethics. As we know very well, they are two disciplines that have an important history: a longer one that of ethics, which dates back to Aristotle’s quests (Aristotle, 2009), and a more recent one that of aesthetics, which as “the theory of beauty” was initiated by Baumgarten in the 18th century (Baumgarten, 2007). Both disciplines, though, deal with courses of action, even if different ones, and reflect on such behaviours. Ethics has delved deep into the criteria and principles according to which we qualify our choices as “good” and, as such, we choose to adopt. Aesthetics has focussed on discussing what makes us consider a human creation as beautiful. It is precisely such centrality of human action that is questioned in today’s scenario, in both disciplines. The disappearance of such centrality implies the need to dramatically change their setup.

Nowadays, human action takes place in technological environments: in other words, environments where human beings are not the only ones who act, with some level of independence, but where devices provided with “Artificial Intelligence” act too, if not most of all (High-Level Expert Group on Artificial Intelligence, 2019). Such a new scenario has major consequences: it affects the forms of our actions and provides new developments to what we can mean as “beautiful” or “good” behaviour. Therefore, the disciplines – aesthetics and ethics – that reflect precisely on such behaviours need to be deeply rethought and also need to change the very ways they can relate to each other.

It should also be said that, usually, in the past, their connection was not investigated as it should have been. Quite the opposite: a 20th-century Italian philosopher, Benedetto Croce, theorised a clear-cut separation between aesthetics and ethics, regarded as “distinct” dimensions (Croce, 2017). And, even today, a lack of interest in the connection between such two disciplines, and the connection between the “beautiful” and the “good”, is equally widespread among scholars.  

When one thinks they should be investigated, that is mainly done in one of two ways. Either the relation between specific forms of judgement – the judgement about the ethical “value” and the judgement about the aesthetic “value” of an experience or a phenomenon – is questioned, or arguments are formulated about the good or bad consequences, that a work of art can have on the social or individual sphere. In the former case, there is the risk of this subject turning into a matter of how to share opinions inter-subjectively: as no opinion can be objective at first. In the latter case, one very often ends up falling back into moralistic statements.

In both cases, however, the matter of the relation between the “beautiful” and the good”, between ethics and aesthetics, is dealt with by adding the opinion of a subject in between the opinion of a human being. Such an approach is typical of modern thought. This is not what happened in ancient times, instead. This is not how the relation between goodness and beauty was viewed in Homer’s Greece. Back then, goodness and beauty were very closely connected. Let’s briefly touch on such a context.

We might say that the entire Iliad is an expression of the synergic relation between goodness and beauty. The many Achilleses, Agamemnons or Hector himselfare the epitomes of kalokagathia: where “beauty” and “goodness” are notions that have a specific meaning, which we have to understand again. Homer sings their union and conveys it in the forms and in the styles of his time[2]. How did such a connection come to be expressed? It had to be fully visible. In other words, it alluded to a publicly acknowledged virtue that appeared to other humans, in equally public and outward forms (as shown for instance by Jaeger, 1986). It would have made no sense for Homer to regard and sing Achilles as a hidden hero of his generation or merely mention the beauty and goodness of his soul. It was with Plato, or better, with Alcibiades in the Symposium, that the concurrence between inward virtue and outward beauty was put under strain, in the figure of Socrates (Plato, 2009, 215 a-b). But, once again, even in Plato’s age, what eventually came to the fore as a paradigm of beauty was order, harmony, the concurrence of the elements of a body and a person, of a character and a community, of a people and the world it lives in. Such balance, such concurrence, between the inward and the outward, and between the part and the whole, were substantiated not only by Attic architecture and statuary but also by the very idea of a satisfactory action, as formulated by Aristotle in the first book of his Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle, 2009).

2. A few underlying questions

All things considered, then, what is suggested by the authors I mentioned is an idea of “goodness” and “beauty”, as well as of their relation and their expression, which turn out to be very different from what we usually mean by such words: we, who still deal with such issues from a modern perspective, that is, from the perspective of the subject. What mainly comes to the fore is a form of connection between “goodness”, and “beauty”, which we seem to have forgotten the meaning of.

Today we admit of the possibility of speaking of the beauty of a good deed, but first, we think of it in terms of an aestheticizing beau geste. Then, we also understand a certain idea of the goodness of beauty, but most of the time we are aware of it when we consider the positive effects, on a psychological or emotional level, of a sight or a show that looks pleasant to us. In a nutshell: if any trace is left of the ancient connection between goodness and beauty, it can be found either in the unsolicited, free deed that can arouse approval (the beauty of goodness) or in that well-balanced contemplation that makes us and others people feel good (the goodness of beauty). At any rate, again, the texts that, in contemporary literature, deal with such subjects always do it by focusing on the human being and his judgement: taking their cue from the idea of a subjective opinion that must be extended to or shared with other subjects, or from the awareness of the consequences it can have on a subject that is involved in such situations.

I do not want to take such an approach. I want to show other meanings and other experiences of what we can call “beautiful” and “good” that can be found equally well in our age. It is from that that I want to establish a connection between aesthetics and ethics. The new scope of investigation will be technological environments: where human beings are not the only ones who act, as Artificial Intelligence devices do so as well. To do this, we need to go through several steps, which I am going to introduce through a few questions. I will try to answer them in the next sections. Here are the first few questions (which I will tackle in § 3): why does beauty seem to be the preserve of aesthetical analysis only, and why is goodness mainly studied by ethical theory? Why, then, don’t we understand the kalokagathia, or the scandal whereby Socrates is epitomised by his appearance, that is, by his ugliness, which Alcibiades emphasises in Plato’s Symposium, any more?

Secondly, I will ask myself (§§ 4-6): why are we forced to rethink such notions – “beauty”, “goodness”, “aesthetics”, and “ethics” – in ways that conform, on one side, to the artistic experiences and emblematic behaviours of human beings, and, on the other side, in connection with the way the things of the world we live in appear and develop? Is there beauty and goodness in things, and is it produced by things as well? How can it be understood in the technological contexts we live in?

Lastly, and particularly (§ 7), I will ask myself: how can such technological activity be defined as either “beautiful” or “good”? And above all who is called to do that, from the perspective of the now essential transformation of such traditional disciplines as aesthetics and ethics? And based on what criteria can one do that? 

3. Against the dominance of the theoretical approach

Let’s take on the first set of questions. Why can’t we understand the Greek concept any more, nowadays? I mentioned that: because we are used to thinking of such problems from a different perspective. In this day and age, “beauty” and “goodness” are categories that we can assign to things or states of things when first we take a cognitive approach that, as such, is detached from them. We establish that something is “beautiful” or “good”, we know or acknowledge it as such, we contemplate it, and we formulate a theory of it.

Whether all this happens through an instant emotion, a more coherent experience or an explicit judgement does not matter that much: according to the levels of effort, enjoyment, and assessment by subjects that are connected anyway, according to a development (Desideri, 2018). The fact that, for us, good and beautiful have by now become supplemental qualities that concern specific products, not something that is intrinsic to things and in which things are expressed for what they are. There’s more. These are qualifications that we attribute to the objects ourselves, according to our tastes. In other words: on an aesthetic and ethical level, it is us, and only us, who are the foundations of the relation with the objects, with the products, with the processes that we judge as “beautiful” or “good”, and that we validate as such. As I said, such an approach is the one developed in the modern age. In modern aesthetics and ethics, it is the human subject who contemplates, judges and qualifies things as “beautiful” or “good”.

Such disciplines as ethics and aesthetics, in other words, do not mainly concern something that is done or that can be done, something that is or that develops in a certain way. They do not mainly affect the sphere of action: neither the human one nor that of the world. Indeed: as far as action is concerned, they always lag. They are based instead on a judgement about what has been done, on the contemplation and acknowledgement of something that is defined in a certain way as a consequence of a given view. At most, they extend to the justification – to the “critique” – of how, on specific conditions, a given subject can be said to be actually “beautiful” or “good”. As far as the “theory of beauty” is concerned, Kant’s approach in his Kritik der Urteilskraft is a case in point (Kant, 2009).

In both cases, I insist, it is a mainly theoretical approach.And, just because it is theoretical, it can only be developed by a human being: based on the Aristotelian assumption that only human beings (as well as gods) can formulate theories (Aristotle, 1999, A, 1-2). It is in a theoretical manner that we reflect on the criteria and principles of our good behaviour and that we study the words that can define it. This is the meaning of ethics, even in the sense that it has been developed in, especially in the last two centuries: that is, as meta-ethics, as an abstract reflection on human behaviours and the languages that can express them rather than as the promotion of good behaviours and the reinforcement of its motivations. At the same time the one based on which the criteria and principles whereby something can be said to be “beautiful” are scrutinised, and some features are attributed to some categories of objects, is a theoretical approach. I am speaking of aesthetics as an analysis of the subjective conditions in which something is acknowledged as “beautiful”: an acknowledgement that takes place when a condition that is specific to an object, in its structure, is associated with that aisthesis, that experience, that perception that only a subject can have of such object – or, better when it is made conditional on that.

In both cases – I want to emphasise it again – the theoretical curve of the approach to what appears as “beautiful” or “good” as well as the centrality of the knowing subject in every relation with such phenomena are clear. Both dimensions have grown stronger and have entwined with each other in the approach that has been taken to such issues in the modern age: an approach that is still hegemonic, even in the “hypermodern” times we live in (Lipovetsky, 2005). That’s why, then, we can no longer understand the connection between “beauty” and “goodness” in the way it was grasped and expressed in the ancient world. First and foremost, that’s why a clear-cut separation is created between what is perceived as “beautiful” and what is judged as “good”, as well as between the disciplines that deal with them. The consequence is that nowadays the beautiful and the good seem to be somewhat “enfeebled”. Namely: they are driven out of the sphere of our actions, of our life itself. What strikes us as beautiful, and which therefore we try to relate within the practices we have most at heart – in our spare time, in our ceremonies, in the stages of our lives –, turns into something that, once selected according to some specific criteria, is displayed in some museum: left to a decontextualized contemplation, intended for instant enjoyment (the success of which can be measured and monetised in terms of several visitors), and required to arouse some “emotion” in those who contemplate it, at any time, in any way. On its part, the good we do is subjected to an investigation that is quite often alien to our effective experiences, that carves out its scope of research (while the life of those who investigate keeps flowing, in the meantime), that tries to reconnect with everyday life utilizing debatable, only seemingly factual examples, and that lays down mechanical procedures for the application of the criteria it has found at last, while neglecting the creativity and the risk that go hand in hand with any human choice.

In a word: aesthetics, as the theory of our emotions and our judgement of specific objects that are considered to be “beautiful” just because they are perceived in a certain way, has lost its relation with the practice of beauty, with doing beautiful things, with behaving beautifully, with the beauty of something that impresses just because it is and acts as such. Therefore, we can no longer understand the interaction we have with such things in our everyday life, unless we make it dependent on our free will. Then, ethics as a reflection, scrutiny, justification, and genealogy of what we can conceive of as “good” or “bad”– that is, as a mere knowledge of all this but not as involvement in the deeds that do good instead of evil – has, in turn, become the domain of thinkers locked up in their campuses, or boils down to a wishful, fruitless self-righteousness expressed in some news article.

4. The need to change the paradigm

Therefore, both ethics and aesthetics need to be rethought, and so does their mutual relation. It is a matter of urgency. Nowadays an approach like the modern one is no longer fit for what is happening. What is happening nowadays is far beyond the ways we keep thinking of it, so it requires new approaches (Bourriaud, 1998; Diodato, 2018).

            And more to the point what am I speaking about? As I said earlier on, I am speaking of the fact that today, in the technological era we live in, there are other agents in addition to the traditional human beings. Such agents are also capable of doing good and beautiful things, or evil things. These are the Artificial Intelligence agents. Not only that, though, we are not the only agents any more. First and foremost, things are beautiful and good, or ugly and evil, not simply because we judge them as such, but because they show themselves upto us as such, in their structure; that is, they affect what we are doing and interact with the beautiful and good, or the ugly or bad, we can do ourselves. The fact they can do that depends on the way they have been designed and programmed. In other words, “good” and “beautiful” become qualifications of such things, their features, in that they are related to the modes in which they act. Such qualifications – I insist – are no longer the mere outcome of our judgment. They are instead what the action of the things themselves, in our technological age, can express. With such actions, with such manifestations, we find ourselves interacting: even if what we see happening is called “beautiful” or “good”.

            I would like to give two examples, in this respect. One is about the intrinsic beauty of a process or a structure: the expression of that given value that we need to come to terms with. The other one concerns the specific behaviour, whether good or bad, of the images or products, which appear as beautiful or ugly, as good or bad, in the way they behave.

5. The beauty of things well done

Let’s think of a designer item. What does the word “beauty” mean, in such a context? And how does it relate to the “value” of such an item?

In addition to the idea of aesthetic pleasantness that is purely to be contemplated, there is, here, an acceptance of the word “beautiful” that conveys the inner character that is the perfect functionality and easy usability of such an item. With a designer item, it is more precisely the concept whereby its form turns out to be perfectly suitable and fit for the purposes it has been designed for, without anything excessive, unwanted or superfluous. In other words, just like one speaks of “elegance” about a logical demonstration, one speaks of “beauty”, of intrinsic beauty about the full achievement and successful display – through a suitable form that has been creatively achieved – of the appropriateness and functionality of something. With well-made designer items, the form, pleasant and innovative, perfectly suits the purpose that the item must serve: not our opinion about such a situation.

In addition, in this case, “beautiful” is what is beautifully made, i.e. what is “well” made and that proves to have been well made in its form and usability. Designers pursue such kind of beauty: where the perfect match between the shape of an item and the purpose it serves creates an added value, which may make one buy such an item. Just think of the success of some things, even ordinary ones, compared with others that serve the same purpose but are not so smartly designed. This is a way, widespread in the contemporary world, in which “beauty” and “goodness” are mutually entwined. But there is an additional feature in a designer item that we need to linger on. It consists in its being – sort of – “self diffusive”. The perception of something intrinsically beautiful, elegant, functional, and well-made generally improves the shared perception of the world. In most cases, it triggers responses that lead those who relate to a specific object to adopt behaviours that are dictated by curiosity and admiration. In this case, human beings do not contemplate, they use; they do not act, they respond to the action of an object: merely to its presence (Baldriga, 2020).

To sum up, there is beauty in productive processes (which, as such, may turn out to be orderly and efficient), in the way such processes take place (“beautifully”), in the appearance of the objects they produce (because it adds a specific, aesthetically pleasing form to the value of the purpose it serves; and more than that: because, in the form it takes, it shows a harmony between its purpose and the designer’s creativity). All this points to the intrinsic balance of a given structure, the inner value of the thing or of the process it is part of. Such balance and such value do not depend on my judgement, but such judgement is called upon to acknowledge them, and my actions are made to conform to what such object does not only represent but, above all, to what it implements. Thus, I too am driven to do some things: to act according to what turns out to be beautiful, to do good or bad about it, and to help bring to light all the beautiful and good values of something, in such a relationship.

6. Art as an agent

 The other example I want to expound on concerns art, or – better – what is expressly regarded as such, in the technological environments we live in. Today, we do not simply meet that process of technical reproducibility introduced by Walter Benjamin any more (Benjamin, 2010). Today, the situation is different: it is technology that produces something that, in turn, acts, that places itself and stands out as beautiful or as ugly, that can therefore be regarded as such, and that, in turn, does or can produce good or bad deeds.  

            Let’s find out what Alfred Gell says about that, when he speaks of contemporary art and what is implemented in it by technological devices. Gell says: “Instead of symbolic communication, I place all the emphasis on agency, intention, causation, result and transformation. I view art as a system of action, intended to change the world, rather than encode symbolic propositions” (Gell, 1998, 6).

            Art too, then, acts, art too can change the world. How? For instance, using images. Images act too.

This is not new. Aby Warburg had already lingered on the power of images to create emotional responses in those who contemplate them. “Visual culture” studies and, even before those, the so-called “iconic turn” (or ikonische Wende, in homage to Gottfried Boehm’s idiom – Boehm, 2005) have aptly shed light on that. Let’s think of William J.T. Mitchell’s texts (about him, see Purgar, 2016), as well as of the more recent ones by Horst Bredekamp and his notion of “Bildakt”, i.e. “visual agency” (Bredekamp, 2017).

Here, it’s not us who contemplate an image, it is the images themselves that “look at us”. Not only do they reciprocate our looks, not only do they respond to our seeing; they take the initiative, somehow they look at us first. In a word: they engage us, they control us, they captivate us. They trigger our response, with their actions they hold a specific power over us. This is what happens, for instance, with advertising.

            And after all, this does not merely concern images. Nowadays, it concerns all art forms as such, which are increasingly becoming independent of their makers – the creators – the artists – and that can now, sometimes, not only reproduce themselves but produce themselves as art forms. I am speaking of my examples of video art and computer art. I am speaking of some pieces of electronic music that are randomly created by a machine or are based on a pre-set form that is changed by the software from time to time.

All this is the result of specific technological processes. And of course, this affects our perception of art as well as our concept of beauty. That had already been felt by Gilbert Simondon, when he introduced the notion of “techno-aesthetics”, meaning the ability of technology to produce a sensorimotor pleasure, an instrumental joy, a tool-mediated communication with the thing it works on (Simondon, 2014). It is certainly an extension of the ancient idea that things themselves, such as natural sights, impress us with the beauty they exude. It is an idea that has been reworked many times, especially in the 20th century (Heidegger, 2001). Now, though, the situation is different, both quantitatively (that is, in the amount of stimuli and actions we are bombarded with every single day) and qualitatively (insofar as artificial behaviour is different, in its procedures and its repetitiveness, from human behaviour).

And then, as far as our argument is concerned – the one about the relation between “aesthetics” and “ethics” in the current technological context –, pointing to the fact that we are not the only ones to act today, but that some artificial entities do too, has important consequences. Not only does it mean that something beautiful or good is no longer established by human beings, but it mainly means that both ethics and aesthetics, as a reflection on some actions and their criteria, must have their boundaries enlarged. They must embrace the products of artificial agents, whether moral or artistic and the way they can be regarded as beautiful and good. So, it is just from such reflections that we can get back the connection between beauty and goodness that has gone lost in the modern age. We can go back, we can come full circle, and we can reconnect to what, in the ancient world, had been thought of differently from the way we see it now. We can reconsider the link between aesthetics and ethics differently by connecting the past and the future.

7. Beauty and goodness as relational dynamics

I am going to summarise what I have said so far. Based on the two examples I made, beauty and goodness are no longer notions that simply allude to the behaviour – justified or not, affected by personal taste or not – of a human being. They are instead terms that, nowadays, concern processes in which artificial agents are involved, intrinsically and structurally: the processes with which we have to work all the time, in the technological environments we live in. From this perspective, the role of the human being, in the traditional aesthetic and ethical contexts, is bound to change. Of the intrinsically beautiful or good deeds produced by the artificial agents – as suited to their purpose or initiative – the human being is the recipient, not the initiator. With such activity, we are called to interact. If anything, we can acknowledge the level of beauty and goodness that they have and consider their effects. But we can always do that when we are inspired by the balance or imbalance that is expressed and shown in things.

This has very specific consequences on the traditional notions of “aesthetics” and “ethics” as well as on the relation between the two disciplines that such notions stand for. In this situation, what mainly comes to the fore is that the term “beautiful” and the word “good” apply to an interactional context. In other words, they are relational categories. They stand for the fact that a relation, an interaction is in place between a subject and a state of things within which both terms act, though in different forms. This has nothing to do with the unilateral action of a human being who is in charge of assigning a given qualification to a state of things by judging it – “beautiful”, indeed, or “good”. What is a stake here are specific modes of action: they are forms in which a connection is established between specific structures. But if it is not a theoretical contemplation of some given item, qualified as “beautiful” or “good”, then such disciplines as ethics or aesthetics need to be rethought.

            On the whole, what we have seen so far suggests that the connection between beauty and goodness, and therefore that between aesthetics and ethics, is no longer established on a theoretical ground but is prompted by different forms of action. This makes for further intermingling in what I have examined so far. Not only what is well done is beautiful. Not only what looks structurally well balanced is good. Even more than that, what comes out of an interactive, relational behaviour of a human being in the world and the world on the human being is even more beautiful and good – in an updated acceptation of the Greek kalokagathia: a world in which, in addition to human beings and natural processes, non-human agents can act too – as it happens nowadays. To understand all this and to properly express it, there is no need to call for new words. There is no need to discard the terms we have been using so far. We only need to rethink them, more in-depth, based on what is handed down to us by the tradition of philosophy. We only need to go back to Plato.

            In the Cratylus, the word “areté”, virtue, is associated not only with the word that means vice (kakia) but, just after that, with what is called “ugly”: to aischron. As explained by Plato, areté stands for euporia, ease of movement, roé for the unimpeded flow of the soul. So, virtue, the possession of goodness, is free self-expression, it is action without a destination, either inwardly or outwardly. This impassability – aporia: being unable to move on – is instead what ugliness originally conveys and that looks ugly, aischron. In short, ugliness is what impedes, and thwarts relations. Establishing them, being able to make them thrive, is virtuous, instead (Plato, 1998, 415 b-416 b; see Ademollo, 2011).

            What is beauty, then? What kind of action does it hint at? Plato mentions it just after that. Beauty, even if “more difficult to understand”, still falls into the sphere of free self-expression, of the action that creates and spreads relations. But, how does it do that? To kalon etymologically implies the act of calling. Not only: does it express the concurrence of calling and being called. Therefore – as we would say today – it is set in the context of communication. And what gives structure to this communicative relation, what experiences and expresses it, is thought, it is the mind: dianoia. The thought and the mind are the places, in which the caller and the called coalesce, and in which the relation between the judger and the judged is brought to light. Beauty (kalon) consists of such accomplishment. And it is the very expression of wisdom (phronesis: Plato, 1998, 416 b-416 e).

            So, this is what Plato teaches us. He teaches us that beauty and goodness bring us back to the problem of the right balance between the terms of a relationship. Plato teaches us all that, even now: in this age, far more complicated than his own, in which even technological devices act within the artificial environments in which we live most of the time. Plato teaches us the primacy of relations, in both ethics and aesthetics. And he also teaches us how such relations can be beautiful and good.

If we need ethics and aesthetics as a practical reflection on a behaviour that is good and beautiful, on its conditions and the bond between these dimensions, and if the connection between beauty and goodness can only be initiated by such behaviour, then such behaviour turns out to be beautiful and good itself insofar as it thoroughly expresses its free self-fulfilment. It is the free and thorough fulfilment that can belong to any agent, natural or artificial. And, again, such fulfilment is only accomplished in relational forms. In other words: even in today’s technological contexts, what we live and what we live in are relations: which may be more or less aporetically impeded, of course, or euporetically accomplished, as Plato tells us. It is the intelligence, the dianoia of the human being that must help unbind them. Human beings can do that by easing their expression. So, practising dianoia, practising our intelligence is good and does good. It is beautiful and makes what it interacts with beautiful. It is kalos kai agathos. So here is the task that human beings can take on, in their quest and in their practice, to initiate and effectively strengthen the bond between beauty and goodness. Here’s how not only aesthetics and ethics, as separate philosophical disciplines, but also the connection that binds them together, can be rethought in a new way.


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Author Profile
Adriano Fabris

Adriano Fabris is a Professor of Moral Philosophy and Communication Ethics at Pisa University, Italy.