by Robert Bendell
Oscar Wilde took a trip around America in 1882 lecturing on his own belief in aestheticism. It must be remembered that this was after the Civil War, that first great failure of American ideals. Citizens throughout America had been shocked by the violence that led on from the noble ideals upon which they had fought for independence. For this reason, one observer asked Oscar Wilde what he thought it was about America that made Americans violent; Wilde’s now-famous response was that the true cause was how terrible the wallpaper was in their nation.
At first glance, this appears to be a remark that, while controversial, is essentially unimportant. However, Oscar Wilde held his belief in aestheticism --- that the highest ideal is the creation of aesthetically pleasing objects and ideas --- very strongly. While I do not agree that this is the highest ideal, I do think that it is among the highest moral imperatives.
Before continuing to argue whether or not aesthetics are a moral imperative, we must first define morality. For the purpose of this argument, I will use the Utilitarian definition of morality being whatever causes the most happiness and the least unhappiness. I use this for three reasons; firstly, because it is the most commonly used justification for morality in modern times, secondly because it is my own definition and thirdly because a discussion of the nature of morality would take far more than one article.
The majority of moral actions that can be easily thought of and defended --- giving to charity, curing cancer and protecting the helpless --- are methods of preventing unhappiness. However, creating happiness is more difficult and uncertain. There are a few methods of doing this. Personally, I feel that the best and simplest method is love --- however, as well as being the simplest, it is also the most difficult. For this reason, it cannot be a moral imperative, since an imperative must be achievable.
Another might be to cause pleasure through consumption of objects. Eating delicious food and drinking alcohol might cause pleasure for many people, and this pleasure would in most cases lead to happiness, at least temporarily. However, the problem with consumption as a method of ensuring happiness is that, inevitably, whatever is being consumed is being used up and therefore cannot be permanent. Another problem is that consumption automatically decreases the amount of whatever is being consumed and therefore means that there is less available to other people, which leads to a feeling of immorality or selfishness and therefore unhappiness.
The only method of bringing about lasting pleasure, without consuming or using anything, is if one gains pleasure merely from observing it --- that is, if the pleasure one gains from it is aesthetic. Therefore, the creation of something that is aesthetically pleasing leads to greater, more reliable happiness than any other form of pleasure --- except mutual love. However, as mentioned earlier, love cannot be ensured, and is as often destructive as it is helpful.
One counter-argument that could be raised would be that aesthetics also cannot be ensured. However, there is general agreement about what is aesthetic (the Mona Lisa) and what is not (John Major), while love varies enormously from case to case.
Another advantage to aesthetics is that they are less uncertain than other forms of morality. It is often extremely difficult to say whether an action is moral or not, while it is relatively easy to say whether it is beautiful or not.
In all, while there are other aspects of morality --- not inflicting pain, ensuring that basic needs are met, etc. --- that are equally important, the importance of aesthetics cannot be denied. On the other hand, perfectionism and the refusal to accept the aesthetics of things as they are is at least as destructive as moral perfectionism, and the refusal to accept immorality in any situation. As in almost all debates, some balance must be found; however, if you can make your life more beautiful in any way with no moral cost, there is no reason it should not be permitted.