In the December issue of Poetry magazine, D. H. Tracy takes a long and interesting look at “The Moral and the Aesthetic, Recently.” Although his objective is to “consider how and with what consequences [contemporary] poets are weighting the [moral and aesthetic]” in their work, Tracy in the course of his investigation touches on assertions formulated by a number of Western philosophy’s heavyweights concerning the relationship between ethics and aesthetics (among others, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Kierkegaard all make illuminating appearances). It may not have been useful for his purposes, but one thinker Tracy does not include in his study is Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man whose position on the interrelatedness of ethics and aesthetics has intrigued me for some time. In an easy-to-overlook passage (6.421) of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he writes:
(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)
In context, this remark follows from the more general assertion that “[a]ll propositions are of equal value,” but there is no need to trace the arc of his argumentation here; Wittgenstein was, if anything, a painstaking writer, and I’m convinced that he intended his jarring parenthetical to have a validity and vitality apart from the context in which it appears. As one who aspires to a high level of moral rigor, I have at different times over the years returned to this remark with varying degrees of understanding and acceptance. And, finally, I’ve decided that he’s right.
Importantly, I don’t take Wittgenstein’s statement as a necessary endorsement of moral or aesthetic relativism, nor do I think that it disqualifies the reasoned prioritization of one system or position over another. Rather, it seems to me that Wittgenstein is suggesting that ethics and aesthetics are “one and the same” inasmuch as they extend from the same faculty: that which perceives and derives satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) from systems of order. In the case of ethics, this faculty functions to ascertain, prioritize, and privilege certain social and behavioral configurations; in the case of aesthetics, it ascertains, prioritizes, and privileges more material configurations. In either category, deviations from a perceiver’s favored order constitute violations that are deeply if not reflexively felt, and often give rise to an almost visceral indignation. But the substance of our judgments in either case is the same: and what makes them the same, Wittgenstein seems to say, is not just that they are value judgments to an equal degree, but that they contain the same value, which is the desire for adherence to a favored code of conduct. That which departs from our code of personal conduct is bad, and it is bad inasmuch as any departure from that code is bad (although of course degree is of paramount significance here): it is morally ugly. That which departs from our code of material conduct is ugly, and it is ugly inasmuch as any departure from that code is ugly (although degree is as significant as before): it is aesthetically bad. And it seems that we know these truths intuitively: when a work of art pleases us, we experience it as “right,” just as we experience as “wrong” those which fail to do so. In a perfect conflation of the two categories of evaluation, we may even casually say, “He simply murdered that poem” when we mean that “he read it poorly.”
As noted above, I don’t think that Wittgenstein’s view leads to an inevitable moral relativism, although for a long time I thought it did. I see now, on the contrary, that it places the onus squarely on the adherent of a given order to substantiate the validity of his or her philosophical claim. And that, it seems to me, can only lead to clarity of purpose.