Ethics and Aesthetics

- K.K. Verma, Ph.D.
HIG-1/327, Housing Board Colony
Borsi, Durg - 491001 (M.P.) India
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9 (1999), 12-13.

About Ethics

Ethics incorporates social laws and guidelines for social behaviour. Every organized and established religion has a strong ethical component. Thus religions have been playing a significant role of maintaining order in the society. Ethical consideration of a situation by person is largely influenced by his religious back-ground and education though his personal reasoning may also affect his decision of "good" or "bad".

Popular ethics is largely shaped by the current social norms and practices. For example, in a polygamy or polyandry practicing society having more than one spouse is not considered unethical, but it is different in monogamic society. Adoption of polygamy or monogamy is determined by the male /female ratio in the society and also by various other factors of the socioeconomic environment.

Social instincts, developed and strengthened during human evolution, have strongly shaped ethics. Sight of a suffering fellow being generates the feeling of pity, which is a product of social instincts, including the instinct of self preservation, and not to help such a suffering person is considered unethical.

About Aesthetics

Aesthetics, as deduced from its expression and manifestation, is best developed in humans. But it exists in non-human species too. Bees and other insect pollinators are attracted by colour, form and fragrance of flowers. To attract nocturnal insect fliers night flowering plants bear white and fragrant flowers. Display of elaborate and colorful plumage, dancing and singing are ingredients of bird courting.

It appears that the aesthetics have developed basically in relation with food and sex. Shapely and colourful flowers hold promise of nectar. Plump and brightly coloured shapely ripe fruit look attractive, and have found place in motifs and painting. Display of beauty and charm is commonly a part of courtship in birds.

Display and dancing of the oriental peacock is well known. In fact display and dancing in courtship are quite common among birds, and here only some outstanding examples have been cited. N. J. Berrill (in his book Sex and Nature of Things, 1955) has given the thesis that dance and display, though originally connected with sex, have, in quasi-social and social forms, changed into social activity and grace. He cites the example of black guillmots which take the place of penguins in the northern seas. Describing their activity in the breeding season, the author says, "Couples may drift or swim about in seemingly casual way, and then suddenly you realize they have arranged themselves in a long line with the individual birds evenly spaced. Or several couples in social party all at once plunge and swim in the cold green depths like glassy butterflies. Competition may have started things but the outcome is cooperative enjoyment instead of struggle."

Another example of avian dancing as a social event, described by Berrill, is that of razor bills, about which the author says, "....the razor bills ..... have a paddling dance on the surface of the sea. At first they move in single file, then converge toward each other until their raised beaks almost touch in the center of the group - it is even more uncanny since the moving feet are invisible beneath the water. The circle swells, then breaks - each pair of birds bob, come together and hold beaks, and for a few seconds waltz around each other. Then a single file once more, with beaks and tails lifted as high as possible, and then again the ring, the ecstatic facing of the pairs, the waltzing, and back to the file in the state of rapture --- And what is sex to start with ends up, it seems, as pure enjoyment of rhythmic patterns of motion."

Another thesis, developed by Berrill, is that, appreciation of rhythm is connected with true bipedalism or movement on two points. Perhaps the reason for this is that such a motion it-self has a simple rhythm, and this seems to have led to perception and appreciation of rhythm. True bipedalism is found only in birds and man and only they are known to perform and enjoy rhythmic dance.

The Chimpanzee, the closest living relative of humans, a close cousin, is nearly bipedal; "nearly" because, when moving on land, though most of the body weight is carried by the hind legs, the knuckles of the long fore-legs touch the ground and help carrying the weight. This ape too is known to dance; Berrill has thus described wild chimpanzees dancing, as observed in one case, "In one account, which is typical, two of them (chimpanzees) in mock fighting dragged each other about the ground until they came to a post, which they began to circle. One by one, the rest of the group appeared and joined the circle, marching behind each other around the post in an orderly way. The pace grew faster and the walk became a trout, stamping with one foot and putting the other lightly down to beat out a rhythm and keep in step. Sometimes heads bobbed up and down with mouth hanging loosely open, all in rhythm and all in obvious enjoyment of the dance ....... It is, of course, a social dance entirely and has nothing to do with sex, although chimpanzees often perform a dance of a sort before they mate, consisting of a rhythmic pounding of the ground with feet or hands or both, or clapping the hands together ......".

Aesthetics seems mostly inborn and due to instincts acquired during evolution. A rhythmic lullaby, for instance has a soothing effect on a child, while a crude noise may disturb him. When a male of one species of Drosophila, a fruit fly, approaches a female of another species, it is repelled either at once or soon after it starts its courtship movements. Males of each species of the fruit fly make some characteristic movements a prelude to mating, and it seems that a female instinctively responds favourably to the movements of a conspecific male.

Perhaps analytical and classifying tendencies of human intelligence also contribute significantly to his beauty perception. When a housewife arranges her crockery on a shelf, she finds it aesthetically more satisfying to put drinking glasses in a row and tea cups in another group rather than placing them together in a mixed up manner. But aesthetics are not independent of current cultural environment. They develop through learning and practicing with help of the human capacity of symbolization. A person with poetic proclivity reaches poetic heights by practicing writing and reciting poetry. A man with inclination to express his observations through lines and colours, becomes an artist by practicing painting. In fact fine arts are a culmination of his capacity of symbolization developed through learning and practicing it.

Interaction of Ethics and Aesthetics

Aesthetics does contribute to ethics. Such social practices are favoured as agree with the aesthetic urge. Cleanliness and orderliness are ethical and also they go well with our perception of beauty.

Current social practices or norms also affect our aesthetic sense. Deviations from norms may often appear disorderly, and, therefore unaesthetic. A garden with flower beds on a sides of neat paths in aesthetic. But, if an irresponsible visitor plucks shoots and flowers, and strews them on the paths, the act will judged as unethical and the sight anaesthetic.

Interactions with the environment during our evolutionary history seem to have shaped our instincts affecting our aesthetic sense. Perception of and responses to colours, shapes, rhythm, synchrony and orchestration/symphony in nature seem to have influenced development of the instincts. Unlike most other mammals, studied, monkeys, apes and man are capable of colour perception. Rhythmic cycles are abundant in nature; diurnal and seasonal rhythm, lunar cycle etc.; in addition to rhythms in his own physiology and locomotion. Synchrony is often seen among animals. Fire-flies, resting on the same tree, are known to flash together. Fiddler crab males, living on mud flats on sea shores, are known to wave their forecep-like limbs in unison, when signaling to a potential mate. Another example of synchrony is in chirping of crickets. Sound making by crickets and katydids may also present orchestration or symphony. Colourful flowers look attractive to us, but a snake, which may be colourfully patterned, is frightening and repulsive. Perhaps this is due to an instinct formed during the arboreal life of the prehuman ancestor.

The suggested relations between ethics and aesthetics are shown in the accompanying diagram, from which it is evident that both are complex human responses to the environment, both current as well as past. With little exposure to social sciences and psychology, I am not in position to claim a well founded discussion on this topic, but I do hope that this paper will initiate a lively discussion.

Berrill, N.J. Sex and the Nature of Things (Pocket Books Inc. New York, 1955).
Huxley, Julian. Man in the Modern World (8th printing) (The New American Library of the World Literature Inc., New York, 1959).
Munro, Fox H. The Personality in Animals (Penguin Books, London, 1952).

Editor - Please also see the Internet Version of Dr. K.K. Verma's book, K.K. Verma and Rashmi Saxena, Essays on Man - by Students of Biology - (Eubios Ethics Institute, 1998 (not hard copy) <Eubios Ethics Institute <http://www.>).

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