It is often said that mathematics has some (peculiar) sort of beauty to its name. Whether beauty attaches as such primarily to the notation/style of mathematical writing, or to the interplay of the concepts expressed in such writing, I wouldn't know. But so anyway, there was also a question here a while ago about whether mathematics can be sublime in the Kantian sense.

Are moral theories fit for similar evaluations? Kant did say that bit about the moral law and the stars and awe and wonder that one time, for example. The feeling of awe is like that of the sublime, after all, although without the fear of the latter's nature. Could we compare, say, classical utilitarianism, Moorean/Rossian intuitionism, perfectionism, and Rawls' contract theory on an aesthetic level? (Corollary: does Rawls implicitly do so in A Theory of Justice?) What about greater families of theories, like consequentialism vs. virtue ethics vs. deontology? Or do aesthetic theories themselves depend on moral theories in such a way that our choice of moral theory will determine what we "perceive" on the aesthetic level, including when comparing moral theories?

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    I think it hinges on the aesthetic theory you make use of. The question becomes interesting if we make use of an aesthetic theory that claims "beauty" (or similar) is based on an intrinsic, "objective" property of a thing. Then the question is about what the structure or properties of each respective moral theory is. But I am not presently of that persuasion. If "beauty" is nothing more than a subjectively identified sensation or experience, then obviously, the question is as trivial as asking if flowers can be beautiful. (That's not a knock at the question, just an attempt at assessment). Commented Feb 3 at 13:56
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    One can talk about structural "elegance" of theories of any sort, mathematical, physical, ethical, see e.g. Paris, The Aesthetics of Ethics:"Moral exemplarism... is meant as an alternative to theories like consequentialism and deontology and promises not only to contribute to unity and simplicity in ethical theory." Paris argues that aesthetics and morality do have to be entangled for this, as in old sentimentalism. But, putting hand over heart, compared to math they are all ugly. Ethereal realms are neat, the world is messy.
    – Conifold
    Commented Feb 3 at 14:30
  • The answer you linked to doesn't describe how Kant used sublime. For Kant it meant something like awe-inspiring. It was used to describe things like volcanoes and violent storms. Commented Feb 3 at 17:06
  • Moral theories either revealed ones such as the ancient ten commandments or discursive ones like Kantian CI are about good and bad. If there's no taste of good and bad, how can anything be judged as "elegant" or beautiful or sublime?... Commented Feb 3 at 22:12
  • i struggle to conceive of a moral system being sublime or beautiful, rather than its justification. oh wow you do/don't permit murder that is so profound
    – andrós
    Commented Feb 4 at 6:19

3 Answers 3


Yes. Why not? I read a paper some time ago by an author claiming to be an expert on Spinoza's philosophy. In this paper there was an assertion: "Spinoza published no theory of aesthetics." I think it may be true that Spinoza published no formal theory of aesthetics. But aesthetic patterns of emotion are implied and explicit when considering all of his descriptions of the affects published in The Ethics: The Road to Inner Freedom.

An affect is a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause.

The long SEP article Spinoza on the Emotions basically describes the affects as associative memories:


What makes an affect a passion is that it is confused, and therefore inadequate. That is, the mind is not the adequate cause of the affect; rather, it responds to some external thing, which can thus be considered the active cause. We turn passions into actions insofar as we conceive some idea clearly and distinctly, or adequately. It is in our interest to do so, since bondage to the passions is not a happy state of affairs. Nevertheless, the experience of some passions is part of the human condition, insofar as humans are not God, but merely finite parts of the whole substance of the universe.

Beauty in the context of contemplating math, science, or moral theory is just a feeling of exalted pleasure accompanied by an idea of its cause.

The psychologist William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, describes a Saint as a person with exalted emotional sensibility and a superior intellect. But he says there are daft Saints, private Saints, and public Saints. Religious figures tend to report feelings of beauty and exalted emotion in relation to moral figures or moral theories. When a Saint loses the sense of God's Presence or confronts The Problem of Evil it becomes a spiritual crisis. William James calls this the Sick Soul.

Human interaction, in a very real sense, reduces to the idea of self and others as sources of cause of human drama. Moral theories evoking pleasure or pain would be patterns of emotion arising in personal memories.


Morals have to move us. This is the is-ought distinction. We cannot purely reason our way into our morality from what is, we have to be driven by a feeling of how we ought to behave, how we want to live, what kind of person we want to be in life.

Shame and disgust are physiological reactionions grounded in our biology and evolutionary history, which can be highjacked and repurposed to also serve social aims. For instance we conduct sexual activity almost uniquely among animals, overwhelmingly in private; and this is known to help support cooperation. We feel intuitions, values, judgements, then we reason our way into justifying them. We can understand that a generalised sense of justice, based on intersubjectivity which is to say treating others as like ourselves, supports wider cooperation than a morality about family or clan in-group preferences. So we see groups that switch to more intersubjective moral reasoning being more succesful, for instance by supporting trade networks with a wider range of peoples and cultures, and by sharing technological and social innovations across a wider community of innovators.

So, in a sense our choices of moral theory is about feelings in response to them, it is an aesthetic choice - albeit with practical consequences. Elegance, beauty, or sublimeness, might impact who we want to listen too, who's ideas we are drawn to read. But they are not enough on their own.

Kant's picture is very appealing if the paradigm for understanding you hold highest s mathematics; the axiom of the Categorical Imperative allows many reasonable seeming inference to be drawn from one idea. Utilitarianism picks a quantity to maximise, comparable to a paradigm from physics, like the principle of least action, or increase of entropy in thermodynamics. But, ask a Kantian how they feel about lying to a murderer at the door to save a life (On a Supposed Right to Tell Lies from Benevolent Motives). Ask a Utilitarian if all pleasure is equal (the Utility Monster), or see how they feel about Peter Singer's provocations about the special status we grant to human bodies (Wikipedia section of his utilitarianist views on Euthanasia and infanticide).

We can make elegant, beautiful, sublime moral theories. But if they don't compel people to act in alignment with the force of their arguments, they have failed. And fundamentally, that means they have to help the community that holds them to prosper. There are incompatible moral communities around the world, and the only true backstop we have in choosing between them, is who's lives are flourishing most. To which aesthetics matter, but economics can give a hell of a lot more choices about. I guess you could compare it to Maslow's Hierachy of Needs, aesthetics are there, as a final criteria, but only if the stack of other needs to help us live well together are met first.

  • I want to open a question concerning coherent philosophical theories of human motivation. Aesthetics must play a huge role in any coherent theory of motivation given the diversity of hedonistic behavior ranging from sadistic, to masochistic, to sadomasochistic patterns of drama. Sigmund Freud argues that the ego and the It exist as the abstract psyche. Two sources of cause map to the It: the source of biological inner drives (id) and the source of perceptions of the external world (reality). The It is sadomasochistic. It drives the ego to become happy in the world yet causes unwanted pain too! Commented Feb 4 at 1:02
  • @SystemTheory: I'd say all the masochisms take the organising principle to be pain. Freud is, not science (see Popper). We have better ways to work, like the evidence-backed Moral Foundations theory that says game-theory has driven certain evolutionary drives, like an impulse towards 'just' outcomes, which is to say intersubjectively satisfying ones, rather than egotistically satisfying ones. Can the rest of the world (reality) be fully seperated from experiences (subjectivity)? I'd say we choose that assumption ordinarily, but in edge-cases we find it's not a sharp distinction
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Feb 4 at 1:34
  • If the ego reduces to the biological effort to govern action in the sensory context (it does) and the mammal ego is inherently intersubjective (it is) and the self and others are joint causes of pleasure, pain, or pleasure mixed with pain (the body is an intersubjective mixer of emotions with ideas of cause) then masochism is just an adaptation that transforms pain caused by others into erotic self-pleasure in the intersubjective context. This is a more scientific description of the body as a mixer of pleasure with pain and ideas of cause! Morality does not reduce to intellectual word salad! Commented Feb 4 at 1:40
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    @SystemTheory: Wat.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Feb 4 at 1:59
  • Setting aside your prejudice against the term "ego", if you are recognizing intersubjectivity as inherent in mammal cognition, then all of the needs in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs map to the domain of social needs! Deprivation is the idea that a need is unmet causing pain and/or disability rather than pleasure and vitality! But what happens when the body is deprived of a social need and it generates pleasure to counter-act pain in that context? It means sadism, masochism, and everyday sadomasochism is a feature of human drama! Most theories of morality are moral judgments emerging from drama! Commented Feb 4 at 2:21

We call some values, ones that are framed as moral, ugly (permission to keep slaves, obligation to FGM), and some virtues beautiful in their instances (the goddess of mercy).

What about values that no-one instantiates

A hypocrite, who in fact lacks some aesthetically appealing virtue (in fact, he is a coward), does not truly have those values: so what is there left that can be said to be "beautiful or sublime"? He might be hiding from himself the value he places on e.g. courage, but his actual struggle for meaning is what exists and motivates him, and I'd have thought that the aesthetic is not of a "moral theory" but his fantasies and cognitions.

To summarise someone I asked "can moral theories be... sublime":

Kant would say 'yes'. And to some extent, Lyotard would agree and, I think, Lacan. Ethics also applies to Antigone's adherence to the Real of her desire rather than slavishly following Creon's law.

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