The Aesthetics of Ethics (1999)

Roger Bissell

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The Aesthetics of Ethics: One's Life as a Work of Art

by Roger E. Bissell

August 30, 1999

[This piece is inspired by things Nathaniel Branden has said both long ago, in his writings on romantic love and sense of life, as well as more recently. I offer it purely as a tribute (and tiny partial payment) to Dr. Branden for the many profound and life-changing things he has shared with us...REB.]

A few years ago, I wrote a book on aesthetics (yet unpublished) that contained a section outlining the connection or parallel between one's abstract view of oneself and one's abstract view of the world. This passage (appended to this essay for those who are interested) was inspired in part by what Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden wrote in their respective essays on sense of life in relation to art and romantic love. What seemed most striking, in comparing their essays, was how the visibility in a good personal relationship gives one something parallel to what one gets from good art.

At a private gathering in May 1999, this idea was re-ignited for me when Dr. Branden spoke about the importance of what he called "embodying in your own actions what you want to see in the world." This, he suggested, is the root of benevolence. When I heard this, it occurred to me that a person's fashioning for him/herself a benevolent (or non) life could be regarded as an aesthetic way of looking at ethics—and, in particular, the ethical issue of benevolence. I'd like to expand on that idea a little here...

By embodying in your self what you want to see in the world, you are making a sort of artwork out of your life, actions, character. You are, in the terms of Rand's definition of "art," selectively re-creating reality—taking the raw material of your mind, values, past experience, present context, future possibilities, etc. and fashioning them into a microcosm of what you find most significant about reality. You then, just as much as (perhaps more than) an external embodiment of your worldview (artwork), become a living symbol of that worldview. You are practicing what you preach—or, more deeply, what you believe. You are being congruent in action and character with your deepest principles. (Integrity.)

Moreover, I think that this relates not only to aesthetics, but to the psychology of friendship and romance—what Dr. Branden calls "visibility." What happens when you perceive an embodiment of your deep values and world perspective in another's character and actions is like what happens when you perceive it in an artwork. You are understanding that other person in the same profound way that you are understanding an artwork. And when the other person gets the sense that you are understanding them in that way, they have an externalized sense of the reality of what they are embodying in a way similar to the externalized sense of that reality when they perceive it in an artwork. So, it works for both the perceiver and the perceived! And I think that's why it's so powerful.

In conclusion, I offer this example to illustrate my point. George Bernard Shaw said: "The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art."

Now, relate this to my point about how embodying what you want to see in the world can be regarded as a form of self-creation or you-as-an-artwork. Sir Thomas More refused to sanction Henry VIII's divorce and remarriage by lying under oath, and as a consequence of cleaving to his principles, he and his family lived in poverty for the last period of his life. He very much exemplified the attitude of the true artist described by Shaw.


"Contemplating One’s Basic Abstractions"

excerpted from chapter 2 of Esthetics, Objectively (1971)

by Roger E. Bissell

...Both aspects of contemplation—content and intensity—are capable of fulfilling such a need by affording us such efficacy and pleasure. When one contemplates something which presents us an embodiment of one’s subconscious view of oneself or of the universe or of one’s mind’s way of working, one responds with pleasure and a sense of efficacy. The present act of contemplation has confirmed one’s past act of forming and sustaining the view subconsciously as a basic implied premise for one’s actions.

As a result, the efficacy of one’s mind is confirmed. The experience lets one know that the way one’s mind worked in arriving at and retaining such a view in the past, is a way of mental functioning which is efficacious. (It is efficacious at least insofar as the view which it produced is reflected in reality, whether it is true or not.)

Thus, the need fulfilled by contemplation pertains to self-esteem, of which a sense of efficacy or self-confidence in one’s basic way of “facing and dealing with the facts of reality” is a key aspect. As such, our need of contemplation is a special kind of psychological need. It is a psycho-epistemological need, a need pertaining to the function of one’s mind. The following considerations provide another way of grasping this fact more clearly.

One’s self-abstraction and one’s metaphysical and epistemological abstractions are of prime importance to one’s motivation and moral values. They are involved in every choice one makes, every action one takes, and every emotion one feels. [1,2] “...all value-choices [and value-responses and seeking of values] rest on an implicit view of the being who values and of the world in which he must act.” [3]

Yet, qua abstractions, these basic abstractions are very difficult (if not impossible) to hold in one’s immediate conceptual awareness, for two main reasons:

    1. They are diffuse and hard to isolate from the rest of one’s contents of consciousness. They are experienced more as feelings than as thoughts.
    2. They are inclusive of too many factors for one to be able to hold them fully in one’s immediate, focal awareness at a given time. [4,5]

Also, since qua abstractions (or concepts), they do not exist as such—but are only our means of viewing that which does exist (which is necessarily concrete)—one’s grasp of them can become extremely precarious at times:

Amidst the incalculable number and complexity of choices that confront a man in his day-by-day existence, with the frequently bewildering torrent of events, with the alternation of successes and failures, of joys that seem too rare and suffering that lasts too long—he is often in danger of losing his perspective and the reality of his convictions.[6]

Even a rational person, with a fully developed, explicit philosophy, needs this experience. it is not a matter of verification or validation of one’s philosophical views. It is a matter of seeing actual instances of those views, especially when much of one’s environment seems to contradict them. It provides those philosophical views with an extra dimension of connectedness to reality, in much the same way that a model does in relation to a blueprint. [7]

Basic abstractions, in order to “acquire the full, persuasive, irresistible power of reality,” [8] must be concretized (i.e., objectified) and open to one’s direct contemplation. This is vital, in order for one to retain one’s abstractions—and the perspective of oneself, of existence, and of consciousness, which those abstractions constitute. (This perspective must serve as the implicit premise upon which one acts, chooses, and emotionally responds, if one is to feel “at home” or fundamentally comfortable with one’s choices, actions, and responses.)

Thus, the psycho-epistemological function fulfilled by contemplation is a frame of mind in which one can grasp one’s basic abstractions as embodied or concretized in objective reality, and thus retain the integrations which formed those abstractions.

Of course, a given object of contemplation may not embody those basic abstractions. In such a case, the psycho-epistemological need—an integrated conceptual consciousness—is not fulfilled. The object’s nature prevents one from using it to help one retain one’s basic abstractions. Still, we need to contemplate in order to retain our basic abstractions, to the extent that they are embodied in objective reality.

It is to a consideration of the basic metaphysical and epistemological abstractions that we now turn. We will identify their nature in more detailed fashion, including how they are formed and retained. (The nature of one’s basic abstraction of oneself, and of the need to perceive oneself—i.e., one’s abstraction of oneself, one’s self-concept—as part of the “out there” is beyond the scope of this discussion. It has been demonstrated that this need to perceive ourselves in external reality—via the conscious behavioral reactions of other living, conscious beings—is the root of the human desire for companionship and love. [9] The need for visibility or objective self-awareness is analogous to the need for a concrete experience of one’s basic, fundamental abstractions about the nature of existence, of consciousness, and of our relationship to both of them.)...


1. Rand, Ayn. The Romantic Manifesto (TRM), p. 19.

2. Branden, Nathaniel. The Psychology of Self-Esteem (PSE), p. 186.

3. PSE, p. 201.

4. TRM, p. 19.

5. PSE, pp. 103, 186.

6. TRM, p. 23.

7. TRM, p. 21. Also see TRM, p. 169.

8. TRM, p. 23.

9. PSE, pp. 182-3. Also see Branden, Nathaniel, The Psychology

of Romantic Love.

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