Is Beauty a Moral Obligation?

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Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

Recently, I posted a poll on two social media platforms: “True or false: Beauty is a moral requirement.” Across the two platforms, the average answer was 62% for False, and 38% for True. From DMs relating to the post, the default interpretation seemed to be that beauty meant ‘physical appearance’. That observation alone, if it is correct, speaks volumes. It is worth asking whether a culture preoccupied with physical appearance, often manipulated by make-up, surgery, and photo editing, could ever have a healthy approach to beauty. Perhaps, that’s a topic for another time. I want to defend the minority opinion, that beauty is a moral obligation.

A while ago, I had a conversation with a colleague who said that he had seen someone singing opera at the train station. It wasn’t a busker looking for donations. It was a man who had gone to some effort to move away from the morning commuters. He was dressed normally and reading music from a book. We discussed where he might be going and why he might be working on an operatic piece at the train station. I guessed that he was on the way to a performance or audition and was doing some last-minute preparation. I also said that it was a shame that artists don’t feel free to perform in public. If you have a permit and you’re accepting money, it’s fine, but nobody makes music on the street corner just because they can.

Twice this week, I’ve seen a woman at my local beach, ankle deep in lapping waves, dancing with abandon- a private dance, meant only for her and the sea, made up of the steps she felt each moment. It was obvious that she was a dancer, and not just someone so bored by the lock-down that she was willing to risk looking crazy. The dance was beautiful precisely because it was private, impromptu, emotional and remarkably done.

Recently, I was walking behind two older men, one known to me, the other I had just met. Both in their later years, they had known one another for decades. Immigrants from Egypt, they were untouched by the unspoken western rule that it is unmanly to show physical affection in non-sexual contexts. As I walked behind them, heard their speech, saw the occasional touch of a hand on a shoulder, I noticed the beauty in their almost tangible care for one another, a beauty built on years of tenderness.

Is beauty a moral obligation? The short answer is this: The world would, beyond a shadow of a doubt, be a much better place if those who could add a moment of beauty would do so. And, if the world would undoubtedly be better, we must make it so. We are obligated to make it so.

The longer answer begins with a question. What is beauty? Beauty is not a matter of personal preference or cultural norms. Beauty is the sensory perception of the good, the healthy. Think about it. There’s always a connection between the beauty we seek and the thoughts, emotions, relationships that we need in order to live well. It’s true of love songs, and heroic tales, and stunning architecture… anything beautiful. Of course, our view of beauty can be distorted into something else: personal taste, cultural conceptions of beauty, etc. But, these are pale imitations. If beauty is the sensory perception of the good, then it is part of every obligation. If we leave it out, it can only be because we haven’t really understood what matters.

During the lock-down, a few musicians have made an extra effort. The only two I’ve paid attention to are Norah Jones and Amos Lee, but there have probably been dozens. Since we’re talking about beauty, I’ll focus on Norah Jones (Sorry, Amos; I’m sure you understand). On March 19th, Norah posted a YouTube cover of Guns n Roses’ song “Patience”. To date, it has nearly 950,000 views and 44,000 ‘likes’. (I’m listening to it now). I don’t know how YouTube works. She’s probably making some money from it, and maybe she expected that. I don’t think that’s the thing though. I don’t think the payoff was her motivation. Maybe I’m naïve, but I choose to believe that she thought she could make things better for someone out there if she did something beautiful. Maybe some of the people that viewed the vid are deaf, or warped in some way so they couldn’t enjoy it. 290 people actually went to the trouble to ‘dislike’ it. I figure the dislikes are hardcore GnR fans and didn’t like her stealing one of their songs, and maybe a few sociopaths. It’s a safe bet, I think, to say that she brought a smile to thousands of faces, that she made a few people want to hold on a little tighter, try a little harder, love a little deeper, hope a little more. She did it because she could- because beauty matters to her- and she has a skill set that makes her capable of spreading it.

What about me? What about you? So very few of us are actually Norah Jones. But, it’s surprisingly easy to make the world a more beautiful place. I’ve got a list of things you might try. If you’re up to it, choose a couple and do them over the next week, or come up with a couple of your own. See what happens. I’d love to hear how it goes.

-Make a toddler laugh. It’s not a tough job. Play peek-a-boo, bump into things, make faces, let them push you and fall over like you’ve been hit by truck. There are hundreds of things that will make a toddler laugh. None of them is exactly what I would call beautiful, but there are very few things that are more beautiful than a child’s laughter.

-Buy someone a coffee. Not someone you know. Not someone who’s number you would like to get. Not someone who might want to get your number. Just your average ordinary stranger, the person behind you the next time you’re in line. Coffee makes a day better, free coffee even more so.

-Take an extra half hour to make dinner. My son sometimes lights candles for no reason and puts them on the table for dinner. Do something like that. Set the table with care, make the food special, use your best recipe. It doesn’t matter how you do it, just make it worth remembering.

-Smile. At other people.

-Do a job for an old person. Doesn’t matter who it is, doesn’t matter what the job is. Make sure it’s unexpected, and make sure it’s a job they want done.

-Tell someone how much they mean to you. I’m sure there’s someone in your life that matters a lot, that has nurtured you in some way, someone you love deeply, that rarely hears how much you care. (It’s probably your mother, but I’ll let you decide.) Tell her. Be honest, be open, be specific.

-Here’s the most important one: Whatever talent you have, for movement, or sight, or sound, for food, or decoration, or comedy, for organisation, or de-cluttering, or getting things done- whatever it is that you do best, give it away for free. Find moments to make moments for others.

A few years ago, a mother was trying to carry her wriggling 2yo son across the intersection of a busy Sydney street. The boy was carrying a ball. As he wriggled, he lost the ball and it went bouncing into city traffic. I noticed his mother’s reaction. It’s a moment every parent has experienced: it seems like everything is going wrong, and you don’t know how something as simple as crossing the street could be so torturous, and you’re just not really sure if you’re up to this job, and all you want is for the moment to end. I wanted to get the ball back, but I was on the inside lane, traffic was heavy, and there was nowhere to pull over. So, I let the moment pass. If I had stopped, people would have been annoyed, they would have honked, and sworn, and probably sent some gestures my way. Here’s what really matters though: A young mother was feeling like everything was too hard, like she just couldn’t make it work, like she had just ruined her son’s day by trying to keep him safe, like maybe she wasn’t very good at this mother business after all. I could have made everything seem a little better. I could have, but I didn’t.

Beauty is not just the sensory perception of the good. It’s also the ever-present companion of joy. We all have the ability to make beautiful moments. You can smile, sing, help, love, teach, reassure, comfort, inspire. You can. You face those moments every day. They’re limited though. Don’t miss them.

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