marginal moral/artistic progress

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on July 12, 2011

There seems to be two components to moral progress. One involves reduction of pain. Another involves the increasing cost in carrying out morally good actions.

Upon reflection, I think most would agree that reduction of pain is a good thing. Some of us, utilitarians in particular, would combine this with the improvement in happiness and human flourishing, which is to say they consider pain as negative joy and joy as negative pain, along the same dimension on the same scale. But very few of us would preserve costliness per se as a desirable quality of morality for its own sake. I for one can’t think of a single justification for that.

But in practice we behave as if both components should be taken into account in determining how much something counts as marginal moral progress. For example, in railing against environmental destruction one might champion hybrid vehicles. This seems like a marginally very good thing to do… if you throw in the marginal increase in costliness of what constitutes moral behavior. Hybrid vehicles are pretty expensive after all. Saner folks would look elsewhere for more cost-effective ways to save our planet. In fact, this only goes to show how the costliness component acts contrary to what we would upon reflection agree to be the true meaning of morality. Instead of searching for the cheapest way to reduce as much pain as possible, we introduce deliberate obstacles in our way, just so our moral deeds seem more virtuous.

If you look carefully, you’ll even notice how the liberal egalitarianism discriminates via the differential costs to the rich vs. the poor being liberally egalitarian itself! The liberals, instead of going for the egalitarianism which should result in the most marginal benefit – social class equality, prefer instead to go for egalitarianism of a less productive kind, that of race, preferably with very tiny minorities from other nations in elite Ivy League universities.

The same goes for artistic progress. There is the nebulous concept of progress involving artistic content. And there is the sheer costliness of a piece of work.

Now it is not obvious that there has been artistic progress. So let’s first consider artistic merit as commonly understood on a scale of low brow to high brow. High brow work can often be better, simply because much more effort has been put into their production, or perhaps, more cynically, more cultural assimilation was required for one’s work to count as high brow. That’s mostly a result of norms about works in such rarefied categories. But such norms also seem to celebrate costs for their own sake, a high barrier to entry to works considered ‘high art’ for example. Such barriers seem to be there only to keep out those of lower social status or social class.

If it is not obvious to you that more resources can produce greater art, consider the cases of independent photographers, film-makers, game designers etc. Even if you are unwilling to grant that holding your pool of artists constant, giving them more resources results in better art, you can still admit that lowering the costs of production allows more potential artists and hence more art to be produced (even if you are unwilling to grant more is better).

Now it should be obvious to you that such a democratization of art has produced far greater improvements in its scope and range (if not quality) than going up the social ladder from low brow to high brow can give you. Notice too that such democratizations as have happened weren’t remotely suggested by the avant-garde of their respective artistic medium. They’d rather champion art styles and forms and genres which do more to raise the cost of production than to allow greater creative output. Furthermore, like in the case of morality, such a focus on cost and exclusivity in fact often militates against true artistic progress in artistic content.

If you understand the nature of signaling in human nature, this won’t come as a surprise to you. Costly signals are reliable precisely because they are hard to fake. Which is why they have been employed by the rich and privileged to show off how well endowed they are. So the next time you are tempted to feel especially virtuous or artistic, do a quick check on whether you might be deriving more of that than you would wish from the sheer cost of your accomplishment.


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