Adur Rahim Nagori: Tharri Landscape 2 - Oil on Canvas
Teaching Ethics through the Arts
Amber Romasa Nagori
The author of the book Nagori: Voice of Conscience, Oxford University Press, 2006
Volume 2 Issue 2 October 2006
Kant famously said that the highest significance of beauty is to symbolise moral good, while for Schelling and Hegel the greatest revelation of beauty rested in the arts. The relationship between ethics and beauty is considered to be an old one, rooted in the thoughts of the philosophers of antiquity. According to Xenophon’s accounts Socrates equated beauty with goodness, while the wise man Confucius emphasised the role of arts in refining the human nature. To teach his students, Confucius, a highly demanding teacher, would ask his disciplines to read the “Book of Songs” (an ancient and highly revered anthology of poems in Confucius’ time) to discover the metaphysical and ethical issues.
The questions that troubled the thinkers of centuries ago, still confront us today. What is moral behaviour? What constitutes ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Can these values be inculcated in an individual, and if yes, then how? Yet unlike the thinkers of antiquity, we have the additional challenge of globalisation and rapid technological innovations confronting us, which have caused a dramatic paradigm shift of values and knowledge. Knowledge accumulated over generations becomes quickly superfluous today; new skills have to be learnt which have no old wisdom to provide a framework: is it right of companies to monitor employees’ emails, should governments have the right to block material on the Internet? Issues like euthanasia, organ transplant and eugenics confront us more than ever before and in each field where technology has pervaded, such difficult questions abound. Globalisation has also meant that we are forced to live in harmony with people with different sets of norms guiding their understanding of right and wrong. The challenge poised by this is how to negotiate a space where the different sets of morality can co-exist? Should each culture and especially the dominant ones try to impose hegemony of their understanding of morality and ethics and is that a realistic possibility in today’s world? Or do we try to follow Kant in “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”
Today, maybe as a result of all these challenges, the wheel has turned a full-circle and the mainstream utilitarian, deontological and consequential theories of ethics have been followed by an emergence of a renewed interest in the Aristotelian-inspired virtue ethics with an emphasis on the building of character as a primary step towards propagating ethical behaviour. For if only “dos” and -don’ts” are taught as a rule to a child, then there is a high possibility that in the rapidly changing world, by the time she/he grows up, the conditions to apply the rules learnt would have changed. However, if in conjunction, a virtuous, empathic and creative personality is developed, she/he would have the flexibility to adapt to the changed world. If this is the case, inculcating a virtuous character should be a priority which should begin at early educational levels, and amongst several routes available, and undoubtedly the more enjoyable one for the child, is through the arts, inclusive of music, visual arts, theatre and literature (oral and written).
There are those who might wonder whether the arts can instill ethics in a person. How could drawing a painting, watching a play or listening to ghazal actually make a person more virtuous or derive ethical principles? The answer lies in the power of the arts to foster imagination, sensitivity and creativity: the ingredients necessary in the formulation of an empathic personality receptive to the issues and complexities of our world. Aesthetic pleasure is sometimes defined as empathic pleasure where the object and the subject merge: and empathy or more appropriately ‘Einfiihlung’ is the hallmark of creating or enjoying any of the arts (a major theme in the nineteen century German aesthetics). The concept of empathy is powerfully captured by the Romantic Movement poet Keats on seeing a sparrow outside his ledge, who wrote, take part in its existence and pick about the gravel”. While Byron echoed a similar sentiment, “‘I live not in myself, but 1 become/ Portion of that around me…”. One could even say that the application of Kant’s philosophical morality stance of “categorical imperative” requires imaginative projection. It seems there is a natural instinct in humans to turn towards the arts. Even the cave man, with his naïve and primitive understanding of the world, was attracted towards illustrating his abode. The danger is that if the higher arts are not provided at educational levels then people will turn solely to the cheap images flashed by the advertising industry and the soap operas and the mass conscience and values will be formed only by the images seen of television and the Internet. The values of the society would then not be shaped by the thoughts of leading intellectuals and creators but rather imbibe mediocrity.
This is not to assert that every person who has been exposed to the higher arts becomes ethically refined but it does mean that most of the people whose education includes art would have been provided with some of the key ingredients towards a personality type which is conducive towards ethics and vice versa. As articulated by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, “the soul of a man without music is dark as Erebus (Greek god of darkness who lived underground), fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils, and no such man should be trusted.”
Even highly pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer, whom Maupassant aptly called “the greatest shattered of dreams,” conceded and glorified the power of arts for its ability to achieve momentary deliverance from the destructive powers of the Will. Through the arts, without being burdensome, harsh realities of life can be communicated. Pablo Neruda’s poems became the soul of Chile, Mexican painters like Diego Rivera and Orozco effectively used mural to convey social injustice themes to the masses, Puskin’s poetry resonates within the Russian spirit, while for decades to come, protest against the havoc of war has been encapsulated in Picasso’s painting Guernica. It is important to note that the key element of the arts is that it is an enjoyable communication medium, which rests on the principle of harmony. Musical cords have to be in harmony as have to be the colours of a painting. This is its greatest merit, communicating even disconcerting thoughts while remaining harmonious. It can be said that society can inculcate morality and ethics through different methods. In the ancient civilisation, both the Spartans and the Athenians endeavoured for morality and ethics, but for the Spartans it was sans the arts while the Athenians embraced art.
Today we remember Athenians for their contributions to civilisation and democracy while the Spartan existence is disparaged. Historical choices often recur. Present society will have the choice to accept or reject the arts and its role in shaping the character of its people. It would be a pity not to utilise the full power of humanity’s artistic heritage to help improve the world of tomorrow. Today we have not one but many such “Books of Songs” but do we have the wisdom of Confucius to utilise them to teach ethics to those looking for the answers?