On fairness, symmetry and beauty: a curation of beautiful thoughts on justice

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A flower at our allotment

When we speak of beauty, attention sometimes falls on the beautiful object, at others times on the perceiver’s cognitive act of beholding the beautiful thing, and at still other times on the creative act that is prompted by ones being in the presence of what is beautiful. The invitation to ethical fairness can be found at each of these three sites…

…present to the mind of the writers of scores of other ancient treatises on cubes, spheres- is a conviction that equality is the heart of beauty, that equality is pleasure-bearing, and that (most important in the shift we are seeking to understand from beauty to justice) equality is the morally highest and best feature of the world. In other words, equality is set forth as the thing of all things to be aspired to…

…The equality of beauty enters the world before justice and stays longer because it does not depend on human beings to bring it about: though human beings have created much of the beauty in the world, they are only collaborators in a much vaster project…

When aesthetic fairness and ethical fairness are both present to perception, their shared commitment to equality can be seen as merely an analogy, for it may be truly be said that when both terms of an analogy are present, the analogy is inert. It asks nothing more of us than that we occasionally notice it. But when one term ceases to be visible (either because it is not present, or because it is present but dispersed beyond our sensory field), then the analogy cases to be inert: the term that is present becomes pressing, active, insistent, calling out for, directing our attention toward, what is absent…

…At the moment we see something beautiful, we undergo a radical decentering. Beauty, according to (Simone) Weil, requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center…A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions” (Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 159)

…at moments when we believe we are conducting ourselves with equality, we are usually instead conducting ourselves as the central figure in our own private story; and when we feel ourselves to be merely adjacent, or lateral (or even subordinate), we are probably more closely approaching a state of equality. In any event, it is precisely the ethical alchemy of beauty that what might in another context seem like a demotion is no longer recognizable as such: this is one of the cluster of feelings that have disappeared…

…A beautiful thing is not the only thing in the world that can make us feel adjacent; nor is it the only thing in the world that brings a state of acute pleasure. But it appears to be one of the few phenomena in the world that brings about both simultaneously; it permits us to be adjacent while also permitting us to experience extreme pleasure…a gift in its own right, and a gift as a prelude to or precondition of enjoying fair relations with others. It is clear that an ethical fairness which requires “a symmetry of everyone’s relation” will be greatly assisted by an aesthetic fairness that creates in all participants a state of delight in their own lateralness…

…This lateral position continues in the third state of beauty, not now the suspended state of beholding but the active state of creating-the site of stewardship in which one acts to protect or perpetuate a fragment of beauty already in the world or instead to supplement it by bringing into being a new object….The way beauty at this third site presses us toward justice might seem hard to uncover since we know so little about “creation”; but it is not difficult to make a start since justice itself is dependent on human hands to bring it into being and has no existence independent of acts of creation…The two distinguishable forms of creating beauty-perpetuating beauty that already exists; originating beauty that does not yet exist-have equivalents within the realm of justice….”to support” just arrangements where they already exist and to help bring them into being where they are “not yet established”

This curation of quotes were taken from Elaine Scarry’s book On Beauty and being Just, (2006) and can be found on pages, 97, 98, 108, 109, 111, 114 & 115.

You may like to listen to Elaine Scarry’s Harvard lecture Beauty as a call to Justice

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