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November 26 , 2009

The Connexion Between Taste and Morals: Two Lectures


Is the prevalence of a cultivated taste, favorable to morals? Is there a connexion, either in individuals, or in communities, between good taste and good morals? When I began to reflect upon this point with reference to a public discussion of it, I put the above questions to three educated men, as I happened to meet them. The first said, he had not thought of it, but that, at the first view, he did not believe there was any such connexion; the second said he should wish to see it proved before he would believe it; and the third said, he thought there was such a connexion. This difference of opinion among educated men, led me to think that an investigation of the subject might be a matter of interest, and perhaps of profit. As every thing, in this country, depends upon a sound state of morals in the community, whatever bears upon that, deserves our most careful scrutiny. To discuss this subject understandingly, we must know precisely what we are talking about. What then is taste? This term is sometimes used to express mere desire, as a taste for dress, or for low pleasures. It can hardly be necessary to say that that is not the meaning now attached to it. Taste is defined by Alison, to be, "That faculty of the human mind by which we perceive and enjoy whatever is beautiful or sublime in the works of nature or of art." According to this definition, which is sufficiently correct for our present purpose, it will be perceived that there is, first, a perception of certain qualities in external objects, and then, according to the nature of the object, an emotion of beauty, or of sublimity in the mind. These emotions are, of course, incapable of definition except by stating the occasions on which they arise, and can be known only by being felt. To talk of an emotion to those who have not felt it, is like talking of colors to the blind. And here I may remark, that these terms, beauty and sublimity, have, in common with those denoting sensations, an ambiguity which has often produced confusion. As the term heat is used to denote both the sensation we feel on approaching the fire, and that quality in the fire which produces the sensation, so beauty and sublimity are sometimes used to express the emotions in the mind, and sometimes those qualities in external objects which are fitted to produce them, though there is, of course, in the external object, no emotion, nor any thing resembling one. If this account of taste be correct, it will be perceived that it cannot, with any propriety, be compared, as it often has been, to a bodily sense. The impression upon a bodily sense, necessarily follows the presence of the object, and is uniform in all mankind. A tree clothed in fresh foliage is necessarily seen, and seen to be green by all who turn their eyes upon it. The same tree, when seen, may be pronounced by one individual to be beautiful, by another, from some peculiar association, to be the reverse, and by a third, however beautiful in itself, it may be looked upon without any emotion at all. It is, therefore, a great mistake to suppose, as many do, that those qualities in objects which awaken the emotions of taste, act directly and necessarily upon us, like those which affect the senses
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