I often hear people say things like “It’s ridiculous to judge that someone’s a bad person because of his musical taste!” People assume it’s obvious that aesthetic judgments have no moral weight.

For me, aesthetic judgments are a kind of moral judgment.

I understand “morality” to basically cash out as “priority structure”, “values”, and related concepts. What matters most to me, and what would matter most to me if I knew more and thought more clearly. With that definition, when I say that kindness is “good” and I say that Camembert is “good”, I’m not using two unrelated meanings of the word — cheese and kindness are both valuable to me.

Aesthetic preferences aren’t really arbitrary; they say things about what you value and how you see the world.

For example, I like Bach. There’s a pretty well-established correlation between liking Bach and liking math. Godel, Escher, Bach is a pretty strong marker of membership in my tribe. And I don’t think that’s arbitrary. The words I’d use to describe Bach’s music are complex and orderly. Polyphony gives the impression of a giant, intricate clock, moving according to regular mechanisms, steady as the stars in their courses and endlessly interesting. It gives me a sense of cosmos, of natural law. And the fact that I like that says something about what my priorities are more generally.

These sorts of connections are associative and probabilistic rather than determined. Not literally everyone who likes Bach is getting the same associations from the music as I do. But associations and resonances can be real tendencies in the world even if they’re not strict logical entailments. Metaphors can be apt. There are some synesthetic/metaphorical connections that correlate across human minds, like the bouba/kiki effect. In a “clusters-in-thingspace” sense, it can be sort of objectively true that Bach is “about” cosmic natural order. You can’t stretch these intuitions too far, but they aren’t completely fictitious either.

And it’s possible to learn aesthetic intuitions.

I used to only like paintings with very crisp, precise textures, rather than the cloudy, fuzzy textures that show up in John Singer Sargent or Turner paintings. The art blog Opulent Joy taught me to appreciate the soft textures; when I realized “oh! he’s appreciating a broader power spectrum than I am!” I immediately noticed that his aesthetic was like mine, but stronger — more general, more nuanced, and therefore an upgrade I would like to make.

Another example: when I was a kid, I found industrial landscapes horribly ugly. Machines seemed like a blight on nature. The more I came to understand that good things are produced by machines, and that machines are made with care and skill, the more I started to see trains and bridges and construction sites and shipping containers as beautiful. Factual understanding changed my aesthetic appreciation. And if learning facts changes your aesthetic views, that means that they aren’t arbitrary; they actually reflect an understanding of the world, and can be more correct or less so.

Judging people for aesthetics isn’t crazy. If someone loves Requiem for a Dream, it’s a small piece of evidence that they’re a pessimistic person. If you think pessimism is bad, then you’re indirectly judging them for their taste. Now, your inferences could be wrong — they could just be huge Philip Glass fans — once again, we’re looking at Bayesian evidence, not logical entailments, so being overconfident about what other people’s tastes “say about them” is a bad idea. But aesthetics do more-or-less mean things.

For me, personally, my aesthetic sensitivities are precise in a way my moral intuitions aren’t. My “conscience” will ping perfectly innocent things as “bad”; or it’ll give me logically incoherent results; or it’ll say “everything is bad and everyone is a sinner.” I’ve learned to mistrust my moral intuitions.

My aesthetic sensibilities, on the other hand, are stable and firm and specific. I can usually articulate why I like what I like; I’m conscious of when I’m changing my mind and why; I’m confident in my tastes; my sophistication seems to increase over time; intellectual subjects that seem “beautiful” to me also seem to turn out to be scientifically fruitful and important. To the extent that I can judge such things about myself, I’m pretty good at aesthetics.

It’s easier for me to conceptualize “morality” as “the aesthetics of human relationships” than to go the other way and consider aesthetics as “the morality of art and sensory experience.” I’m more likely to have an answer to the question “which of these options is more beautiful?” than “which of these options is the right thing to do?”, so sometimes I get to morality through aesthetics. Justice is good because symmetry is beautiful. Spiteful behavior is bad because resentment is an ugly state to be in. Preserving life is good, at root, because complexity is more interesting and beautiful than emptiness. (Which is, again, probably true because I am a living creature and evolutionarily wired to think so; it’s circular; but the aesthetic perspective is more compelling to me than other perspectives.)

It always puzzles me when people think of aesthetics as a sort of side issue to philosophy, and I know I’ve puzzled people who don’t see why I think they’re central. Hopefully this gives a somewhat clearer idea of how someone’s internal world can be “built out of aesthetics” to a very large degree.