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The Ethical Craftsman

Having previously considered Metaphysics and Epistemology, this essay deals with the final of the three branches of Classical philosophy: Ethics. In this essay I delve into our relation with Aesthetics—how things ought to appeal to the senses as well as Morality—how ought we be disposed to ourselves, other people, nature and the craft itself.

Themis - Titaness of the Moral Law

This essay is bound to be unpopular, extolling as it does the counter-culture virtues of judgement, discrimination and responsibility. Ethos, the etymological ancestor of our English word 'ethic', was a very important concept for the ancient Greeks. Ethos was the self-cultivated character of the individual that accorded with the custom of his place. By knowing where or from what family a man was from you could ascertain much about him. Yet it was never the whole story; the individual retained agency, the important choices that would ultimately praise or condemn him in the eyes of his fellowman.

Consciously acknowledged or not, ethics is the branch of philosophy that all humans are most concerned with. Whereas metaphysics concerns itself with questions of origin and existence and epistemology as to what constitutes knowledge or truth, ethics places to one side such abstract notions. Rather, it's emotional and dynamic, it seeks to act in the world, taking up the challenge of how things ought to be in the face of what they are. Ethics are of vital interest to the craftsman in two significant ways. First, how the work of our hands ought to appeal to the senses and secondly, what responsibilities we have towards ourselves, other individuals, our culture and nature herself.


How ought that which we create appeal to the senses? This is a question that chefs, musicians, and craftsmen, essentially all artists and makers grapple with. How are the dishes we prepare to smell or taste, the music we perform to sound, the crafted work of our hands to feel and look? These are not trivial questions...chefs, musicians and craftsmen invest years of practise, garnering experience in cultivating our sensory capacity for such nuances. In incremental steps we must first train the discerning palates, noses, ears or eyes for only then can we hope to develop and align the skills to produce that which might please the senses. Such pursuit of sensual delight must include a great deal of frustration, a virtual arms race of dissatisfaction that contains self-judgement from within and judgement from masters and patrons from without. Oh yes, your work will assuredly be judged and quite possibly found wanting. Disentangling yourself from the judgement against your work or your performance is no straightforward matter.

In the visual arts of painting and sculpture as well as architecture there arose, perhaps initially as a mere reflection of an exercised instinct, something that grew into a self-consciously foggy notion of what our creations might ought to look like: the beautiful and the sublime. It was held that the beauty or sublimity of such visual arts were but a pale imitation of the source, nature herself. Beauty was emergent, to be revealed or discovered such as in the beauty of a young girl's smile or the beauty of a rose unfurled. Beauty held a certain delicacy, was approachable, drew you in. Sublimity on the other hand commanded reverence of another sort, that of awe. The sublimity of a mountain, great ocean or a field of stars leaves one dumbstruck; an encounter with the totally incomprehensible that nevertheless remains utterly sensible. Although expressed in painting and sculpture, no art has the capacity to convey sublimity like architecture. A majestic work of architecture such as a Gothic cathedral may hold us in awe, remind us of our smallness and mortality yet we simultaneously see in it the hands of man, that as 'man' we are participants in its greatness, it stands as a testimony of our own nobility.

Can a work of visual art reveal both beauty and sublimity together? Much in the same way that a delicate flower can blossom upon the craggy slope of a jagged mountain and a colourful, whirring hummingbird can hover among the mists of a thunderous waterfall, the beautiful and the sublime often indeed coexist. Furthermore, so as to command the most profound impression upon the senses they should do so. Architecture for example is only enhanced as a sublime sensual experience when judiciously combined with the beauty of painting, sculpture, ornament and handcraft.

Burgos Cathedral

Burgos Cathedral

However, during the Age of Reason the aforementioned way of feeling came under intellectual protest and underwent a reformation denying the traditional notions of the beautiful and the sublime in favour of a way of thinking about the senses, a need to define beauty and the sublime explicitly, to apply intellectual rigour to the senses, providing rational justification for them. One conclusion of this urgent need might best be summed up in the now cliché slogan "beauty is in the eye of the beholder", that is to say that our senses amount to nothing more than our own perceptions, we've no access to the minds of others or a greater reality outside our own head. Modern art and architecture awkwardly embraced the Modern philosophy which led to a baffling new aesthetic, a theory that denied its own possibility of appealing to the senses at all! Modern works of art and architecture were to befit the modern man, all concept and functional programme to be comprehended and rationally articulated, breaking with the traditional emphasis on eliciting feelings of beauty and sublimity.

Nevertheless, this Modernist aesthetic in practise followed two paths ultimately related to one another. The first was sensory deprivation: white or monochromatic environments, linear and geometric forms, smooth and polished surfaces, a "clean" aesthetic cleansed of any organic presence such as living things or crafted objects in favour of industrially produced metals, glass and plastics. The second approach has been a wilful assault on the senses, art and architecture that is deliberately designed to be absurd, to shock, to offend, in some cases to uncover the ugliness, violence, malevolence of the human condition, a perverse celebration of our worst attributes writ large. The Modernist art and architecture movement has been largely successful in eliminating the beautiful and the sublime from academic discourse and professional pracitse; however, by replacing them with an aesthetic of sensory deprivation and sensory assault they've largely determined for society what we ought to have instead, the really real as it were: pain based sensory experiences.


What responsibility do we have to have towards ourselves, our fellowman and nature in the very process of that which we bring into existence? This is the type of inquiry that makes the art and architectural community very uncomfortable and even reactionary. Questions of morality are essentially bad form and mingling them with questions of aesthetics, well that's strictly taboo. However, if one were to press the issue the answers regarding moral responsibility seem to converge upon: seemingly no responsibility whatsoever.

One problem confronting morality is an extension of the previously considered problem of aesthetics. If the axiomatic presupposition holds that our senses amount to nothing more than our own perceptions, that we've no access to the minds of others or a greater reality outside our own head, then it must follow that there's no basis for a shared aesthetics or a shared morality. Taken to its extreme results in a radical scepticism, a feeling of total isolation and complete detachment from anyone, any reality at all outside one's own perceptions.

As it turns out radical scepticism is not a good recipe for staying alive so we tend to be confronted with it only as a theoretical concept with more tempered versions of scepticism promoted in practise. Prominent among these is what we might call relative morality. The general premise being that I've my morality and you've your morality but there can be no such thing as a shared morality between us. This moral relativism is often amplified to groups identified by race, religion, gender or any other way we might carve up humanity. The focus is on division and separation where we see a repeated pattern on the meta-individual, group level. It plays out something like we have our morality and you all have your morality but there can be no such thing as a shared morality between us as our perceptions are shaped by our enculturation and life experience which represents an impassable chasm with those who don't share the same time, place, sex, race, status, culture, etc. There's a real denial of the possibility of the power of human empathy at work here. The belief is that we can't communicate effectively despite any desire to do so; no matter what you attempt to convey what will in fact be heard, perceived will be shaped by the others intransigent world view.

Another position regarding morality is that it is nothing more than an emergent property of biology and evolution. We're just role playing out our instinctive drives. A kind of materialist morality where all behaviour is reduced to instinct and could be accounted for if we just know more about biology which we expect to in time. This view of morality has a good deal of scientific data and research lending support, even if the scientists themselves hold a more nuanced view. It's not to be denied of course that we have instincts and that they can be quite powerful. However, I would contend that what we often experience are instincts that are in conflict with one another which is where morality actually emerges. When confronted with a moral dilemma, such as saving a drowning stranger i.e., that part of us that suppresses a stronger instinct, "self-preservation" in favour of a weaker one, "offer help" cannot itself be an instinct but a higher function that judges between them.

Yet another commonplace view of morality is that it is shaped almost entirely by social convention and societal organisation. Religions, schools and cultures enforce norms whereas governments enact laws that dictate individual behaviour. In the socialist model the former responsibility that the individual might have had for himself, towards his fellowman and nature is largely depersonalised and taken up by the state whereas in the more capitalist models responsibility tends to be externalised and outsourced to the marketplace. Most all modern states utilise some compromise between these two approaches of mass societal organisation. What they have in common is that they both wrest moral responsibility away the individual, either by centralising it in the state or distributing it in the marketplace by means of laws, policies and codes. This last view is more descriptive of how things are than normative, saying how they ought to be.

The Young Apprentices

The young apprentices

The aesthetic questions of how their work ought to look or otherwise appeal to the senses are quite naturally a primary concern of traditional craftsmen. However, alongside this come other, moral responsibilities. The craft itself is a tradition, literally something of value passed across the threshold. So there is an obligation of stewardship, a respect for the craft even in the manner you practise it, an honesty in one's dealings and upholding a standard of quality, essentially an obligation fulfilled to the preceding generations. The tradition acts as an initiation into personal growth, the cultivation of discernment, the ability to use good judgement rather than a conditioning to perform work rigidly according to fixed norms or standards.

Traditional craftsmen are likely to enter into conflict with more expeditious means particularly those typical of industrial production that are willing to compromise quality, constrain creativity or forego investment in the next generation of craftsmen. To that last point, the craftsman carries an obligation to future generations in the form of apprentices, to pass on both the technical skills and the respect for the craft itself, the fullness of the tradition. Materials are not simply a means to an end form for the craftsman, rather there is an intimate relationship with timber, stone, plaster, iron; wastefulness is among the greatest of offences. Best if one can use local materials, adapted to local needs by local craftsmen; the master craftsman becomes the greatest of ministers: to apprentices, to the craft, to the community and to those who are securing his services. Being a traditional craftsman is a moral life of obligation and responsibility and in that is found rich meaning and connection.

The Abolition of Craftsmen

Industrial production has largely displaced and diminished traditional craft globally. What moral responsibility if any does society have towards the craftsman?

Perhaps just give it enough space to grow. That seems to be a tall order in a technological age. We're at the point today where most academics and professionals in architectural circles are convinced that we don't need craft or craftsmen anymore, their hands and heads can be replaced and at greater efficiency. They're not altogether wrong, at least from a certain point of view.

The ability for industry machinery to replace craftsmen has increased steadily since the early 19th century. Those early efforts placed significant constraints on what could be designed and produced. However, after two centuries of technological advancement computer-numerical-controlled (CNC) utilise waterjets, lasers and various bits and bores to produce almost any form imaginable with a level of nuance and detail approaching that in some cases exceeds that of the human hand. 3D printing is the latest technological breakthrough that promises to clear the field entirely.

So much for the hand but surely complex design tasks, the head is safe? Hundreds of billions of dollars have been poured from the public and private coffers into artificial intelligence and algorithmic design development. Almost any human work activity physical or mental can be codified and programmed with sufficient monetary and increasingly digital resources. Artificial intelligence has reached the point where it can speed the conversion along, helping us immensely towards our own redundancy. Even professional fields such as journalism, science, medicine, legal, accounting and ironically computer technology are beginning to see the code written on the virtual firewall.

Why this acceleration towards the automation of practically every conceivable human task be it physical or mental? Some claim it is the only way to address the problem of large numbers. Such automation is the only way to care for the exponential increase in population growth; furthermore, having machines labour and think on our behalf will yield corollary benefits, the freedom from constraint to fulfil our desires, to pursue happiness! That's the sales pitch anyway...I'm not so convinced. Author and moral philosopher C.S. Lewis was of the opinion that every declaration of man's conquest of nature was in reality a few men's conquest over many men with nature as her bludgeoning instrument. I think history has more tended to support his contention than not.

Let's look at the number situation from a different angle. What's the one resource that we have today in superabundance like no time in history? Human beings. And they're super-efficient too, running on only 2000 calories day of 100% bio-renewable fuel. Does having billions of young people not just unemployed but unemployable, passive and dependent upon the state and large corporations sound like a secure future to you? Perhaps the solution to the "problem" of large numbers is to allow the possibility for responsibility and self-reliance for these next generations. Perhaps they would be better served being prepared to be active participants in their future not just along for the algorithmically determined ride. A future where they create not only with their hands and design with their head but rely upon their figurative heart, that unprogrammable uniquely human capacity for moral choice, for what their life ought to be and bestow over the threshold the same possibility for their progeny. I expect that if such an alternate future is possible, craftsmen will have an important role in shaping it.

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