Can a system of ethics be based upon beauty? Is a kalocentric world view enough to counter the biocentric, and most often anthropocentric, ethics that are shaping the destruction of Earth’s systems by human beings? Perhaps most importantly, can an ethic that leans on aesthetics produce tangible changes for good in the world? Brian Henning seems to think so, as he argues in The Ethics of Creativity, his book on the moral applicability of Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy.
The ethics of creativity is rooted in Whitehead’s concept of concrescence, in which each actual occasion, each infinitesimal “drop of experience,” moves through a four stage process of datum, satisfaction, process, and decision, in which the occasion feels itself in its subjective immediacy before perishing into objective immortality. Whitehead’s term “concrescence” is from the Latin concrēscere, meaning “to grow together.” Concrescence is the process by which each actual occasion, or event, is constituted by its internal relations to all other events. “Each actual occasion is, in this sense, its relationship to the universe.” For Whitehead, individuality is composed of reference to all others as well as to the whole. Concrescence is the process by which “the many become one, and are increased by one.”
Whitehead’s “category of the ultimate” is Creativity: the harmonizing process of concrescence makes creativity kalogenic—for each event to be actual it must to some degree or other be beautiful. Drawing on Charles Hartshorne, Henning writes, “The zero of aesthetic value is the zero of actuality.” All of reality, therefore, has value. Due to concrescence, by which ‘the many become one, and are increased by one,’ each event has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Henning writes, “Whitehead’s insistence that every individual has value not only for itself, but for others and for the whole of reality, establishes a rich axiological foundation for the development of an organic moral philosophy.” Henning is trying to formulate an ethical system that mirrors the “creative process of the universe itself.” He asserts that “morality must always aim at achieving the most harmonious, inclusive, and complex whole possible.”
Henning applies the ethics of creativity primarily to the ecological crisis, an issue that urgently calls for a rethinking of ethics and morality. He says,
One of the greatest services that a Whiteheadian moral philosophy can provide to contemporary environmental and moral philosophies is to provide the metaphysical basis for understanding not only the locus and scope of intrinsic value, but also its nature.
When Henning applies the ethics of creativity to real world situations in the latter sections of his book, that is when both the gifts and the flaws of the system become most apparent. He describes the two forms of ugliness and evil possible in a Whiteheadian universe: anesthesia, “which involves the frustration of greater possibilities by the interposition of lesser achievements,” such as the inhibition of a greater form of beauty potentially open to an organism; and violence, “which involves the active destruction and inhibition of past achievements of beauty.” The former refers to the inhibition of future achievements, the latter to the past. The good of the individual and of the whole are kept in balance by affirming the real value of each, and by refusing “to accept a dichotomy between the interests of the one and the many.” As a system applied to hypothetical circumstances Henning’s ethics of creativity often seems to provide a superior course of moral action than other systems of ethics based in, for example, utilitarianism or deep ecology. Yet the ethics of creativity is also subject to the fallibility of individual subjectivity and understanding that upsets the consistency of other ethical systems.
Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of the ethics of creativity and its triadic system of value is the affirmation of tragedy when a moral decision is made. Henning offers the example of choosing between killing a malaria-infected mosquito that is about to bite a human infant, and allowing the mosquito to achieve its aim and sacrificing the child. Henning asserts that to save the child and kill the mosquito allows for greater beauty and complexity to be achieved in the world because the potential for beauty in the human child is greater than that of the mosquito. This is, of course, the natural answer that most human beings (including myself) would give when faced with this situation, although it might not align with the moral systems of mosquitoes. There is a degree of anthropocentrism implicit in ascribing the higher potential for beauty (although perhaps not complexity) to the child. This may be seen as a flaw in Henning’s working of Whitehead’s metaphysics. However, Henning writes,
The aim is not merely to give preference to the more complex individual; the aim in our moral decision making is to determine what would achieve the most harmonious and intense whole with regard to the individuals involved.
He goes on to say, “To choose the mosquito over the infant would be to affirm the less beautiful of two options. Thus, the destruction of the mosquito would be tragic but morally justifiable” (emphasis added). The element of tragedy in our moral decision-making, if truly mourned, I feel affirms the loss of beauty that occurs with each decision. The very act of mourning that tragedy increases the beauty in the universe. A system of ethics should not provide easy answers to moral dilemmas; rather it should allow every side of the ethical decision to be felt by the moral agent, just as in Whitehead’s system each actual occasion feels the whole of the universe with each concrescence.
Henning, Brian G. The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985.
 Brian G. Henning, The Ethics of Creativity: Beauty, Morality, and Nature in a Processive Cosmos (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2005), 32.
 Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 33.
 Ibid, 32.
 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1985), 21.
 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 21.
 Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 103.
 Ibid, 5.
 Ibid, 3.
 Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 113.
 Ibid, 3.
 Henning, The Ethics of Creativity, 188.
One Reply to “The Ethics of Creativity: Affirming Beauty and Tragedy”
Thanks for a very clear presentation of the Whiteheadian perspective 🙂 I am no academic and would regard myself as an amateur philosopher but given that ‘amateur’ is rooted in the Latin word amo – to ‘love’ I feel OK about that! Whenever someone like me can read something philosophical to the very end you can be assured the writer has communicated well – so well done! I checked out kalocentric online but found no definition but I guess it would mean that Beauty is the central determining value when making the best decisions. No disrespect for mosquitos but the comparison with the baby is a no brainer. I wonder how the Whiteheadian view relates to decisions which are not so clear cut like the ethical considerations of Euthanasia, War, Elections and other controversial decisions we face in society.