Political Aesthetics in the Public Square

May 5, 2014

Monty Python has a memorable skit where a man walks into an office and informs the secretary that he would “like to have an argument.” She directs the man to an individual who has a different understanding of argument than what he has in mind. For the next few minutes he encounters a man who wants to have an argument as well, only he thinks “argument” consists in only speaking in disagreement to the first gentlemen, who sees an argument as a “collective series of states to establish a definite proposition.” He ends up leaving the discussion frustrated and encounters a few more gentlemen before the skit ends. The upshot of the skit (besides it being funny) is that words can mean two different things despite being used by interlocutors. So what happens when you try to take two loaded concepts, combine them, and appeal for a study of them together?

The concept of aesthetics is one that can carry baggage with it. On the one hand, it is laden with concepts and ideas that seem foreign to the average layman. Even to the trained aesthete they are fraught with mixture. Furthermore, the study of aesthetics itself has taken various ranges of meaning from the evaluation of beauty and taste to an investigation into the very nature of goodness, beauty and truth. Some theologians and philosophers have discounted the pure pursuit of aesthetics (Kant and Barth) while others have attempted to appropriate the good of aesthetics into their theology (Von Balthasar).

The concept of politics is as old as Socrates but carries significant baggage with it as well. The word itself has become a pejorative term that is thrown around as an adjective for all things unwholesome. It is more often describing paltry public policies than it is the study of the very nature of statecraft.

So what would one mean by political aesthetics? Often when discussing this area the general framework centers on how politics have used the arts as agitprop. While that can be a helpful endeavor to pursue, there is something different in mind by this article’s use of political aesthetics.

There are several ways you could define it, but this one may suffice: political aesthetics is the study and evaluation of political ideologies and systems as an aesthetic. That is to say, evaluating the ethos, environment and expressions of a political ideology and their judgments. This endeavor can include various and sundry pursuits that cannot be explored here, but it takes into account not merely textual representations of ideologies, though that is a major factor, but also the way in which those textual evidences are readand received.

What form of environment is built around such texts? How do those texts engender a judgment on beauty? Truth? How does someone represent his or her ideological commitments? Crispin Sartwell wrote a book called Political Aesthetics, which to my knowledge is one of the very few (if not only) works that trades in this discussion. However, he never directly deals with contemporary ideologies.

Yes, political ideologies have beliefs that must be attended to, concepts that must be teased out, and arguments that must be discussed. But I would suggest that in the midst of all of that, there should be a discussion of the overall aesthetic that is offered by a political ideology. This includes not only the textual references attached to such ideologies, but the surrounding by which they build, create and encourage. The architecture of an event, building or structure that is connected to a political ideology speaks volumes of the aesthetic they seek to build long before any words are spoken from the podium. When they are spoken, and spoken powerfully, the words are heard with a different perspective. Indeed, they are heard with their ears, but also are seen with their eyes in the surroundings. They understand that changing a culture requires more than mere words, but that words can be powerfully attuned to speak at a louder decibel when an aesthetic environment is constantly nourishing the words spoken.

This is nothing new. Nazi Germany understood that to truly change the hearts and minds of the people, it would take more than brute force. It takes a culture, an aesthetic environment that will allow the movement to have the forza needed to truly build the culture they so desired. The same thing happens today, minus the overt malevolence.

Take for example, modern American liberalism. In 2012 the Democratic National Convention was held in Charlotte, North Carolina. Speech after speech, rally after rally, a common theme was woven throughout: the President respects the rights of women to choose their own reproductive rights.

When the party platform was adopted with an “unequivocal” support of a woman’s right to choose abortion, regardless of a woman’s ability to pay, this sets a tone and ethos to the environment that is inescapably connected to the larger issue at hand. It is not merely the textual evidence that brings about this environment, but it is also the way in which it is received. It is why, long before the convention, this aesthetic was already set in stone. Case in point: Planned Parenthood began a campaign where “Pillamina,” a woman dressed as a giant package of birth control pills, would follow the Romney campaign on several stops opposing his view of the contraceptive mandate.

If aesthetics is the assessment of what is beauty, then the judgment in this respect has to be that modern American liberalism finds the culture of abortion on demand to be a more beautiful environment than a culture that is not like that. But I would suggest that it is more than mere abortion that is at play. To think this is merely about abortion is to miss the forest for the trees. The backdrops behind abortion on demand are particular concepts of freedom and autonomy. Freedom, in this context, is expressed by limiting restraint on what one can or cannot do with one’s own body. This desire becomes the driving force behind the constant euphemisms used to express a desire for complete bodily autonomy. As stated before, texts can be judged, not merely by their words, but also by their reception. The drumbeat of autonomy and freedom for women’s rights to abortion appropriate a value judgment even further than merely abortion; it is also a judgment on what “family” should look like: celebrated only under certain proper conditions, rather than as the basic social unit for a society.

To wit, liberalism often scoffs at the traditional nuclear family, either because it is too homogenized or because it represents to them something that they assume is part of a bygone culture, something that they hope becomes more textbook than reality. Indeed, it is an ugly thing to them it seems. Once again, this is driven by text and rhetoric, but reinforced by the aesthetics surrounding it. This is the investigation of political aesthetics.

The Church understands that we all live in particular cultures that have value judgments on what is beautiful, true and real. It even understands the importance of culture, and she should speak into it as often as she has the opportunity. Prince Myskin, the main character in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, remarked that “beauty will save the world.” This prophetic word, coming from the idiot prince, is a clearer picture of beauty than anything that is surrounding us today. Indeed, the wisdom of the world is confounded by the wisdom of God. In this wisdom, we find beauty. We find that the lowliest of us all can represent beauty to the world unlike anything they know.

The church may humbly express to the world that the beauty which they seek is not a place, idea or even system. Rather, it is ultimately found in a Person. This man, the epitome of Beauty, is found not in the appropriation of freedom or the celebration of autonomy, but on the road to Golgotha, where we can walk to die a death that brings us life.

Bryan Baise

Bryan Baise is the Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics and Program Coordinator, Worldview and Apologetics. Baise has served in various capacities before coming to Boyce. He was a college pastor for an upstart church plant before moving to Louisville and has preached in various churches and revivals across Kentuckiana. Baise has served on … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24