The Interested Viewer as a Means of Mercy

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Beauty,Spring 2005
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The Interested Viewer as a Means of Mercy

Kat McCormick

Elaine Scarry, in her work "On Beauty and Being Just" (1) provides the reader with an argument to counter the two predominant arguments against beauty in the past century. Those two arguments are presented as follows: first, that beauty is so powerful that is causes distraction from other things, introducing the problem of lateral disregard. The second is that the gaze of the viewer objectifies the beautiful object, thus leaving it powerless. Scarry notes that these two views of beauty are in direct opposition, one rendering beauty too powerful, and the other leaving it powerless. She attempts, in defense of her opponents, to reconcile these two views by introducing the concepts of passive perception and instrumental perception: "opponents" of beauty would consider the former to be "morally bad" (as it causes both lateral disregard and objectification) and the latter to be "morally good" as it incites the observer to action. Passive perception, in this understanding, is what is used to view a beautiful thing: a pleasure-filled, content stare. Instrumental perception is what is used when we are incited to action, to change the status quo, as when confronted with injustices, ugliness, or abuse.

Similarly, Christine Koggel, in her critique "Concepts of Beauty: a Feminist Philosopher Thinks about Paradigms and Consequences"(2)., examines philosophies of beauty set forth by giants of the past centuries such as Plato, Hume and Kant and points out that traditional concepts of beauty are formulated upon the foundation of "disinterested attention, objectivity, and universality" (4). According to this disinterested view, what is beautiful to one must be beautiful to all. It is easy to see where this statement, in its application to human beauty, leads to a marginalization of the majority of the population as human forms are, by nature, quite diverse. This disinterested attention seems strikingly akin to what Scarry terms as "passive perception". In my estimation, it is the disinterest of this attention that has caused the hierarchical narrowing of beauty standards that has so constricted ideal of human, and particularly feminine, beauty.

The switch of beauty from a comparative format to a broader web where attention is reflexive and thus draws attention to, rather than detracting from, things within its own class is dependent on the switch from the "disinterested" attention of early philosophies into the ultimately interested and invested attention of a potential viewer. Here, also, Scarry's (1) concept of the "passive perspective" must be overturned towards regarding beauty in favor of the "instrumental perspective" which is equally capable of engaging with beauty as it is of engaging with ugliness or abuse. The supposition that only things that need to be "fixed" can give humans the wish to intervene is harmful to the concept of beauty. By making room for beauty in the realm of the interested, a new ethic of beauty and its uses begins to emerge.

Another arena in which the broader effects of disinterested attention are seen is in the work of Carol Gilligan(3). In her work "In a Different Voice" she examines the morality of men and women as deeply tied to their understanding of relationships with others. In her many case studies, women consistently score lower on the Kohlberg hierarchical scale of morality than men. She attributes this difference to a fundamental difference in the conception of relationships, essentially, of being invested or uninvested, interested or disinterested.. Moral dilemmas, then, from a woman's perspective are seen "not as a contest of rights but as a problem of relationships," resulting in a weblike "ethic of care" which makes little sense from the passive male hierarchical perspective. Gilligan comments on this problem, stating:

But these images create a problem in understanding because each distorts the other's representation. As the top of the hierarchy becomes the edge of the web and as the center of a network of connection becomes the middle of a hierarchical progression, each image marks as dangerous a place which the other defines as safe. (62) (3).

While this imagery is, in Gilligan's argument, applied strictly to morality; it is useful to replace the men of her study with a "disinterested viewer" and to replace the women with the "interested viewer" which can change the ideals of beauty from hierarchical absolutes to relational subjectivites, allowing for a broader definition of beauty and justice, not necessarily hinging on the greatly debated quality of symmetry. While symmetry gives rise to absolute justice; asymmetry, perhaps, can give rise to a system of justice based on mercy. Hence, when the disinterested viewer is replaced with the interested viewer, "the experiences of inequality and interconnection...then give rise to the ethics of justice and care....the vision that self and other will be treated as of equal worth...dispite differences in power" (63)(3).. An ethic of care in beauty can give rise to the idea that asymmetry is more aptly capable of producing the justice of mercy in Scarry's understanding than is symmetry and objectivism.

One of the most widely read and cited instances where a shift from absolute justice to the justice of mercy occurs is between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. While the justice of the Old Testament stands as "and eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", this rule is reexamined and restated in the New Testament as "do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Whereas the first is clearly about symmetry and highlights this in physically tangible way, the other instead requires an extension of good faith even where there is no precedent of action.

The event which precipitates this switch is the entrance of Jesus into the world. Jesus is concieved of in the Bible as a liason between the spiritual world of God and the physical realm of humans. Because Jesus is a union of the divine realm and the physical realm, he is thus invested in the human experience in a way that God alone could not be. With Jesus' entrance, humanity has switched from a "disinterested" divine figure to an "interested" one; and this switch precipitates the change from hierarchical justice to a justice of mercy. Inherent in this relationship of creator and created is inequality and asymmetry, but yet this can lead to an ethic of justice and care, because asymmetry requires mercy.

The interested gaze is inherently asymmetrical, because an invested viewer is undergoing a "radical decentering" as Scarry (1) states: when we view a beautiful thing it is hardly passive, instead the interested viewers "cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us" (112). Investment of the viewer causes the prostration of the observer to the beautiful object, a worship of the beautiful object as more worthy of regard than either it's surroundings or the observer. This leads to an imbalance of power, and hence mercy is necessary as a part of the system of justice.

Scarry assumes an interested viewer throughout her work, becuase she expects that "the vulnerability of the perceiver seems ... greater than, the vulnerability of the person being perceived"(73)(1). It is the investment of this interested viewer that allows Scarry to make the claims that beauty inspires justice, that the "daily unmindfulness of the aliveness of others is temporarily interrupted in the presence of a beautiful person, alerting us to the requirements placed on us by the aliveness of all persons"(90). The perspective difference, then, that Scarry requires is not the "passive" versus "instrumental" perspective juxtaposition that she outlines, but rather reconcieving the role of the viewer of beauty as interested rather than passive.


1) Scarry, Elaine. "On Beauty and Being Fair." On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

2) Koggel, Christine. Concepts of Beauty: A Feminist Philosopher Thinks about Paradigms and Consequences. Beauty Symposium, 2004.

3) Gilligan, Carol. In A Different Voice: Psycological Theory and Women's Development. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1982.



Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

08/15/2005, from a Reader on the Web

In your comments about Gilligan's work you repeat what I can only call an urban legend. It is simply not true that women score lower on Kohlberg's scale of moral development than males. In countless studies since her claim, mine about social workers included, the scores of men and women are not significantly different. In my own study, women actually scored higher than men. There just seems no way to put a stop to Gilligan's claim. It has taken on a life of its own.

Arthur Dobrin
Hofstra University



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