You're absolutely right that aesthetic terms are sometimes used to characterize action. Whether, however, there is an internal or conceptual or fundamental connection between judging an action in such aesthetic terms and judging it morally is a difficult question. In the early modern period, writers on ethics often divided between seeing morality in aesthetic terms and seeing it strictly in terms of moral relations. (David Gill has written on this issue in Philosophy Compass, starting from the historical question and then moving on to the more general question of whether morality is more like math or beauty--in other words, whether moral judgments are supposed to reflect eternal, immutable standards, or rather whether they are supposed to reflect one's 'taste'.) It's not clear to me, however, that there need be an opposition between characterizing an action as right or wrong and characterizing it as cruel or repulsive, for aesthetic judgments, like moral judgments, rest on reasons, and it is the fact that such judgments rest on reasons that makes it possible for them to be justified and communicated to others and, of course, argued over. Now it might seem that the aesthetic analogues of moral judgments reflect some more subjective element--one might think, for example, that like aesthetic judgments about works of art, aesthetic analogues of moral judgments require some perception of the act itself, in contrast to moral judgments, which can, as it were, be pronounced from an impartial, non-subjective point of view. If this were correct, there might be more immediacy in aesthetic than in moral characterizations of some action. I myself, however, am inclined to think that both aesthetic and moral characterizations of actions are on a par, that the aesthetic judgments are analogues of the moral judgments, and that there is no fundamental difference between them.
Great case! I think that some of the best current thinking by a philosopher on these matters is being done by Allen Carlson and I believe he would side with you. Carlson identifies different models for natural aesthetics --one can, for example, single out a rock or tree of small formation of objects for appreciation. But he thinks the more important natural aesthetic should be grounded in ecology--it is perhaps more important both because it is truer to seeing the objects themselves (they are, after all, in artistic terms naturally in situ) and more dangerous if you get things wrong. So, Carlson and some other philosophers think that our environmentally destructive behavior is sometimes based on bad aesthetics or a failure to appreciate the beauty of the natural world as when one (for example) destroys a rich wetland to build a golf course that is (let us imagine) not really needed. So, he (and I) would say it would be unfair (as well as perhaps completely absurd) to criticise a forested mountain range for being a bad desert. One should, instead, see the forested area qua forested area and then judge accordingly (what is the condition of biodiversity? is it an old growth forest? what is the condition of the wildlife? is it an overall healthy ecosystem?) One of Carson's better known essays is wildly anthologized and is called "Appreciation and the Natural Environment."
There is an amusing sub-title of a recent environmental ethics book that captures the current awareness or thesis that aesthetics can be important to our environmental practices: From Beauty To Duty.
It's not clear to me that the question of whether one should undergo plastic surgery even falls within the scope of morality. (Following certain recent philosophers, such as Robert Adams, T. M. Scanlon, J. B. Schneewind, and Susan Wolf, I am inclined to think that the scope of morality is actually rather narrow.)
Here's one way to frame the issue in terms of morality. If one thought that one's body has been entrusted to one by God to preserve, then one may think it impermissible, indeed a transgression against God's will, if one were to tamper with that body. But then, it would seem, such a person would also be unwilling to lift weights, use make-up, go to the hair salon, etc.. This, however, seems to me to be a somewhat implausible position, that would have all sorts of problematic consequences, especially when one considers medical care (Christian Scientists encounter problems on this score).
To my mind, it seems that one has the right to do with one's body what one pleases, and the only limit on what one does should be common sense, and one's own good judgment and taste.
My colleagues raise a number of points, some rather puzzling, which deserve more that there is space for here. But some quick reflections:
1. Love of the good, to take Charles's example, may be a fine and noble thing. But something surely can be fine and noble without being beautiful. In fact, by my reckoning, both Charles and Richard seem to be prepared to stretch "beauty" and "beautiful" in ways I don't find at all natural or helpful (I'm wickedly reminded of the old hippie all-purpose "beautiful, man!" when Richard talks of Ghandi). They both seem to think being "worthy of our deep aesthetic delight" is ipso facto sufficient for being beautiful.
Well, in so far as I understand the phrase, I would have thought that the Grosse Fuge, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Titian's The Flaying of Marsyas, and King Lear are, if anything is, worthy of our deepest aesthetic delight. But it would seem a quite inept response to describe any of those as beautiful. The list could be greatly extended. Much that is worthy of great aesthetic delight is not particularly beautiful. Beauty is one (albeit it major) aesthetic virtue among many.
So even if there are indeed qualities of people other than perceptible ones (like looks, gracefulness, voice) that can be "worthy of aesthetic delight" it doesn't follow that they are qualities that make for beauty properly so called.
I suppose Charles and Richard could say that e.g. a great performance of King Lear which drains the audience doesn't engender 'delight', and want to anchor the notion of delight in ideas of aesthetic enjoyment. And making that link might indeed help them in tying the notion of the beautiful back to what is worthy of aesthetic 'delight'. But at the same time, this wouldn't seem to chime at all with their talk of e.g. finding moral character beautiful -- as contemplating someone's morals doesn't seem to give rise to aesthetic delighted enjoyment. At least, not in me.
2. Richard is right that "beautiful" is context-sensitive. But that is consistent with there being a default context in play when (like the original questioner) we ask, straight out, without special indications, whether someone is beautiful. There is a difference between asking, in a default context, whether everyone is beautiful, and asking whether for everyone there is some respect/some context in which they count as beautiful. I don't believe the latter is true either, but even if it were, it wouldn't affect one's response to the former.
3. I'm a bit baffled by Richard's "one might think that every person carries a spark of the divine … and it is hard to imagine what might be more beautiful than that". For I find it difficult to understand what it could mean to say that having such a spark makes a person beautiful. For in so far as I can understand "carries a spark of the divine" it is a claim about potentialities, about what (given the fortune of circumstance, at any rate) we are capable of becoming. But can a potentiality be beautiful? What is beautiful, or otherwise, is surely what is actual. Having a potentiality to be beautiful in God's image is not itself a way of being beautiful, any more than having a potentiality to be wise is itself a way of being wise. (Even if you want to say -- not that I would -- that the fact that a person has a divine spark is beautiful, man, that wouldn't make the person beautiful.)
In general, the fact that everyone agrees on something is not really enough to make it true. The fact that everyone believes that Brazil is the best team in the World Cup doesn't mean they will win the Cup, or be the best team.
On the other hand, if I believe that Jennifer is my best girl, then she is my best girl. If we all thought that blue was the best colour, then it would be: "our best colour", so perhaps it could be said to be the best colour.
So I think "the best" is used in two ways in your excellent question. (1) It just means "the best" by some external standard, goal-scoring perhaps, so that "Brazil is the best team" means that Brazil will win the Cup. (2) It means that blue is our best colour, the best colour of all of us, the one we all like the most, then it is the best colour - of all of us - though not in the first sense.
I think perhaps it is a little difficult to know how to understand what the fact of being the best colour is. There is something good about each of the colours, no? And also, what are the tests of excellence in a colour? What makes a colour good, better, the best? If it's brightness, then black is a bad colour, and white is a good one. If it's richness, then purple is pretty good, and glossy black. Grey is a bit dull, but some people find it muted and elegant. A sparkling yellow sun on a spring morning has a great colour. So we need to decide what the criteria or standards are here. That might be hard. Or there might be lots of different ones. The best butter knife is not necessarily the best weapon.
Great question. In a sense, the claim (or assumption) that there is a link between a major aesthetic category beauty and ethics / morality goes back to Plato. From a Platonic point of view, is some act is wicked, it is evil, and if some act is ethical it is beautiful (or, in difficult matters), the least ugly act possible. The close link between beauty and moral goods and virtues continues on up through the Renaissance. Today, there is disagreement about the extent to which ethics and aesthetics conflict; some argue that the two realms are altogether different (a standard claim by those who believe in the separation of ethics and aesthetics is that Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will is an excellent film aesthetically but morally horrifying) whereas some of us still seek to bring them together. You can get a good overview of the state of play in this debate in the collection Aesthetics and Ethics edited by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge University Press). In terms of systematic defenses of the link between aesthetics and ethics, you might check out the enigmatic but highly stimulating work of Guy Sircello.
Yes. In the 19th century there were debates over beauty and nature, specifically there was a dispute between Darwin and Wallace about whether evolution could account for natural beauty. Wallace (the co-discoverer of evolution) thought natural beauty signaled something more vital and valuable than can be seen as a by-product of natural selection and adaption. The 19th century also held (or Kant and Hegel did) that natural objects (unlike works of art) lacked an "aboutness"; Constable's painting of a storm might be about the transience of life, whereas the storm itself does not bear out such meaning. Lots of other debates on aesthetics and nature were initiated that are still with us (the difference between beauty and the sublime). Probably the most lively current exchange among philosophers that bears on your experience concerns the extent to which one needs to know ecology (or the relevant natural sciences) to deeply (or more deeply) appreciate the natural world. Would your experience of a valley or lake or mountain range be enhanced if you know the evolutionary history behind such formations? Some believe that such ecology is unnecessary (you can have as deep an awe in the Grand Canyon without background knowledge), but it is tempting to think you can't really delight in what you don't know (though you may delight in mystery).
It doesn't look that way to me!
OK, seriously, then...
I think we are doing just a little bit of apples and oranges here. I would certainly rather spend the rest of my life with someone who was decent and kind and patient and nururing and... (we can see where this is going), than someone who was all of the opposites of these, but physically attractive. But I don't think this is correctly depicted as an "attitude towards beauty." Good ethical/moral/social characteristics can make someone attractive in these ways (ethically/morally/socially), but do not make someone attractive in that way (physically). So if we must talk about "inner" and "outer" beauty, then let's be clear that we are talking about two completely distinct qualities or characteristics, and these qualities are not really commensurable--each has its own value and counts as more important in some areas of endeavor. Physical attractiveness has been shown to be a significant benefit in career advancement, social success, and is obviously advantageous in the area of opportunities in finding a mate. People who are physically attractive and generally also seen to be more intelligent, more successful, and generally better in every way in which we all try to do well. Having a "beautiful soul" is a great advantage in some ways, but doesn't do all that well in a job interview or at the local bar on Friday night.
What does seems to be right here is something that I will try not to overstate, because the platitudes about the greater beauty of "inner" beauty always seem to me to overstate the case. But I do think that something interesting does happen when we identify someone else as having "inner beauty," and that is that whatever physical defects they may have deem to become less important (even to the point of invisibility), and we may also found ourselves becoming more attracted to such a person (physically) than we were at first glance. People in long-term relationships typically get to the point where they would actually find it difficult to appraise (as if at first glance) the "objective" attractiveness of their partners, because such a judgment becomes inseparable from the whole picture of that partner and his or her role in their partner's life. In other words, long-term, it is the "inner" beauty that comes to matter in a relationship, and this can actually have some influence over the way we respond to whatever the "outer" may present.
It's very easy to speculate about the evolutionary origins of a trait, but often very difficult to defend such speculations with evidence. Natural selection is not the only engine of evolutionary change. So there's no particular reason to think that our capacity for aesthetic pleasure is an adaptation, rather than, say, a by-product of some other trait that is an adaptation, or a "spandrel" -- a feature that is the result of physical constraints on the structure or sub-structure of the organism. (Remember that in order for there to be natural selection, there has to be variation. If there's only one way that natural law permits a cognitive or affective structure to develop, then everyone would be the same.) There are also stochastic processes to consider: genetic drift, or founder effects (some desert-landscape lovers went and settled on an island, while all the desert-landscape haters suffered catastrophe on the mainland.) It's very difficult to figure out what kind of evidence or reasoning could really support one of the possible explanations over another, when we're talking about traits that may have evolved over 100,000 years ago without leaving any tangible signs of themselves.
Finally, in order to sensibly investigate the evolutionary history of a trait, you need a clear characterization of the trait. When we talk about "aesthetic appreciation" are we talking about the capacity to discern an aesthetic dimension at all? Or are we talking about the content of particular aesthetic judgments? The latter are so historically and interpersonally variable that I see no reason at all to think that they are adaptations. As for the former, I see no reason to think that our sensibilities are, as you put it, "grounded in non-aesthetic value." As you yourself note, there is no readily apparent correlation between things many of us find beautiful, and things that are useful in keeping ourselves alive.
All that said, you might want to look at Paul Rozin's work on the emotion of disgust (Psychology, University of Pennsylvania), and its relation to some human food preferences and aesthetic judgments. It's great stuff.