Beauty, Value, and the Good

HPI Mini-Seminar led by Hannah McKeown

This course will consider two themes related to the idea of beauty as a (human) value. First, the
question of how beauty can be a value, either related to or independent of goodness, and second, how
this value fits into a human life. On one view, beauty matters precisely because it is deeply connected
to other aspects of human life, particularly to goodness and love. A very different way of thinking
about beauty says that to experience beauty we must be completely detached from or disinterested in
the beautiful object – its goodness, its context, even its very existence. This could be read as a claim
that beauty is unconnected from other human concerns. Neither view is immune to concerns about
beauty as dangerous, misleading, or superficial.
In this seminar we will begin with Plato and Plotinus, in order to have in front of us two views on
which beauty is deeply, if problematically, connected to desire and goodness (including desire for and
love of others) and thus a central concern of a human life. We then look at a case that pushes against
this view – a case where moral and aesthetic judgments pull in different directions and where finding
something beautiful might not speak well of one’s character (Mary Devereaux on Leni Riefenstahl’s
work). We then look at an idea of the beautiful that might place it outside of moral concerns (Kant).
On this view, appreciation of a beautiful object involves distancing oneself from moral, practical, or
contextual considerations. It might seem that this view separates beauty from its problematic
entanglements and allows it to be an independently valuable part of the human experience. It also
invites us to consider whether and in what sense something can be said to be of value if judgments of it
are disinterested.
However, a disinterested notion of beauty can still be deeply connected to morality, and moreover does
not “save” beautiful things from moral consideration. Peg Brand charts a course that might allow us to
value beauty and still be responsive to relevant moral considerations. We will finish the course by
looking at contemporary considerations of beauty – one by Alexander Nehamas and one by Richard
Moran. These thinkers reconsider beauty’s place in human relationships and everyday life after its
repudiation in 20th century art.


  • Meeting Times: Thursday, 6:30pm-8pm. Meetings begin 4/15/21 (Full meeting dates: 4/15, 4/22, 4/29, 5/6, 5/13).
  • Location: Meetings will be remote.
  • Eligibility: All University of Chicago undergraduate students are eligible to participate, but space is limited.
  • Participation: To RSVP, please contact Zack Loveless:
  • Deadline: Please RSVP by April 14th.
  • Coursework: See reading schedule below. All background readings will be distributed by email.
Unit I: Beauty, Desire, and the Good
4/15; Session 1
Plato, Republic, 400d-403c7; 474c6-476d; 479-480; 505-506d
Plato, Symposium, 200e7-212b1
Plotinus, Ennead I, vi
4/22; Session 2
Devereaux, Mary, “Beauty and Evil: The Case of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will
Unit II: Disinterest and Aesthetic Judgment
4/29; Session 3
Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, §1-10, §40-44, §59-60
Brand, Peggy Zeglin, “Disinterestedness and Political Art”
Unit III: Rejecting and Reinstating Beauty
5/6; Session 4
Nehamas, Alexander, Only a Promise of Happiness, Chapter 1
5/13; Session 5
Moran, “Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty”