Are Fashion Rules a System of Normative Ethics?

Being on the spectrum, there is one form of hatred that trumps all others for my people: shaming. Minor social mistakes lead to major moral panics. Every time a publication like Cosmo or something like it invents rules that establish normative good for the culture or one or more subcultures it places truly good people who fail to meet those standards in the normative bad. I don’t believe in the thin-good as Rawls meant it but I do believe in the alignment of mores to comport with what is truly moral. The traditional virtues, utilitarian aims of maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering, the respect for human dignity upon which we invent rights, and so forth.

The Lerner & Simmons study from 1966 evidences how social status is equated with moral character in the minds of people. Fashion and the minor social rules I include under the broad umbrella of “fashion” for the purposes of this article is a means of signalling social status and therefore character. A yuppie wearing their business clothes to a coffee shop is not only saying they are socially superior to the barista but have, according to the myth of the Protestant work ethic and the aforementioned social psychology theory, a stronger character. Therefore obeying the fashion rules makes one seem as better in the normative good and disobeying makes one seem bad in the normative definition of good.

Now, the arbiters of fads and fashion may argue that they don’t decree moral law and their standards are not meant to be taken as normative ethics. Yet, in effect, since those of lower social status are seen as morally inferior, according to social psychology, the proverbial fashion police become the normative prophets of contemporary ethics whose whims become the bane of all those who cannot follow them. Usually the materially and socially downtrodden and, again, the moral judgments of society toward an individual are formed, largely, based on aesthetic impressions. Since it relates to human suffering and dictates human behavior and how humans relate to one another, it must be regarded as much a moral system as any religion or ethical philosophy.

I don’t mean to say that style, itself, is a normative negative. It is not that high fashion is bad, per se. And the subconscious judgments of society cannot fully be overcome so the aim then is to ensure that the high fashion is something worth looking up to emulating. I thoroughly believe in style. I am a poet, a songwriter, a story writer, a novelist, a political communications director. When I create a piece of art, what I try to do is translate truths of the human condition and moral philosophy from the abstract to the tangible through art. I try to be timeless, eternal, universal, and compassionate to all. After I am done with the deep and subtextual stuff, I try to bring hope to the hopeless and speak to the weakest.

A few times, I have changed endings in my work to make them go from tragic to a happy ending principally because I know, psychologically, it raises the serotonin levels and gives hope to the audience or, at least, any audience more down to earth than literary academia who would find such artistic choices to be compromising edginess for the plebians but I write for the Hoovervilles long before I write for the Bloomsbury Group. I want something a rickshaw puller in the slums of Jakarta will be uplifted by. That and made better. My aim is to uplift them emotionally and also in terms of their moral character. As I do everyone.

When it comes to fashion, the poor are not jealous of the rich but they prefer fairy tale princesses to high flying yuppies. They want Taylor Swift in the original “Fearless” album, not the globe-trotting man-eater with the literary tastes of a pretentious soccer mom she became. Which is not to say that one can’t be edgy and chic. Absolutely, one can. Contemporary high fashion is a hybrid of Fifty Shades of Grey and Idiocracy and lacks any edginess. It isn’t the Victorian Era where being versed in the classics, the cutting edge of science, and being well-cultured are considered desirible traits in a socialite or romantic partner. For the past seventy years, everything from quantum physics to Plato’s Republic have been for losers.

All of that is to say, there is merit to style but that style must have merit. I am a virtue ethicist, a utilitarian, and have deontological beliefs. Certainly, flowing from my virtue ethics I would endorse style but a style that nourishes the soul. The mores imparted by the aesthetic leaders of our society lack much that uplifts or enriches or even seeks to uplift or enrich the culture. I think of the contemporary phenomena of public shaming and hypersenitivity, long systems of deontological rules and derivative ethics for which the ultimate result is mostly fruitless human suffering. When the polemicists of aesthetic culture ideate their code of life. They don’t contemplate whether it will ultimately behoove the human condition or not or whether it is meaningful and deep. They are rules which favor the rich, are cruel to the poor, and have little redemptive about them. Not the high culture of Byron with the bleeding heart of Steinbeck and the haunting depth of Lovecraft with the glamour of Fitzgerald and the imagination of Tolkien which I would like. It’s just a Kardashian, literally and in metaphor representing all of it, and a Kardashian is neither uplifting for the weak or interesting for the smart.

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