On Cuteness

The author’s cat, Purrbasket

My father once compared great intelligences to suns illuminating the heavens. He had in mind Newton, Einstein and the like. Others were nightlights that guided you along your stumble to a 3 am bathroom soireé. What if the cuteness bulb, highly active in some—gif creators, cat foster moms—was dormant in e.g. businessmen, politicians and other serious folks? For those with no time for life’s distractions, it is time to think seriously about cuteness.

The comportment of busyness, that indelible ‘head held high’, would be hard to identify as the unifying feature among those lacking the cuteness bulb. There are too many ways besides to be dickish. Mark Twain’s ‘decayed turnips’, the inquisitors or those who have never watched a cute animal video for the pure enjoyment of it, may share nothing else besides that makes them kindred souls.

Whatever is sketchy is not cute

One familiar philosophical strategy, that of characterizing a concept in terms of the attributes of its opposite, is thus unavailable in the present investigation. Yet perhaps you knew this already. For it is evident from the annual ugliest dog contest that being cute and being ugly are compatible. Is there then no way to proceed? Yet perhaps one mode of being ugly, at least in some sense of ‘ugly’, is incompatible with being cute: that of being sketchy. Case in point, just the other day I saw an empty McDonald’s French fry container on the sidewalk. Probably abandoned in a hedonistic frenzy as the car’s driver sped down Prospect Street, it was definitely not cute.

Nyan Cat, note the pop-tart torso

Reflection reveals that what is perceived as sketchy, and hence as not cute, is partly a matter of how our own concepts have been inherited. It happens that way with concepts; like slinkies going down the stairs as we look away distracted by our doggy’s wagging tail, their coils remain intact unto the present. From the time of early Christianity, influencers have noted ways in which each generation has become more and more sketchy. Rather than resting in a state of intellectual complacency, they invented the concept of a fall from paradise. Thus while ‘sketchy’ is almost as nebulous as ‘cute’, we might define ‘sketchy’ partly in terms of the absence of paradise, and conceive of cuteness as a momentary release from living hell. In fact it is one of the author’s hopes that cuteness may suffice as a proof that the world is not hell; that a single puppy may be enough to cancel the iterative dimension of the Miltonic fall, that the whimsically cute Nyan kitten gif is enough of a redemptive sacrifice to spare us of a Beckett-like inner horror. For unlike ‘rightness’, cuteness, while it may be subjective, can never deceive the individual who perceives it.

This is not to say that the individual’s perception of a thing ‘as cute’ is a ‘success term’, as ‘sees’ is according to the usage of some philosophers of perception. But it does bear a similarity to the Cartesian ‘cogito’ in that each who applies it cannot be mistaken about whether its application is correct to them, i.e. the person who applies the concept. Cuteness thus has a sort of relative correctness condition which is lacking in exercises of moral agency, i.e one might either knowingly commit evil, or be confused about which set of conditions correctly applies to their moral judgment (is it Kantian ethics, utilitarianism, etc.?). In the latter case the moral agent is prone to a form of self-deception that does not similarly apply to the cuteness agent.  

Immanuel Kant (not cute, but good brain)

As an aside, but really not, Kant was concerned with thinking about what we could garner about moral concepts based on reflection of moral agents—beings capable of making moral judgments, but also being their targets (moral praise and blame). He inferred that it was something about the quality of an agent’s intention that determined an action’s moral standing as right or wrong. The difficulty in pursuing the analogy is that there is nothing like the ‘quality of intention’ that is present among cuteness agents, nor is there something like an implicit set of criteria of ‘that is kind of cute’ that could serve target cuteness judgments on a par with the criteria for moral relevance. As moral agents, we would all accept that there is nothing right or wrong about clapping with one hand in a concert hall where you are the only audience. But fierce disagreements arise about whether or not a pocket wrench is either very cute or the sort of thing that falls entirely outside the scope of cuteness judgments.

All of this is to suggest that ‘is cute’ does not behave like a sincere moral judgment or predication. It is worth noting, so as to further delineate the epistemic dimension of cuteness, that the predicate ‘is cute’ differs also from predicates that might apply in the case of paradigm concepts, e.g. ‘is a bird’. In this case it is by virtue of having had direct acquaintance with the paradigm that the individual (in a sincere attempt) cannot fail to correctly apply the predicate to the paradigm. When the little rapscallion points to a robin and declaims, ‘Mommy, a bird!’ he cannot be mistaken. And to the extent that the range of application moves away from the paradigm, so does the subjective certainty of the correctness of the application. Yet this does not seem true of ‘is cute’, since even novel, surprising, or unusual, objects might be found ‘cute’ (or perhaps ‘cute in some regard’) by different individuals. This means that judgments about what is cute (or not) are not reflective of all-things-considered judgments about cuteness whose track record has somehow been stored up in readily accessible memory, as would be the case if cuteness judgments were just like judgments appropriate to paradigm concepts.  

Otter in native habitat juggling rock, very cute! (CC BY-ND 2.0 / image by Tambako The Jaguar)

Further, insofar as usual philosophical intuitions reflect the disposition to have already made such all-things-considered judgments, then we cannot say that our cuteness judgments are to be described as intuitions. For intuitions, at least in that sense, relate to dispositions to form beliefs for the reason that belief aims at reducing a state of subjective uncertainty whose reduction we call ‘truth’, and there is no comparable state of uncertainty involved in judging a puppy to be cute. It simply happens, spontaneously and au gratis. It follows (as it should) that we can have no intuition at all about what we will find cute that is based on what we have found cute in the past.

Yet this inductive limitation of the formation of cuteness judgments should not be considered debilitating or a defect; on the contrary, it accounts for the allure, even the joy we experience when the cuteness bulb lights up. For example, I had no idea I would find it cute to see a man serenading donkeys with a country western song, or that I would find it cute day after day to watch otters juggle pieces of salmon on their birthday, or that I would find cute a human-sized pet panther trying to follow its ‘owner’ into a shed in a blizzard, etc.

At this stage it might be suggested that a necessary condition of what is cute is what humans are or can be interested in. We might express this as a contingent fact about us as determiners of ‘cute’: the things we typically find cute are typically among the things we either have an interest in (e.g. cats), or are such that we can understand how others have an interest in them (e.g. dogs). Clearly, you needn’t be a dog person to find some dogs cute. But how far does this analysis extend?

How much later will it fuel resentment?

It would be a hasty generalization to suppose it follows from just how adorable a puppy is, that cuteness or the cuteness bulb stems from some fundamentally human impulse to care. For not only might psychopaths competently make cuteness judgments, there might be things normal individuals find cute without any such disposition to care for them. Indeed, in certain cases a person might recognize the impossibility that the cute thing even could be cared for. I personally feel this way about chimps, whose species is generally congenial but also renown for individuals occasionally mauling the shit out of the people who are most close to them. I concede a certain degree of cuteness when the chimp was still in diapers.

It must be admitted, though, that there is a broad similarity between the machinations of cuteness judgments and those of judgments of care or love; namely, each is involuntary in the sense that it is not the product of our will; more precisely, in neither case is the judgment typical of a will divided against itself. More apparently in case of cuteness judgments, there is no hint of conflict. While my love or care judgments might tug in opposite directions (e.g. I really want to eat a taco but it will spoil my appetite and I also want to have dinner with so and so), cuteness judgments do not. I move readily from gif to gif to video to meme to dog walker, all with different subject matters, media of presentation, and all equally cute. Each type of judgment can also be spontaneous and unpredictable in advance; I’m not sure whether love at first sight is possible, but I know that I didn’t think in advance that it would be cute for a panther to try and find its owner in a blizzard. 

While it is clear that multiple distinct items can each be cute in a way the leaves the will preserved (call this ‘plurality), there is a sort of plurality that breaks down across time, and in this way is unlike whole-hearted, temporally stable judgments of love. I’ll always love tacos—any taco, even the soy-laden Taco Bell taco—but the child who was cute grows into the man who is not. Look how big his head is now. It’s just not how I remembered him. In fact my childhood memory is now partly defaced. This fact could make it seem as if cuteness were a property he had but now lacks, one which depends on features of the body, such as proportionality. Indeed it is sometimes thought that the Lego man is cute on account of resembling a small man. But this conclusion is too quick. If proportional smallness really mattered, perhaps it could explain the cuteness of a puppy as opposed to its terrifyingly genetically transformed dire wolf counterpart, but what of cute instances of non-proportional smallness, let alone the cute and very dfluffy Mastiff puppers which could easily take down a full-grown man?

Talky Tina (too evil to be cute)

Here is a more tempting thought in case of this diachronic aspect of cuteness judgments, e.g. the child who is cute but the man he grows into who is not, i.e. why does he have a neck tattoo? Just why? What they show is that judgments of cuteness are like hopeful thoughts: killed off or crowded out by death or some negative prospect. The cuteness of a bunny rabbit ignites in the flames we imagine consume it. The diabolical cuteness of a childhood friend who facebooks you, but you accept out of politeness. The cuteness of the ‘Talky Tina’ doll of the eponymous Twilight Zone Episode turns to a paternalistic horror fest once the ‘head of the family’ antagonist (protagonist?) realizes that his daughter’s sentient doll not only doesn’t like him, but wants to kill him.

The incompatibility of cuteness judgments and dreadful thoughts underscores the connection between cuteness and sketchiness already alluded to, in that what is sketchy is such that it has no obvious upward prospect, while what is cute endears us; we want whatever its source is to thrive, we hope that it does even if our hope should fall short of truly caring about it to the point that we are as personally invested as we are in cases of love or friendship.

Locus classicus of cute

Cuteness judgments, then, cannot be subsumed under the heading of disinterested concern, for in the case of disinterested concern one could still sincerely avow the attitude in question even while vividly picturing the object of the attitude undergoing some negative experience, the odds stacked against it. A puppy rolling down the hill in a sled on fire is not cute, even while you may be concerned for the puppy. Indeed, it could even be said that judgments of concern and care, to the extent that they are personal, infringe upon or delimit judgments of cuteness. Like Walter Benjamin’s notion of the aura of an artwork, what is cute must necessarily be held at a certain distance.

Tardigrade: cute but also terrifying?

It could even turn out that what judgments of cuteness express is something simple and unanalyzable, a bit like G.E. Moore’s notion of ‘good’ which he likened to ‘yellow’—the sort of thing that cannot be expressed in terms of anything more basic without bringing in the concept in question. The similarity in respective logics is also striking. Moore pointed out that from ‘so and so is a man’ and ‘so and so is a good politician’ one could not infer that ‘so and so is a good man’; similarly, from ‘that tardigrade is cute’ and ‘that tardigrade is nightmare fuel’ we cannot infer the impossible ‘that tardigrade is cute nightmare fuel’. Every time you pull your laptop over to a friend to excitedly explain how cute something is, it is doubtful whether you can be sure that you have really gotten your meaning across, or whether you have merely invited them to partake in their own distinctive experience of cuteness.

Purrbasket, laying on her back (very cute)

Yet this should be no cause for concern. If our cuteness judgments do not outlive us, it is no great loss—but might even be celebrated knowing that our own world was not so fallen as its future will be. As Wittgenstein once wrote, all philosophy might be said to consist in reminders. He didn’t add to this that reminders as such fail to have any prescriptive content. If our knowledge of what cuteness is is incomplete on account of the difficulties proposed, we should not conclude that the concept be either abandoned or bracketed off until the requisite empirical determinations have been made which might allow for an extensional definition of cuteness to be possible.