Why Drawing a Hand Is Like Ethics

An instructional video on drawing can teach us about ethics.

Posted May 21, 2019

I’m not good at drawing. In fact, I’m positively dreadful. A few years ago, I took a watercolor class. My mother would have been proud of what I did—if I were still in the third grade, not a late middle-aged man. I remember when I took a ceramics class in high school, I left my creations behind to be donated to a charity. My parents didn’t need another lopsided ashtray. Neither did the charity, apparently, as my teacher told me that he wouldn’t even give away such a crude object. I must have passed the class because he took pity on me.

The lack of talent has given me a signature picture, though. It simply is a few circles and lines. It has amused my children, my grandchildren, and nearly everyone else I’ve drawn it for.

Given my lack of talent, I was happy to learn that there is an instructional video that demonstrates how to draw a hand. After reading Dan Brooks’ article, I tried it myself. The video, “Who knew drawing hands was this easy?”, quickly sketches what look like five figure-9s, then with a few more simple strokes, completes the picture in a matter of seconds. I didn’t know drawing a hand could be that simple. So, with paper on my desk and pencil in hand, I watched the video and drew. While I’m glad to show you my monkey face, I won’t make the drawing of the hand pubic. There’s nothing cute about it. It’s simply embarrassing.

I’m not alone, however, in discovering that while a drawing of a hand consists of no more than a few lines that can be dashed off in a matter of seconds, making the drawing look realistic isn’t simple at all. Not for me and not for countless other viewers who have posted their own drawings on the video that has gone viral. Most attempts, it turns out, are abject failures like mine (well, maybe not as bad).

Brooks writes that the lesson to be drawn from the video is the value of expertise. “Drawing a hand that looks like a hand remains hard—first surprisingly so, then stubbornly,” he writes. He adds, “most people are bad at what they haven’t spent years learning to do . . . Some people can draw human hands, but most people cannot, and fortunately, we need not say more about it than that.”

Some believe that ethics, too, is as easy as following video instructions. Even easier. No instruction is needed at all, many think. What’s more, while we may say that some drawings are better than others, who’s to say that some ethical decisions are better than others? Unlike drawing hands, where whether you are good or bad is more or less an objective determination and it matters only if you are an artist, being bad at ethics is consequential for everyone. You can pick up a pencil or not, but you can’t avoid making ethical choices.

If ethics is understood as being about the way in which we live in the world, the effect we have upon others and how we go about making a good life for ourselves, then it is clear that ethics is as much a part of our nature as surely as a hand is part of the human anatomy.

What about whether ethical choices are the right ones? Unfortunately for many, the right answer seems as easy to know as it is easy to draw a hand. Two approaches are taken here. One is what is right is what society tells us is right; the other approach is that what is right is what the individual for him or herself decides is right. Either way—a snap answer. Easy.

Well, no more than drawing a hand is easy. Everyone can draw a hand, but few do it well. Everyone makes judgments about good and bad behavior, we laud or scorn others, we strive to have ourselves flourish all the time, but not all the choices a good or ethical. A drawn hand can look like a lump of coal; some think it’s OK to take advantage of and hurt others.

Lucky ones are born with great talent and, on their own, can become true artists. And there are those who are born with great compassion and, without further instruction, can live a flourishing life. More often than not, if you want to be an artist, then you need to study. And if you want to be an ethical person, find a teacher, a mentor, or a role-model.

While a drawn hand that looks like a gnarled rock does no one harm, a human heart that is like a stone does great harm. Just as there is more to drawing a human hand than a quick video, there is more to ethics than thinking that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten.