As I prepared to jot off a quick response to this, I realized I’d made a significant error in my last post—an error that made JP’s comment more credible, as well as making it considerably harder for me to quickly make the response I wanted to make. Specifically, in creating my previous post I referred to a true-false question that, at one time, I'd used in some of my classes. In course of preparing the post I found that question in my files and cut-and-pasted it into the post. But somehow the cut-and-pasted version disappeared in the course of completing the post. Rather than hunt it down again in my files, I recreated it from memory.
The resultant wording was this:
Consider the following statement: "We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on moral matters. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about morality." Someone who makes this statement is most likely an ethical subjectivist.This, however, turns out to be more ambiguous than the original wording of the question. Where I wrote “learn something new about morality,” the original question said “learn something new about what is morally right and wrong.”
And this difference makes a big difference, since learning something about morality is a far broader thing, encompassing many more kinds of lessons, than what is encompassed in learning something about what is morally right and wrong.
Of course we can learn things about morality by listening to each other, even if morality is wholly subjective. And of course we can learn things about tastes by listening to each other, even if taste is wholly subjective. But it doesn’t follow that we can learn more about what really is moral or what really is tasty by such listening, if the truth about morality and taste is wholly subjective.
Consider a comparable statement relating to science. Suppose you’re a subjectivist about science. That is, you believe that all “truths” in science are wholly subjective. You might still agree that listening to others will teach you “something new about science,” given that the ambiguity of that phrasing allows the “something new” to include new discoveries about the history of science, the range of beliefs people have, etc. But if you’re a subjectivist about science, you won’t expect to learn anything new about scientific truth—for example, about the temperature at which ethanol actually boils, or the typical behavior of electrons in an oxygen atom. If you really are a subjectivist on scientific truth, then you’ll believe that whatever attitudes you happen to have are the standard of truth on this matter, and hence that there is nothing for you to learn.
So, consider the following disambiguated parallel statement regarding taste:
“We should be respectful of everyone’s opinion on matters of culinary taste. Only if we listen to each other and take what the other person has to say seriously are we going to open our minds and learn something new about what tastes good and what doesn’t.”If what tastes good is simply a function of what I happen to enjoy when I taste it, then clearly there is nothing new to learn about what tastes good (to me) and what tastes bad (to me) by listening to what other people enjoy and don’t enjoy eating—even if I might learn lots of interesting stuff about them. So if we’re complete subjectivists about tastes, then the disambiguated statement makes little sense. While I might learn things “about matters of taste” from open discourse with others, I won’t learn anything about what tastes good and what doesn’t. For that, I just have to consult my own subjective responses.
Nevertheless, I think there is more to be said on this matter. Even disambiguated in this way, the statement about tastes doesn’t seem like something we want to wholly dismiss. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that we’re not as wholly subjective about matters of taste as we often like to think.
But I believe there’s another reason. Specifically, even if we agree that taste is wholly subjective, if there are broader values which are not wholly subjective then there might be compelling reasons to expand our tastes, that is, to come to like (to “find tasty”) things that we had not previously liked. And while we wouldn’t learn anything new about what tastes good and what doesn’t from open discourse with people whose tastes differ from our own, we might come to like things we didn’t like before. Some things that previously hadn’t tasted good to us might start to taste good because someone pointed out flavors and nuances we’d never attended to, or because we decided to give it a try enough to acquire a taste for it.
And liking more things might mean enriching our lives in valuable ways.
Let’s assume that there are no objective standards that ever make it inappropriate to like some foods and not others. Culinary taste would then be, as I see it, unlike humor, for reasons discussed at length in an earlier post: to be amused by certain things (say the deliberate psychological abuse of another person) is just inappropriate, and so deliberately cultivating a taste for such things is similarly inappropriate. You’re not enriching your life by acquiring a taste for the humiliation of racial minorities. Rather, you’re acquiring a new vice and thus making the world a worse place. But if taste is wholly subjective, there is no such constraint, no objective reason not to expand one’s tastes so as to be able to find pleasure in more foods
And there would be a reason to find culinary pleasure in more things, assuming that such pleasure is good all else being equal. In other words, if we adopt a broader values framework that attaches presumptive objective value to the pleasures associated with eating—a values framework that holds such pleasure to be a value worth cultivating in the absence of any reason not to—the increase in pleasure opportunities resulting from expanding one’s tastes becomes a reason to seek to expand one’s tastes whether one is so inclined or not.
And so, if taste is wholly subjective but other values pertaining to what makes for a good life are not wholly subjective (such as the worth of expanding the range of culinary pleasures in one's life), there may well be compelling reason to seek to expand one’s culinary tastes broadly. And since listening to why other people enjoy what they enjoy can help in this process, there is reason to engage in attentive discussions about taste even if taste is wholly subjective. One might, thereby, come to like new things, thereby enriching one’s life.
(There are also culturally constructed values related to the art of cooking that deserve attention here as well, but I have run out of time for today).