Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Matters of Taste: A correction on my last post...and a follow-up reflection

In a comment on my last post, JP brought up a comparison between moral matters and matters of taste, a comparison that was intended to call into question my purported contention that if values are wholly subjectivized, there is no longer anything to learn from engaging thoughtfully with the divergent value perspectives of others.

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).


  1. Thanks for these posts Eric

    As I understand your comments, I am most certainly a relativist, and remain very confused as to what is meant by objective values. Doesn't it ultimately require the belief that we get access to these beliefs from some source other than the cultural and biological routes (as these are the contextual aspects, and objectivism requires that once the contextual variables are removed, there is still some pattern left to be explained, as per your water example)? Do I have this right?

    Would that then imply that to establish the sense of moral objectivism would require the establishing of some information source on moral judgement above and beyond the cultural and biological? That seems a very difficult task to me.

    Meantime, moral and food judgements feel analogous. So, for example, I seem to have an evolved capacity for empathy, and for finding a sense of fulfillment in service, along with a strong reinforcing reward response to feelings of fulfillment. Hence my moral tastes are constrained by my evolved nature. Because I share this nature with other humans, listening to the way others shape their moral narratives can tell me a great deal about how I might choose to live my life.

    Because the biological/cultural hypothesis appears sufficient to explain my moral experience, and because I know of no evidence to establish any extra-physical information sources, I'm drawn towards relativism. I agree with Burk that this doesn't imply I can't use the word should, speak of some outcomes being better than others, or engage in social explorations and evaluations of moral systems. It's jut that the meaning of such processes and utterences need to be understood within a relativist context.


  2. Doesn't it ultimately require the belief that we get access to these beliefs from some source other than the cultural and biological routes (as these are the contextual aspects, and objectivism requires that once the contextual variables are removed, there is still some pattern left to be explained, as per your water example)? Do I have this right?

    Depends a bit on what moral theory you're discussing, but no.

  3. Hi Dustin

    I see three possibilities.

    One: there are no objective moral values, and our moral judgements are a function of biological and cultural factors.

    Two; there are objective moral values, but we have no access to any information about their nature, and our judgements are biological/cultural.

    Three: there are objective moral values and we have access to information about them. This information comes to us via some extra-physical route.

    I am agnostic with regard to one and two. I think your No implies a fourth option, or perhaps you just meant two? If there is a fourth option I'd be interested in an outline.



  4. Four: there are objective moral values, and statements about them are reducible to physical statements.

    Five: there are objective moral values, and they can be known through pure reason (as Kant thought.)

    Six: there are objective moral values, and God gave us a moral faculty capable of figuring out moral truths, but he did so without breaking the laws of nature.

    Seven, eight, nine: you get the idea.

    I am absolutely positive I have explained this to you before.

  5. Hi Dustin

    In reverse order then:

    Six is a version of three, God giving us moral faculty by some unexplained process that doesn't break the laws of nature being pretty much exactly what I mean by an extra-physical route (a route not encompassed by our current best models of the physical world, and undiscoverable by them).

    Five is a version of two, insomuch as reasoning itself requires us to subjectively choose our starting axioms, and we have no way of knowing which starting points will lead to objective truth.

    Four is very likely a version of two or three, but which depends upon the process you have in mind by which statements about objective truth are reduced to statements about the physical world.

    Seven, eight and nine are harder to comment upon.

    Writing this, I realise I have however left out another option, this being:

    Four - there exists objective truth and, by sheer coincidence, some people's subjective judgements lead them to it.

    And so, for now I stand by my claim that to believe we have access to objective moral truths is to believe in a physical process for which we have no evidence (or to believe that we, as individuals, have been the recipients of an inordinate helping of luck). I don't think there is anything wrong with believing this, by the way. I just think one should be open about these things.

    You're right. We did begin this conversation earlier.


  6. Regarding this: "Five is a version of two, insomuch as reasoning itself requires us to subjectively choose our starting axioms, and we have no way of knowing which starting points will lead to objective truth."

    Kant's deliberate purpose in The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals is to demonstrate how reason itself, in its practical application, can generate a "categorical imperative"--an unconditionally binding injunction on action--without appeal to any axioms or deliverances of desire, simply by virtue of the nature of reason itself. Whether he succeeds in this aim is another matter, but that is his project. And insofar as there IS such a project that remains a live one (and many philosophers are still committed to this project), we need to distinguish option 5 from 2. Unless we admit 5 AS an option, we cannot properly assess its viability.

    I've been thinking for awhile that I should devote a post to this Kantian option, unpacking various neo-Kantian variations on Kant's original effort.While I'll be gone most of next week (and need to devote what time I do have to addressing copy-editor queries on the book manuscript), I may offer such a post the week after.

  7. You can stand by your position if you want, Bernard, but understand that if you are right it will be by "sheer coincidence"--you aren't qualified to assess the debate, as you've shown. You don't even understand what the relevant positions are.

    Four is the position held by (among many, many other people) Daniel Dennett, who I thought you had some respect for. It's a very broad position, with many different accounts on offer; you might try some of the books in bibliography of the SEP article on moral naturalism.

    Five, what Eric said.

    Six, you might try Robert Adams' chapter on moral epistemology in Finite and Infinite Goods.

    Seven, eight, nine: they're harder to comment on because you haven't bothered to educate yourself on the relevant positions. For instance, another approach would be the one taken by Russ Shafer-Landau in Moral Realism.

    The thing to understand Bernard--and I'm always amazed at Eric's patience, that he doesn't just tell you this straight out--the thing to understand is that every objection to a philosophical position you ever have had or ever will have has already been articulated, in a more persuasive form than you are capable of, by professional philosophers, and responded to by proponents of the view being attacked. Of course you don't have to agree that their responses succeed. And I understand that, though you find it worthwhile to do philosophy, you think you are so much better at it than all professional philosophers combined (including, incidentally, plenty who know far more science than it takes to teach high school biology) to the point that you can reach near certainty on philosophical positions without even bothering to see what they have to say. But surely you do agree that, when you are publicly attacking a particular position, you ought to make sure you have at least a basic understanding of what the proponents of that position actually hold, and why?

  8. Eric

    I suppose I am arguing that five fits within two for exactly the reason you articulate, that it's an ongoing project. As yet we do not have any objective grounds for accepting Kant's project, hence people of great learning are able to sit one side or the other on this debate, presumably as a result of the perspective they bring to the debate, which is to say subjective grounds. For now we must conclude that maybe such a project of reasoning will take us to an objective truth, and maybe it won't. And this appears to imply we can't yet claim from the approach any knowledge of objective morality.


  9. Dustin

    Two points:

    I once learned an important lesson about intellectual progress, taught to me by the finest mind I have ever had the pleasure of working with, a world leading geneticist. I was in his research centre for a year and noted, with some amazement, his openness to everybody's opinion. Be they graduate, post-doc student, fellow professor, visiting journalist, colleague's spouse or even, gob smackingly, a high school teacher. He engaged, listened, discussed, explained and frequently conceded. Never once did he dismiss a viewpoint on the grounds that the person offering it hadn't read the right books, attended the right university, was of a particular age, gender or ethnicity. Always for him, the argument was the thing, the reasoning and the evidence. He didn't cite authorities, if he thought they were relevant he explained them. One can count oneself lucky to encounter even one such mind in a lifetime, but I suggest we can all learn from them. Maybe we're not all smart enough to be as confidently open as he is, but it's surely something to aspire to anyway.


  10. Dustin

    Second point:

    Irrespective of the things you have read and study, I'm unconvinced by the points your making here, primarily because you're not articulating them fully. Let's focus on just one to keep it clean, number six.

    I claim it's a version of three, that to invoke a God giving us moral faculty is to call upon an explanation that requires we believe in a physical process that goes beyond our current best understanding of any such processes. You say this is not so, because, well Robert Adams says so. My challenge to you, in the spirit of intellectual bravery, is to try to make this point yourself so that I, and anybody else reading this, may assess its credibility.


  11. Eric, off topic (but inspired by following your links)... did you ever reply to anthropologist David Eller's critique of your book?

  12. Kaviraj:

    I haven't. When it was on my mind I didn't have time and when I've had time it hasn't been on my mind. Probably worth doing at some point, but I suspect that anyone who has read and understood my book will be able to offer pretty much the line of response I'd give to Eller (which has some similarities to the response I offered to the review by "Greywizard" on Amazon).

  13. Bernard,

    First, I promise you that I am not dismissing your view on the basis of your not having read the right books, I don't know what college you attended, and I don't really care about your age, ethnicity or gender (I am wondering whether I should take the inclusion of the last three elements as some sort of sleight?) I am saying that you just aren't aware of the fact that your opponents have anticipated your arguments and responded--and you need to acquaint yourself with their positions, and if they fail, figure out why they fail, both before you should have any great confidence in your own position and before you can reasonably expect me to take your views seriously. If someone offers an argument that evolution can't explain some biological feature, saying, "But scientists have offered ways X, Y and Z that it plausibly could, and they don't even address these" is a perfectly acceptable reason to reject their argument.

    Second, I don't consider myself to have any obligation to explain this stuff to you. This has nothing to do with my lacking the "intellectual bravery" to face you in an argument, or with my "not being smart enough to be confidently open"--I promise, I discuss these things all the time with people who have more claim to being intellectually intimidating than you do. Rather, it's partly because I have discussed these things extensively with you already, and you apparently not only didn't make any effort to further educate yourself on the issues in the meantime, not only didn't, at least, catalog what I said in your mental battery of failed arguments for the other side, but actually forgot the discussion happened. It's also partly because I have other things to do, and you don't have an infinite claim on my time and effort. Maybe you will say, but I shouldn't even enter the argument, unless I am willing to engage in as much detail as you want for as long as you want. But what I'm saying is that other people have already written all this down; if you don't want to read it--or at least find a summary of it or something--I don't feel like that entitles you to have me paraphrase it for you.

    Third, I don't mean to say here that Robert Adams' position does or doesn't work (though as it happens I think it probably does;) I just mean to say that it's a different position, and one that is both relevant to the topic and that you don't seem to know anything about.

    (Incidentally, you're right that this position, *in a sense*, means our getting the knowledge through an extra-physical happening, though not in the sense in which I take it you mean it--one that competes with scientific explanations of various phenomena. If God exists and created the universe, everything that obtains--including our knowledge of morality and everything else--will ultimately be explained through reference to God's action. But clearly this doesn't compete with scientific explanations of various phenomena in the world, since they are operating at different levels.)

  14. Thanks Dustin

    Rest assured I do have a good memory of our previous discussions on this topic, and indeed learned a great deal from it.

    There are many loose ends here, and you are quite right, you are under no obligation to engae with me on any of them. Why should you? (Bear in mind that that when you do jump on board, as you have occasionally), I will likely be motivated to keep plugging away at those points I don't think you've established. Over to you.

    With regard to objective morals, I agree with the theists who argue the notion only makes sense within the context of a belief in God. So, efforts like those of Sam Harris (and you suggest Daniel Dennett, I've not read him on this) seem to me to avoid the issue by attempting to first redefine it.

    Clearly I'm no Kantian scholar, and so look forward to Eric's promised post on this. I am merely falling back on what my number theory lecturer taught me back in my university days, that any proof requires first the estalishing of a set of axioms. Maybe the neo-Kantians have found a way around that, I'll reserve judgement.

    With regard to Robert Adams, we agree an extra-physcial event is required. Hence my stance that knowledge about objective values implies an extra-physical dimension to the method by which that information is delivered.

    We differ on whether this requires us at some point to abandon the scientific method in our description of the physical world. I would claim that if God has intervened, then at this point of intervention there is at the very least a physical effect, and that effect should be as open to investigation as any other physical phenomenon. In general theists seem reluctant to engage on this particular point, as others on this blog have often pointed out.

    I understand you will choose not to respond to this, on the grounds that it is answered perfectly well elsewhere by experts. I have looked for these responses, and will continue looking, but as yet have not been able to find the argument being employed. That's why this blog is so valuable. Someone else might just be prepared to put the case and so my learing will continue.

    Thanks anyway for what you have offered. I appreciate it. All the very best.