Tastes Can Be Disputed
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 9 - Aesthetics
Monroe Beardsley, from "Tastes Can Be Disputed"
Kem Stone - 16 July 2008
After reading two opposing views on the questions of whether or not tastes can be disputed, it seems to me that a
person’s position on the issue of taste mostly boils down to a matter of taste.  I can argue that no objective
standards of beauty exist just as forcefully as I can argue that objective standards are not necessary to give
concrete reasons for finding something beautiful.  In this text, Monroe Beardsley makes many excellent points
about arguments over taste, and shows that one can make a claim that a person’s taste
ought to change.  
However, he fails to completely defeat the position he calls Aesthetic Scepticism, which maintains that any claim
about taste must be essentially conditional.  I will point out the strengths of Beardsley’s position in my exposition,
and conclude by showing that although his opponents may be right, it does not necessarily mean he is wrong.

Beardsley begins by introducing the maxim that there can be no disputing about tastes, which he believes results
from people giving up on trying to convince one another that their opinions are wrong.  The maxim, he admits,
certainly holds true when the word “taste” is applied literally—some people prefer ripe olives to green olives and
their taste can not be disputed.  But when we speak of a person’s taste in clothing, art, literature, or music, does
the maxim still hold?  We must determine what is meant by the term
dispute, and distinguish it from a mere
disagreement.  “Let us take first the plainest case of a disagreement (no matter what it is about): two people who
say, ‘‘Tis so!’ and ‘‘Tain’t so!’  Let them repeat these words as often as they like, and shout them from the
housetops; they still haven’t got a dispute going, but merely a contradiction, or perhaps an altercation.  But let one
person say, ‘‘Tis so!’ and give a
reason why ‘tis so….Then we have a dispute—that is, a disagreement in which
the parties give reasons for their contentions” (566).  A dispute takes place when there are relevant and
compelling reasons behind a person’s opinion, which is why we do not call differences of opinion regarding laws,
constitutions, or international affairs merely disputes over taste.  The question can now be framed as whether a
preference for Picasso over Monteverdi is closer in nature to a preference of one Senatorial candidate to another
or to a preference for green olives over ripe olives.

Beardsley points out that when critics write reviews, they do not merely praise and blame but provide reasons for
their judgments.  But according to the Aesthetic Sceptic, these cannot be genuine or compelling reasons such as
we find in the sciences, because, “in the last analysis they rest upon sheer liking or disliking, which is not
susceptible of rational discussion.  The defender of the Mozart Quintet, for example, seems to be trying to prove
his point, but what he is actually doing (says the Sceptic) is better put this way: ‘
If you like subtle texture and
expressiveness in slow movements,
then you (like me) will prefer the Mozart quintet” (567).  One can point to as
many features of a book or musical piece as they like, but if the other man does not care for those features, no
amount of argument will convince him that he likes it.

I believe this is a very fair way to frame the opposing side, as this is the argument in a form that can not be
refuted.  But rather than refute the argument, Beardsley attempts to go
around it by saying, “though it is true that
you can’t change a disliking into a liking by arguments, that doesn’t imply that you can’t change it at all, or that we
cannot argue whether or not it
ought to be changed” (567).  In other words, you can not tell me that I do like
something, but you can tell me that I
should like something, and give me reasons why.  Perhaps I feel that my life
will be more enriched if I could refine my own tastes, overcome my pre-existing aesthetic preferences, and
appreciate something that beforehand I could not appreciate.  In this sense, there certainly
can be disputes about
taste.

What the Sceptics do not take into account, according to Beardsley, is the possibility that we might have reasons
as to why a person would be better off if he or she liked a certain work of art.  This, he believes, is because they
probably do not consider arguments over taste to be worthwhile.  What does it matter whether anyone prefers
green olives to ripe olives, or Mozart to Beethoven?  Beardsley admits that while disputes such as these are
without much importance, the nature of the situation changes when we compare Mozart and Strauss, or
Beethoven and Shostakovitch, in which cases it seems clear (at least to the connoisseur of classical music) which
is more deserving of appreciation.  “The fact is that the prevailing level of taste in the general public matters a great
deal to me, for it has a great deal to do with determining what I shall have the chance to read, what movies will be
filmed, shown, or censored, what music will be played most availably on the radio, what plays will be performed
on television….But more than that, even: if I am convinced that the kind of experiences that can only be obtained
by access to the greatest works is an important ingredient of the richest and most fully developed human life, then
do I not owe it to others to try to put that experience within their reach, or them within its reach?” (568).  This is
an intriguing point, as it asserts aesthetic experience as a primary value of human life, and makes the normative
claim that one ought to try to popularise any piece of art or music that one believes provides a worthwhile
experience.  Therefore, arguments about taste are not fruitless, as they serve an important purpose in society—
namely the refining of the taste of the public at large in an effort to mould a society of more greatly enriched human
beings.  To those who would object that it is undemocratic to tell people they have crude tastes—that people
have a
right to poor taste—Beardsley responds that they may in fact have that right, but this right is not violated
simply by another person trying to convince them to try and like things that appear to deserve it.

The way to determine whether a given work of art is more or less
deserving of appreciation than another is a
much more difficult matter, as we can approach a work of art from so many directions.  “Because the composer’s
love affairs were in a sorry state at the time he was composing, people think that the value of the music must
somehow be connected with this circumstance.  Because the painter was regarding his model while he painted,
people think that the value of the painting must depend on some relation to the way she really looked, or felt.  
Because the novelist is known to be an anarchist or a conservative, people think that the value of the novel must
consists partly in its fidelity to these attitudes” (569).  But Beardsley writes that we must keep in mind the central
interest of all art when making judgments—that a work of art is an object made by somebody for the purpose of
producing an aesthetic experience.  In this way it is like a tool which is made by somebody for a specific purpose,
and it can be judged according to how well it achieves this.  We do not think that the value of a hammer is a
matter of taste, but we judge it according to how well it drives nails.

Beardsley carries this analogy further by pointing out that the value of a hammer will rise proportionally to one’s
ability to
use it to drive nails.  The ability to appreciate works of art is also like a skill.  The value of works of art
consists in “what they can do to and for us if we are capable of having it done.  And for those who do not, or not
yet, have this capacity, it is not a simple fact that they do not, but a misfortune, and the only question is whether,
or to what extent, it can be remedied” (569)  Thus a critic serves a far more important function than the Sceptical
position entails, as he is not merely trying to guess who a given work of art will please or displease, but he is
pointing out the features of the work that are evidence of its ability or inability to provide people with a worthwhile
aesthetic experience.

I believe that Beardsley has done an excellent job of showing that arguments over taste are not a waste of time.  
Although the taste that any single individual has in music or literature may not be of much importance, there is no
question that the prevailing tastes within a given culture have a great degree of influence over society.  It is
therefore a worthwhile endeavour for a person to seek to improve his or her own taste, or to try and improve the
tastes of others.  However, Beardsley has failed to completely defeat the opposing argument, as he has done
nothing to show that an objective standard exists by which we can determine whether an alteration in taste is an
improvement or deterioration.  Any claims regarding taste can never rise above the level of conditional
statements.  “
If you value thought-provoking, emotionally-charged dramatic narrative, then you will enjoy this
critically acclaimed film that has enriched the lives of millions.  
If, on the other hand, you value the adrenaline rush
of a quick thrill more than serious contemplation,
then you will prefer this action film packed with explosions and
car chases.”  I can argue that you ought to value thought-provoking narrative over cheap thrills, but any standard I
choose to support that claim will ultimately be arbitrary.  The only way I can hope to convince you to even
attempt to improve your taste (which would only be an improvement from my perspective anyway) would be if
you admit to sharing my preference for values, and open yourself to the appreciation of work that touches the
mind and heart over that which merely accelerates the pulse.

Beardsley is correct that we can argue the merits of a work of art, and that such arguments are not necessarily a
waste of time.  Ducasse is correct that no objective standards of beauty exist and any determination we make
about whether a work of art is good or bad must ultimately rest on arbitrary grounds.  But these positions are not
mutually exclusive—I see no contradiction in agreeing with both of them.  Simply put, I can not argue that you
do
like Pink Floyd, but I can argue that you
should.  Or rather, if you say, “I hate Pink Floyd” I can not argue with
you, but if you say, “Pink Floyd sucks” I can argue with you all night long.  I can give you reasons
why Pink Floyd
does not suck, that the music is brilliantly composed, the lyrics are packed with rich philosophical insight that can
open up new ways of thinking for anyone with an open mind, and so on.  But if you are not interested in the
objective features of the work, and simply find the music too slow or boring, no argument will convince you
otherwise, and I can do no more than pity you for your inability to have the same kind of deep aesthetic
experience that I and so many others have taken from that music.  On the flip side, if a classical music connoisseur
tries to convince me that I can derive a much deeper aesthetic experience from Mozart or Beethoven than I can
from Pink Floyd, he may succeed in convincing me that orchestral music is inherently superior to rock, but he will
never alter my preference.  And yet I would still welcome his arguments, as even if I can never be touched by
anything more deeply than the solo from
Comfortably Numb, it certainly does not mean that my life can not be
made infinitely richer through the appreciation of Mozart’s
Requiem or Beethoven’s 9th symphony as well.