Tastes Cannot Be Disputed
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 9 - Aesthetics
Curt J. Ducasse, from The Philosophy of Art
Kem Stone - 12 July 2008
Although I have spent a great deal of time in my life pondering the nature of beauty, I have never read a
philosophical treatise on the issue until now.  Ducasse’s article raises many but not all of the difficulties I have
considered when it comes to determining whether beauty can be judged by any objective standards.  I am inclined
to agree with Ducasse’s central thesis that there can be no such standard, though I do find strong evidence—at
least in cases that go beyond human-produced art—that some scientific principles can be applied to measure
something’s aesthetic value.  On this point I will withhold judgment until reading an argument from the opposing
point of view, but for now I will consider what makes Ducasse’s opinion so forceful and why it is almost certainly
correct.

Most of the text deals with objections from the opposing side, as Ducasse’s argument itself is extremely simple
and concise.  He begins by defining beauty as “the capacity of an object aesthetically contemplated to yield
feelings that are pleasant” (554).  Thus the adjective “beautiful” is applied to an object only in cases in which a
contemplating observer derives pleasure from it.  Because beauty depends on the constitution of the individual
observer, it will vary with that constitution.  “
There is, then, no such thing as authoritative opinion concerning
the beauty of a given object
.  There is only the opinion of this person or that; or the opinion of persons of some
specified sort.  When one has stated the opinion and mentioned the person or class of persons who hold it, one
has gone as far as it is possible to go in the direction of a scientifically objective statement relating to the beauty of
the object” (554).  While some may claim to be connoisseurs of beauty, their opinions are not binding, and their
claims to have “good taste” can not be confirmed by any objective standard or test.  As far as it seems to me, this
argument is irrefutable.

Many, however, would like to dispute the claim that no person’s taste is superior to that of any other person, so
they appeal to certain factors they believe might validate an aesthetic opinion, most often whether there is a large
consensus of observers who feel the same way or whether a given work of art has “withstood the test of time”
and been found beautiful throughout many generations.  Ducasse points out that these appeals prove nothing
except that beauty is found in an object by those who find it there.  Some might insist that we can at least attempt
to rank beauties according to what type of human being experiences aesthetic pleasure in an object, or whether
the beauty can be classified as sentimental, intellectual, sexual, spiritual, or so on.  But while we may believe that
some of these human faculties have more inherent worth than others, this brings us no closer to finding a
straightforward way of ranking beauties.  Whatever principles we may formulate in our attempt to do so, we will
never be released from the reliance on the individual’s judgment to make the ultimate determination.

Perhaps the strongest argument against Ducasse is the appeal to technical principles or canons.  Many people
believe that a work of art can not be called beautiful unless it meets certain technical requirements.  Among the
alleged canons are rules of harmony in music, rules of literary composition in writing, and in all artwork
consistency, relevance, unambiguity, and so on.  Critics often cite the failure of a given work of art to measure up
to these principles as a reason they do not find it beautiful, and that therefore objective standards of beauty do
exist.  But Ducasse asserts that this is the same logical error as one who cites the law of gravitation as the reason
for why a pen falls to the ground when one lets go of it.  “Gravitation is but the name we give to the general fact
that unsupported objects
do fall, and at a certain rate; but it is not a reason….When I say that a certain design is
ugly because it is against the ‘law of symmetry,’ I am not giving a reason why it
had to give me aesthetic
displeasure, but only mentioning the fact that it resembles in a stated respect certain others which as a bare matter
of fact also do displease me” (555).  Furthermore, none of these principles rise above subjectivity as there are
many who would not be displeased by a work of art that violates them.  Indeed, the opinion of any given critic, no
matter how authoritative he or she may consider it, is subject to change and usually
does change over time.  Yet
one always considers one’s current taste an improvement over the old, and would consider any further alterations
to be deterioration.  Even the individual observer can not be an authority on his or her
own aesthetic standards.

Ducasse admits that some empirical generalisations can be made concerning factors upon which the aesthetic
value of a work of art depends.  People familiar with these generalisations can say why a picture is well
composed, or that the tones are well balanced and so on, but these are all
critical, rather than descriptive
statements.  “All rules and canons and theories concerning what a painting or other work of art should or should
not be, derive such authority as they have over you or me or anyone else, solely from the capacity of such canons
to
predict to us that we shall feel aesthetic pleasure here, and aesthetic pain there….That is, the feeling judges the
rule, not the rule the feeling” (556).  If I find an unsymmetrical picture beautiful, no one can say I am wrong
because I am
supposed to find beauty only in symmetry, but I can pronounce that this canon does not always
apply, as my own reaction has just demonstrated.

This leads to an important consideration concerning the difference between how lay people and art critics perceive
works of art in general.  Most people can not trace their own aesthetic reaction to certain features of the object,
while a professional usually will.  However, it is this very fact that raises the question as to whose opinion is really
more authoritative.  It is easy for professionals who are familiar with the techniques and processes involved in
creating artwork to erect such empirical facts into fixed and rigid rules and judge what they see exclusively based
on these canons.  Nonprofessionals, on the other hand, form their judgments solely based on the actual feeling
they derive.  “Listening to the comments of artists and of some critics on a picture will quickly convince one that,
strange as it sounds, they are as often as not almost incapable of seeing the picture about which they speak.  What
they see instead is brush work, values, edges, dark against light, coloured shadows, etc.  They are thus often not
more but less capable than the untrained public of giving the picture
aesthetic attention, and of getting from it
genuinely aesthetic enjoyment” (557).  Artists run the risk of focussing too much on technique and losing sight of
aesthetics.  The only way to overcome this is to develop a complete mastery of technique so that its use becomes
as unconscious as the use of one’s hand and requires no attention.  Yet just the fact that an exclusively aesthetic
reaction is impossible for those familiar with the rules and canons of art is a strong point in favour of the position
that these rules only predict rather than determine the reaction.

If a purely aesthetic critique is impossible to form objectively, it may yet be the case that one can form an
objective critique of an aesthetic object in ethical terms.  Plato and Tolstoi, for instance, believed that the merit of
a work of art can be judged based on whether it affects a person for good or ill.  Ducasse notes that this particular
standard of evaluation is itself arbitrary, and whether or not it is a good standard can only be determined
subjectively.  Otherwise, we would need a standard by which to measure our standards, a standard by which to
measure
that standard, and so on ad infinitum.  Thus before even considering the details of a standard based on
ethical principles, Ducasse has shown that it will be just as arbitrary as one based on aesthetic principles.

According to such theories, the value of an object when contemplated aesthetically lies in the conversion of
aesthetic attitude to practical attitude.  “So long as our state is properly describable as aesthetic feeling, its value is
immediate and intrinsic, and consists in the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the state.  But when our state comes
to be properly describable as impulse, then its value is as usual to be measured in terms of the eventual
significance of the impulse.  An impulse is a seed of conduct, and an aesthetic feeling is at least a potential seed of
impulse” (559).  The conduct resulting from a given impulse will depend on whether the impulse is of a sort
already experienced, or if it is completely novel within a person’s life.  If the impulse has already been
experienced, the only effect of the aesthetic object will be to magnify or diminish pre-existing attitudes.  Yet if the
impulse is novel, it directly constitutes a seed of change in the life of the individual who experiences it.  Such
transformations may be either conscious or unconscious depending on whether the person is aware of the novelty
of the experience or whether it is “surreptitiously” implanted.

Ducasse remarks on the capacity of nature to bring about these kinds of shifts in aesthetic attitudes.  “Some
persons are known to the writer, in whom the contemplation for the first time of the ocean, or of great mountains,
seems to have produced feelings comparable in point of novelty and depth to those reported by mystics” (559).  
But art, Ducasse believes, is ultimately more capable of sowing the seeds of novel impulses.  One reason is that
even when nature is the model for a work of art, nature is edited by the artist who omits what is irrelevant and fills
in any ambiguity.  Also, although in many ways art falls short of nature, it has an infinitely wider range of resources
because unlike nature, its limits are not physical laws but only the limits of the imagination.  Ducasse cites the
example of Leonardo da Vinci’s
Mona Lisa as a work of art that has had a profound affect on people through the
centuries.  Art connoisseurs tend to scoff at this painting, which Ducasse argues is more a demonstration of the
sophomoric character of the critics than of the aesthetic ineptitude of mankind at large.

Returning to the main issue, Ducasse reformulates his main thesis by distinguishing between judgments of mediate
and immediate value.  While judgments of mediate or instrumental value are capable of being proved or
disproved, judgments of immediate value—particularly in relation to beauty and ugliness—can never be complete
without a reference to the particular constitution of the individual observer.  There can be no “objective validity”
when it comes to judgments of immediate value.  While the steps taken to arrive at this conclusion are perfectly
straightforward and logical, its consequences present us with certain problems, most importantly the fact that it
renders all judgments of taste groundless.  “Is there then no such thing as the refining and educating of taste?  
Certainly there is,—and there is also such a thing as perversion and deprivation of taste.  But the question in any
given case is, which is which?  No one so far as I know has yet pointed out any way of answering this question
otherwise than arbitrarily and dogmatically” (561).  For instance, some people seem to believe that if it could only
be shown that a vast majority of people find something beautiful, we can say it has objective beauty.  But as
Ducasse points out, mere numbers have no bearing on the question, and “proof” by appeal to a vote is nothing
more than a civilised form of argument by the use of force.

Finally, Ducasse considers the objection by some that if we could only find one particular judgment that every
single human could agree on, we would have an objective aesthetic judgment.  This position is guilty of the same
error as those who insist that the opinion of a majority can be deemed objective: percentages are irrelevant
regardless of whether it is 99 or 100 percent of people who feel the same way.  Those who hold this position cite
things like pain and pleasure as properly designated to be objectively good or bad, because everybody likes
pleasure and everybody hates pain, but this argument merely takes the predicate of a value judgment and makes it
the subject.  It is not a question of whether pain is ever pleasurable, but whether there is anything that all people,
without exception, find painful.  As this is extremely doubtful, it is almost certain that no value judgments can be
considered universal and therefore based on objective principles.

Ducasse uses the term “dogmatico-liberalistic” to designate his position on the issue of aesthetics, which is
essentially that “Neither I nor anyone can refute anyone else’s judgments of immediate value,—here, of beauty
and ugliness; nor can anyone refute mine.  This is the liberalistic aspect of the situation.  The fullest insight into it,
however, constitutes no reason whatever why any one should hold to his own immediate valuations any the less
strongly.  That our own opinion must in the nature of such matters be dogmatic is no reason why it should not be
honest, vigorous, and unashamed” (561).  We do no need to refrain from debates over aesthetic values, nor must
we refuse to formulate any such opinions.  We must only keep in mind that any judgments we make are neither
inherently more or less valid than anyone else’s.

I believe I agree with this position, though I will withhold my final judgment until I have read an opposing
argument.  It does, however, seem irrefutable to me that no objective standards of beauty exist.  On their own, all
objects are nothing more than particles and forces, neither inherently beautiful or ugly.  Only the judgments of a
conscious being bring these concepts into existence, and because each conscious agent is of a unique constitution,
each will have a slightly different point of view from which to make such determinations.  While it is tempting to
appeal to technical principles or other objective standards to make the case that some aesthetic attitudes are more
valid than others, all standards are inherently arbitrary.  Personally, I tend to judge a work of art by whether I
believe I could have done a better job.  Thus I believe that the music of Pink Floyd is far superior to that of
modern-day pop superstars, and I consider my taste superior to anyone who disagrees.  Yet deep down I know
that the beauty of any piece of music or artwork is not in the thing itself but in a person’s reaction to it, and many
people can be deeply moved by a track from a Britney Spears CD while Beethoven does nothing for them.  
While I may outwardly scoff at the taste of these individuals, inwardly I remain aware that I am in no way an
authority on what constitutes beauty.

There are, however, several issues related to aesthetics that complicate the issue, none of which are dealt with
explicitly by Ducasse.  One thing I have spent a great deal of time contemplating is the relationship among what
seem to me to be different
types of beauty.  Ducasse’s article deals mainly with beauty in artwork, which is quite
obviously the least susceptible to arguments that objective standards exist.  Yet when it comes to the beauty in
natural objects, the range of opinions drops significantly and some objective principles
do seem to be at work.  
For instance, while the taste that men have in different types of women varies significantly, there is usually a widely-
shared basic standard of beauty in any given culture, be it large and motherly, skinny and virginal, or something
else.  If you presented every person in the western world with two pictures—one of a young, thin woman and the
other an elderly fat man—and asked which they would call “beautiful”, the former would probably be picked
virtually without exception.  Although it makes logical sense to deny that any subjective opinion, even one nearly
universally held, does not prove the existence of objective aesthetic principles, the fact that human biology itself
often determines aesthetic judgments does suggest that there is at least a potential that such principles can be
discerned through scientific study.

Finally, there is the beauty that everyone, without exception, finds in the natural world itself.  How can we
compare the judgment that a sunset, a mountain range, or a forest stream is beautiful to the opinion that this
painting or that sculpture is beautiful?  These seem to be entirely different phenomena, though both are judgments
of aesthetic value.  Again, just because an opinion is universally held does not make it objective, but if any
aesthetic opinion
can be considered indisputable it is that nature is beautiful.  If I believe a picture, a song, or even
a woman, is beautiful, no one can tell me I am
wrong, and then cite reasons why the picture, song, or woman is
not beautiful.  But if I were to hear someone say that a sunset over the ocean is not beautiful, I would feel as
though I
can tell him that he is wrong, that such a thing is beautiful no matter what he says, and although I can not
give any
reason it just seems to me that I am right.  Nature seems to possess an intrinsic, inherent beauty that is
entirely independent of human judgment.  However, even with all these considerations I cannot escape the fact
that on its own, nature is nothing more than particles and forces, and that beauty is only attributed to it through the
contemplation of a human mind.  The fact that I have never met anyone who does not find sunsets beautiful only
means that certain aesthetic attitudes are more primal than others.

Thus my current, and admittedly tentative, opinion regarding the various types of beauty is that they are all the
same fundamental thing but taken on different scales.  Nature as a whole is the largest scale, and thus every human
being finds nature beautiful because every human being exists in nature.  Perhaps beings from another planet or
universe would find the mountains and forests of this world hideous, or the nebulas and galaxies of this universe
nauseating.  The beauty of the human body is natural beauty on a smaller scale, and so aesthetic opinions differ
slightly while mostly remaining within basic parameters determined by the drive to reproduce.  Finally, the beauty
in man-made artwork is on the smallest scale, and thus there are no universally held standards of taste.  We are all
constituted to find nature beautiful, and we are all constituted to find other human beings beautiful, but we are
not
all constituted to find a particular type of music or man-made image pleasing, and thus we find an entire spectrum
of differing tastes when it comes to the creations of the imagination.  Yet while the existence of this kind of sliding
scale suggests some sort of objective scientific principles behind aesthetic judgments, all such judgments are
by
definition
dependent on the reaction of an individual observer, and are therefore by definition subjective and
immune to disputes regarding their validity.