I hereby declare a holiday, after this post, from analogies of bad arguments to bad art and from further references to the intellectual and moral philistinism of neocons. But allow me to offer David Hume’s minor masterpiece “Of the Standard of Taste“. A selection:

A good palate is not tried by strong flavours; but by a mixture of small ingredients, where we are still sensible of each part, notwithstanding its minuteness and its confusion with the rest. In like manner, a quick and acute perception of beauty and deformity must be the perfection of our mental taste; nor can a man be satisfied with himself while he suspects, that any excellence or blemish in a discourse has passed him unobserved. In this case, the perfection of the man, and the perfection of the sense or feeling, are found to be united. A very delicate palate, on many occasions, may be a great inconvenience both to a man himself and to his friends: But a delicate taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality; because it is the source of all the finest and most innocent enjoyments, of which human nature is susceptible.

There is such a thing as good taste, and it applies to argument as well as art. The ability to spot excellences and blemishes in a discourse is as much a part of taste as is the acute perception of beauty and deformity. The intellectual case for National Greatness Conservativism is easy enough to debunk. But I am constantly struck by the gag-making vulgarity of its moral vision, and I think that’s worth pointing out. Yes, many people do find it appealing, and that’s central to the point. Taste is a refinement of sensibility; it is elitist, not populist. Of course, I don’t think it’s wise to lean very heavily on such transparently aesthetic judgments. Indeed, it is in poor taste to depend so much on direct appeals to taste. It makes you look like a supercilious jerk. But it can also be illuminating to occasionally note openly that ideologies do have an aesthetic dimension, and that some of them are just hideous.

Hume, of course, is not really observing a settled truth when he tells us just how fantastic it is to have developed delicate taste. He knows what he’s doing, and what he’s doing is coaching us to care about taste — to develop a taste for taste — because unless you do, you won’t even notice all the great stuff you’re missing. You won’t even notice how debased you are. You might even like  it! And that’s sad. So, yeah, Hume’s being a supercilious jerk, too. But he’s a lot more clever about it. It is no inconvenience at all to a man of taste or his friends when he finds them dull and ugly. Not at all. That’s a delight!   

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center