Thursday, May 30, 2019

Taste and cross-cultural encounters

After visiting the British Museum yesterday, I find it rather hard to take seriously the argument for the relativity of beauty from the diversity of taste. It seems clear that just as C. S. Lewis has argued for a moral core cutting across cultures, one can argue that there is an aesthetic core across cultures.

There is, however, an interesting apparent difference between the diversity of taste and the diversity of morals. I think a cross-cultural encounter involving a difference of taste regarding the best cultural artifacts—by each culture’s own standards—should typically lead to a broadening of taste. But a cross-cultural moral encounter should not typically lead to a broadening of morals. Very often, it should lead to a narrowing of morals: for instance, one culture learning from the other that slavery sex is wrong.

Why this difference? I think it may come from a difference in quantifiers.

As Aquinas already noted (in a somewhat different way), to be morally good, an action has to be good or neutral with respect to every relevant dimension of moral evaluation. If it is good with respect to courage and kindness and generosity, but it is bad with respect to justice (Robin Hood?), then the action is plain wrong. Thus as new dimensions of moral evaluation are discovered, as can happen in cross-cultural encounter, we get a narrowing of the actions that we classify as morally good.

On the other hand, for an item to be beautiful, it only needs to be beautiful with respect to some relevant dimensions of beauty. A musical performance is still beautiful on the whole even if the orchestra is dressed in dirty rags, and a painting can be beautiful even if it reeks of oil. Thus as we discover new dimensions of beauty, we get a broadening of the pieces that we classify as beautiful.

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