“De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum”?
| Nicolai Foss |
History of econ nerds (wonks?) will know that John Stuart Mill was trained by his father (James Mill) from the age of three in the Greek and Latin languages. Since Mill, economists’ Latin capabilities have deteriorated rather badly (a result of the dominance of Greek notation? ;-)). In fact, most economists only know two Latin sentences (or rather, dicta) that, however, they love to blurt out, often with a smug smile. One is a sound analytical principle, namely the ceteris paribus principle. The other is a much more problematic (if applied outside of economics) claim, made famous to economists by George Stigler and Gary Becker, namely “de gustibus non est disputandum.”
I have always been surprised by the readiness of many economists to endorse this claim as a general claim that goes beyond the simple implication that in economics we take preferences as given and applies on the aesthetic domain (perhaps this simply reflects the fact that many people nowadays subscribe to total or near-total relativism in aesthetics). However, understood as an aesthetic claim, “de gustibus non est disputandum” lies entirely outside of the orbit of economics (and economists-as-economists should shut up), and is emphatically not implied by subjective value theory, or any related branch of subjectivism in economics.
Economists do not seek to pass judgment on preferences, but this does, of course, not mean that no such judgment is possible. For those who believe that it is very much the case that “de gustibus est dispuntandum,” but need some high quality philosophical support for this belief, I strongly recommend Roger Scruton’s recent slim volume, Beauty. Scruton’s basic claim is that beauty goes beyond a mere preference and is something entirely rational and objective. The book is a strong defence of the fundamental value of Western high culture against the forces of relativism. Here is the Amazon “product description” (argghhh!!):
Beauty can be consoling, disturbing, sacred, profane; it can be exhilarating, appealing, inspiring, chilling. It can affect us in an unlimited variety of ways. Yet it is never viewed with indifference. Here, the renowned philosopher Roger Scruton explores the concept of beauty, asking what makes an object — either in art, in nature, or the human form — beautiful, and examining how we can compare differing judgements of beauty when it is evident all around us that our tastes vary so widely. Is there a right judgement to be made about beauty? Is it right to say there is more beauty in a classical temple than a concrete office block, more in a Rembrandt than in last year’s Turner Prize winner? Forthright and thought-provoking, and as accessible as it is intellectually rigorous, this introduction to the philosophy of beauty draws conclusions that some may find controversial, but, as Scruton shows, help us to find greater sense of meaning in the beautiful objects that fill our lives.