What is the root of taste?

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Ilya Shambat

Sep 29, 2022, 7:29:37 PMSep 29
Often, when I write or talk about beauty, someone counters by talking about “inner beauty.” They appear to be of the impression that the two are somehow incompatible with each other. I do not see why there should be any kind of relationship – positive or negative – between being physically attractive and being a good person. Some people will be both; some people will be one or the other; and some people will be neither. We are dealing with two completely different things, and I see no reason why they would have any kind of relationship to one another at all.

Then there is the saying “beauty is only skin-deep, ugliness goes down to the bone.” That also is completely wrong. I was ugly in school, but I am not ugly now. The reason is not improved self-esteem or anything of the sort; the reason is that I do lots of exercise. My ugliness problem was solved through an improved lifestyle, which could not have been done if ugliness went to the bone. Whereas there are any number of people I know who are beautiful all the way through and have been for as long as I knew them.

We also see claims such as that outer beauty is relative and inner beauty is universal. This likewise is wrong. While most people would agree that Stalin was a bad person and that Mother Theresa was a good person, in most cases it is not nearly as clear-cut. Some people think that Reagan was a man of great character, and others think that Reagan was a jerk. “Inner beauty” can be just as relative as anything else.

The real question to ask is relative – to what? On matters of personal goodness, it appears to be a matter of values. If you are a conservative you will like Reagan; if you are a liberal you will not.

This leads me into uncharted territory. What is the basis of taste? It has been fashionable since the times of the Roman Empire to state that “de gustibus non disputandum est” (“there is no dispute on taste”). Where do people's tastes come from? Why are the tastes of many so different? What is the root of taste? Is there any logic to it, and if there is such a logic, what is it?

For a long time, emotions were dismissed as being illogical. However anyone familiar with psychology knows that there very much is logic to emotions, even if it is not linear logic. Ayn Rand, who rejected psychology, also said that there is a rationality to emotions. All things have one or another kind of logic. The same should be the case with taste.

Most people will agree that Sistine Chapel is beautiful, and that Piss Christ isn't. Some things are universal, and some things are relative. Judith Langlois conducted a study that showed a face with a particular set of proportions to people cross-culturally, and everyone found it beautiful. At the same time a study that showed 500 faces to 20,000 participants saw each face getting picked as the most beautiful at least once. There is absolute beauty and there is relative beauty. The same, as I have argued above, is the case for personal goodness, or “inner beauty.”

So that while absolute beauty will appeal to everyone, relative beauty will appeal to some and not others. We also see the same with “inner beauty.” Both can be relative, and both can be absolute.

Both inner beauty and outer beauty are good things, but ones that are totally unrelated. They do not correlate positively, and they do not correlate negatively. Some people will have both; some will have one or the other; and some will have neither. As for taste, it should have as much reasons for it as anything else. The real task at hand is finding out what is the root of taste.
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