On "The Logic of Moral Discourse"

Maarten Maartensz

5. "The Steak at Barney's is Rather Nice"

Mr. Edwards starts this chapter as follows:

"Before stating my own answer to the three basic questions of this study, I wish to offer some remarks concerning firstly what might be called the judgments of taste and secondly the logic of imperatives.
The topic I am about to discuss has hardly been treated at all by philosophers. This is a great misfortune since, as I hope to show, a thorough discussion of it throws very much light on the nature of moral judgments, making some famous theories quite incredible.
I propose to begin by spending a great deal of effort to determine the meanings of the word "nice" as applied to foods or dishes in different circumstances. Our conclusions about the meanings of "nice" will apply, with suitable modifications, to words like "fine," "splendid," "excellent," "awful," "mediocre," and many more (..)" (p. 105)

But I propose not to spend that "great deal of effort" here, for I explained the same points before, and agree with them, and they seem to me rather obvious. See Section 2 of Chapter III.  Even so, Mr. Edwards is right that it is of importance for the logic of moral discourse to insist that very many judgments of supposed taste refer both to facts, to individual appreciations of facts, and to presupposed criterions of making socially understandable judgments of taste in a given community.

And so I shall quote a small part of Mr. Edwards considerations. First, there is this:

"It is necessary to insist on the following point with the greatest possible emphasis: although it is our tastes, our likes and dislikes which determines what features we refer to when we call a steak (or some other dish) nice, (such) a statement (..) is an objective claim." (p. 110)

Indeed, and the reason is normally that such a judgment refers both to natural facts and to the appreciation of these natural facts, and indeed also often to presupposed criterions for making evaluations of that kind of fact in a given community.

I may quote Mr. Edwards "Summary of Conclusions":

"Let us now try and sum up all that we have learned concerning the meanings of "nice" as applied to dishes. Let us refer to sentences of the form "x is nice," where x stands for some food or other, as "food-evaluations"; and let us refer to the situations in which such statements are made as "taste-situations." In all taste-situations, we came across (1) dishes having certain features and (2) favorable or unfavorable attitudes towards these dishes on the part of various people involved." (p. 118)

And usually also to (3) presupposed shared preferences and shared criterions of judgment of this kind.

"The word "nice," we also found, has meaning in all three senses of the word and its meaning, in all senses, varies a great deal from type of situation to type of situation. To be more specific:
1. The Objectives of the food-evaluation differs greatly. (..)
2. Food evaluations are always either equivalent to or else imply in sense (2) or (3) statements concerning the features of the dish in question. In other words, they are or else imply objective claims.
3. The features of a dish referred to or implied by a food-evaluation tend to vary from taste-community to taste-community. And even within the same taste-community they may vary as between different persons. (..)
4. "Nice" does not mean the same for all values of x in "x is nice". (..)
5. The objective statements to which food-evaluations are equivalent or which they imply are somewhat indefinite without however being useless on that account.
6. Food-evaluations always express an attitude on the speaker's part towards the dish in question. (..)
7. "Nice" always expresses a favorable attitude. (p. 118-9)

All of this is mostly so, I shall assume, and the two main points Mr. Edwards seems to want to make are:

A. The "de gustibus non disputandum" claim - say: about tastes one cannot dispute (rationally) - is mostly mistaken and misleading: People often do dispute about judgments of taste, and may do so rationally, and indeed tend to do so by reference to objective facts (whether or not disputing rationally).
B. Most if not all judgments of taste involve terms that do not refer to simple ostensibly definable qualities or relations, but rather to - selections from - sets of features of some kind of fact, such as food or drink of some sort.

Indeed, Mr. Edwards concludes his chapter as follows:

"Following a suggestion by Broad in a slightly different connection, I shall introduce the word nice-making characteristic" to mean any characteristic which a person would mention in reply to the question, "What makes it nice?" Following Ross, we could speak of "grounds of a dish's niceness." (p. 120)

Personally, I prefer here the terminology of Ross, but that may be a mere matter of terminological taste. In any case, Mr. Edwards sums up thus:

"In the light of our discussion, I wish to insist on the following points
(i) the niceness belongs to, is "located" in the steak, not in me or my feelings;
(ii) the niceness of the steak is not identical with any one or any one set of nice-making characteristics;
(iii) although niceness is objective there is no feature or set of features to which one can point and say, "This is niceness";
(iv) nevertheless niceness is not something distinct from or over and above these features - it disjunctively refers to an indefinite set of them." (P. 120)

I do not agree with all of this, but this doesn't matter much, since I agree with Mr. Edwards' general approach here. Even so, there is one difference between him and me that should be brought in the open:

It seems to me that I tend to give more weight to subjective factors in these judgments than Mr. Edwards seems inclined to, in that I believe I can understand - I suppose - at least some of the things professional torturers would believe is "nice" to do to prisoners (especially if commanded to do so), and I also can understand why such people would call such possible acts (electrocuting, burning, beating, raping) "nice" or why they would approve of them ("gets confessions real fast" "is less gory and bloody than the alternative") but even so I would much disagree with their motives, their excuses and their acts.

Also, I suppose Mr. Edwards (e.g. after seeing the evidence of what American troops did in Iraq to Iraqis in A.D. 2004) would agree with me, but my point and problem is logical: There are a number of (cruel, degrading, mean, painful, harmful, dangerous, unhealthy) things human beings - quite easily - can do to other human beings about which there are fundamental moral differences, and indeed mostly these are of the kind that tend to be judged very much in what I called socially relative terms: "If Our Boys do these things to Them, they are - of course - regrettable and rare incidents; if Their Boys do these very same things to Us, they are - of course - very ordinary very cruel practices of very beastly men."

And the logical point I have is that in such cases one has some fundamental moral disagreement, while the logical problem is: On what grounds can one base judgments to the effect that e.g. torturing is bad, also if this concerns one's enemies, and also if one's enemies would torture one if they got the chance?

I have given part of the answer I would give in Chapter IV, and will say more in later chapters and in my Supplementary Remarks

At this place it makes sense to finish this chapter with a few remarks on judgment, free will and taste, that are in part caused by Mr. Edwards' above quoted statement:

"The topic I am about to discuss has hardly been treated at all by philosophers." (p. 105)

To start with judgments of taste. This does not seem to be quite as true as Mr. Edwards says. There are, for example, Kant's "Kritik der Urteilskraft", which is mostly concerned with judgments of taste; there is Newman's "Grammar of Assent", that is concerned with the motives and reasons involved in religious and moral judgments, and there are quite a few texts on esthetical judgment.

The fact is, though, that such judgments are neither simple nor of simple qualities. Indeed, reverting for a moment for convenience to the judging of the qualities of steaks, it is not difficult to see that for each judge (1) there are quite a few dimensions along which to appraise a steak, such as succulence, size, qualities of the meat, modes of preparing it and so on while (2) even if two persons agree on the dimensions they use to appraise a steak, each may differ from the other in the relative weight or importance of the dimension, as one might - at one time - be more interested in its size than in its dressing.

In short, speaking of judgements, schematically one can for each judge a distinquish qualities that a uses to judge the steak: q1(a,s) ... qn(a,s) and similarly for judge b: q1(b,s) ... qn(b,s), with each such quality receiving some value by each judge. Furthermore, as I said, these qualities may be expected to be weighed differently as to their importance by each judge, for which reason each of the above judgments will be complicated by a relative weight like so for a: q1(a,s)*w(a,q1) ... qn(a,s)*w(a,qn) and for b: q1(b,s)*w(b,q1) ... qn(b,s)*w(b,qn), where in each case "s" refers to a specific steak that's being judged.

Thus for each x the niceness of the stake, if reconstrued and explained along the above lines, will get the form of a sum: q1(x,s)*w(x,q1) + ... + qi(x,s)*w(x,qi) + ... + qn(b,s)*w(b,qn), in which each factor qi will have a personal weight w(x,qi) for each x and a personal value qi(x,s) for any specific steak. (There are other ways then summing to combine such partial judgments of specific features, but summing will usually be the simplest - and will be difficult anyway, also mathematically, as those who know a little about integration in the mathematical sense, which concerns the making of sums, will know.)

Besides, since I am at present indulging a little in mathematics, it should be added here that, even if two people agree on selecting, say, 10 dimensions or features along which they weigh something, and agree that on each of these dimensions or features the weight they attribute is positive, yet with 10 weights there are 10! =  3,628,800 possible different orderings of preference of these weights, so that is quite easily possible that, even with so much agreement on judging, one person might judge something very mildly positive and another might judge the same thing very positively, and one might hold relatively important what another considers relatively unimportant.

Next, with steaks and many other kinds of things that are judged in this way, by distinguishing varying qualities of varying importance, there will be people, at least in a certain community that shares certain tastes and modes of selecting and recognizing qualities, who are recognized experts in such judgments, and others who are not. And one reason there will be experts is that there so often are so many different possible ways in which to reach a judgment and in which to make relevant distinctions and discriminations that this requires a lot of training, relevant knowledge, study and experimentation.

And indeed, where steaks are concerned, those who are recognized experts will be professional cooks or known gourmands;  where crimes and misdeeds are concerned, those who are recognized experts will be judges or psychiatrists or clergy; where art is concerned, recognized experts will be makers, dealers, academic specialists and amateurs of the art, and so on. And in each case, recognized experts will be recognized as such, at least in their own communities, because of some amount of known expertise and relevant special knowledge, study and training to make such judgments and also some acknowledged success in making them.

Furthermore, the moral intuitionists, that were spoken of in the previous chapter, are right in the sense that the making of such judgments, both of moral qualities and of esthetical qualities and of the qualities of dishes, will be "intuitive" in the sense that also where what happens in fact may be best formally explained in terms of discriminated factors, weights and sums as I just have done, the actual judging tends not to involve such considerations in a very conscious way, while nevertheless the actual judgments may be subtle, well-considered, careful and balanced, and involve a considerable amount of skill and expertise - and indeed, of course, the actual judgments made may have none of these qualities, and in consequence the person may be harmed or hurt.

Finally, to turn to the topic of free will, which I remarked upon earlier, it should be remarked that one good reason why a living human being, and indeed a living animal, may have a free will is that it lives in a dangerous environment where its chances of survival, happiness, health and well-being depend on its powers of discrimination and well-balanced judgment of chances and opportunities on each and every moment, for each moment gives the opportunity - and sometimes the urgent need, if the person or the animal is to survive or thrive - for new judgments of new situations and facts in the light of knowledge and experience and judgments made in the past, and with reference to such ends and needs and interests and concerns as one has on that moment.

And indeed, the personal happiness, satisfaction, well-being, health and continued survival will depend on the personal judgments of a person in many ways through many situations. And Mr. Edwards is quite right that such judgments usually involve
(1) many dimensions and many qualities
(2) both personal values, desires, needs and appraisals and factual features of the things judged
(3) often require considerable relevant knowledge, information and experience to be made with skill and success, as measured by survival and well-being, at least.

But personally I find the matter of judging steaks not the best sort of example to discuss when discussing moral judgments, and so I have chosen not to spend that "great deal of effort" that Mr. Edwards spend on it. Also, it may be remarked that the reader may find - for one important example - instances of moral and political judgments in the speeches Thucydides gives to various people, normally speaking for specific parties, in his "The Pelopponesian War". These speeches tend to be far more explicit, honest and clear than speeches of modern politicians, and also to be more realistic.

5. "The Steak at Barney's is Rather Nice"