Musings on opinions: de gustibus non est disputandum

A well-known Latin adage reads “de gustibus non est disputandum”, roughly translated as “about tastes it should not be disputed”. In English, we usually refer to the maxim as “over tastes there is no argument”, indicating the economist’s fundamental creed that tastes and preferences may very well come from somewhere but are useless to argue over. We can’t prove them. We can’t disavow them. Ultimately, they just are and we have to live with that.

In November last year, ridiculing a prominent Swedish politician, I used the example of ice-cream flavours to illustrate the point:

“I like ice-cream” is an innocent and unobjectionable opinion to have. Innocent because hey, who doesn’t like ice-cream, and unobjectionable because there is no way we can verify whether you actually like ice-cream. We can’t effortlessly observe the reactions in your brain from eating ice-cream or even criticize such a position.

Over tastes there is no dispute. You like what you like. We can theorize all we want over sociological or cultural impacts, or perhaps attempt to trace biological reasons that may explain why some people like what they like – but ultimately we must act in the world (Proposition #1) and so we shrug our shoulders and get on with life. We accept that people believe, like, and prefer different things and that’s that.

Being strange rationalising creatures, you don’t have to scratch humans very deeply before you encounter convictions or beliefs that make no sense whatsoever. Most of the time we’re talking plainly irrational or internally inconsistent beliefs, but, like most tastes and political opinions, they are very cheap to hold – you are generally not taxed or suffer noticeable disadvantages from holding erroneous or contradictory beliefs. Sometimes, by giving the speaker social kudos for believing it, the cost of holding an erroneous belief might even be negative – portraying openly it gives us benefits with our in-group. (yes, we’re all Caplanites now).

Let’s continue the “what to eat” comparison since, apparently, the personal is political and recently what I eat seems to be everybody else’s business too.

When I make a decision in the world (as I must to stay alive, Proposition #1), I occasionally feel the urge to explain that choice to others – because they ask or because I submit to the internalised pressure. I might say “eating ice-cream is good for me” (Proposition #2a).

Now, most people would probably consider that statement obviously incorrect (ice-cream is a sweet, a dessert; desserts make you fat and unhealthy, i.e. not good for you). The trouble is, of course, that I didn’t specify what I meant by “good for me”.  It’s really unclear what that exactly means, since we don’t know what I have in mind and what I value as “good” (taste? Longevity? Complete vitamins? How it makes me feel? Social considerations?).

This version of Proposition 2a therefore essentially reverts back to a Proposition 1 claim; you can like whatever you want and you happen to like what ice-cream does to you in that dimension (taste, feeling, social consideration). Anything still goes.

I might also offer a slightly different version (Proposition #2b) where I say “eating ice-cream is good for me because it cures cancer”.

Aha! Now I’ve not only given you a clear metric of what I mean by ‘good’ (curing cancer), I’ve also established a causal mechanism about the world: ice-cream cures cancer.

By now, we’ve completely left the domain of “everything goes” and “over tastes there is no argument”. I’m making a statement about the world, and this statement is ludicrous. Admittedly, there might be some revolutionary science that shows the beneficial impacts of ice-cream on cancer, but I seriously doubt it – let’s say the causal claim here is as incorrect and refuted as a claim can possibly be.

Am I still justified in staying with my conviction and eating ice-cream? No, of course not! I gave a measure of what I meant by ‘good’ and clear causal criteria (“cure cancer”) for how ice-cream fits into that – and it’s completely wrong! I must change my behaviour, accordingly.

If I don’t change my behaviour and maintain enjoying my delicious chocolate-flavoured ice-cream, two things happen: First, I can surrender my outrageous claim and revert back to Proposition 1. That’s fine. Or I can amend Proposition 2b into something more believable – like “eating ice-cream makes me happy, and I like being happy”.

What’s the story here?

If we substitute ice-cream for – I posit with zero evidence – the vast majority of people’s beliefs (about causality in the world, about health and nutrition, about politics, about economics and religion), we’re in essentially the same position. All those convictions, ranging from what food is good for you, to how that spiritual omnipotent power you revere helps your life, to what the government should do with taxes or regulations to reduce poverty, are most likely completely wrong.

Sharing my own experiences or telling stories about how I solved some problem is how we socially interact as humans – that’s fine and wonderful, and essentially amounts to Proposition 1-style statements. If you and I are sufficiently alike, you might benefit from those experiences.

Making statements about the world, however, particularly causal relations about the world, subjects me to a much higher level of proof. Now my experiences or beliefs or tastes are not enough. Indeed, it doesn’t even matter if I invoke the subjective and anecdotal stories of a few friends or this or that family member. I’m still doing shit science, making claims about the world on seriously fragile grounds. It’s not quite Frankfurt’s “Bullshit” yet, since we haven’t presumed that I don’t care about the truth, but as a statement of the world, what I’m saying is at least garbage.

I am entitled to my own beliefs and tastes and political “opinions“, whatever that means. I am not, however, entitled to my own facts and my own causal mechanisms of the world.

Keeping these spheres separate – or at least being clear about moving from one to the other – ought to rank among the highest virtues of peaceful human co-existence. We should be more humble and realise that on most topics, most of the time, we really don’t know. But that doesn’t mean anything goes.

Please keep it civil

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