Monday, July 05, 2004

Political Taste

I do a lot of thinking about early modern interest in Taste (see here for my brief definition of this term), and it occurred to me that one could expand it beyond the aesthetic issues to which discussion of taste is usually confined. In a sense this is what Hume attempts to do in his ethics; and there certainly does seem to be such a thing as good and bad ethical taste, even if you think (as I think) there must be more to ethics than good taste alone. It could also, I think, be extended to politics (this was what interested me about this line of thought). One wouldn't have to hold that reasoning about politics is purely a matter of taste in order to allow that taste plays an important role in politics. Nor would one have to make a value judgment about whether (e.g.) conservatives or liberals have better political taste (which is what these debates are usually about, as can easily be seen by looking at the major conservative and liberal weblogs) in order to find the concept useful. Hume, in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste" (its organization is hard to follow, but it's worth reading) rightly notes that the real difference between good and bad critics of art (and therefore between good and bad taste) is that bad critics allow various flaws of reasoning into their evaluative judgments: 1) prejudice, which biases their perception of the actual thing being evaluated; 2) narrowness of acquaintance with the various sorts of things that might be experienced; and 3) inconsistency in the application of the general evaluative rules good taste generates. These are counteracted by 1) focusing on the actual issue at hand, and not letting prior conceptions about the people involved, or the party involved, or whatever, cloud your judgment; 2) looking into the political actions of other cultures, nations, times, &c., comparing and contrasting them - good taste is a matter of seeing things in the whole context of their possibilities, and to understand what those possibilities one needs to see what's out there; 3) striving for consistency in evaluation.

One of the neat things about a theory of political taste is that it would be eminently practical: a theory of political taste would be a theory about the basics of how to make reasoning about political matters, both private and public, more consistent, accurate, and useful. It would also give people something whereby they might engage in self-critique, improving the basis of their judgments (one of the problems with political reasoning as it stands is that everyone thinks they have good sense and their opponents don't; this is conducive to bad taste). It would also raise the political discussion to the right level. If you look at the major groups in the debate over the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, you will find that both sides put forward leaders with far better political taste than most of the people we manage to put forward: they are paradigmatic cases of political good case, exemplifying all three of the actions that signal a good political critic to an eminent degree. (Various examples are available here.) They should be the starting point (with select others) for the building of a theory of political good taste.

Incidentally, even if we set aside the issue of the standard of political taste, there is still value in reading both the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists; for one thing, some of the debates they had still go on (e.g., over the proper role of the judiciary in the Constitution, which the Anti-Federalists claimed, and the Federalists denied, was insufficiently checked and balanced), and for another, they show just how thoughtful political disagreement over major issues can be.

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