The two topics to come.

So over the next two months I need to read about from scratch and write 5,000 words on each of two topics: the idea of the right to do wrong, and the argument that food can be an aesthetic. Diverse, and both fun. But hey – now I’m not doing a doctorate, I can afford to take risks and try new topics, even if it means lower marks in comparison to developing the essays I’ve written during term time.

I plan on blogging about both of these as I begin to explore the literature shortly, but for now a rough overview of what’s going on in each and what I presume to be at stake.

The idea of the right to do wrong comes up in a lot of liberal political theory. The claim is that there are plenty of things that we can coherently class as wrong – like not donating a lot of money to charity to relieve poverty – but which we should nevertheless have a legal right to do. We should tolerate such immoral behaviour. A liberal state shouldn’t enforce the demands of morality.

That may sound plausible, but note some strange implications. Naturally, the right to do wrong can’t cover things like murdering and raping people. And it seems that the best explanation of why we have no right to do these things is precisely because they are wrong. So what’s going on here? What determines the scope of the right to do wrong? Why does it apply to some demands of morality and not others?

This inquiry is completely open-ended to me. I arrive with few prior commitments as to what the answer should be. My only suspicion is that those who argue for such a right want to do so so that practices like owning pornographic material can be legally defended, despite being wrong. But my natural reaction here is to think, no – if pornography is genuinely wrong, then of course we have no right to it. We only have a right to it on the condition that it isn’t immoral, as most modern liberals believe. We concede too much ground – and unnecessary ground – if we grant the immorality of such activities.

Then again, it looks like plenty of big dogs are on board with such a right – not least Jeremy Waldron and David Enoch. So I may be easily misunderstanding something. And I have no clue how I wish to tackle the charitable donations case. But I’ll be pursuing this path on the advice of Cecile Fabre, who told me that she suspects that whilst the right to do wrong is readily and frequently invoked by liberal theorists to justify the legality of various practices, the theory underlying it may be fishy. We will see. But it will by implication raise broader questions about the relationship between law and morality and the foundation of legal rights, so I look forward to being able to indulge in Hart, Dworkin and all the other great thinkers in this field.

Second, looking at food in aesthetics was inevitable given my recent interests. So many key questions arise in this discussion. For instance, there’s the question of whether aesthetic experiences require some sort of intellectual activity like contemplation, where the object of the experience conveys meaning. If so, maybe it looks like food’s status is in trouble. But then most want to say that music can be both meaningful and aesthetic, and it’s not clear why tastes couldn’t work similarly obscurely but genuinely. And isn’t that precisely what happens when, for instance, a romantic lover cooks a lamb casserole on Valentine’s Day, as opposed to preparing a mere cheese sandwich? Regardless, it’s not even clear whether this intellectual picture is even necessary for aesthetic experiences. Music could surely be aesthetic without it.

Then there’s questions like: can food be aesthetic without being artistic? If it is, then it would work roughly like natural beauty in sunsets. The point would be that flavours are intrinsically aesthetic without any human intent or activity underpinning them. But that doesn’t look likely. I’ve been most inclined to insist food can be aesthetic at the moments when I’ve tasted a really grand dish in an excellent restaurant, and immediately wondered about the thought that must have under-lied its execution in the mind of the chef that chose to mix particular textures and flavours. Could tasting a strawberry alone be aesthetic, or is this property properly reserved for more complex tastings?

There’s the question of whether food can’t be aesthetic because it is purposive. That is, our practical interest in consuming it for nutrition ruins things, because art is about detached appreciation. That seems implausible. Buildings can be beautiful even when we use them. And anyway, wine tasters are notorious for not actually swallowing the drink, but spitting it out after savouring the flavours.

And how about whether we can sufficiently account for why food seems to be aesthetic in terms of the fact that dishes often look beautiful, so it is in fact an ordinary form of visual aesthetics. Or is there more to it than that? Could food be aesthetic in a blind-tasting session? Some Spanish restaurants serve food in the pitch black, I believe, at least if Almodovar’s Broken Embraces was accurate (it’s in a deleted scene).

Oh, and a friend informed me today that Heston Blumenthal calls himself a scientist rather than an artist. The logic is something like this. He tests dishes to see what works using established practical techniques. The kitchen is a laboratory. This looks absurd to me. Chefs don’t aspire to find the ‘truth’ in any ordinary sense. And if practical knowledge of the sort they have suffices to nullify the aesthetic dimension, then painters and filmmakers and so on look rather screwed too insofar as they have knowledge of the technical sides of their respective crafts. Still, the guy does this for a living. It’s worth considering if there’s any truth in what he thinks about his own job.

I have much firmer prior commitments on this one. I feel very strongly that food can be aesthetic. But I suspect I’m going to face one paradox that will be particularly acute. On the one hand, I want to see the chef as essential to the process. The real aesthetic experiences when eating arise because of our recognition of the fact that someone thought carefully and succeeded in producing and executing a great recipe. However, I also strongly want to resist the intellectualist picture which claims that the aesthetic is about conveying meaning. Food is not about that. When I had roasted parsnips and swede with dukkah, yoghurt and grapes at NOPI the other week, the sensations it induced were undoubtedly and exceptionally aesthetic, but they weren’t saying anything to me. So I seem to want a conception of the aesthetic for food that involves human input but retains the simplicity of natural phenomena. I don’t know if that will work. And I retain respect for the sceptical view that there simply must be something that distinguishes looking at a Cezanne painting from eating a good dinner.


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