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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Someone could get it Wrong

I had a really interesting conversation about art criticism this week.


So here we go:

What does it mean to be great at jazz?


Look, I know my seventh chords decently well, and drop-2 is a chord voicing, not an NFL defense. But I am definitely not great at jazz. You wanna hear greatness? “Blue in Green” features Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans, it’s always worth a listen:



So last week, I wrote about quantitative versus qualitative values.


When we think of value as a quantity, we’re drawn to the language of math and calculation. Quantities can only vary along one dimension: their size.


But when we think of value as a quality, we’re drawn to the language of criticism and judgment. I don’t mean either of those words negatively either!


Think of the wise judgment of the keen art critic, who recognizes many dimensions along which a piece may be assessed, contextualizes it in its historical setting, appreciates it deeply, and if they’re really good, can even communicate their sophisticated way of appreciating the world to us. The really good critic skillfully directs our attention here and then there to help us see a piece in a radically new light, in a way we can’t help but describe as reflecting a deeper understanding.


In other words, the keen critic can share their expert appreciation of qualitative value by modeling for us how they appreciate things with a bit more curiosity and care.


Of course, no critic’s perfect, but I don’t think there is any useful notion of perfect play when it comes to art criticism anyhow. Criticism doesn’t result in quantitative precision like this. We could never rank exactly how much aesthetic value every jazz musician pumped out over their career. (Who’d be #4000?)


But that’s not what we’re looking for. Criticism keeps us qualitatively alive to our competing values. And that’s what we care about.


“What does it mean to be great at jazz?” doesn’t seek a quantitative answer. Great jazz isn’t just “jazz that produces enough dopamine” or whatever. God help us, I hope there aren’t jazz utilitarians out there who view all jazz value in terms of pleasure and pain.


Actually, [this ranting 5 minute genealogy of aesthetic hedonism has been removed for your reading pleasure; maybe next week].


If we have multiple kinds of values in jazz that can clash with each other, then our jazz values are incommensurable.


But that means there is no single underlying quantity to maximize!


So you can’t turn to calculation. Any numbers would inevitably lead to value capture because they could only ever give us part of the full qualitative story. That means even if you did come up with some sophisticated quantitative metric, you’d be making it up and getting it wrong!


Instead, we have to turn to criticism—that’s the practice we have for clarifying and navigating our incommensurable values. By developing practical wisdom, we can learn to appreciate the world more curiously and carefully. That requires developing an eye (or ear or…) for appreciating value and execution. And not just anything goes!


You have to be appropriately responsive to the object of your appreciation or else you’re just hallucinating.


The hope is that criticism will help you develop a richer value perspective, or way of appreciating value in the world, that you’ll become much more sensitive to value than you were before.


This is precisely where our conversation about art criticism went off the rails.


I asked my acquaintance: What does it mean to be great at jazz? That seems like a qualitative question, right?


But the move he immediately went for was: Who gets to decide? Who gets to decide what’s qualitatively good or bad? If it would just be their say-so, why think they’re getting it right?


Okay, first of all this isn’t a new problem. Back when we thought value might be a quantity, we could still go, who gets to decide that Utility (Pleasure minus Pain) is the right quantity? Why not just My Utility? Why not some other ‘quantity’ we could call Grad School (Knowledge plus Pain)?


Maybe Knowledge and Pain are the two things that are really good. Who knows! Why think we’re tracking the right quantity?


Uh oh, looks like we’ll have to turn to some kind of qualitative argument to justify our positions. Maybe the numbers can’t replace criticism after all.


Okay, the second thing to say is that this sort of nihilism—this pretense that nothing matters, that there are no values, just things we happen to value—is completely ridiculous in any other context.


Maybe I’m greater at jazz than Miles Davis. Who knows! Why think the critics are getting it right? They haven’t heard me painfully labor through a pdf of sheet music counting the lines with my finger as soon as the notes go above or below the staff. Trust me, it’s Historically Awesome.


But when I put this comparison in front of my acquaintance, he seemed to think that saying Miles Davis was better at jazz than me would be an unjustifiable assumption on my part.


Uh, what?

Value in jazz is super open-ended. But value requires that someone could get it Wrong.


If no one could get it Wrong, if jazz didn’t have standards of better and worse, the whole enterprise of criticism would be a complete waste of time. I have my opinion; you have yours. Maybe we can each describe our own opinion very carefully to ourselves, pointing to exactly what we each like and dislike. But we aren’t even really disagreeing: You like it, I don’t. End of story.


I don’t know how to change your mind, but it wouldn’t matter if I could!


If no one could get it Wrong, no one’s understanding could be deeper or more sophisticated than anyone else’s. It’s a perfect tie between differences of brute opinion.


If there’s no difference between Better and Worse, you can’t play better, just differently. So why practice? There’s no real progression or ingenuity, no chance of pushing jazz itself forward in valuable directions. Just ways people happen to like. Maybe playing this way rather than that gets you hired a bit more. But progress and regress become impossible; there can only be unjustifiable change.


But value isn’t just a question of whatever we happen to actually value. We’re mistaken or unclear about our own values all the time. Some of us even come to change our minds after doing a little philosophy and gaining a (hopefully) deeper understanding of our values, not merely a different one.


So when we’re talking about values, we’re not just talking about people’s preferences. Way to go: You want stuff. But values are about what matters, not what you want. And people want stuff that doesn’t matter all the time, even in their own later or considered estimation. They recognize themselves as previously mistaken and now wiser, not just randomly changing. (And just to be clear, they don’t need to rebuke these preferences themselves to be shown up as Wrong.)


So how do very well-meaning folks end up pretending to be nihilists about jazz?


I think people get stuck in this trap for lots of reasons.


Some folks are so worried about being Scientifically Respectable that they don’t want to appeal to anything spooky like Values. But science itself is founded on values! Science tries to understand and predict the world well through careful, methodical study. Values are with us already in the difference between Good and Junk Science.


Other folks are trying a bit too hard to fit into an inclusive liberal society. There are a lot of different value perspectives out there. It’s obviously impossible to be intimately familiar with the value perspectives of every practice and culture. So when folks don’t understand other value perspectives but also don’t want to offend, they sometimes end up claiming that we just can’t make judgements about other value perspectives at all. “Everyone has their own truth” or whatever. But of course, that ends up being even more infantilizing. If you really thought this, you could no longer condemn anything as morally evil, and even the same society couldn’t make any meaningful moral progress over time. (Even self-consistency is just another value…)


But we shouldn’t shy away from deploying criticism. Miles Davis is better than me at jazz, just as comfortably as LeBron James is better than me at basketball. LeBron’s basketball skill may look more like a clear-cut case of ‘mere’ instrumental effectiveness that we could ‘objectively’ assess. But it’s not, and I think that comparison demeans both LeBron (who is practically wise, at least on the court) and Miles (who is effective as hell).


And there are so many levels of greatness that we can distinguish in criticism. I go to all the Jacobs School jazz concerts here at IU and those young musicians are unbelievable. This kid Xu Feng is so much better at jazz piano than me he might as well windmill dunk on my head.


So nihilism’s a nonstarter. If we end up with terms that never admit of Better or Worse, we’re not talking about values yet. We’re talking about baseless opinions that don’t amount to an appreciation of anything. We make criticism impossible, and with it, progress and growth.


But criticism isn’t just about us. The thing that’s bad about tremendous evils (say, slavery) isn’t just that we happen not to like them; a full appreciation of how awful slavery is has to be grounded in what slavery is like. Appreciation requires appropriate sensitivity to its object.


And that’s where the numbers just aren’t good enough. A million deaths are a statistic, etc. etc.


Back to jazz, what would you tell someone who wanted to know who got the most jazz points? Most as determined by who—judges? What do you have, a quantitative fixation?


The value of jazz isn’t well-captured in strictly quantitative terms. And this notion of capturing value well or poorly points to an underlying qualitative question. What we’re asking is this: How good are the stories we tell about how our values hang together?


You can’t calculate how good your story is—that’s not how stories work! Quantitative measures can’t be justified in quantitative terms alone. If I ask you “Why care about the numbers?” you shouldn’t give me more of them!


Instead of seeking merely mechanical understanding, we need to learn to appreciate and develop our incommensurable values via qualitative criticism. You need to tell me a story about how you’re thinking about value that can stand up to a bit of scrutiny. And “Ricky and Miles are tied” ain’t it.


I keep developing this line of thought about our incommensurable values because my advisor is asking me to clarify the methodology of my dissertation about assholes. So here’s what I’m doing:


It turns out that you can’t argue anyone out of being an asshole. This is the really brilliant part of James’s definition of an asshole: He says look, the asshole’s sense of moral entitlement—his sense that he’s morally special relative to useffectively immunizes him against our complaints. You know this if you’ve ever tried arguing with an asshole and started winning. Suddenly, they run off to the nearest non sequitur, or give up on argument altogether. The Card Says Moops. They don’t really care. Argument was only ever useful for their self-interest, but now it isn’t, so whatever.


There have been many attempts in the history of philosophy (Book I of Plato’s Republic, Part Two of Parfit’s Reasons and Persons…), to argue the asshole out of it, to show him it’s really in his own self-interest to be moral.


This is a huge waste of time and never works anyway.


It never works because the asshole lives out a deeply unreasonable way of appreciating value in the world. His pattern of concern—what he cares about and how he cares it—is hyperindexed on his own self-interest, even at the expense of his own well-being, much less ours! His value perspective is far too narrow, and he won’t listen to our arguments anyway because we’re just his moral inferiors.


But it’s a huge waste of time to bother making arguments that begin from his shitty premises anyway. Even if those arguments work, I don’t just want the asshole to change his behavior because it’s good for him in self-interested terms! I want him to appreciate value in the world with more curiosity and care, to stop seeing everything and everyone else around him as just useful for him.


Philosophers have a lot of weird fantasies—I’m sure I’ll write about philosopher kings one day—but one is that the Perfect Argument will magically compel your opponent to change their mind or maybe disappear in a puff of logic. But arguments rarely convince the people they’re addressed to. If people aren’t ready to change, they won’t. Even so, bystanders are watching. Instead of trying to strongarm the asshole with unassailably good reasons to change his behavior, we should spend our time clarifying what a healthier value perspective looks like for the Rest of Us, where we might reasonably hope for convergence.


After all, the Rest of Us do care about questions like: How can we live with healthier, more balanced pattern of concerns? How can we appreciate value in the world with a little more curiosity and care? That’s what we stand to gain from really good moral and ethical criticism.


If this sounds like virtue theory, where we focus on character and virtue instead of, say, ironclad rules or cold consequences, you’re right. But these are some of our deepest commitments! We care about things like:

  • what kinds of people we want to be

  • what kinds of lives we want to lead

  • what kind of society we want to build together

  • what kind of world we want to leave behind.

These are deep qualitative questions about what forms of life we want to adopt. So of course we have to do virtue theory. We’re asking for practical wisdom about how to live and appreciate value in the world! And on those terms, it sure seems like the asshole is really blowing it.

Just two unrelated guys, nothing to see here.

Being an asshole is really bad for you. And to get clear on why, I’m going to help myself to a much richer normative toolbox than what the asshole restricts himself to, because he’s not very good at appreciating value anyway. He’ll probably think all the moves I’m making are bullshit, and that’s fine. I’m talking to the Rest of Us, and trying to articulate what a qualitatively better value perspective would look like. You’re a moral person whose interests can come into genuine conflict with others’. Now what? Whatever story we tell is not gonna change Donald Trump’s mind. Not everyone has to agree with us and that’s fine! Some people can just be Wrong. It wouldn’t be Trump’s first time. I’m not interested in what Trump would think of “Blue in Green” out of anything other than morbid curiosity, either. It’s okay if all my pointing can’t get him to recognize and appreciate value. Who cares! He never did take well to practical criticism about how to appreciate value in the world anyhow. Okay so there’s my masterwork on how these months of blog posts are all related oh my god it’s so long thanks for reading.

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