Wines of Beauty and Obligation

wine3As I discussed last week, one of the persistent themes of modern discussions of beauty is that a judgment that an object is beautiful demands universal assent. Unlike judgments about ordinary non-beautiful objects like ice cream, when judging a wine to be beautiful I expect others to agree with me and I if they don’t I assume they are mistaken. As I argued, I think this is nonsense.

However, although I think judgments about beauty don’t make normative demands on us, I think beautiful objects such as great wines require something of us.

How can a beautiful wine demand something of me? Beautiful objects do not demand a ritual response or praise and it has nothing to do with evoking strong emotions or paroxysms of pleasure. The demand can be quite subtle and hard to fathom. Rather there is a sense of requirement I feel when confronted with beauty that ordinary objects don’t express. To the extent one finds an object beautiful it demands our attention and concern—we must conform to and be instructed by it, and we can fail to respond appropriately because we are not up to the task of tracking its full measure

Some things I pursue simply because I desire them. Desires motivate without obligating. It makes little sense to say I’m obligated to find pleasure in this or that object. Other things I pursue because I must. Beautiful objects are in this latter category. They have a sense of necessity about them. Some things are worthy of love and some are not and part of what I sense in a beautiful object is that value. But how do we mark that distinction? How do I know when I’m drawn to an object whether it’s a non-obligating desire or an object of consummate worth exerting its force?

In order to answer this question, we must distinguish ordinary desire from a more rarefied species of motivational state. Most desires are episodic. They come and go and, when they are absent or in their fallow state, they exert little influence. But some desires are not like that. They are standing desires that I am always ready to act on, circumstances permitting. My attention is disposed to be drawn by the object and is invariably accompanied by motivations to discover, preserve, enhance, respect, or celebrate its value. In other words, I am committed to discovering, securing and preserving the “interests”, so to speak, of the object, and thus the needs and characteristics of the object set the standard that governs my treatment of it and the kind of attention I give it. I call such desires of commitment “cares”. Having cares is fundamental to what it means to be an individual person and to fail to respond adequately to an object of care may involve a loss of self if the care is an identity-conferring commitment.

This notion of care has obvious application to the people we love. But in what sense does a beautiful painting or bottle of wine have “interests” that I must serve? The “interests” of valued objects like great bottles of wine are of course conferred on them by the people who use them. One of the main functions of aesthetic communities is to sustain and nurture the value of the aesthetic objects that are the focus of their attention. Thus, it is in the “interests” of wines made with care to be tasted with care because that is how the value of wine is preserved and nurtured. In this sense, as wine tasters, we have obligations to the wine community as a whole to participate in “careful” tasting that preserves the value of wine. Yet, that can be accomplished only by caring for the wines of beauty that I love.

My obligation is to give each wine I judge to be beautiful its due and that may or may not involve assenting to the alleged intersubjective norms currently being promoted in the wine community. My obligation is to the wine, not to someone else’s judgment.

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