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vega siciliaIn aesthetics it is crucial that we distinguish liking something from finding it beautiful. I might judge an ordinary Chianti to be a good wine because I like it. But a beautiful wine—Screaming Eagle, Vega Sicilia, Chateau Margaux—is not beautiful merely because I like it more than the ordinary Chianti. The idea of “liking” or “finding it pleasing” doesn’t capture the aesthetic value of great wines or extraordinary works of art.

The problem is to say what that difference amounts to. One common way of marking this distinction is to claim that beautiful wines or works of art are beautiful because we judge them to be valuable in themselves. The beautiful objects have value not just because we like them; we like them because they have intrinsic value. We value them for their own sake.

But this way of describing the nature of beauty doesn’t quite work. It suggests that the object has value over and above any experience of it. To the contrary, one would think that a beautiful object has value because it causes our experience of beauty. The value resides in our relationship with the object and its impact on us. Thus, the object cannot be valuable in itself.

It’s for our sake that we enjoy beauty. The experience of beauty is pleasurable and part of the reason we value beauty is because of the pleasure it brings.

I think the best way of thinking about this is that certain kinds of pleasure involve more than simply “liking something”. In addition to finding them enjoyable, beautiful objects demand something of us. They embody a standard that we have to strive to fully perceive or understand.

Ice cream is pleasurable but it doesn’t demand something of us. Great wines or works of art by contrast merit our attention—we feel we have to be true to them and we can fail in this endeavor. It’s that sense of merit just beyond our reach, the sense that we are being guided by the object, that makes something beautiful.

We take pleasure in being so guided but it has little to do with “liking”.