Mark D. White
Prawfsblawg featured a post today by David Schleicher (nspired by this NYT article) on the topic of Pandora, the online music service that suggests new selections based on the musical characteristics (tempo, style, etc.) of your current musical preferences. Schleicher compares this to a blind taste test for coffee, and argues that both miss the point by focusing on a limited set of attributes of the items in question (what I called "intrinsic qualities" in my comment), but not on the social factors involved in choosing music, coffee, etc., and then implying that choices should be made according to only those narrow attributes.
My comment there was:
I think you're discounting the importance of intrinsic qualities over social aspects for some people. Some people do not regard coffee or music as network goods - for instance, I prefer the taste of Dunkin' Donuts coffee to Starbucks, so that's what I drink. It would never occur to me to pick my coffee based on what other people drink or what they'll think about my choice. If I find an artist, song, or album that I like, I seek out other music in the same style or vein, and so forth."
(This comment reflects a profound antipathy for the concept of "relative tastes" or "envy effects" on choice or well-being.)
In this post, I want to muse a bit on my professed antipathy for these concepts, which I've never analyzed.
Part of my antipathy is based on introspection; as I said in my comment, I choose my coffee, food, music, reading material, etc., on the basis of intrinsic qualities, and not on other people's tastes or opinions of my choices. I'm not going to say I never care about what other people think--for instance, I do hope that my colleagues think I'm a good person and do respectable work, and I do try not to dress too strangely--but I don't care what anybody thinks about my personal tastes, which in turn do not depend on theirs.
As a result, I am always skeptical of studies that purport to show strong status effects in choice (following Veblen) or an inordinate emphasis on relative (versus absolute) income (Robert Frank's thesis). But I am willing to admit that there's a decent chance I'm just a freak, and maybe everyone else is like these studies show. (The popularity of Starbucks coffee, rancid burnt swill that it is, would certainly support that.)
Of course, to each his or her own; if what a person truly cares about is her relative status or income, that is her own business. Yet, it still bothers me. I think it has something to do with basing your own well-being and happiness too much on those of other people, which implies that your choices and actions will be unduly impacted by those of other people, rather than by reasons that "should" matter more. Obviously, that "should" carrries a lot of weight here; it seems to me that your reasons for acting should come from essential aspects of you, representing what you like, reflecting your personality and identity, and not just what other people do, have, or think. (Of course, some think that personal identity is, to some extent, socially determined, but I don't think that should be taken to imply that tastes and preferences need be relative.)
So where's the ethics here? It would seem to be a failure to respect yourself: acting on relative preferences compromises your integrity by subordinating your reasons for action to what other people choose to do, and in turn subsuming your essential tastes and preferences. Look at popular culture: we celebrate the characters in books, TV, and movies who march to the beat of a different drummer, who follow their own paths, who defy the aesthetic conventions of their peer groups and express their individuality regardless of what other people think. If we do admire such people, it follows that we find something virtuous in such behavior, that these people are being more true to themselves than those who merely follow the crowd.