A recent discussion of the comparative, and superlative, merits of different varieties of biscuit was waylaid through the imposition of two related questions. The first diversion concerned the extent to which biscuit preference might be revealing of one’s intellectual or moral standing. The issues here are akin, in some respects, to older philosophical questions about the extent to which one’s treatment of nature—including lower animals—might be so revealing. The second diversion concerned the boundaries of the kind, biscuit. Are there, for example, size restrictions on inclusion within the kind? Is the cake–biscuit distinction a principled one? The issues here are akin, in some respects, to older philosophical questions about the determination of kind boundaries and the extent to which we can make discoveries here, rather than merely enforcing creative decisions of one or another type.
I don’t wish here to try to decide any of these issues. They will be discussed further in later posts. Here, my aim is only to report on some of the questions, and considerations, that were raised during the discussion in the hope that this might be a spur to further reflection. Since the discussion was informal, I shall avoid, at this stage, associating comments with individual thinkers. I am, of course, grateful to all participants for their participation.
Let’s begin with issues concerning potential revelation of moral or intellectual standing. Here, the following considerations were relevant.
1. The general thought was put forward that some distributions of biscuit preference might serve as indicators of reasonableness. For example, it was suggested that ranking chocolate Hobnobs above Rich Tea biscuits was a signal of the possession of well-functioning reasoning, whilst the converse ranking was a signal of dispossession. The issues around Rich Tea biscuits were especially divisive, especially once the availability of chocolate covered variants was taken into account.
2. Some biscuit preferences were strongly associated with the possession or absence of moral virtue. For example, the metaphorical suggestion was made that cream biscuits, in general, are “the work of the devil.” The non-metaphorical meat here, I take it, is the idea that the creation and consumption of such biscuits is a mark of moral viciousness. Similarly, Garibaldi biscuits—or “dead fly biscuits” as they are revealingly known—were associated with moral norms of both positive and negative valence. Positively, the suggestion was made that distaste for Garibaldis was indicative of having been brought up badly, or even a form of “heresy” (a metaphor that is meant to be suggestive, I take it, of moral nihilism). Negatively, it was suggested that it was a basic moral norm that biscuits should not contain fruit. The expression, “End of,” was used in order to indicate that the norm in question was taken to be fundamental.
3. Jaffa Cakes—which will, of course, come up again with respect to the second set of issues—raised the issue of moderation or temperance. Although a preference for one or two Jaffa cakes has the patina of virtue, such a preference was strongly associated with a (narrow scope) inability to (stop eating Jaffa Cakes on condition that one has started). Thus, it remains an open question whether the appearance of virtue in the initial preference is misleading.
Let’s turn, now, to issues about the boundaries of the biscuit kind. Here, the following specific queries were raised:
1. Predictably, the traditional, and seemingly irresolvable, question of the status of Jaffa Cakes figured in the discussion. The central issue here, for our purposes, isn’t the question whether they are cakes or rather biscuits. Rather, the question at issue is broadly methodological: how should the question of classification be decided? The question was recently raised as one concerning the legality of one or another classification for purposes of taxation, with the result that they are legally classified as cakes. However, although various sources of evidence were considered during the trial, it is not clear that such a court decision would be counted elsewhere as deciding fundamental questions of classification. So, it remains open how the question in general—for purposes beyond legal standing—is to be decided. Similar questions arose concerning Millionaires’ Shortbread.
2. A different issue that arose concerned the question whether there are limits of size on inclusion in the kind. The specific issue here concerned iced gems: does their being diminutive mean that they count as sweets rather than biscuits? Similar issues could be raised at the other end of the scale: some coffee chains now sell extremely large facsimiles of commonplace biscuits, including the Bourbon. Is consuming one of these a matter of “just having one biscuit”?
Here, I must leave these important matters for further reflection and discussion.