Biscuits: moral and classificatory issues

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.

  1. cathyby said:

    Regarding issues of moral standing and reasonableness I see in section 1 you suggest a preference for Rich Tea over HobNobs is associated with a lack of reasonableness. I seem to recall YB is fond of Rich Tea biscuits. Do you regard this as empirically falsifying your thesis? Or the reverse?

    • Thanks. Well, I was merely recording another’s suggestion. However, my inclination would be to reply that YB hasn’t yet attained a position where assessment as to reasonableness is apt. Crudely, one could put the reply like this: her preference for Rich Tea is not reasonable; but neither is it unreasonable.

  2. Which biscuit should be consumed is, of course, as any reasonable person could have informed you before you wrote your post, entirely depended on the time of day and the accompanying beverage. There are times and beverages that can only be perfected with a Rich Tea and others where a McVitie’s Plain Chocolate Digestive is the necessary complement. There are even times when, contrary to your already expressed opinion, the perfect biscuit is a Garibaldi or as it is known to its faddists the dead-fly biscuit. Jaffa Cakes are of course Jaffa Cakes a category of snack with only one member and can, depending on the surrounding circumstances, either be consumed individually or a packet at a time.

    • Thanks. A lot to take on board there. I agree that whether or not a choice of biscuit is virtuous can depend upon very specific features of the surrounding context, including the specific range of available beverages. Your proposal about Jaffa Cakes clearly has some plausibility, they making them a law unto themselves is not a step I think we should take lightly. For example, there are various explanatory generalisations involving Jaffa Cakes that appear to fit them within one or another of the standing snack-categories. I’d prefer not to lose those generalisations through Jaffa Cake preciousness.

    • Thanks. This is an important question, or rather two questions. The first question concerns whether or not a life without biscuits is bound to be a less happy life than a life with biscuits. The Hedonist would, I think, answer that such a life is not bound to be less happy. For someone who doesn’t like biscuits might experience more overall pleasure in a life in which they eat no biscuits than in a life in which they eat some. However, some will be inclined to think that human flourishing depends upon factors other than, or additional to, pleasure and pain. On some such views, it may turn out that a biscuit-free life is bound to be less happy. The second question is this. Suppose we know that a life that involves biscuits is bound to be happier than a biscuit-free life. How can we convince someone who doesn’t like biscuits that they are wrong? Presumably, it will be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to provide them with arguments that are able to compel a change in view. So, it’s a good question how we can get them to see the world aright.

      • I like crisps and olives and cheese on crackers. OMG are crackers biscuits?

        Sorry, I was just about to write something about Epicurus but I think I’ve opened a whole other topic by accident. Are crackers biscuits? If they are, then it follows that I do like biscuits but your discussion is flawed so far by making an implied presumption that bisucuits are sweet items from which one can derive discrete pleasure. Whereas if a cracker is a biscuit kind, then I think you need to rework your kind boundaries and start all over again.

        And regarding the moral aspects, you are looking at biscuits in a platonic sense, whereas the biscuit itself is a social construct.

        As Epicurus says, “Let’s have a party in my garden. I’ll provide the Absinthe. You brings some beers.”

        Hand your PhD in at the door, Mr Longworth.

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