Friday, April 19, 2013

Entry #11: A Philosophical Lexicon for Perfumistas

Utility, Utilitarian, Utilitarianism

These words all relate in the vernacular to use. In everyday conversation, utility just means usefulness. Somewhat confusingly, these simple terms were appropriated by two nineteenth-century philosophers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, for a specific normative ethical theory, which they called Utilitarianism.

According to utilitarianism, the right action is the one which maximizes the utility of the greatest number of people, where utility is understood to mean either happiness or pleasure, and those terms are generally not taken to coincide. Some utilitarians advocate pure hedonism, with pleasure being the ultimate measure of any- and everything. J.S. Mill felt that there were "higher" and "lower" pleasures, and that higher pleasures (intellectual endeavors) were more valuable than what might be termed the "animal" pleasures. However one decides to understand utility, the idea is simple enough and is expressed by the principle of utility:

Always act so as to maximize the net outcome for all relevant persons taken together as a group.  

I've been thinking about utilitarianism today as I sit at home in "lock-down" with my fellow Bostonians while law enforcement officers conduct a manhunt for the missing suspect in the case of the bombing perpetrated during the marathon on Monday. The people interviewed today (friends, family, and former teachers of the suspects) make it sound as though these two brothers would never do anything so heinous, but someone obviously did, so we'll have to see how the evidence stacks up. I've no doubt that the suspects sought in this case can be demonstrated to be guilty, if indeed they are guilty. Now that one of them is dead, I certainly hope that they were the culprits, and not someone else. 

Here is a famous thought experiment discussed whenever the philosophical theory of utilitarianism is introduced. It illustrates the distinctive properties of this particular approach to morality and goes basically like this:

Imagine that a vicious killer is at large, and the people of a city have been crying out in outrage for days. The mayor wishes to quell the riots erupting all over the place, and with them the deaths which may be caused by the angry crowd. He therefore selects some poor schmuck to serve as a patsy. Evidence is marshaled, and the suspect is put on display. The public expels a collective sigh of relief. 
Those calling for the murderer's head have now been appeased, and the riotous crowds have dispersed. The city returns to its normal business, though the real killer has not been apprehended, but the mayor has acted in this way so as to maximize the happiness of the greatest number of people. 
During the period when they believed that the killer roamed at large, the citizens were unable to sleep at night or get anything done, filled with anxiety as they were that they might be the next in line to become his victim. Once someone was fingered for the crimes, everyone settled down, and the only person who suffered as a result of the mayor's decision was the innocent person framed.

The test for your own assessment of utilitarianism is how you react to this sort of scenario. Another similar example involves torturing one person to save many more. These sorts of awful dilemmas have unfortunately arisen in history, particularly under repressive regimes when, out of fear for their own lives, people have agreed to do what they would not otherwise have done. 

The thought experiments are not personalized and so are intended to allow people to reflect upon whether they find utilitarianism to be intuitively sound. Obviously, human rights are not intrinsic to this moral outlook. Human rights are valuable to a utilitarian only insofar as they may maximize the happiness of the greatest number. 

Perfume Applications

How does this approach to morality apply specifically to the case of perfume? I think that there are several ethical dilemmas which may raise the question of the validity of utilitarianism.

  • Some people maintain that animal testing of cosmetics (including perfume) is justified, because it maximizes the happiness of the greatest number at the expense of a few (the animals experimented on).

  • The people who produce fake perfumes and fob them off to unsuspecting consumers may believe that they are doing the right thing because most people cannot tell the difference anyway, and they are able to purchase the fakes at a significant discount. (I'm not saying that they actually reason this way, but it is a possible rationalization for what they do, and it may well allow some of them to sleep better at night...)

  • Similarly, perfume companies may lie about whether they have reformulated their perfumes (or the extent to which they have) under the assumption that most people will never know anyway, so the net outcome is better, all things considered.

  • In our wearing of perfume, we may think about the people likely to be around us when we select our scent of the day. Going to the library, for example, I am unlikely to choose a perfume with huge sillage because I do not want to offend other people, and I especially do not want to bother people with allergies. Sure I might prefer to wear something louder that day, but I will be in a public place, so I reason that the net consequences will be better if I sacrifice my own pleasure in order to accommodate those who may not agree with my perfume choice.

What about you, my fragrant friends, can you think of other utilitarian examples applicable to the case of perfume?


  1. "Put your good where it will do the most" (Ken Kesey) has been my motive and motto for many years. Where fragrance is concerned, I may feel lousy/sad/unsettled/anxious (like now!) but wear a perfume that reflects something OTHER than those emotions-- a scent that aspires for a better experience not only for me, but for those around me, whom I hope to provide a nicer time than the one I may be having. In that sense, fragrance serves a utilitarian purpose.

    Peace to the 'Pop. :)

    1. Hello, olenska!

      I am sorry that you are going through troubled times. That's quite nice of you to attempt to maximize the utility of those around you, despite your current state.

      I prescribe a hot fragrant bath for you!

  2. Awww, the genuine caring here is so heart-warming. I bet you both wear all kinds of colored ribbons, to show solidarity for any number of things. I'm sure you both send out positive universe energy. How can that be bad? It sure does help.

    1. I'm not sure what your point is supposed to be, Anonymous. But here's a question for you: does frequenting a blog written by someone whom you consider to be "a moron" and sending her a continuous stream of nasty messages maximize the utility of the greatest number?

      Or would not utility be better served by avoiding altogether the blog and blogger which you do not like?

    2. All moot points my dear because you don't judge people. So motives and past history do not matter. =|

    3. That is precisely the perspective of utilitarianism, which is forward-looking, not backward looking. In this theory, the only things that matter are the future consequences. Utilitarianism prescribes acting so as to maximize the happiness of the greatest number. It does not matter what anyone did in the past or why.

      So it seems that we have established that you are not a utilitarian.

    4. What exactly are my self-expressed principles and values supposed to be? I'm a skeptic!

      Oh, maybe that's your point. ;-)

    5. Your self-expressed principle of late was this quote by you:

      "My own approach to works is to evaluate them independently, as objects in and of themselves. A film is a film, with its strengths and weaknesses altogether distinct from those of its creator. "

      I happen to paint, which is art. So, let's suppose I smack the shit out of you. Then later that day while visiting you in the hospital I bring a few of my paintings and ask you what you think of my art. My contention is you won't be able to live by your own expressed views. And of course you can't, you have never been personally tested. =o)

    6. How would you know what I have lived or done? My identity to you is that of a perfume blogger, no more and no less. Do you suppose that I do nothing else? Given the content of some of your messages, you have no idea who I am or what I have done.

      On a brighter note, I am happy to learn that you are a painter! ;-)

  3. Person A just lost his arm in car accident and needs a liver. Person B just got heart disease and needs a transplant. person C got heavy burns from explosion in war and needs skin transplant. Person D got kidney failure in both of his kidney and needs a transplant. Person E got his cornea peeled off and needs a new one. Person F is a completely healthy. Advanced medication allows all these transplant to happen.

    In the sense of utilitarianism what is the best way to make the larger number happy? The answer in sherapop's world is kill F and transplant all the organs the other people need to them. F suffers great loss. But the final result is five people are happy.

    1. Excellent illustration of utilitarianism! That is a perfect example. But I am not a utilitarian, as I am quite fond of human rights and liberty. I am simply explaining in this entry what utilitarianism is. It's up to you to decide whether you agree with the theory or not.

      Your example illuminates the less intuitive implications of utilitarianism. Thank you!

  4. Without the subject ever coming up, I'd bet a bottle of perfume you fancy yourself an agnostic rather than an atheist.

    1. It's indicated on my Facebook profile, but I have suggested as much around these parts as well, it is true. Because it is true! ;-)

    2. Which type is you?

      1. The Indifferent Agnostic - This group, the first in our order of consideration, is
      characterized by contented, almost defiant, ignorance. The attitude of a man in
      this frame of mind finds expression in such phrases as, "I don't know, and quite frankly,
      I couldn't care less. I'm perfectly happy as I am, and have no time for people
      who want to interfere with other people's pleasures." If he were not so polite, he
      would add, flippantly, "Run away and play"; or firmly, "You mind your own
      business and I'll mind mine." But his preoccupation can scarcely be interpreted as a
      denial of the existence or validity of facts which he has not personally investigated.
      All we may say is that he brushes these aside as being totally irrelevant.

      2. The Dissatisfied Agnostic - This man is ignorant, and the more intellectual he is,
      the more disturbed he is at his ignorance. No other branch of knowledge has eluded
      him like this. In discussion with one who professes to know, he says, "I don't know,
      but I'm willing to investigate . . . I haven't a clue. Have you? If so, do tell me. I'll try
      anything once." Of course he has met inconsistent ministers and other religious people
      whose lives can't hold a candle to those of some philanthropic materialists. But, some-
      how, materialism doesn't intrigue him as it used to in the day when he thought he
      was infallible and omniscient and had "arrived"! While he makes strenuous efforts
      now and then to forget life's enigmas, he really wants an answer to such questions
      as "Why are we here?" and "Where do we go when we leave here?" without
      losing his interest in "How does it work?" and "Can we take it to pieces and
      count . . . and observe . . . ?" He is no longer taken in by the fallacy that description
      is explanation (a fallacy so often unrecognized in popular teaching of the theory of
      evolution). His credulous acceptance had previously led inevitably to his dismissing
      the very idea of an initiating Creator, free to interfere in the world He had made.

      3. The Dogmatic Agnostic - Here is the man on whom the mantle of Thomas Huxley
      has fallen. He claims that we can know nothing of God or of the supernatural world.
      Nothing outside the material world can be known or proved. He says, tersely, "I
      don't know. You don't know. Nobody knows. Nobody can know." This man is not
      "indifferent." He takes his agnosticism more seriously than many Christians take
      Christianity. And his outward life may put that of some professing Christians to

    3. I only know that I don't know. Or do I?

      Your post is interesting but not relevant to utilitarianism. If you would like to continue this conversation, please use the email widget at the bottom of the page. Thanks.

  5. Reading your reviews one can learn a lot. And this one bears repeating. In that review where you went out of your way to make sure people knew (whether true or not) that you wouldn't be caught dead eating canned white frosting, and that your mother wouldn't dare use it, however a neighbor kid when you were growing up had a mother that made cakes using it all the time (therefore you were familiar with the smell and knew it existed). You have no idea how much putting that in a perfume review told about you. Not only what it said, but the fact that it was even put in the review. =o)

    1. I agree that perfume reviews are essentially autobiographical. So hate me: fine. That's your prerogative. But why waste your time at the salon de parfum?

  6. This may very well be my last day in the salon. It's not welcoming. And it's not diverse. =o(

  7. I read the post yesterday and started thinking of other cases that could fall into that theory - (for the strange person Anonymous) not because I subscribe to it (neither does Shera Pop - it's obvious for anybody who can read and comprehend written words) but because it's an interesting and completely harmless excercise.

    Today, when I came back to comment I saw that there were 30 comments and thought to myself: I'm too late, others must have named everything I could think of...

    What a disappointment! Shera Pop, I realize it's your blog, so I'm asking just out of curiosity: why do you keep feeding the troll?

    Back to your original question.

    Negative reviews for niche brands might be an example of utilitarianism: the brand will/might suffer but more people will be pleased by not spending money on those perfumes. And if to add some clever snarkiness into that review, it'll create the higher (intellectual) pleasure for most readers ;)

    1. Hello, Undina!

      That is an interesting example. I'm not sure that it illustrates utilitarianism, though, because of the peculiarity of perfume perception in particular.

      "One perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash."

      A cluster (or high percentage) of negative reviews might deter people who would have appreciated the brand! I believe that when people decline to post negative reviews, they are hoping not to harm small, independent houses, since they are tested by many fewer people than the perfumes put out by the big houses. A single negative review (as I recently wrote of Madonna Truth or Dare, produced by Coty Prestige) is not going to affect sales whatsoever. A single negative review of a perfume of some obscure house, take Sama all-natural, mostly organic perfumes, will prevent people even from testing anything from the house.

      The net effect, in other words, of posting negative reviews may be to harm small houses, while the large houses are able to deflect criticism, lost as it is in a sea of adulation from those who praise n'importe quoi!

      I also do not believe that snark is a source of intellectual pleasure. It seems closer to mud wrestling than classical music to me. ;-)

      Thank you so much for your contribution to this discussion.

    2. It's ironic that once I decided to play devil's advocate - just as an excercise for your task, it doesn't mean I condone that behavior more than you condone torturing people for getting the necessary information, instead of arguing that bad reviews can't be considered as a possible example of utilitarianism because in that scenario more people will get hurt than benefit or just not enough people will benefit, you tried to explain to me why somebody shouldn't do negative reviews (and, btw, while doing that you broght up all the arguments I used while discussing the topic of negative reviews on my blog recently ;-). If you have time, take a look - not as much on my post since you and I seem to be in agreement on the topic but on the comments).

      I maintain that, given the right circumstances, e.g. well-known and knowledgeable blogger criticizes a poorly executed new perfume by a niche brand (I made that distinction on purpose since for a big brand with easily accessible free testers it will work the opposite way creating an extra attraction of the type: "let me try and see what X meant..."), it can be an example of the "greater good" being served by questionable means (hurting a small brand (1-5 people) by preventing many people (100? 200?) from spending money on samples or blind buys).

      "One perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash" is true but so is "one person's mass murder is another person's jihad." And in the context of the discussion you've offered we weren't supposed to dispute if something was morally right or wrong but just to illustrate the topic using perfume-related behaviors.

      As an (at least partial) perfectionist I'm offended that not only I didn't get A for my thought through example but it was considered less relevant than the one with faking perfumes! ;-P

    3. Welcome Back, Undina, and thank you for this lively follow-up!

      I did not mean to be advocating a position on whether or not one should write negative reviews, but simply wanted to mention one way in which they might not maximize the utility of the greatest number.

      I think the key here really is "One perfumista's treasure is another perfumista's trash." Why? Not because "one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist," but because even a "well-known and knowledgeable blogger" may not share our tastes.

      This is not a matter of bare hypothesis. To illustrate my point, consider the diametrically opposed evaluations of several perfumes by Luca Turin and Chandler Burr, surely as “well-known and knowledgeable” as anyone who has reviewed perfumes.

      —One says that Prada Infusion d'Iris is a great perfume; the other derides it as mediocre.

      —One says that Diptyque Eau de Lieurre is "extraordinary"; the other gave it one star and likened it to "watery gin" (which was intended as an insult, given the one-star rating)

      —One selected Prada Amber for her as one of the twelve greatest masterpieces of the history of perfumery to display at MAD; the other says it smells like a purse that you left a banana in (intended, again, as an insult).

      —Again Burr selected D&G Light Blue as one of the masterpieces of the art of perfumery; Turin describes it as "lemon sorbet doused with rubbing alcohol" and gives it one star.

      So basically what I am saying is that tastes diverge so radically when it comes to perfumes that even two equally informed, knowledgeable and well-known reviewers can come to antithetically opposed conclusions about whether a given perfume is well-made and worthy or not.

      This means that if one of these decries a niche perfume based on his idiosyncratic tastes, he may deter lots of people from trying it who might have actually liked the perfume. That's why I think that your example does not illustrate utilitarianism. It would, of course, if there were objective truths about the value of perfumes, and if your "well known and knowledgeable blogger" had access to those truths. In reality, the examples above should suffice to illustrate the radical divergence in the opinions of even self-styled "experts" about which perfumes are good and which ones are junk.

      My point was not that people should not write negative reviews (which I do not believe, by the way), but that the policy of writing scathing reviews will harm small houses more than large houses and will not maximize utility, unless one happens to believe that the big houses, on the whole, produce better perfume.

      Again, I fully own that if there were objective truths about perfumes, then your example might work, but because even famous reviewers disagree about whether a large number of different perfumes are swill or high art, I do not think the example works.

      Please do not be offended, Undina—I really appreciate your comments! ;-)

    4. So let's start by stating that there are no objective truths in a subjective science.

      Absolutely everything we do is opinion, and the points about Burr and Turin simply underscore that (disclaimer: I'm not a huge fan of either). If people recognize that we'll have differences in that opinion, they will also recognize the issue that no one has absolute truth, nor is it possible even in the most exacting sciences. All we as bloggers do is provide an opinion. The devil is in the details as with everything else: We may consider one more authoritative than another based on the details underlying that review.

      My personal example of this is Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan: Just read the reviews, they're quite polarizing, and were you to believe many you'd believe it was the most off-putting, sweaty, dirty and sour experience of your life. In other words, why would someone ever think this was good? The other side shows the cult following behind it, people who've tried and found something sexy and animalic within it that is somehow strangely compelling and attractive. Which is it?

      There is no single answer. From person to person -- my Serge rep had a different transformation than my own, and the fragrance at the same point in development smelled markedly different.

      So the utility of writing a review and how it might effect a niche house? I believe it depends both on the fragrance and the content of the review (this is the "tell me why" argument). Francis Kurkdjian was derided some time back based on comments he made about bloggers that were widely misunderstood. In the final outcome, for those who truly read the piece (and subsequent comments), they found that his grief didn't come from disliking bloggers, but at the lack of detail and thought put into many reviews. Saying that someone "dislikes/hates something" doesn't offer the reader much to understand. Saying that they "dislike this because (reason, impression, outcomes)" helps to establish the basis of their own argument.

    5. Greetings Andrew, and thanks so much for your thoughts.

      Your example of Serge Lutens Muscs Koublai Khan is excellent. It illustrates not only radical divergence in taste, but also, it seems, sensitivity to components—in this case, musk. Those of us who are very sensitive to musk may find that perfume repulsive. (I have not tried it, but I presume that I'd fall into that camp, since I do not even like Frédéric Malle Musc Ravageur!) Those who are less sensitive to musk often love it.

      So who is right? The question doesn't make much sense in something like perfume, as you put it so aptly, a "subjective science". What matters to a a wearer is the wearer's own perception of the perfume, not some unknown person's—regardless of his alleged stature or credentials or fame. To complicate matters, even in cases where we can all agree about the notes and basic trajectory of a given perfume, there is a fundamental judgment involving taste. "I like this, and I do not like that." Anchovies: yes. Beets: no! Black licorice: yes! Koolaid: no!

      I agree with Francis Kurkdjian's criticism (if I have understood it correctly), that contentless, emotive denunciations of a perfume (for example, "I hate it") don't help anyone—unless, and this is a big qualification, we know in advance that the person is our "scent twin". How often does that happen? Nearly never, I'd venture to guess!

    6. Shera Pop, I'm not offended at all: I wasn't too serious with that example and I agree with most of your points (but you have to stop bringing up big houses like Prada and D&G while we're talking about niche houses! If you want you can use Turin and d'Orio ;-)).

    7. The case of Turin's cruel bashing of Mona di Orio is probably the textbook example for the question we've been considering. Assuming that one believes that Mona di Orio was (may she rest in peace) a good perfumer, Turin could only have harmed her by viciously attacking her in the only available book of published reviews, going even so far as to characterize her as "delusional". I myself found the tone of his ugly, thuggish remarks to reflect a deepseated resentment and meanspiritedness.

      I had not even reviewed any of her perfumes at the time, but Turin's procrustean dismissal of everything she did made me want to try them all the more. However, I believe that I am an exception to the general rule. Most people do not defy but heed the advice of self-appointed experts...

    8. I've yet to find a "Scent Twin", but there are folks I can find writing reviews that provide enough information for an informed decision. Some I agree with more than others.

      Had I not satisfied my own curiosity, I could have been in the number that classified Muscs Koublai Khan in the same category as Secretions Magnifiques. But there are times when you see so polarized a view that you're less inclined to follow the crowd (Secretions Magnifiques is my example) and want to see for yourself. Curiosity gets the better of all of us at some point, and if it didn't, we'd all be following some alleged expert like sheep. Thankfully, we don't.

      To the other respondent's question of why we write, why then does anyone write? I write to share experiences, often people will disagree and it begins a dialogue (hopefully on 'why'), but it might also bring up a new topic to someone and provoke thought or interest. I write targeted an audience that spreads outside of the usual suspects among the fragrance blogs. I know this because of those who've penned feedback and asked questions in follow-up, or have said they found my site by searching for something else. It's gratifying to share the interest and get others enthused in some small way.

    9. Yes, Andrew, I agree: we are a community of perfume lovers. Whatever differences we may have (and there are many), we are united by our fascination with perfume. It's wonderful that the internet has brought us all together!

      There are no perfume enthusiasts in my immediate neighborhood--at least not to my knowledge--but I have "met" hundreds of people from all around the world, who differ from me in all sorts of ways, including taste, but we all like perfume! I now have friends as diverse as drag queens and professional poker players, all thanks to our mutual love of perfume!

      Once one delves into questions such as "Why do you write reviews?" then we're entering into existentialism territory. Perhaps I should add that term to the lexicon next! ;-)

  8. So you made this statement:

    "What matters to a a wearer is the wearer's own perception of the perfume, not some unknown person's—regardless of his alleged stature or credentials or fame."

    There are two options here.

    1. If your statement is correct, then what PRAY TELL is your reasoning for penning over 1200 reviews which would be useless to anyone reading them. (Again, by your own definition of what matters)


    2. Your statement is simply flat out incorrect.

    Either way, it's MORE evidence you are not nearly as smart as you fancy yourself, in your own private sherapop world.


    1. Thank you for these challenging questions, Anonymous. Glad to see you more or less back on topic again. ;-)

      I agree that my prolific review writing might, on its face, seem mystifying, given my bald statement that "what matters to a wearer is the wearer's own perception..."

      I probably should have qualified the phrase to read:

      "what matters ULTIMATELY to a wearer..."

      With that edit, I think that there is no real contradiction here. To say that what matters ultimately--or at the end of the day, if you like--is not to deny that one might like to read reviews just to find out about other people's experience and reactions to perfumes. I know that's why I read other people's reviews. It's fascinating to me, actually, how we differ so much from one another. As you and I have agreed before, reviews really are rather autobiographical little texts.

      Now, why do I personally write reviews? Well, one reason is that I like to write. Another reason is that I like to record my experience. I only write phenomenological reviews--that is, of my direct experience of a perfume on my skin. I do not write reviews of my memories of past wears, although I do sometimes write essays about long-term relationships with certain perfumes.

      The reviews are written in the moment because it is nice for me to be able to go back to them and find out how I felt when I wore a perfume. A recent example was my latest experience with Creed Tabarome. My memory was that I loved the perfume. What a shock it was to discover upon receiving my new bottle that I did not like it at all. Naturally, I looked up my review and read it to see exactly what my experience was at the time. So regarded in that way, my perfume reviews are something of a personal journal of my encounters with perfume. I am sorry that you dislike my reviews. I recommend that you avoid them.

      There are some people who share my taste, and for them, my reviews can occasionally be helpful--or so I've been told. But I am not a shill. I do not advocate for perfumes. I simply share my personal experience. No more and no less. That experience sometimes draws on ideas which strike me as relevant at the time of the wearing. Regular perfume community website members pretty much know what to expect from me by now--for better or for worse. I have my own unique style and approach, which appeals to some people but not others.

      Why do I like to write? Well, why do I like to do anything? Your guess is as good as mine!

      Why do you read and react to blogs, Anonymous?


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