Not the end of philosophy

As Republicans go, David Brooks is one of the most reasonable and thoughtful writers we have. However, this week he dropped a real howler. The title is, The End of Philosophy, and it goes downhill from there. The gist goes thus:

Think of what happens when you put a new food into your mouth. You don’t have to decide if it’s disgusting. You just know. You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know. Moral judgments are like that.

Brooks goes on to cite some basic evolutionary theory (as if he’d only just discovered it) to support his claim, and at some length concludes that it is all very well and good for us to be guided by instinct as we make moral decisions. My reaction to this argument, generally made by people much less intelligent then Brooks, can best be expressed by an interpretative dance. But my camera has been acting a little buggy, so let me try to put it into words.

I’m struck by the similarity to the analogy Franklin Einspruch made between food and art. Yes, you know whether something tastes good without having to think about it. But deciding whether a piece of art is good is quite a different process, informed however subtly by whatever art education and exposure to other work one has had. It may seem instinctual, but that instinct is honed by a lifetime of experience. (I recommend reading Franklin’s post and the 114 comments that followed over three days. My own response is mostly in comment #74.)

Finding a similarity between taste in food and a taste in art may be flawed, but to extend it to a taste in ethics is just absurd. Brooks cleverly gets us nodding along in the second paragraph by observing that those who study ethics are no more likely to behave ethically than the rest of us. Fine and dandy, but the academic study of the philosophy of ethics is something quite apart from the process we all go through, as we mature, of deciding how we shall govern ourselves in life.

I think that Julian Savulescu on the ‘Yuk’ Factor, a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast (pardon the British spelling of the word “yuck”), directly refutes Brooks’ line of thinking. We have innate tendencies, and we have ethical principles adopted from our parents, and we have the capacity as intelligent humans to think through and decide whether we want to adopt these tendencies and principles. For example, as Savulescu points out, homophobia and racism may well be based on innate evolutionary instincts (for sure they are often learned from parents).

Yet many intelligent people are able to reason through to the conclusion that homophobia and racism are completely indefensible moral positions. Thus our rational, philosophical, thoughtful self trains our ethical instinct — trains the yuck factor, as it were. Brooks is correct that we make snap judgments as we go about our daily lives, but he is profoundly and disappointingly incorrect to think that moral reasoning and yes, even philosophizing, do not enter into the picture of developing our ethics.

11 thoughts on “Not the end of philosophy

  1. If you’re deciding whether a work of art is good, you’ve already bypassed your taste. Taste works instantly. By the mechanism of taste, you see the goodness of art just as you detect the goodness of food, upon contact.

    I haven’t worked out the education of taste very well, but I know that it exists, and that it involves learning and acculturation. I tend to think that like the honing of any talent, it mostly entails practice, but informed practice. Like all cases of phenomena with both a personal and a universal component, the universal part has shared, felt, intuited, biological, innate characteristics, and acculturation causes them to manifest or appear to awareness in individual ways. Acculturation can steer you away from the use of taste; I’ve seen evidence for this all over the art world. Acculturation can steer you away from morality as well. History provides many examples.

    Brooks probably has a point. We know that severe fetal alcohol syndrome can result in an incapacity for moral judgment. It wouldn’t work that way if people learned morality. And like in the case of art, without innate talent, learning comes up against a formidable obstacle. As Thomas Hardy wrote about World War One:

    ‘Peace upon earth!’ was said. We sing it,
    And pay a million priests to bring it.
    After two thousand years of mass
    We’ve got as far as poison gas.

  2. I feel like I need to zip through that “How to win any argument” book before even thinking of debating anything with you again, Franklin. But let me give you two examples.

    When I was in middle school, a very good friend of mine came out of the closet. This was at first extremely disturbing for me. But I very much did reason this through, and my rational thinking overcame my instinctual reaction. Today I’m freaked out by homophobia much much more then I was freaked out by homosexuality back then.

    OK, now let me imagine you as an art appreciation teacher with a group of students at a Cezanne show. One of your students says, “I don’t get it, why is this good?” You do your think, pointing out particular merits of the particular painting the student is looking at, they nodding along thoughtfully.

    A month later the student is in front of a Modigliani. Does the previous conversation they had with you have a bearing on whether their “instant” taste-reaction?

  3. What impelled you to reason your way through your aversion to your friend’s homosexuality? Your own reaction probably offended your innate sense of rightness, ran against natural sympathy for your friend, and otherwise didn’t feel good for reasons that you might have found hard to articulate. I’m not denigrating the reasoning, by the way. Humans think, and we should think even more than we do. I would even regard that urge to ponder something as innate.

    Regarding my hypothetical student – absolutely. Learning, among other things, educates taste. Again, I don’t have this worked out very well. We have to look closely at what happens in the course of my talking about Cezanne in that example. I’m conveying information, undoubtedly. I’m also conveying my excitement. Most importantly (I think), I’m demonstrating the use of one’s taste. Tolstoy described art as a kind of infection, and I’m hoping above all that my student somehow catches the Cezanne bug. If that comes to pass, he goes in front of Modigliani with new data and new awareness.

    Learning, thinking, and analysis play an important role in this process, but unsupported by an innate talent for seeing, it doesn’t amount to anything. However, innate talent for seeing can get a lot of things right without the benefit of knowledge.

  4. What impelled you to reason your way through your aversion to your friend’s homosexuality?

    It certainly ran against my sympathy for him. So I had that, vs. my innate fear (for lack of a better word… what I actually felt was something like a sense of disappointment?), and the way I resolved those two things was by thinking through my priorities. I’m sure I wasn’t applying Socratic principles, but it sure seemed like a process of thinking.

    I think you’re right that conveying your excitement is a big part of teaching art appreciation. Then again, think about music appreciation. There is a whole lot of analytical stuff that has to happen for a full appreciation of Beethoven, right?

    However, innate talent for seeing can get a lot of things right without the benefit of knowledge.

    Well, that’s the crux, isn’t it? I just don’t see how you can make such a claim, since you have no idea of what it’s like to experience anything without the benefit of knowledge.

    Wait a second, are we arguing about Kant?

  5. Again, I’m not denigrating your reasoning, nor am I saying that it didn’t play into your self-examination. I’m just saying that it took place against a backdrop of awareness that something was wrong with your reaction, which was probably felt. Because if you felt great about your aversion, then why bother?

    A full appreciation of Beethoven requires analysis. Instincts only get you so far. But without instincts, analysis gets you nowhere.

    Over the years I have talked to many non-experts about art. They often have made legitimate, refreshing, perfectly apt comments about it based on their untrained eyes. I’m sure you’ve encountered this yourself. That’s my evidence for saying that innate talent for seeing can get a lot of things right without the benefit of knowledge.

  6. Ah, but according to my understanding, art non-experts still have a vast amount of knowledge about art, and in general about how to “see.” From the first time your mom showed you a picture book and said “this is a fire engine,” you were learning how to look at art. So “innate talent for seeing” is pretty hard to tease out.

    Having said that, I think you’ve pretty well encapsulated what I must have gone through in formulating my reaction, and I’m in total agreement that instincts and reasoning interact to formulate our ethical decisions.

    The thing that bugged me about Brooks’ column is that he presents all this as though it was some sort of paradigm shift, which is exactly what it is not.

  7. IMO, that’s the datum we’re missing – what happens in human consciousness when Mom points out the fire engine. I say that without innate talent for seeing, you look at Mom and shrug. But no, something connects. And that just doesn’t add up at all. Really, it’s kind of a miracle. Mom has no access to your cognitive functioning, you have no access to your cognitive functioning, and somehow this description and mimesis turns into visual acuity. This is why I say that I don’t have the education of taste worked out very well. I know how to do it, but I don’t know why it works.

  8. It’s true; you can talk on and on about the evolutionary development of vision, but it only takes you so far.

    We’re evolved to be social creatures, which explains why we’re drawn to images of other people. And we’re evolved to feed ourselves by hunting and gathering, which may explain a preference for certain types of landscapes. But at some point good art leaves these sorts of direct connections behind, and I’m not sure anyone really knows what’s going on there.

    My sense is that rational analysis and innate taste are two points along the spectrum of Ways in which we Think, although of course I share your uncertainty about all this. (Although I suspect that Jill Bolte Taylorhttp’s insights might be instructive here.)

    By the way, I just read your interview in Art Connect, which was quite interesting. The thing that puzzles me about Artblog is the continuing absence of a real archive, aside from the reverse-chronological list of articles. Any plans to build something a little more user (and search engine) friendly? (I presume that to get to your first hundred posts, Cowling needed to engage in some undignified url hacking ?)

  9. Probably. That’s how I do it.

    The conversion to XML described to Cowling will, I hope, address the archiving and searching issues. Right now I’m still trying to get Python’s libxml2 module to do my bidding, but all in due time.

  10. Ruby on Rails, Sloan, Python… what’s up with all the languages? What are you trying to accomplish that couldn’t be tackled with PHP and JavaScript?

  11. I couldn’t connect with Ruby, much less Rails. Python is awesome. One thing you can do with Python that you can’t do with PHP is run it on your computer. What’s Sloan?

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