Saturday 1 February 2014

Taste and Social Intuitionism

[This is the fourth post in my Sequence on artistic value. The entire Sequence can be viewed here:

  1. Art Consequentialism
  2. Art Should Accomplish Something
  3. Art Has Barely Left the Womb
  4. Taste and Social Intuitionism
  5. Artistic Integrity

Together these five posts argue for a theory of artistic value that I have never encountered before.]

How we should treat moral and aesthetic intuitions given that they are (1) automatic and yet (2) often at least somewhat within our control?

A Few Examples

(a) I don't like fruit. It would be better for me to eat fruit but I just don't like them, so I don't. Am I off the hook? True, my reaction to the taste and texture of fruit is an automatic process, a fact of my biology. But if I really wanted to, I could probably train myself to enjoy more fruits with some success. Should I be held to the standard of training myself to like fruit? 

If this was a simple dispute over chocolate vs vanilla, there would be no reason to do any training. The differences between the two options are so inconsequential that we should be happy to settle with whatever our intuitive preference happens to be. But in the case of fruit, there are health benefits on the line and thus the Liking Fruit option could be justifiably called "better" than the Not Liking Fruit option.

(b) I see an amateur painting and like it more than I like looking at and thinking about the Mona Lisa. I can see why other people judge the Mona Lisa to be better according to traditional criteria of artistic greatness, but I just don't like it as much. It's an automatic reaction. I look at the painting and my brain goes into state XZ_7200913, which happens not to be a state of aesthetic appreciation. 

An art critic might point out elements of the Mona Lisa that I don't notice due to my limited knowledge of art history and painting technique. The critic could also point out ideas in the work and why those ideas are more important or sophisticated or praise-worthy than the ideas embedded in the amateur painting. I still don't like it as much though. Should I be held to the standard of training myself to have "better" aesthetic intuitions? In the same way that eating fruit is "better" for me than eating less healthy foods, is it "better" to have aesthetic intuitions in alignment with System 2 judgments of "artistic value"? Can you blame me for preferring the "lesser" work or do we just chalk it up to a fact of my hardware?

(c) As a white Canadian, I am statistically less likely than an Iranian to be comfortable with the idea of wearing burqas. So I think about burqas and feel an intuition that it's immoral to force people to cover up that way. An Iranian might see the same phenomenon and not only would she not have the same opinion as me, but she wouldn't even have the same moral intuition. Knowing that moral intuitions don't prove anything, we could try using reason to figure out whether women should wear burqas or not. I could make a utilitarian argument based on burqas degrading women and the Iranian could counter with a utilitarian argument based on burqas keeping women modest. Suppose I feel that my argument is clearly the "better" one. Should I hold her to the standard of training herself to have new moral intuitions? Can I blame her for having a "worse" intuition than me or is her automatic reaction just a fact of her hardware?

Subjective vs Objective

There are two fundamental approaches to dealing with these sorts of clashes of preferences. One of them is to write it off as "all subjective." When I look at a painting or eat a fruit or think about wearing a burqa, my brain goes into state JH_8973402 (dislike) while your brain goes into state JB_4324585 (like). There's not much we can do other than shrug and continue to see things the way our brains are apparently hardwired to see them. There's no point trying to convert someone to having your opinion, when they aren't sharing your sensory experience of the event. And it's crucial to understand this - that their very experience is different. When blindfolded people taste Coke and Pepsi, they prefer Pepsi, but when they know which drink is which, they prefer Coke. Similarly, art appears better to us once we're told that it's highly revered. Our thinking affects our future intuitions.

Another approach is to choose terminal goals and then try to mind hack ourselves until we are better hardwired to achieve those goals. This is the approach where I say, "eating fruit is better for me so I should try learning to like them" and "my taste in paintings sucks so I should try to learn to appreciate better art."

I prefer this side precisely because our thinking affects our future intuitions. We are not so stuck with ourselves as that. Disliking fruit is likely "all in my head" (where else would it be?). Just as an arachnophobe can get over his fear of spiders - and wipe out such a powerful intuition! - so could I probably get over my dislike of fruit. If we can find a rational reason to value one thing more than another thing, than we should follow reason, rather than our intuitions. At the same time, we are not perfectly malleable and sometimes, such as with chocolate vs vanilla, the reward for having the "right" intuition isn't worth the cost it would take to switch from the "wrong" one.

This has ethical implications at the intersection of biological programming and free will. If I leave my child outside in the backyard during a snow storm, I would be considered cruel  even though our experience of the weather can be controlled. There are Buddhist monks that can sit in snow, manually raise their own body temperature, and melt the snow around them. Why can't I throw my kid in the cold and then blame him for not knowing how to think productively? He was free to change his thinking and not suffer in the cold, but he didn't. This is intuitively a really bad argument, but it works to show the difficulty of establishing a line beyond which we can call intuitive reactions to be outside of our control.

On the surface, this framing could be seen to cause problems for the ethical subjectivist who believes ethical claims only express the speaker's emotional reactions to things. I don't think that is the case, however. The subjectivist could believe her terminal goals to be fundamentally arbitrary, yet still optimize herself and her environment so as to maximize her probability of fulfilling those goals. Even if all normative claims were arbitrary, that wouldn't make it nonsensical for people to attempt to satisfy their preferences.

Implications for Art

Our ideas about artistic value, like our ideas about moral value, are formed by both immediate, automatic reactions ("That's gross!") and reasoned arguments ("This provokes thought and provoking thought is good"). Lacking perfect rationality and a coherent theory of artistic value, people tend to let the two sources of opinions interact in disorderly fashion. This leads to regular inconsistencies in artistic judgments. 

Meet Todd, our resident movie reviewer here at A Nice Place To Live. Here are some of Todd's movie opinions:

"Avatar sucks. It was exactly the same as Pocahontas, Ferngully, and Dances With Wolves"
"The Lion King is such a great movie, it's so much fun!"
"Zoolander was just so childish. All it has is joking around."
"Antichrist is a pretentious piece of crap. It's pure shock value. Completely unwatchable."
"Mothlight goes way too far in trying to be experimental and original. Nothing whatsoever happens. Yeah, it looks cool, but what does it mean?"
"Coffy looks like crap and is completely exploitative."
"Django Unchained is the funnest movie of the year."

It's easy to make someone look bad when you're making up what they believe, but I think the argument I'm about to make applies to how just about everyone engages with art, no matter what their tastes happen to be. 

In the Avatar evaluation, the deciding factor for Todd was that Avatar was too similar to pre-existing movies. The Lion King evaluation not only ignores the previous criterion (the fact that The Lion King is an adaptation of Macbeth), but it establishes an entirely new criterion for artistic greatness that wasn't used to evaluate Avatar. Todd then bashes Zoolander for it being too childish and fun, despite his appreciation of The Lion King, a children's movie, which was attributed to how fun and watchable it is. The Zoolander evaluation both ignores the previously consulted "fun" criterion, while establishing a new criterion, maturity or seriousness. The following two reviews then ignore the presence of maturity/seriousness by calling for watchability and for something to happen. In bashing Mothlight, Todd also downplays the importance of aesthetics and yet then dislikes Coffy for having low production quality. He also claims Coffy is too exploitative but then champions Django Unchained, which is also highly exploitative (and rooted in the tradition of exploitation cinema) and also, bringing us full circle, a kind of mash up of pre-existing movies.

For Todd's judgments to be coherent, there needs to be a lot of relevant information that he left out of his reviews. Maybe Avatar was too unoriginal but Django Unchained was only a little unoriginal, while, at the other end of the spectrum, Mothlight was too original. Maybe Zoolander was too childish but The Lion King was only a little childish. And so on. If this is the case, then we can salvage the case for Todd's consistency by saying that he just isn't very good at articulating his thoughts maturely. For each movie, he only named one quality when he should have named all the criteria he valued and rated where each movie fell on each of those little spectrums. In doing this, we're approaching what I've been referring to as a "coherent theory of artistic value."

But does anybody have one of those? 

Think back to moral philosophy and the difficulty of articulating a one-size-fits-all theory of good that we can apply to every individual action. The analogy immediately makes it visible how unlikely it is for Todd to be basing his artistic judgments on such a theory. Even if he offered one and showed all of his judgments to be consistent with it, it would likely be very easy to question his chosen criteria. They were likely chosen to include the sorts of movies that he already valued. This is a decidedly arbitrary way to "objectively" judge anything.

My opinion is that almost any time somebody makes a new artistic judgment, they are contradicting previous artistic judgments they have made. I think this is because the arguments people provide in support of their artistic judgments are post-hoc rationalizations for intuitive reactions to the work. This has been found to be true of moral judgments, as well.

Social Intuitionism

This is a social intuitionist approach to art evaluation. That means that artistic judgments are influenced by social and cultural factors more than they are influenced by rational arguments. Rational arguments for artistic judgments are more like lawyers defending their clients than they are like detectives trying to get to the bottom of a case.

Does that mean that it's all subjective then? There can be no coherent theory of artistic value because reason is doomed to be controlled by biased intuitions?

Well, think about ethics again. Is that all subjective?

The social intuitionist model of morality doesn't reject that reason plays any role at all in our opinions. It just integrates reason into the other important processes of moral judgment formation. The path is still open to devise a rational theory of value but that theory needs to be based on  a solid foundation, rather than atop an inconsistent mix of randomly selected intuitions.

When it comes to ethics, I subscribe to idealized preference utilitarianism. I find this theory to have a firm basis in reason because it can only be rejected by claiming that we may want to not do what we want to do. To me, that idea doesn't quite make sense. Idealized preference utilitarianism is what remains. As explained in earlier posts in this Sequence, I see nothing special about art that makes it exempt from these ethical considerations.

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