How much criticism amounts to taste? Jonathan Haidt and The Happiness Hypothesis

In Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis he writes:

Consider the following story:

Julie and Mark are sister and brother. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie is already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but decide not to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other.

Do you think it is acceptable for two consenting adults, who happen to be siblings, to make love? If you are like most people in my studies, you immediately answered no. But how would you justify that judgment? People often reach first for the argument that incestuous sex leads to offspring that suffer genetic abnormalities. When I point out that the siblings used two forms of birth control, however, no one says, “Oh, well, in that case it’s okay.” Instead, people begin searching for other arguments, for example, “It’s going to harm their relationship.” When I respond that in this case the sex has made the relationship stronger, people just scratch their heads, frown, and say, “I know it’s wrong, I’m just having a hard time explaining why.”

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons [. . . .] You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a persons’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was made.

Max Planck famously said that science advances one funeral at a time, and the same is of art.

Haidt’s description shows why political, religious, and even economic arguments are often so unsatisfying: regardless of what ideas or evidence one person cites, the other person isn’t really going to care (and you’re probably the other person, too). The other person is looking for ways to justify their thinking, like you are, and feelings can’t really be argued with—not by most people, most of the time.

Plus—and Haidt doesn’t discuss this, but it’s hard to miss if you’re paying attention to everyday life—most people have only a superficial understanding of the opinions they hold. This is especially obvious to any expert discussing matters with a non-expert. In many fields, even experts discussing matters with other experts may just have more sophisticated versions of their initial opinions and impressions; that’s certainly how I often feel when I read papers in English lit, or talk to some English professors. That discipline certainly seems to proceed funeral by funeral.

Still, I wonder if Haidt has run studies in which he has explicitly primed participants for critical thinking and reasoning, then asked similar sets of questions. One of the rare ways that people might open up and think is to avoid the direct discussion—”Is gun safety good or bad?”—and move to a meta discussion—”most people are too closed to new information to have political discussions”—prior to the “real” discussion about gun safety, or whatever the political or social issue du jour happens to be.

In light of these ideas, it might be best not to argue directly: when abortion comes up, don’t talk about the issue directly. Talk about what happens to the people in the moment: what pressures is the woman having the abortion feelings? What does the protester feel? Why? The same is true of art: what’s a great sentence in that novel? Where does the plot turn suddenly? What is greatness in general?

These are the same methods good teachers use: they don’t directly fight with their students, because the fight is unfair and, more importantly, it’s unproductive. I tend to ask questions that students find oblique, and now, after reading Haidt, I know why.

I also know why I give some of the answers I do when I’ve been asked to read friends’ or students’ stories, novels, and other writing. Sometimes they asked if I think the work is good. I never answer directly, because the more useful answer isn’t mine—it’s the writer’s answer, five years from when they’re asking. If the writer spends five years working on their craft and thinking about their problem space, they’ll have a very different perspective, and they’ll be able to judge for themselves. At a high enough level, taste rules, but getting to that high level is a steep climb.

Opinions also shift in the individual over time: many novels I liked in middle and high school I would now find unbearable boring, clichéd, and stupid, while my middle-school self would find many of the books I like now incomprehensible or pointless.

2 responses

  1. In my writing/reading group, whenever we read an author, the question always seems to come up, Is this good? (Often the question is phrased, is this literature? Or, is this serious? Or, will this be read in ten years time? etc.) There seems to be a strong human desire to judge something in order to know what to make of it. I suspect the same is true with morality, too. I guess that’s how canons and societies are formed, a set of shared judgements.


  2. Pingback: Links: Divorce court, Comcast is evil, Derek Parfit, math, Peter Watt, and more | The Story's Story

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