Friday, April 10, 2009

"You don’t have to decide if a landscape is beautiful. You just know."

There was an interesting Op-Ed in the New York Times this week in which David Brooks comments on recent work by cognitive scientists that shows that our moral reasoning is more akin to making an aesthetics judgment than to working out a math problem. This is not really a new "discovery". One of my favorite books on this subject (Mark Johnson's Moral Imagination)was published in 1994! And this view was defended by David Hume as long ago as the 18th Century (the topic of my PhD dissertation). Similar comparisons between aesthetics and ethics (at the expense of mathematical reasoning) were also made by ancient Greeks such as Aristotle and (arguably) Plato.

So, despite Brooks's headline, these "discoveries" don't mark "The End of Philosophy". Also, the fact that our brains make unconscious decisions implies neither that we can not nor ought not to guide our moral jugdments with consious reasoning. Brooks writes:

Most of us make snap moral judgments about what feels fair or not, or what feels good or not. We start doing this when we are babies, before we have language. And even as adults, we often can’t explain to ourselves why something feels wrong. In other words, reasoning comes later and is often guided by the emotions that preceded it.

This is true, but it does not make moral judgment merely a matter of taste. Well, maybe it does, but there is no reason to think that taste is "a matter of taste". Even if we think ethics is analogous to aesthetics, we can still think some aesthetic judgments are better than others.

So I am puzzled by Brook's conclusion:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Why wouldn't "bookish" philosophy help us guide our emotions? And the "new atheists" are mostly evolutionary scientists. What reason would they have to question the conclusions Brooks is discussing?

Most of all, I'm puzzled by the claim that Talmudic tradition is opposed to this view. It seems to me that Talmud anticipates postmodern aesthetics in a lot of ways. (Here is an interesting article about Derrida and Jewish Studies.) Importantly, the Jewish tradition has always allowed for alternate readings of sacred texts and has preserved them side-by-side rather than suppressing one or the other. (Here is a discussion of a brilliant lecture by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman in which he argues that the polyphony of Scripture should lead us to reject religous absolutism.) Why wouldn't the recognition of the aesthetic basis of ethical reasoning should lead us to pay more careful attention to our traditions and sacred texts rather that to make snap decisions?

Sometimes you do have to decide if something is beautiful. But your decision will be based on a combination of emotion, reason, tradition, etc. It won't look anything like a mathematical proof.