Monday, February 06, 2012

Intellectual Pleasures

by Joel Marks
Published in Reflections (University of New Haven), no. 5, Spring 1989, pp. 1-3.

Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification. -- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism

I like to parse arguments. I love to parse arguments. Give me a passage of text which is intended to persuade, and I will apply my powers of analysis to make its premises and conclusion explicit. Even if the argument seems clear to begin with, and is beautifully articulated, I derive pleasure from putting it into this dry mold: "A therefore B" (or "B because A").

For example:

A story (perhaps apocryphal) is told that Abraham Lincoln was once trying to convince a friend that all [people] were prompted by selfishness in doing good. As the coach in which they were riding crossed over a bridge, they saw an old razor backed sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had fallen into the water and were in danger of drowning. Mr. Lincoln asked the driver to stop, lifted the pigs out of the water, and placed them on the bank. When he returned, his companion remarked, "Now Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?" "Why, bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs." (Taken from C.E. Harris, Jr., Applying Moral Theories [Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1986], p. 62)

The argument reduces to: "I would have been upset not to do what I did; therefore I did it for selfish reasons."

A rather arid exercise, one might suppose. For me, a sip of pleasure. What exactly is it that I enjoy in this mental activity? Well, there is analysis: getting to the heart of something. I also like to express an idea in its most exact and explicit form. Precision and absence of ambiguity are here the paramount concerns; there is a kind of beauty in this, I find. And then, as well, an enhanced understanding can result, which is intrinsically valuable and satisfying.

I can also state something that is not the explanation of my love of parsing: I do not love it because it is useful. Don't get me wrong: It is useful. It is one of the most useful things in the world! The ability to clarify an argument is an antidote to muddle headed thinking, of which there is a great deal and which causes much woe. Take a look again at the Lincoln argument. It is so convincing in its narrative form, yet it invites critical analysis in its parsed form. As C.E. Harris points out, the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that one is upset does not tell us anything about the nature of what is causing the upset; but the selfishness or unselfishness of one's motives or reasons depends completely on the nature of what is causing the upset. In the Lincoln case, the cause of the upset is the suffering of the old sow; this determines that Lincoln's motives were unselfish after all.

It is my belief that great chunks of scientific psychology and economics, which generally conceive human beings as fundamentally self-interested, rely on the sort of mistaken analysis Lincoln made.1 Nonetheless, I repeat, it is not the usefulness of analysis that explains my special fondness for it. I parse for its own sake. I would pay money to be able to parse arguments. The point I want to stress is that there is a pleasure to be had here. It is one of a set -- a vast set -- of possible intellectual and other cultural pleasures (and of the good kind) that help set human beings apart from other animals.2

So, Julie Andrews, the next time you sing, "These Are a Few of My Favorite Things," take note: Parsing may be one of them!


1 Or is purported to have made; I rather think Lincoln was arguing tongue-in-cheek, in an effort at modesty, if this episode occurred at all.
2 Not that I have any disrespect for other animals; but, for better or worse, human fulfillment appears to lie in different directions from theirs.