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Society of Mind

9.1 wanting and liking

One thing I hate is being asked questions like these:

Do you prefer physics to biology? Did you like that play? Do you like Wagner? Did you enjoy your year abroad?

What makes us want to compress so much into such inexpressive summaries as like, prefer, and enjoy? Why try to reduce such complex things to simple values or amounts of pleasurable quality? The answer is that our measures of pleasure have many uses. They help us make comparisons, compromises, and choices. They are involved with the communication signs that we use to signify various degrees of attachment, satisfaction, and agreement. They show themselves not only in words, but also as gestures, intonations, smiles and frowns, and many other expressive signs. But we have to be careful not to accept those signs at their face value. Neither the state of the world nor that of the mind is ever so simple that it can be expressed in a single, one-dimensional judgment. No situation is ever completely satisfactory or entirely disagreeable, and our reactions of pleasure or disgust are only superficial summaries of pyramids of underlying processes. To enjoy an experience, some of our agents must summarize success — but other agents must be censuring their subordinates for failing to achieve their goals. So we ought to be suspicious when we find ourselves liking something very much, because that might mean some of our agencies are forcefully suppressing other possibilities.

The surer you are that you like what you are doing, the more completely your other ambitions are being suppressed.

To choose between alternatives, the highest levels of the mind demand the simplest summaries. If your top-level feelings were too often mixed, you would rarely be able to make a choice to decide which foods to eat, which paths to walk, or which thoughts to think. At the level of action, you're forced to simplify right down to expressions like Yes and No. But these are not informative enough to serve the lower levels of the mind, where many processes go on at once, and every agent has to judge how well it is serving some local goals. At lower levels of the mind, there must be hosts of smaller, coexisting satisfactions and annoyances.

We often talk as though we ought to be controlled by what we want. Indeed we scarcely distinguish between wanting something and potentially obtaining pleasure from it; the relation between these two ideas seems so intimate that it actually feels odd to mention it. It seems so natural to want what we like and to avoid what we don't like that we sometimes feel a sense of unnatural horror when another person appears to violate that rule; then we think, They surely wouldn't do such things unless, deep down, they really wanted to. It is as though we feel that people ought to want only to do the things they like to do.

But the relation between wanting and liking is not simple at all, because our preferences are the end products of so many negotiations among our agencies. To accomplish any substantial goal, we must renounce the other possibilities and engage machinery to keep ourselves from succumbing to nostalgia or remorse. Then we use words like liking to express the operation of the mechanisms that hold us to our choice. Liking's job is shutting off alternatives; we ought to understand its role since, unconstrained, it narrows down our universe. This leads to liking's artificial clarity: it does not reflect what liking is but only shows what liking does.