People have different likes and dislikes.
This fact is especially clear to me during autumn when pumpkin-flavored foods and beverages abound. This very week I have encountered: pumpkin pie, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin soup, pumpkin lattes, and pumpkin beer. I remembered that most people like the pumpkin tastes and smells that I strongly dislike.
Few people seem to dislike pumpkin-flavored foods as I do and my own dislike often prompts incredulity. In particular, at least once a month during this time of year I can expect to hear:“What?! You don’t like pumpkin pie?”
Answering this question, year after year, inevitably leads me to start thinking about a question of my own: what is going on when I eat pumpkin pie, and dislike it, that is different than what is going on when most people eat pumpkin pie, and like it?
Pleasantness and unpleasantness, along with likes and dislikes, are sometimes called by different technical names by distinct philosophers and scientists. Three popular candidates are positive and negative valence, affect, or—my own favorite—hedonic tone.
Many mental happenings seem to have positive or negative affect, valence, or hedonic tone; that is, to be pleasant or unpleasant, liked or disliked. There is, however, no generally agreed answer about exactly what having these features amounts to.
What is pleasantness and unpleasantness? What is affect, valence, or hedonic tone?
For a philosopher trying to approach this question, one difficulty is that pleasantness and unpleasantness don’t seem to easily fit into the categories they are most comfortable using. None of the many sorts of things that philosophers most often recognize as happening in our minds seem to capture like or dislike very well.
To see the difficulties, imagine that I take a big bite of pumpkin pie to please my host at a holiday gathering and find the taste extremely unpleasant. Consider trying to fit that unpleasant taste into any of the following three categories:
1) Doxastic states: to believe, judge, or know.
Is the unpleasantness a belief or judgment?
What belief or judgment could it be? I don’t believe that the pie tastes disgusting; indeed I believe that my host is a very good cook. It’s a great pie, I say! The taste of it is, nonetheless, unpleasant for me.
No matter what belief or judgment we pick, it seems like I could have that belief or judgment and still dislike the taste of the pie; no belief or judgment about the pie’s taste seems to be the same mental happening as the unpleasantness of the taste of the pie.
2) Motivational states: to want or desire.
Is the unpleasantness a desire of some kind?
I admit that I usually do not want to taste pumpkin pie, but the unpleasantness of the taste doesn’t seem to be the same thing as my not wanting the taste. Instead, it seems like I don’t want to taste the pie because it is unpleasant for me, but if that’s right then they must not be the very same thing. We also need to consider that maybe I actually do want the pie, to please my host—but it doesn’t seem like wanting to taste the pie will make it any more pleasant when I do.
Whether I want to taste the pie or not, the want seems like a different things than my disliking or disliking it when I do. Usually we don’t want unpleasant things and want pleasant things, but not wanting something and finding it unpleasant nonetheless at least seem like different types of mental happenings.
3) Perceptions: touch, taste, smell, and so on.
Is the unpleasantness a perception of something?
If so, the most obvious thing I would seem to be perceiving—by tasting—is the pie!
One major problem with making unpleasantness a type of perception, however, is that people who like pumpkin pie and people who don’t both seem to be having the same type of taste perception. I will agree with you, for instance, that pumpkin pie tastes sweeter than bread, not as sweet as chocolate pie, and not at all sour. Despite this similarity in taste, you like it and I dislike it.
The difference in liking and disliking doesn’t seem to be a difference in the taste perception itself; there doesn’t seem to be any difference in the pumpkin-pie-taste for people who like or dislike pumpkin pie. But if so, then the difference between pleasant and unpleasant doesn’t seem to be a perceptual difference. So it doesn’t seem that unpleasantness is the same type of mental happening as perception.
The unpleasantness of my taste of pumpkin pie doesn’t seem to fit very neatly into any of these threetraditional philosophical categories.
Though likes and dislikes don’t seem to be a matter of what we believe, want, or perceive, things may be different than they seem. Maybe one of these categories can be developed in a way that deals with the difficulties.
For instance, some philosophers think that pleasantness and unpleasantness is a matter of registering, or representing, that what is happening to you is something that you wanted or something that you didn’t want. On these views, what it is for the taste of pumpkin pie to be unpleasant for me is, roughly, to register that I am getting something I didn’t want. Namely, the taste of pumpkin pie. If you find the taste of pumpkin pie pleasant, then what is happening is that you are registering getting something that you wanted. This is a development of the idea that likes and dislikes are motivational states after all.
As another example, some philosophers think that pleasantness and unpleasantness is a matter of a special kind of perception, an evaluative perception. The idea here is that some of our perceptions simultaneously involve an evaluation. On these views, the unpleasantness of the taste of pumpkin pie when I eat it consists, roughly, of my tasting pumpkin pie and simultaneously evaluating the pumpkin pie as bad. If I had instead evaluated the pie as good, then it would instead have been pleasant. So likes and dislikes are perceptions after all.
These more sophisticated views raise further questions. Is it really impossible for me to find a taste that I didn’t want pleasant? Is it really impossible for me to evaluate a taste as bad, but still find it pleasant? In general, there seem some cases where our likes and dislikes come apart both from what we want and what we value.
In the face of these and other worries, philosophers and scientists are still currently working on the best answers to the question: what is pleasantness or unpleasantness. Or, as they usually put it: what is affect, valence, or hedonic tone? Or, as we might usually put it: what are likes and dislikes?
Any answers are going to have to grapple with the fact that people have different likes and dislikes.
And, as another holiday season gets underway, I am going to have to grapple with the fact that most people like the taste of pumpkin. I have no idea why.