Friday, January 22, 2010

Push Pin v Poetry: High Brow Deceptive Pleasure v Low Brow Innocent Pleasure

The following paragraph is from Jeremy Bentham’s The Rationale of Reward:

The utility of all these arts and sciences, I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity,-the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield. Every other species of preeminence which may be attempted to be established among them is altogether fanciful. Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry. If the game of push-pin furnishes more pleasure, it is more valuable than either. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few. The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through colored media, and strive to make everyone else do the same. It is true, there have been noble spirits, to whom poetry and philosophy have been equally indebted; but these exceptions do not counteract the mischiefs which have resulted from this magic art. If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.

Music, poetry, and the game of pushpins are described as generating pleasure. At the risk of sounding like a four year old or a philosopher, what exactly does this mean? Do these three activities generate warm fuzzies, sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, gratification, sensory excitation, titillation, tickling of the funny-bone, contentment, catharsis, joy, physical thrill..?

Clearly each activity Bentham mentions generates one or some of the above, but not all of them. Now, thinking like a Utilitarian, Bentham is concerned with the overall sum of pleasures, and makes a conditional claim. It occurs in this sentence:

If the game of push-pin furnishes more pleasure, it is more valuable than either [music or poetry]. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.

This is a claim, that (at least at the time he was writing), had a true antecedent. Push pins was indulged in by a great many more individuals than poetry or music. Given that each individual that plays pushpins gets an amount of pleasure from playing the game, and given that the sum amount of pleasure generated by (x) whatever it might be, determines value, it follows that pushpins is the more valuable activity, when compared to music and poetry.

This raises questions: Is this a simple description of 17-18th century fact, or is it intended to have a more universal or perhaps normative significance? Does he mean to point out the sociological fact that push pins is valued by more, or does he want to say something more normative, that it is indeed more valuable than poetry and music, more worthy of being valued? I can start to answer by running a thought experiment:

Suppose Earth is about to perish, and I along with every other earthling have a choice between living on one of two extra-solar planets: One named “Hedonia.” the other “Eudaimonia.” I must choose one or the other world and cannot choose to stay home. They are quite different societies. Each outlaws very specific sorts of pleasure generating activities. Hedonia outlaws all higher culture, including any music and poetry. There is no philosophy allowed, no science, etc...However, Hedonia has excellent restaurants, bars, comedy clubs, and sports/games offerings. Hedonia is sexually liberal as well. There are plenty of designer recreational drugs, for those that indulge that sort of thing.

Eudaimonia, on the other hand, outlaws all that low-brow stuff, and has the very best in music, poetry, science, philosophy, religious speculation. It is not sexually liberal, the food is kind of bland, (UK food bland). Pushpin is verboten. There are no recreational drugs and no drink, water being the only beverage.

I would definitely not like being given this choice, and would find it difficult, but if the proverbial gun were put to my temple, I’d grudgingly, and with some fair amount of trepidation that I might be making a huge mistake, go with Eudaimonia. (Life on a planet of nothing but philosophers?*shudder*...)

We humans do like access to both high and low brow pleasures, and we form attendant high and low brow sub cultures or groups of like-minded folks that help us not only acquire the things, but share in the experience.

In real life, these groups are part of our larger societies, and inter-related in complex ways. We are simultaneously members of several of these groups, low and highbrow. In this imaginary choice, things are considerably simplified, but the choice makes us realize that we not only value each set of items, but that giving up either would be painful. Now, Mill would say something further. In my case, at any rate, the fact that I go with Eudaimonia indicates that I do not place all these pleasurable activities on a level, (the terms “high brow” and “low brow” indicate this.) One may question the use of these terms as being question begging, but they indicate that all things considered I at least, as a representative human being, consider the ‘highbrow’ stuff to be more valuable than the lowbrow stuff. Mill makes a claim that most ‘competent judges’ would make this choice. Competent judges are simply human beings that have had sufficient exposure to both high-brow and low-brow stuff. This begs for an empirical study.

If such a survey would indeed corroborate his prediction, we would have empirical evidence that we do consider some activities to be more valuable in some sort of intrinsic sense when compared to others. But, notice here, that this leaves logical space for something to be more valued than another thing, even though that thing is the more valuable of the two. Suppose you have someone that is not a competent judge. Pick any second generation denizen of Hedonia. He or she would very likely value pushpin over poetry, even though poetry passes the competent judges criterion, as being more valuable.

[One might add here, with a certain amount of snark, that Mill himself may in fact be a shining example of an ‘incompetent judge’ given that his life was more like some poor denizen of Eudaimonia, than the mixed sort he expected of the judges. Once again, this calls for an empirical test of his claim!]

Mill noted that BENTHAM seems oblivious to what we might term ‘multipliers’ when it comes to pleasures. Notice the several species of pleasures listed in paragraph 2:

Warm fuzzies
Satisfaction
Enjoyment
Sensory excitation
Titillation
Excitation of sense of humor
Contentment
Gratification
Catharsis
Physical thrill

We can see that each of these is distinct from the other by examining how we use these words or phrases. Some are more naturally associated with certain activities or states than others. E.g., a sense of satisfaction is more naturally associated with having accomplished a demanding task of some sort than would be sensory excitation. So, following the competent judges model, we could say that those pleasures get a multiplier higher than (x1). This would significantly affect utilitarian calculations.

Now, why might someone consider these to be on a level or equal?

One way you can argue yourself in that direction seems to be this:

If some of these pleasures can be seen as second-order pleasures, that in some way give rise to instances of a more basic first-order pleasure or sense of gratification, then you may be able to say that what counts in the utilitarian summation is the amount of this first order pleasures generated.

[How plausible this account sounds to you will depend on how plausible you take the claim to be that all pleasures are indeed ultimately cashed out in some sort of common psycho/emotional currency.]

Another way to arrive at the belief that all pleasures are of a type, and equal, is to simply treat them all as a sort of family-resemblent set, and that any case of one of these psycho-emotional phenomena is to count as a +1 in the ledger.

[This seems ad hoc]

In either case, we have evidence that the accounts are false. Mill points out we do not normally think of these listed pleasures (and others not included) either as being on a level because they all end up generating the same thing “pleasure”, nor because we consider them indiscriminately as equally valuable.

For, if we did think in either of these ways, why, in the Hedonia/Eudaimonia thought experiment, would anyone feel any sort of tension or angst at having to make a choice between the two sets of pleasures? If the real item of value is the generic first order pleasure, there should be no angst. If a set of disparate items are all equally valuable, even if different from one another, once again, the angst is hard to explain away.

So, is there some intrinsic difference between the two sorts of pleasure; the high and low? Mill lets us know that competent judges will sort them in this way, but on what basis do they sort?
The clue is in the second clause of Bentham’s sentence. Once again, with emphasis:

If the game of push-pin furnishes more pleasure, it is more valuable than either [music or poetry]. Everybody can play at push-pin: poetry and music are relished only by a few.

The word “can”, a modal term, indicates that it is an easier task to engage in pushpin, than it is to engage in poetry or music. Consider this claim from two points of view, that of the active participant, and that of the spectator: One needs minimal motor skills and reasoning ability to play pushpin. To write poetry or music, one needs to master language, and technical skills of a more sophisticated nature. To watch pushpin one needs to know the simple rules of the game. To read poetry one needs to be able to catch subtle shades of meaning, metaphorical allusions, and in some cases, levels of meaning or interpretation that come from constant study of literature more broadly construed. Similarly, with music, one has to learn tonal combinations, and principles of arrangement, and become acquainted with stylistic innovations instead of casting them aside. Similar things can be said for other ‘highbrow’ activities.

Think back to the Hedonia/Eudaimonia case: Why am I very reluctant and angst ridden about giving up all that lowbrow stuff? Because I look at a life that disallows those activities and leaves open to me only the highbrow stuff as immensely demanding and exhausting of my mental/emotional faculties. It’s freaking difficult, and won’t allow rest. That’s why. Damn it, sometimes I want to indulge myself with the ‘simple’ pleasures, and do things that aren’t that demanding. What is more, I don’t consider some things as ‘better’ than others, but different, and I want them both.

On the other hand, life that disallows the more complex pleasures would not be so much exhausting as boring and tedious after a time. In such a world as Hedonia, there is no challenge to overcome, no work to do, as it were. This seems to be the point of the last sentence in the paragraph from Bentham:

If poetry and music deserve to be preferred before a game of push-pin, it must be because they are calculated to gratify those individuals who are most difficult to be pleased.

All of us are a combination of this ‘individual that is difficult to be pleased’, with an individual that is easily pleased. That is who we are. But this statement brings us back to a question suggested by conjoining this last sentence with the first sentence of that paragraph:

The utility of all these arts and sciences, I speak both of those of amusement and curiosity,-the value which they possess, is exactly in proportion to the pleasure they yield.

The question:

Do poetry and music deserve to be preferred, or does pushpin have that honor?

We know what Mill would say. But what would Bentham say?

He seems to suggest that they do not deserve preference, because pushpin is (contrary to Mill’s belief) indeed of higher value. Pushpin enjoys this status because it yields higher amounts of pleasure, given the psychology of human beings. Furthermore, anything of higher value deserves preference. It follows that pushpin deserves preference.

On the other hand, Bentham doesn’t rest with that argument. He feels he needs to pile on as it were, and indulges in some very Platonic moralizing vis-à-vis poetry and music.

The game of push-pin is always innocent: it were well could the same be always asserted of poetry. Indeed, between poetry and truth there is natural opposition: false morals and fictitious nature. The poet always stands in need of something false. When he pretends to lay his foundations in truth, the ornaments of his superstructure are fictions; his business consists in stimulating our passions, and exciting our prejudices. Truth, exactitude of every kind is fatal to poetry. The poet must see everything through colored media, and strive to make everyone else do the same. It is true, there have been noble spirits, to whom poetry and philosophy have been equally indebted; but these exceptions do not counteract the mischiefs which have resulted from this magic art.

Now, we could say that this indicates nothing more than the above described fact that the poetic and musical arts are more demanding, and require skills which are difficult to develop, but Bentham also clearly takes artists to task for indulging in falsehoods, prejudice and mischief. He even goes so far as to call these ‘magic arts.’ He could have simply labeled them ‘black arts’ for all he seems to think of them.The arts lead us away from reality, and perhaps indulge a natural propensity we have to retreat to comfortable unreality. Truth is hidden by this activity. Pushpin has no such pretensions, and is therefore morally pure or innocent.

This then leads to another question. Look at the first sentence in Benthams passage again.
Bentham makes reference not only to the arts and sciences of “amusement” but to those of “curiosity.”

I suppose we would include in that set, the natural sciences, mathematics, philosophy, psychology, economics, and sociology. Is there anything that would lead us to think Bentham has a negative view of these arts and sciences?

Now, it is true that truth is a regulative idea for these sciences, and as such, it seems that we can make the case that Bentham would spare them the status of being yet further instances of black arts. But, it does not take too much effort to see that sciences do indeed put forth, if not fictions, interpretations of the things with which they are concerned, hypotheses, that in are not strictly speaking truths, but appear to be, sometimes for centuries, which hypotheses can beguile and cause just as much mischief as could any poet or musician.

Also, scientific information can be put to nefarious use, reigning hypotheses can inspire harmful public policy, and people in these disciplines, and policy makers that they influence can refuse to abandon the worlds they have created, or set out to manipulate people for what they perceive to be the common good. In the sciences, just as much as in the realm of poetry evil is possible. It does not matter that the stock and trade of the sciences is to get after the truth instead of presenting us falsehoods. One wonders what Bentham would say to this.

Aside from this, it is still the case here, as it was in the case of poetry, that the sciences are very difficult as compared to pushpin. So, are they therefore less valuable?

Lastly, what the heck is pushpin anyway?

Two play the game. They each place a single pin (straight pins or needles) on the brim of a hat that is sitting on a table or the ground. They take turns tapping the brim of the hat, or other areas of the hat. This moves the pins; they travel around the brim, and hopefully, not off the hat. The person that causes the two pins to cross, one on top of the other, wins the round, claims the two pins. Believe it or not, this was akin to gambling in the 18th century, because pins were items of value back then.

There is reference to this in the correspondences of John and Abigail Adams, made famous in the musical 1776.