Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Pleasures of Man of Steel and Inferno

This week I shed my elitist philosopher persona and drank deeply from the well of popular culture.  I bribed my kids to do some work for me around the house by taking them to the new Superman film.  And for Father's Day they got me the new Dan Brown thriller, Inferno, which I read through in a few sittings.  The philosopher in me looks to books and films primarily for profundity, complexity, and subtlety.  And perhaps the best way to measure my estimation of these qualities in such media is how many times I re-read or re-watch them.  I have no plans to re-read Inferno or re-watch Man of Steel.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy them at some level.  I also enjoy at some level sitting on the couch and eating an entire bag of potato chips while I watch those shows about aliens having visited earth (yes, we signed up for cable again).  But after such experiences I can't help wondering whether there are better pleasures to be had than these.  That's a tough argument to make, but one that has some plausibility to it.  We'll come back to that point.

Both of these stories brought up the theory of utilitarianism.  Should Superman ally with his fellow Kryptonians and take over Earth to repopulate their species?  Yes, it would hurt a bunch of humans, but if it resulted in more good (= life) for the most Kryptonians possible, then wouldn't it be worth the cost to humans?  Wouldn't we feel little pang of conscience to sacrifice a bunch of lower life forms to save our species?  Or switching to Inferno, Dan Brown's conspiracy du jour is that it has been mathematically demonstrated that the current overpopulation of the earth will lead to the extinction of human beings within 100 years if we don't do something drastic.  So utilitarianism would suggest that eliminating 1/3 of humans now is justifiable if it saves more people than that in the future.  This is the straightforward "moral" reasoning of Jack Bauer, et. al. in 24: if torturing a guy's kids gets him to tell us where the bomb is in the shopping mall, then shouldn't we do that so it will save lives?

Unfortunately the calculus of utilitarianism is never quite so simple.  Early on, J.S. Mill realized that we can't just calculate how much good or pleasure some action brings about, because it seems like there are different kinds of pleasures.  And he advocated that some of these pleasures are better than others.  And since was an elitist philosopher guy, the best pleasures ended up being those profound, complex, and subtle experiences that can be appreciated such folks.  So the pleasure of a listening to a Beethoven symphony is better than the pleasure of watching two super heroes duke it out for the last hour of that movie.  Or so the argument went.

I have to say I'm sympathetic to this argument at some level.  There was an experiment with mice in which they hooked up some electrodes to the pleasure center of their brains and the mice could learn to active this by pressing a button in their cage.  Once they learned how to do it, they sat there and pressed the button repeatedly until they died (because they didn't stop to eat or drink or sleep).  Is that kind of pleasure good?  Aren't there better kinds?

Reading Dan Brown is kind of fun.  The three page chapters pull you along through the plot at a break-neck speed.  You want to find out where the bag of plague virus is hidden, and you want to find out who is the double-crosser, etc.  There's not much work to reading it.  And I suppose you get out of it what you put into it.  Whenever I've put in the effort to read something harder, though, I find that much more rewarding in the end.  Not everyone has the taste for Anna Karenina, but profundity, complexity, and subtlety are found in much more abundance there.  The same is true for gruyere cheese compared to the nacho cheese dip at the 7-eleven, and for chess matches compared to the NBA, and for reading good blogs compared to watching YouTube.  Should we elitist snob types try to force the good stuff on everyone, or even make the claim that one really is better than the other?

I don't know.  I'm in the mood for a bag of chips.


Sam said...

You lost me at Gruyere cheese. Gross.

Sam said...

Amazingly, you didn't lose me at the beginning where you admitted to reading Dan Brown.