Hamlet vs The Simpsons: Revisiting the pleasure principle

And why should we still have faith in humanity when we are seeing so much injustice, evil, and cruelty around?

And why should reading Hamlet be a ‘higher’ pastime than lounging on a sofa watching re-runs of the Simpsons?

And why should the two questions above have anything to do with each other?

It so happens that this morning (being the third day of the Lunar New Year) I had nothing special to do, and all my family members were still in bed when I got up, and I sat at a quiet corner table in a fast food restaurant, ate a simple breakfast, and continued to read Justice by Michael Sandel, which I had started earlier a couple of weeks ago.

It turned out to be a most gratifying experience: the reading much more so than the breakfast.

In the chapter in which he explicates the premises of utilitarianism, the belief that the greatest pleasure for the most people should be the over-riding factor for human beings in deciding what worldly actions to take, Sandel cites one objection to the theory, which is that it is impossible to line up all kinds of pleasure on a unitary scale of measurement. Many people believe that different pleasures can be qualitatively different. In fact, some pleasures are ‘higher’ and ‘nobler’ than others, so that, for example, we can obtain higher pleasure from reading Plato than from reading a Japanese manga.

But can we prove that? Die-hard disciples of utilitarianism will only accept that some pleasures are quantitatively superior: if you find going to an opera more pleasurable than tasting a cup of Blue Mountains coffee, it’s only because the former brings about more sustained gratification.

To find out how people really think, and act, Sandel would test his students at Harvard this way:

‘I show the students three examples of popular entertainment: a World Wrestling Entertainment fight (a raucous spectacle in which the so-called wrestlers attack one another with folding chairs); a Hamlet soliloquy performed by a Shakespearean actor; and an excerpt from The Simpsons. I then ask two questions: Which of these performances did you enjoy most—find most pleasurable—and which do you think is the highest, or worthiest?’ (p. 54)

I think you can more or less guess the outcome of the test. I did:

‘Invariably The Simpsons gets the most votes as most enjoyable, followed by Shakespeare. (A few souls confess their fondness for the WWE.) But when asked which experience they consider qualitatively highest, the students vote overwhelmingly for Shakespeare.’

But can we actually put some sort of instrument inside our brain to measure whether reading Shakespeare will trigger a ‘higher’ pleasure than viewing The Simpsons? I really hope that one day our scientists will be able to demonstrate that scientifically  (so that we English teachers will have an easier time coercing students to read Jane Austen or Charles Dickens: ‘See! Reading Virginia Woolf will give you 83 happiness points; watching yet another episode of America’s Next Top Model will only bring you 49 points.’

 In the meantime, we can only rely on people opining on which activity will result in higher, worthier, nobler, satisfaction.

But hang on, this morning in the fast food restaurant, I did experience a higher satisfaction from reading Michael Sandel’s Justice, than from eating the breakfast, even though the breakfast was not bad in today’s standard. Was it a real experience, or had I been educated or socialised into thinking that reading a book on philosophy should be more pleasurable than eating?

Pi Patel asks: ‘So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?’ (The Life of Pi, Yann Martel, p. 424)

Should we still have faith in humanity when we are seeing so much injustice, evil, and cruelty around? Should human beings believe that there is a higher, worthier, and nobler, way of living? In doing so, will it bring us more happiness?

I’m glad that at least for some of us, we have chosen to believe in what we believe in.

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