Philosophy Weekend: What We Crave, When We Crave

I catch episodes of “Jersey Shore” on MTV whenever I can — because it’s hilarious, that’s why — and during a recent episode a powerful realization came over me.

I’d heard a friend complain that this show signaled the fall of Western culture due to its brainless, shameless exhibits of hedonism. Wondering about the validity of this critique, I started thinking back over various episodes and trying to catalog the instances of shameless hedonistic behavior I could remember. Here’s what I started thinking of:

  • Snooki and the Situation mugging for the camera.
  • Pauly D. playing his music in a nightclub.
  • Pauly and Vinny trying sincerely to fall in love.
  • Sammi and JWoww fighting the best boxing match since Tyson/Douglas in 1990.
  • Everybody dressing up, fixing their hair, checking themselves out in mirrors.
  • Big communal meals, everybody cooking and cleaning (or not cleaning) for each other.
  • Not much sex, lots of “smushing”.
  • Angelina having a full-scale freakout after the group ostracizes her, and leaving.
  • Sammi having a full-scale freakout after Ronnie cheats on her, creating a drama that goes on to consume about ten hour-long episodes.
  • Ronnie having a full-scale freakout after Sammi pretends to get revenge, and tearing all Sammi’s possessions to pieces in an insane roid-rage, followed by Sammi leaving.

Hedonism? When?

“Jersey Shore”, like much of life, is about people working hard for little pleasure. There is a lot of drinking, eating, dancing and lazing about, but the behavior in this beach house is never shameless. In fact, shame is the currency that drives most of what happens on this show. The worst punishment is to be ostracized, and the worst insult is to be called fake, because the most important ingredients for survival in this rough party town are trust and friendship. Those who temporarily lose standing with their peers become instantly immobilized, confused, violent, helpless, desperate. Grasping for peer approval, it turns out, is the essential, endlessly repeating plot of this show.

Maybe two of the characters in “Jersey Shore”, Snooki and Mike (the smartest two, the ones who figured out how to play the game), typically manage to keep their emotions in check and their heads above water. The others stumble and step on each other’s feet as they try to negotiate their daily routines, needs and relationships. The common thread that drives all the activity in this show — and here, “Jersey Shore” greatly resembles the real world — is the search for validation, connection, approval, respect, love.

This realization, once it hit me, seemed to resonate strongly with a few different conversations I’ve been having about ethics, psychology and human motivation. We’ve spent the past three weekends on this blog discussing and dissecting the Ayn Rand doctrine of rational self-interest, and I’ve pointed out that the idea of a harmonious society built upon mutual recognition of each other’s selfish needs just doesn’t seem to ring true with the way we live, because our actual needs are the opposite of selfish. The needs that consume and drive us in our everyday lives are, in contrast, almost always “group-ish”.

It’s never easy to pin down exactly what we’re talking about when we try to discuss happiness, or pleasure, or desire, or need. We often define pleasure in the narrow sense — physical or sensual stimulation, a feeling of comfort or luxurious satisfaction — and I think many of us like to pretend (to ourselves and to others) that we seek this type of pleasure exclusively, because it makes our lives and motivations appear simple. But even the most hedonistic among us are lying when we claim that we seek pleasure in this narrow sense.

A fabulous meal in a fancy restaurant is not nearly as much fun unless there’s somebody at the table with you. Wealth is great, but the first thing somebody does after they buy an expensive new sports car or widescreen television set is find somebody else to show it off to. The doctrine of rational self-interest is revealed as a phony front as soon as we reflect upon the fact that few things are interesting when they only involve ourselves.

More than we crave pleasure, we crave connection. We crave identity. We can do without Dunkin’ Donuts, but we can’t do without the approval of our best friends or lovers.

This blog post began with a commentary upon “Jersey Shore”, but it’s meant to be the fourth of five entries in a series that might be called “Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong”. I hope readers will agree that I’ve conducted this inquiry into popular ethics in a fair and open-minded way so far, and I hope I’ve managed to put down a few persuasive points (I’ve collected a few persuasive points in all your great comments to previous entries too). Throughout this series, my goal has been not to dismiss or belittle the Ayn Rand doctrine of selfish ethics, but rather to treat it as a serious doctrine with wide appeal, and to give it the serious rebuttal it deserves.

Next week I plan to wrap this mini-series up by presenting a positive alternative to Ayn Rand’s approach to morality and psychology. If this 20th Century philosopher provided an ethical point of view that, I believe, leaves us stranded in a moral cul-de-sac, then which philosopher can we turn to for greater enlightenment? I’ll spend next weekend’s post describing what I see as the constructive philosophical alternative to the doctrine of selfish ethics. Till then, again, please let me know what you think of this argument’s progress.

14 Responses

  1. “More than we crave pleasure,
    “More than we crave pleasure, we crave connection. We crave identity. We can do without Dunkin’ Donuts, but we can’t do without the approval of our best friends or lovers.”

    I don’t know. This sounds pretty bad and weak willed to me. Self contradictory as well. If one has identity one does not need approval from others.

    What you describe seems groundless and lost.

    I think you are right in your analysis but it is the problem with society, not a good thing.

  2. I’m glad you said this, TKG,
    I’m glad you said this, TKG, because this is what I was referring to when I said that we often like to pretend that we are motivated by simple needs and pleasures, because that’s easier than admitting how much we are affected by, and dependent on, the people around us.

    I’m here to tell the truth. We like to pretend to be fiercely independent people, but we’re not as independent as we’d like to be. I am not saying this is good or bad. I like individualism and independence. But I’m saying that this the way we are — even if it makes us “weak” — and we need to admit it.

  3. I detest reality shows, and
    I detest reality shows, and always have; their appeal to audiences isn’t due to the general substance of the show, whether “a day in the life” like Jersey Shore or The Real World, or a contest or game, like Survivor. Reality shows, like Jerry Springer, exist solely to feed our love of watching other people negatively interacting with other people. The gossip, the back-biting, the verbal and physical confrontation. At least, this is the way it has always appeared to me. Would people watch any of these shows if the cast members got along with each other? If there were no screaming matches and sullen bitching? Would anyone watch a chef who set out to improve the efficiency of a restaurant if he didn’t scream and curse? No. I don’t think it is broadcast hedonism that is causing a decline in our civilization, but the dumbed down entertainment choices that we make. There is a reason why these shows exist- there is a large market for them. What can you say about a population who takes unbridled glee in watching transvestite midgets fling jello at each other? Or low rent trash having drama queen fits? Etc.

    It’s a free country. People should do what they like. But I am certain that many people would improve themselves if they either stopped watching TV all together, or at least limited what they watch.

  4. 不知道. I don’t know.  But I do
    不知道. I don’t know.  But I do agree…We all definitely need to recognize we are weak.  We need love. We need friendship. 

    Man does not live by bread alone. 

    Approval is not the same thing as connection, or love and friendship and I am not really sure the association of approval with love or connection or friendship.  Acceptance yes.  Approval not so important.

    Still, the issue becomes from whom and how does one seek approval/acceptance/love. 

  5. Levi, I watch Jersey Shore as
    Levi, I watch Jersey Shore as well, for the same reason you do: entertainment.
    If there’s no pleasure for these hedonists, it’s in part because they don’t practice the art of moderation, as the philosophical hedonists did. Many of them are quite dysfunctional, which is what makes them so much fun to watch. Aside from Vinny, who seems nice and normal, Snooki, who is
    eccentric but genuine and sweet, and JWOWW, who has some anger management issues but is good-hearted and well-intentioned, the rest of the cast strike me as having serious issues, and even personality disorders. The worst of them, to my mind, is Mike the Situation. I believe he’s a psychopathic sex addict and explain why in the article below:

  6. I was just thinking this last
    I was just thinking this last night: I do tax preparation during the tax season, and it is rare that any one is completely alone. Even people who file as single taxpayers have a boyfriend/girlfriend/other. The thought struck me as I was leaving the tax shop last night that an income is like a little beacon of light that multiple people cluster around and derive benefit from – especially now when a steady income is really hard to come by. Even the poorest of people share their income with others if they have an income. I’m not saying that they always share it willingly, but they share.

  7. Thanks for that observation,
    Thanks for that observation, Mike.

    Claudia, you may be right that Mike “The Situation” fits the profile of an unintentional sexual predator or psychopath. The mean streak that comes out when a woman declines to have sex with him is rather disturbing, and is a surprising departure from his otherwise amiable personality. I’m glad you point this out, though I hope Mike works out his “issues” and reaches his natural potential as a TV star.

    When I say that he and Snooki are the two smartest in the house, and that they know how to play the game, I mainly mean that they are both media-savvy. They are there to build their brands. They are professionals, and they don’t understand why the others in the house keep losing their heads. We’ll be seeing Snooki and the Situation in various formats on TV for the rest of our lives.

    Paul Ray, I can respect somebody putting down reality TV if they don’t watch scripted TV. Personally, I think it’s a much fresher form, and I have enjoyed many reality shows — mostly the Mark Burnett variety as well as older classics like “Real World” and the original “American Family”. For what it’s worth, I can think of at least one reality competition series where the contestants don’t act like jerks to each other: “Project Runway”, which my daughter got me to start watching — it’s a good show. The art spinoff series “Work of Art” is also good. In both “Runway” and “Work of Art”, the contestants tend to be polite and supportive to each other, but there’s still a lot of drama. I think “American Idol” falls into this category too. I should probably write a Litkicks article about reality TV as postmodern literature, or something. But this all has nothing to do with what we were supposed to be discussing, which is Ayn Rand’s philosophy of ethics.

  8. Levi, that just goes to show
    Levi, that just goes to show that whenever you have a contest between pop culture and a serious subject, pop culture tends to win:). That’s why most foreign correspondents were fired and entertainment editors hired to replace them. I agree with you about Snooki and the Situation being media smart. For the Situation, it comes naturally since all sociopaths are narcissistic and live for drawing attention to themselves. With Snooki, it’s more innocuous I think. She’s so quirky and genuine that the media really likes her (since a lot of “celebrities” appear very fake).

  9. Maybe it’s the people who
    Maybe it’s the people who watch this show and keep it on the air who are the shameless hedonists?

  10. I have a difficult time
    I have a difficult time calling these shows ‘reality shows’ solely because there is nobody on these shows (any of them) who are unaware that they are on camera. When anyone is on camera there is a certain amount of ‘mugging’ or drama that is emitted.

    The only honest reality shows are about the animal world because animals do not have egos. All other shows are ego-driven to various degrees. It is the duality of the exhibitionist performing for the voyeur.

    This is not meant to demean our obvious necessity for watching the so-called reality shows that are easily tuned into on any tv, but merely a commentary on our society. The only reality is we, the collective ‘we’, talk. That is a human quality that all of us willingly indulge in and talk is very cheap in reality shows… it is what draws an audience.

  11. I agree with “mtmynd;”
    I agree with “mtmynd;” calling these shows “reality” stretches the meaning of the term. I am a high school teacher – want to see teenagers change who they are? Turn a camera on them; depending on the situation they will mug for the lens, hide their faces, or sometimes behave even more maturely than usual (like if a discussion is video-taped as part of a project.)

    As to the Ayn Rand posts, I have been enjoying them as I have discovered them rather late. I do they there are some true “hedonists” in the world who live, or believe they live, solely for their own pleasure. But they are generally deluded and shallow people who are worthy of pity, which they of course do not appreciate.

  12. As I was reading your
    As I was reading your discussion on “Jersey Shore,” I had many questions concerning your presuppositions or assumptions. For instance, what do you mean by “relationships”? Are all relationships the same or are all relationships ontologically good. That is assuming that you can define “good”? Is my identity or my happiness dependent upon my relationship to a group? I’m not trying to be difficult, or picky, but it seems to me that you are taking many things are granted or making conclusions that need far more discussion.
    I do not doubt that for those on “Jersey Shore” peer group acceptance is the most important thing, but I actually see that as something tragic. That raises all sorts of ethical questions.

  13. Hi Michael — these are good
    Hi Michael — these are good questions. Well, I see no reason to presume that all relationships are the same, nor that all relationships are ontologically good. I try to presume as little as possible, and I see no reason to presume either of these things.

    You may be right that inter-dependency between humans is tragic, and you are certainly right that some people tend towards inter-dependency more than others. But I’m pretty sure that even the most self-contained and self-reliant individuals regularly find themselves to be inter-dependent in many ways. For instance, look at the dramatic story of love and betrayal and scorn in Ayn Rand’s own life, which is well documented in every biography of Ayn Rand. It’s clear from her own life story that Rand herself was highly dependent on Nathaniel Branden. Whether this is good or bad, it’s a psychological truth: we cannot help but depend on others for our feelings of pleasure, purpose and self-worth.

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