Pleasure or edification?

Pleasure V good memories

Psychologists tell us that we are motivated by two things. The first is the sheer pleasure of an activity, like drinking a cocktail or listening to music. These are activities which are done for their own sake and not as a means to an end.

Other things are done because they improve either your own world or the world at large. They are done not for their own sake but for a purpose. These are things that you probably wouldn’t bother doing if you knew that all trace of them would be lost a few hours after doing them.

Taking photos is an example. It is done not because it is enjoyable to point a camera at someone and press your index finger down onto a small button but because people hope to gain some pleasure from the photos in the future.

Hardly anyone would choose to go to work if they knew that their bank balance wouldn’t be affected by this. Nor would most parents make their children go to school if they knew that every evening their children’s knowledge would be reset to what it had been the previous evening. After all, what is the point of learning something when that knowledge is immediately erased? It’s true, there can be a certain pleasure in learning but this pleasure comes principally from the assumption that the newly gained knowledge will somehow come in useful. Take away this assumption and learning is no longer fun.

The same is true, at least for me, of cultural activities like art appreciation. The only reason I do it is because it helps me to place some artistic movements in history and I can see how one artist or movement is related to another. By doing this I am able to make some sense of art and join in conversations about it. However, unlike some people, I don’t get any experiential pleasure from looking at art. I don’t enjoy it like I would a good film, a nice song or an ice cream. For me, looking at art is not worth doing for its own sake.

Some people claim to read Shakespeare for the sheer pleasure while others plough doggedly through his works either because they have to pass an exam or they have been told that reading Shakespeare is in some way edifying.

You can test yourself on such things. Ask yourself if you would prefer to go on a holiday to Rome or to Guam. In Rome you can see all the cultural sights and learn about its history. You can take lots of photos to remind yourself later of what you did and you can show these to your friends and family. On the other hand, in Guam all you can do is lie on a beach, feel the sun on your skin, swim a bit and drink cocktails. Nothing worthy in all this and not much to tell your grandchildren years later.

Many people (including me) who are given this choice choose Rome because it seems more edifying. However, when told that all photos and memories will be erased from their minds the moment they step off the plane back in England and it will be as if they never went away at all, would they still choose Rome? Many (again, including me) say no, they would choose Guam instead.

Edification only trumps immediate sensual pleasure if it is going to do us some long term good. If not, experiential pleasure wins.

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One comment on “Pleasure or edification?

  1. I would choose Rome in both cases. I had a few nights out there that I do not remember, and would gladly have a few more. I guess I’m just not a sunshine and beach person.

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