Louis CK’s SNL Monologue: Pedophilia and Passions

Last Saturday, Louis CK hosted SNL, and over the course of his opening monologue he ran with a bit about pedophiles. While I found this bit humorous, there have been some who have been outspoken in their criticism of Louis CK for the line of jokes that he ran with concerning pedophilia and suggested that he overstepped and went too far in joking about this topic. The idea being that there are some matters that you cannot joke about because they are so associated with cruelty, depravity and sin that any joking about them somehow legitimizes the activity and makes light of its seriousness. However, it seems to me that Louis CK that the reason why his jokes about pedophilia have offended some and made them feel uncomfortable is because he actually tries to genuinely portray what it is to be a pedophile. In so doing CK has shown that a certain popular image of humanity, which sees the fundamental value of human existence in pursuing one’s passions, is fundamentally flawed. This revealing is upsetting to people because it reveals that pedophiles like other human beings are vulnerable to being dominated by passions and thus they are not just automatons doing terrible things rather, they share a certain fundamental characteristic with the rest of humanity.

During his monologue Louis CK points out that given the consequences of being caught as a child molester one can only guess that the molester really enjoys their pursuit as they are willing to risk a lot of valuable things such as freedom and respect in order so that they can commit acts of pedophilia. CK flippantly says that he loves the chocolate bar “Mounds” (as a Canadian I am unaware of this chocolate bar, but I have been told it is somewhat like Almond Joy), but if he would have to go to prison for eating a “Mounds” then he would stop eating them. As much as CK loves “Mounds” they are not worth risking freedom and respect for.

But what is Louis CK trying to get at by noting that he would not risk his freedom for the delicious taste of Mounds, while the child molester is willing to risk freedom and respect to engage in pedophilia? I think what he is getting at is the difference between a desire and a passion. Thus far I have used these terms interchangeably but I think there is a difference between them. A desire simply is a want of some object, whereas a passion is a want for some object but its relation to its holder is such that not pursuing this object is unthinkable to them. In this sense then a passion is a desire that tends to dominate the agent, it does not merely occur and then go away if it is not satiated. Instead, it persists until it is satiated. Consequently, for CK the child molester is driven by a passion rather than a mere desire. The image that Louis CK paints of the child molester is more like the image of a drug addict that will do anything to get high, or similarly an artist committed to creation of beauty at all costs.

If the image that Louis CK portrays of the child molester is at all accurate than the understanding of the ultimate value of human existence as lying in pursuing one’s passion seems to be deeply problematic, as it would endorse a way of life that causes great damage to persons as pedophiles too seem to be creatures who are driven by their passions. This understanding of pursuing one’s passion as a fundamental value in human existence is quite common as we are often told that what ultimately matters in figuring out how to best live one’s life is to finding and pursuing one’s passion. I cannot count the amount of times that I have been told this myself, or heard this uttered by others. Consequently, what Louis’ humour shows is that pursuing one’s passion is not a necessary, nor a sufficient condition, to live well. Pursuing a passion can be valuable, but only if this passion genuinely matters and its pursuit is not cruel or inhumane. Being dominated by the passion to see justice done, or to be a committed friend is perfectly legitimate, but it is legitimate not because a passion is being pursued but because the passion that is being pursued is something that fundamentally matters. Louis’ point is upsetting to people as it contradicts the notion that if I am pursuing my passion I am living well. It forces to go back to the question of what passions are ultimately worth pursuing and that is a far more difficult task to undertake, then simply pursuing whatever passion I happen to feel the strongest at a given moment.

In addition it makes us recognize that while pedophiles commit evil acts they are not mere monsters who are different from other humans in all but appearance. Instead, Louis shows that while pedophiles are terrible people they too are driven by their passions and in this sense they are not as distant from ordinary human beings who also struggle with being driven by their passions, as most of us would like to think. Their passions are for more destructive than a typical human being’s but they share in the fact that they are vulnerable to being completely dominated by their passions.

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Unity and Disunity of the Self : Is a unified self a suppressed self?

In the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle the idea that humans could, and should, become unified selves is strongly defended, yet how plausible is this idea? It seems that while there are some reasons to question whether unity is valuable goal, unity gives us the best possible chance to live rich, fully developed lives.

The idea of a unified self posits that all parts of one’s being are integrated in a harmonious way such that one is not conflicted and being driven in one direction by one element of oneself and in one direction by another element of oneself. The Platonic tripartite division of the soul is the classic statement of the idea of the unified self. For Plato, there are three parts of the soul. There is the rational part of the soul, the spirited part of the soul and the appetitive part of the soul. The rational part of the soul must be in control of the other two parts of the soul, so that one is not driven apart by the different desires associated with the spirited and appetitive parts of the soul. This notion of unity is so attractive, because disunity would mean that one was enslaved to particular parts of one’s soul. Whereas, unity would correspond with self-mastery in that one is ordering one’s own soul through reason. Here, it should be noted that when Plato spoke of a soul he merely was referring to animacy, rather than something like the Christian conception of the soul, so soul is not being opposed to body in this context.

Contrastingly, the ideal of unity is seen to be problematic by many for a couple of reasons. Firstly, very few of us if any seem to be able to achieve unity. It seems likely that we all remain slaves to some degree to particular desires and we are driven willy-nilly by them. Consequently, this unity of the self may be an unachievable ideal. Secondly, unity is seen as problematic because any unity may come at the cost of suppressing something fundamental about being human. On this view, there are various fundamental part of the self, and any unity we achieve will come at the expense of something else. For example, if we unify ourselves through reason we will be suppressing the vitality of our emotional life, and if we put our emotions in control we may be suppressing the rational part of our nature. This is powerful critique of the ideal of unity as it seems intuitive to think that if we put one part of our self in control this would suppress other elements of the self that are vitally important to who we are.

The first criticism of the ideal of unity can quite easily be countered by pointing to the fact that even though most of us fail to achieve unity, we tend to know at least one person who has approached this ideal or met it. It may not be an ideal that all can achieve, but it does not seem to be out of reach of all human beings by any stretch of the imagination.

The second criticism poses a deeper challenge but it can be rebutted. While it may be true that there are a variety of elements of the self that are vitally important our humanity, there is really no attractive way of living that does not involve developing the self into some kind of unity. The alternative to unity would be merely to follow whatever drive catches you at that given moment, and to live in this way is to merely be a slave of whatever drive you happen to be beholden to at a particular time. In this case you are not truly self-directing, or in control of the direction of your life. Consequently, the alternative to unity hardly seems attractive.

Even though the alternative to unity presented above seems unattractive I have still not shown why unity might be more attractive. It is that task that I will handle for the rest of this entry. The danger with unity is that we will suppress something fundamental about ourselves and because of that live a life that is impoverished in a certain regard. However, this danger is an inescapable part of living itself, rather than a danger that is associated with the ideal of unity. No matter how we live we will have to make choices that guide us down certain paths and draw us away from others. For example if I choose to live my life as a political activist, this means foregoing the life of a solitary monk. In some sense by making this choice I am in danger of impoverishing myself, as I may fail to develop a tranquil spirit because of the choice that I have made, but if I had chosen the path of the monk I would equally be in danger of impoverishing my life by missing the opportunity to develop the social virtues necessary to be a good activist. So too with unity, the development of unity of the self may come with the suppression of certain elements of the self. Likewise, if I live my live without any direction towards a unified self than I will equally be in danger of impoverishing myself as there is no reason to think that my drives will direct me towards a fulfilling life. Therefore, it seems that ideal of the unity of the self is defensible, and to some extent the only choice we have, for if we do not try to achieve unity we are putting our fate into the hands of whatever our drives happen to do at any particular time, and there is little reason to think that this will lead us to lead rich, fully developed lives.

It should be noted that my defense of unity above is very different from Plato’s, as Plato thought that any person with a unified soul would live the same kind of life and have the same values, whereas I see unity of the self as consistent with individual leading a plurality of different lives and holding a variety of values. However, my defense of unity like Plato’s seeks to defend unity and show that unity gives us the best chance of living a fully developed life.

Uniqueness and the Desire to Distinguish Oneself

The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is highly regarded in the popular culture of post-industrial liberal democratic societies.  It is repeatedly said that all people are unique and that they should be able to express their uniqueness. Consequently, this desire drives us to adopt our own unique personal lifestyle and tastes. Furthermore while this desire has taken on a particular form in post-industrial liberal democracies, it seems to be tied to the general human desire to distinguish oneself, whether it be through excellence or uniqueness. In this entry I will claim that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is at once something that moves us to live a more fully developed life, and at the same time is something that can drive us to lead a superficial, impoverished life.

This desire to distinguish oneself through uniqueness is at once a desire that is deeply problematic and something that pushes us to lead more fully developed lives. This desire allows us to live more fully developed lives because it drives us to engage in a richer set of practises, than the conformist engages in. The person who is driven to distinguish themselves by being unique will engage in many valuable practises that the conformist will not. This can help us to lead more fully developed lives because as someone engages in a wider set of practises they will develop greater self-knowledge than someone who merely conforms. This greater self-knowledge is intrinsically valuable, but it also equips someone to live a richer life as they begin to realize what is fundamentally important in the development of their life.

However, it should be noted that the desire to distinguish oneself by being unique can become problematic when someone lives their life as if the point of their life is merely to be unique.  The desire to distinguish oneself by being unique is a valid desire, because the desire can often lead people to lead a fully developed life, as I explained above.  But when someone begins to live life as though the point of life is to lead a unique life they are leading a deeply impoverished life. In such a case they are not focusing on living a life that embodies their reflective perception of the good life, they are focusing on being unique for its own sake. This is why everyone dislikes “hipsters.” “Hipsters” desire to distinguish themselves by being unique, but rather than putting value on leading a life that embodies their reflection of what the good life is, they try to lead a life that is unique even if it is impoverished.  The elitism of the hipster is superficial, because they think they are better than others as their tastes are unique, which is a pretty terrible reason to think that one is better than others.

The preceding commentary reveals the  way in which our desires to distinguish ourselves is at once something that can drive us towards the highest goods, but also something that can direct us to lead a life of petty elitism. Thus, we should not merely eschew the desire to distinguish ourselves, as it truly can help us to lead richer lives, but we must be mindful of the negative possibilities of this desire. Treading this middle path is full of hazards, but it is surely our best choice, as we often learn about the good through our desire to distinguish ourselves.

Authentic Desires and Excellence

Often within contemporary liberal democracies it is suggested that people should be authentic and only pursue goals that they endorse and they should also avoid refraining from satiating a desire, because society views that desire negatively.  The preceding is a popularly held conception of authenticity at its most basic level.  This conception of authenticity does not seem to be a problematic ideal, as it encourages integrity rather than gravelling servility, but the difficulty is that this conception of authenticity also tends to encourage self-satisfaction and can push people away from striving for excellence and developing their own potential as much as it can push people to develop their capabilities.

The difficulty is that some people may have a desire to excel, but they refrain from acting on this desire, because it would involve giving up the satiation of some other desire. In this case both desires are authentic desires in that they both are desires of the person, and they are not desires that the person wants to be rid of,  like the desire for alcohol that a recovering alcoholic has.  For example, I may feel a desire to excel by volunteering to promote literacy within my community, but due to the fact that I also have the desire to experience as much material comfort as possible I forgo the volunteer opportunity because it conflicts with the other desire, as volunteering involves giving up time that I could use to watch TV, play video games, or eat fine food.  In this case, both volunteering and experiencing material comfort are authentic decisions in that they are responses to authentic desires, but it seems like we would think less of the person who chooses to satiate the desire for material comfort over the one who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy. We think that the person who pursues the desire to volunteer to promote literacy is somehow a more admirable person, because they correspond more strongly with the type of person that we aspire to become, than the person who chooses material comfort over volunteering to promote literacy. The one who chooses material comfort is certainly not a bad person; they may be perfectly humorous, genuine and nice, but they seem to have failed because they have chosen a fleeting experience of comfort over developing their character.

This example conveys two related yet distinct sets of desires. On one hand we have a desire for excellence.  That is we have a desire to become a certain sort of admirable person. On the other hand we have authentic desires to have certain kinds of experiences. These two elements are not unrelated as my character may influence the kinds of experiences I choose to pursue, but nonetheless they are distinct as the desire to see a concert is qualitatively distinct from my desire to be more courageous, generous or wise.

To get back to the preceding example we might say that we think less of those who let their desire for experiences of certain kinds prevent them from acting on their desire to excel, that is their desire to become a more excellent person. The reason for this is not an empty moralistic judgment that is the leftover of puritanical religions. Rather, the reason for this judgment is that ultimately people have to live with the fact that they have made certain choices to develop their character in particular ways, whereas the experiences that a person has are far less important. I may be upset that I have never got to see a band that I love perform, but if I pursue the authentic desire for notoriety at the expense of my authentic desire to be a good friend I have engaged in a much larger failing. Such an act reveals that I am weak-willed and have deeply problematic priorities and the same can be said of the person who lets their desire for material comfort prevent them from promoting literacy.

To get back to the issue of authenticity we have two sets of authentic desires. We have authentic desires for certain kinds of experiences, and authentic desires to excel, or put differently to become the kind of person we find most admirable. Ultimately, if we let our desire for certain kinds of experiences get in the way of our desire to excel we have failed in the task of living a fully developed human life. Those human lives that we esteem are admirable not because those who lived them had wonderful experiences, but because these people had admirable traits that lead them to do excellent things. Consequently, we need to prioritize the authentic desires we experience that are most important, and avoid letting trivial, but authentic, desires get in the way of fully developing our potential for excellence.