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.


Aristophanes on Reason and Society

Aristophanes was an Athenian comic poet and contemporary of Socrates most famous for lampooning Socrates in his work The Clouds. The representation we see of Socrates in The Clouds is of Socrates as a ridiculous person intent on destroying the traditional customs and way of life of Athens.  This image of Socrates fits quite closely with the charges presented to Socrates for corrupting youth, and not believing in the gods of the city, and in this sense Aristophanes` image of Socrates contrasts quite strongly with the image presented by Plato.  Against the background of The Clouds Aristophanes is often read as a stark traditionalist who opposes the impact of reason and reflection on society. I find this reading plausible in a sense, but if we look at Aristophanes` play The Frogs we are able to develop a clearer understanding of Aristophanes’ understanding and critique of reason.

In The Frogs Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back the tragedian, Euripides, as the current crop of tragedians is disappointing and fail to meet the quality of tragedy that Dionysus expects.  Once Dionysus reaches the underworld it becomes clear that Aeschylus, an earlier Athenian tragedian, has been deemed to be the best tragedian in the underworld. However, Euripides has challenged Aeschylus for this title. In response to this dilemma Hades asks Dionysus to be the judge in a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus regarding who is the best tragedian.

In this contest Aeschylus represents the traditional martial values, against the more democratic and commercial, and rational impulses of Euripides. For example, in reference to Aeschylus Euripides says “I saw through him years ago, All that rugged grandeur-it`s all so uncultivated and unrestrained. No subtlety whatsoever. Just a torrent of verbiage, stiffened with superlatives and padded out with pretentious polysyllables.”(166, 830) In response to this Aeschylus remarks with regard to Euripides “That`s about the level of criticism one might expect from you, `son of the seed-goddess.` And what are your plays but a concatenation of commonplaces, as threadbare as the ragged beggars who populate them.”(166-167, 840)

From these remarks we can see that  Euripides sees Aeschylus as representing an aristocratic pomposity that fails to say anything subtle or interesting, while Aeschylus sees Euripides as someone who only represents the common sense of rabble and rather than populating his plays with dignified figures, populates them with “cripples and beggars.” (167, 845) To us there may be nothing inherently undignified about being crippled but in the context of Ancient Athens where a man`s ability to fight in battle was a large determinant of his social worth, being crippled reduced one`s status. Consequently, Aeschylus and Euripides are not only in disagreement about the technical skill required to create a good tragedy, but also regarding what kind of characters a tragedy should deal in. Aeschylus focuses on military leaders, gods, and kings, whereas Euripides is more inclusive in the variety of characters he is willing to present as the subject matter of tragedy.

This opposition between the noble, martial Aeschylus and the more democratic, rational Euripides is further reinforced when Euripides says that unlike Aeschylus he “wrote about everyday things, things the audience knew about and could take me up on if necessary.“ (171, 960) As a result of this Euripides notes that he has been able “to teach the audience to use its brains, introduce a bit of logic into the drama. The public have learnt from me how to think, how to run their households, to ask `why is this so? What do we mean by that?“ (171, 970) Thus, Euripides not only is more inclusive in representing a wider variety of characters from different social classes, his art also serves the purpose of encouraging and developing the audience`s capacity for reasoning, cleverness and reflection. While for our culture these are all viewed as necessarily positive things Aeschylus is still critical of Euripides approach as Aeschylus says to Euripides:“And look how you`ve encouraged people to babble. The wresting school are empty. And where have all the young men gone? Off to these notorious establishments where they practise the art of debating – and that`s not all they practise either. These days even the sailors argue with the officers; in my day the only works they knew were `slops` and `heave-ho.` “ (175, 1070) Consequently, we see how Aeschylus defend the martial values associated with physical training through wrestling and respecting the chain of command as being subverted by the Euripidean attempt to teach the audience to think. In contrast to Euripides` standpoint Aeschylus says that poets “have a duty to teach [the audience], what is right and proper,“  and this for Aeschylus seems to mean doing your duty given your station within society, rather than questioning authority through one`s reason. (174, 1050) Therefore, Euripides seems to be on the side of reflection, reason and inclusiveness, whereas Aeschylus is far more hidebound, aristocratic and concerned with defending martial values.

So, in Aristophanes The Frogs we see a battle if you will between reason, cleverness and democratic instincts and martial values, as well as other aristocratic sentiments. But the interesting thing about this is that the battle must take place through a debate between Aeschylus and Euripides. Consequently, there is a degree of irony in the idea of holding a contest between reason and martial values through the medium of reason.

I think what Aristophanes is trying to say by virtue of making use of the debate as the medium of this contest is to draw a distinction between prereflective and reflective cultures. In a prereflective culture people take their position in society and its mores as a given that is unquestioned, whereas in a reflective culture people do reflect and are willing to question their position in society and its mores. What I think Aristophanes is trying to say with the use of rational debate as a way of resolving the question of who is the best tragedian is that since Athens has become a reflective culture as a result of many occurrences including the influence of Socrates, Euripides and the Sophists, questions must be dealt with through the medium of reason.  Once a culture has become reflective the social mores and overall structure of society is no longer a mere given, but must be justified through speech. In this sense as reason comes to influence society and move it in a reflective direction reason must necessarily become the arbiter of conflicts as there is no source of authority that can be taken as an ultimate given or foundation. Now Aristophanes is certainly not celebrating the fact that Athens has become reflective in this way, in fact he seems to decry it some degree but by making use of debate and reason as the medium to determine, he seems to be saying that once a culture is under the influence of reason, reason must be the guide to determining questions; there is no way to simply return to a prereflective culture once a culture has become reflective.

In addition, Aristophanes does not merely point out that once reason has influenced society and pushed it in the reflective direction, reason and talk must become the arbiter of conflict rather than an unquestioned form of social authority, he also questions the ability to take on this task. In order to figure out who is the winner of the contest regarding who is the best tragedian Dionysus does not simply try to judge based on the poets arguments. After he hears their arguments Dionysus is unable to decide which poet to choose. So to try to decide this question an attempt is made to weigh Aeschylus, and Euripides and their poetry on a scale to figure out whose poetry is weightier, and thus better. (185, 1360)  The idea of weighing poetry is very comic, and some might think that Aristophanes is just trying to get a laugh out of it, but the weighing of the poets and their poetry is not ultimately successful in determining whose poetry is better either. The only way Dionysus is able to make this decision is by deciding the contest with regard to which poet has better advice to save Athens. (187, 1420)  It should be noted that Athens was at war with Sparta in the Peloponnesian war at the time in which this play was performed. So, in this play neither rational debate nor the weighing of poetry through some technological artifice are able to determine who is the best tragedian, and the only way to deal with the question is to change it from a question of who is best, to whose advice will best help Athens deal with its situation. The former is an extremely abstract question, while the latter is far more concrete. Consequently, Aristophanes seems to be saying that reason tends to be indeterminate when it is used to answer abstract questions. We can see this as reason, whether through speech, or as embodied in a technological tool ultimately fails to figure out who is the best tragedian. Thus, Aristophanes critique of reason seems to be that it it not always able to provide us with a determinate answer to abstract questions, and consequently, while it  may have a place in society it cannot serve as its ultimate foundation.

Now, as something of a partisan of reason I find Aristophanes` conclusion troubling, and unsettling, but he does provide an interesting challenge as it not obvious that if we argue and think about an issue for long enough that we will find an answer that any reasonable person can accept, and if reason is to serve as an ultimate foundation for society and politics it would have to provide a justification that all reasonable people can accept.


Works Cited

Aristophanes. Frogs and Other Plays. Trans. David Barrett. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata and Other Plays. Trans. Alan H. Sommerstein. London: Penguin, 2002. Print.

What does “liberalism” mean?

The word “liberalism” is a key concept both within the political vernacular of post-industrial societies as well as within the academy. But this word does not seem to have a fixed, singular meaning, rather different groups seem to use this term to refer to entirely different social phenomena and theoretical justifications. In this entry I would like to unpack some of the different ways in which the term “liberal” and “liberalism” is used and show that we ought to explain what we mean by this term when using it in conversation with others because it seems to refer to a disparate set of phenomena and ideas.

In everyday use in North America the term liberal refers to someone who is on the left side of the political spectrum. In this sense the word liberal denotes a broad acceptance of, and enthusiasm for a welfare state that will ensure the equality, and freedom of all, as well as a broad acceptance of difference. Liberalism, in this sense, let’s call it Sense 1 Liberalism, is defined in opposition to conservatism which is understood in terms of adherence to free enterprise, and a general uneasiness with the recognition of difference, whether cultural, racial or sexual. Within everyday political discourse when someone says liberal this is typically what they mean, however there are many other uses of the terms liberal, and liberalism, which display very different meanings.

Another sense of the term “liberalism” is that which refers to an approach to political economy which emphasizes the efficiency of markets and their self-regulating nature as well as the fact that the state should be as minimal as possible as is consistent with ensuring a large degree of economic growth. This is often referred to as neoliberalism; the rationale behind calling this orientation towards the economy neoliberalism is that it is return to the 19th century liberalism of laissez faire capitalism. But for our purposes let us call this Sense 2 Liberalism, as people will still often refer to liberal economics or liberalism to refer to this doctrine that emphasizes the primacy of markets.

One other way in which the term liberalism is used is particularly predominant in the academy among critical theorists (Marxists, Radical Feminists etc) and some Communitarians. In this context liberalism is a pejorative used to describe a mixture of political, cultural and economic attitudes within liberal democratic societies. This term does not describe any particular theory, but the status quo within liberal societies such as Canada, the United States, and many countries within Western Europe among others. Let us call this Sense 3 Liberalism.

One final way in which liberalism is used is common within the Anglo-American academy, especially among Political Philosophers and Political Theorists. This sense of liberalism posits that liberalism is a family of political philosophies that emphasizes that the point of the state is to ensure the equal freedom of all individuals under it. There are of course differing variants of liberalism in this sense that range between more market capitalist oriented interpretations and more egalitarian interpretations that accept as much state intervention in the economy as most socialists would. Furthermore, some variants emphasize that ensuring equal freedom is necessary to support an autonomous life, while others suppose that ensuring equal freedom is not necessary to another end, but something that is required to treat a person with respect, but they all share this broad commitment to equal freedom of the individual. Let us call this Sense 4 Liberalism. The philosophies of Locke, Mill, Rawls, Dworkin and Waldron would all be examples of Sense 4 Liberalism.

Now we can see that all of these meanings of liberalism share some commonalities, in that they all have something to do with freedom and the individual, but beyond that there is not much that unites them at the level of meaning. For example, I would say that I am a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism, while I am not a supporter of Sense 2 or Sense 3 Liberalism. The fact that I think that the state should ensure that all those who live under it are accorded equal freedom, need not mean that I support the current state of culture, politics, and economics within liberal democratic societies. Societies that are based on principles that correspond to Sense 4 Liberalism do tend to have vices similar to those of Sense 3 Liberalism, but this does not mean that supporters of Sense 4 Liberalism need to support these vices.

The trouble is that often people use one sense of the term liberalism, without explaining what the term means, to either support or critique liberalism. When this occurs the others listening to this person will often be confused because if the person is critiquing Sense 3 Liberalism, and say liberalism necessary leads to a shallow society, and their interlocutor thinks of liberalism in terms of Sense 1 Liberalism then they will be puzzled and confused by the critics comments. Furthermore, if they are a supporter of Sense 4 Liberalism they may get very defensive because this person is suggesting that a mere commitment to the notion that ensuring equal freedom is the fundamental aim of the state means that one is also encouraging the creation of a shallow society. Consequently, using the term liberalism without explanation of what one means is a strategy that tends to lead to confusion. It should be noted that each of these senses of the term liberalism flourishes in differing set of topical spaces, but these spaces often overlap such that if the exclusive user of Sense 2 Liberalism is encountered by exclusive users of Sense 4 Liberalism and neither party is willing to explain what they mean by liberalism than confusion, will ultimately arise. Consequently, we should be very careful when using the term liberalism to explain what we mean, so that they we don’t confuse our interlocutors.

Yet a further difficulty occurs in that liberalism is a word that typically attracts either feelings of condemnation or praise. Whatever sense of the word liberalism is dominant in someone’s lexicon, they ordinarily have strong thoughts about it. Thus, the term liberalism tends to be used less as a device to explain one’s position, than as a rhetorical device that signifies either pure goodness or wretchedness. For example, many critical theorists use liberal or liberalism as a synonym for bad (the badness of late capitalist society). While many market liberals use liberalism as a synonym for goodness (the goodness of the market). Thus, it seems that in the context of the use of the word liberalism at the very least Alasdair MacIntyre is right to suggest that in the modern world concepts that seem to have a distinct meaning are used more to express approval and disapproval than to actually convey a coherent position about the nature of the right or the good. Clearly, it would be problematic for rational ethical/political dialogue if all that we were doing through it was expressing approval or disapproval without conveying a substantive coherent position about the good, but if we continue to use the term liberalism as it is being used then at least in the case of liberalism we would not actually be engaging in a rational exchange about the nature of the good, rather we would be trying to bludgeon one another with our approval or disapproval of an abstraction.

Given the dilemma sketched above, we have to ensure that when engaging in ethical or political dialogue with others we use terms like liberal, that at once refer to disparate phenomena, but also are subjects of condemnation or praise, in a way that recognizes that the other may not just disagree with us about whether the term deserves praise or condemnation, but rather may mean something entirely different by the term. This will require us to avoid using the term as a merely polemical device, and rather require us to explain what it is we are supporting and condemning. In the abstract this may seem like an obvious requirement of rational dialogue, but the dialogue in our society suggests that then we are confronted with opponents we rarely engage in dialogue in this way. Consequently, when engaging dialogue we need to think about what we are doing, and be sure that we are taking the steps necessary to help the other understand our position, rather than merely beat them.