Sunday, July 21, 2019

What Makes a Pleasure Perverse?

Paul Bloom tells us that some people take a perverse pleasure in not following the rules. I recall the following incident. When I was a freshman in college the testing service gave us all a special aptitude test. A guy from my dorm did the unthinkable: he managed to get every answer wrong. He got a zero. The testing authorities called him into their office. One woman was so distraught at what he had done to her curve, that she started crying. We were all duly impressed. For the record, this is a true story.

We might want to think that he had no good reason, but perhaps his bad reason was really a good reason.

Obviously, you can only get a zero on a multiple choice test if you know all the answers. But if you take offense at the useless exercise and choose to defy all norms, you can also show how smart you are by getting all the answers wrong. You will not be defying all rules and all norms, but will be issuing a rebuke against those who are making you take a test that counts for nothing. If you feel insulted by the exercise you might well make your results an effort to turn the tables, and thus, to salvage some measure of your self-respect. Is this a good reason or a bad reason? If the test were an SAT or a GRE or an LSAT, your ability to get a zero would not count at perverse; it would be self-destructive. 

So, perversity, in the sense that Bloom is using, applies when nothing is at stake… except for your self-respect. When psychologist Bloom interviews children and asks them suitably silly questions, they often give him suitably silly answers. They are being perverse but are also asserting themselves against what appears to them to be a mindless exercise.

… kids are so often perverse: they give silly answers for fun, saying the opposite of what they really think just because they can. Scientific papers have had to be retracted because of so-called mischievous responders. Researchers who study teen-agers have it worst. In one study, nineteen per cent of high-school students who claimed to be adopted turned out to be kidding. In another, ninety-nine per cent of students who said they used an artificial limb really didn’t.

One might say that these children are playing a language game. But, that they are playing a game that differs radically from the game being played by the researcher. Evidently, they are showing that the researchers’ game requires everyone to follow the same rules. And they are showing that they reject the role ascribed to them in the game: the role of guinea pig, the role of test subject who is not profiting from the game. Did they choose to play the game or were they told that they had to play it?

Bloom suggests that this resembles the behavior of wanton boys, boys who steal because they can. 

Augustine recounts how, in his youth, he and his friends stole some pears. They weren’t hungry—in fact, they threw the fruit to the hogs. Instead, Augustine writes, their act was “gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself.” Accounting for his behavior, he concludes, “I loved the evil in me.” We still explain perverse behavior this way. 

You may or may not want to tax school children with Augustinian evil for stealing a couple of pears. Apparently, the action counts as perverse because the boys are not profiting from their dereliction. They are not poor and hungry. But, they are also showing that the workings of a market involve participants obeying rules. Without mutual respect for rule following, there would be no market. They are not undermining the workings of a fruit stand as much as they are showing themselves to be non-participants-- not fully held to obey the rules-- because they are children.

By Bloom’s reasoning people perform perverse actions because it establishes them as authentic and autonomous:

Rather, it’s a way of establishing oneself as an authentic and autonomous being. We might call it existential perversity. A person can ask: If I only do what makes sense, what use am I? Why is my consciousness relevant at all? The desire to exercise your autonomy might motivate you to turn against the expected, the reasonable, and the moral—to show yourself, and perhaps others, that you are free.

If I may take exception, I would point out out that feeling you are autonomous and authentic does not make you autonomous and authentic. In truth, no human being is autonomous. No human being can function outside of society or the state. So said Aristotle, and we are happy to bring up the point. I will leave authenticity for another time and place.

Second, we must distinguish between two kinds of freedom. You can be free to play by the rules and you can be free to break the rules. These are not the same kinds of free. Evidently, the second kind of free precludes the first.

If a boy or an adult shows himself or the world that he is free of society’s strictures, he is writing himself out of society. He is setting himself apart, either to be rejected or to be idolized. Pariahs are not obliged to play by the rules. They have been placed outside of society because they have failed egregiously to do so, and have also failed to correct their errant ways.

And idols are not obliged to play by the rules. They make their own rules. In short, if you steal the pear and get away with it you are suggesting that you are above the rules. If you get caught, you might be voted off the island.

But then, behavioral economists believe that they know what is best for us. A highly dubious proposition... one that an individual might, for a good reason, want to reject.

Behavioral economists know that salads are better than hamburgers so they want us to make salads more prominent at the school lunch counter. They do allow the hamburgers to exist in a darker place, but well-intentioned efforts to trick children into eating what the economists want them to eat can lead to the Obama administration school lunch program where children did not have the choice. They were only offered big helpings of grass and weeds… and not allowed to eat hot dogs at all. The result, as you know, is that the children did not eat in school and, being hungry for most of the afternoon, ran off and gorged themselves on junk food. Tons of healthy food were apparently destroyed because behavioral economists failed to respect children's freedom to choose.

In that context, perverse behavior is not undertaken to show how autonomous children are, but to show the economists that they should stop trying to manipulate people, thus, to deprive them of their freedom. In that case, the collective perversity and petty despotism lies on the side of the economists, not of the children.

Bloom describes the economist approach.

On a societal level, the desire to exercise choice may create collective perversity. The policy theorists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have long advocated the adoption of “nudges”—revisions to our “choice architectures” that favor, by default, the most beneficial outcomes. A business might nudge its employees by automatically enrolling them in a retirement-savings plan (though they can always change it); a cafeteria might put the healthiest food in a prominent location (though the unhealthy food is still available). Thaler and Sunstein point out that choice architectures always exist. The salads have to go somewhere, so why not give them pride of place? Still, many people find the idea of nudges upsetting; they object to having their choices shaped, even in a rational direction.

Like psychologists who ask children silly questions, behavioral economists are being called out for their own bad behavior. That is, for trying to manipulate other people's minds... thus, to diminish their freedom.

Bloom ends with a reflection about potlatch, though he does not call it by its venerable Indian name. He talks about people who destroy valuable possessions and declares it to be a dangerous and perhaps perverse thrill:

It’s a collection of photographs depicting the gleeful destruction of valuable things—a hundred-dollar bill set on fire, fine champagne poured down a drain. Just looking at the photographs gives you a taste of what Rubin describes as a “dangerous thrill.”

In truth, the behavior is not perverse. Practiced by the chieftains of rival tribes, it is a way to assert status and to garner prestige. The chiefs who are burning their possessions are showing how wealthy they are. They are saying that they have wealth to burn. They have so much wealth that they can burn some of it and still have more than anyone else.

It’s like a billionaire who has so much money that he can waste tons of money… without it having any real effect on his wealth. When you have an infinite quantity of whatever, taking some of it away, even destroying some of it, means that you still have far more than you or anyone else would ever need. Only the hyperrich can burn their wealth.

We will grant an exception for those who participate in what Renaissance Florence called a bonfire of the vanities... a burnt offering, a sacrifice of possessions designed, not for a perverse motive, but as a way to get one step closer to Heaven.


trigger warning said...

I misspent much of the springtime and summer of my life enjoying the thrills and spills of amateur perversity. So I know a bit about the joys and benefits... and they are real. But in my autumn years, and almost by accident, I got involved in prison ministry and mentoring. In that capacity, I found a use for Leonard Read's wonderful story "I, Pencil".

The story is most often used, I think, to illustrate the wisdom of Smith/Friedman/Hayek and the economic theories they proposed. But it is also a wonderful tale about the benefits of co-operation (deliberately hyphenated). For many of the men I met behind bars, they were there because they refused to co-operate: get up in the morning, stay sober, go to work, do the job, avoid conflict. They were sand in the gears of the vast human economic cornucopia that pours out the essentials and comforts, some near-miraculous, the pencils and MRI machines, that insulate us from a life that is "nasty, brutish, and short".

Just two days ago, I mentioned to a friend that the ability to buy lemongrass from an American flyover country chain grocery store, assuming one even knew of the existence of lemongrass, was unthinkable when a man landed on the Moon. Call me a rube, but I think fresh lemongrass in the local produce department - not to mention unlimited, on-demand hot showers and potable water - are amazing. When I was teaching engineering courses, I often tried to explain that the modern global telecommunications network was surely a candidate for the 8th Wonder of the World.

So, naturally, the Left now wants to reward the "unwilling to work", aka the civizational sand in the gears, being hopelessly lost in the "maze of twisty little passages" of the cannabinoidal dream of Fully Automated Luxury Socialism.

Walt said...

Here you go. The new official mental illness--"Oppositional Defiant Disorder." The Soviets also considered it a mental disorder, treatable with Lithium, to oppose totalitarianism. Opposing insanity is not insane. Neither is opposing mandatory kale. 😊

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Trigger, that’s a really beautiful and revealing comment.

It shows how we take things for granted and make grand assumptions about civilization and upward progress.

Venezuela (the current episode, with countless historical examples from around the world) shows us we ought not take nothing for granted, and that human progress can reverse when there is oppression — when leaders evangelize magical thinking like “free lunches” — when there are no incentives to “co-operate.”