Pleasure and Value

January 16, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We have a campus listserv for political discussion. Recently, someone started a thread about the Swiss minaret ban and other European responses to demographic changes. But here’s what leapt off the page, to me at least:
I recently saw an article in the NY Times about a project sponsored by French president Nicolas Sarkozy to initiate a discussion of what it means to be French.

The man put in charge of this project, Eric Besson . . . went on to say that the debate was grounded in “the idea that there is a pleasure in discussing”. Yes, this is true, but I would have agreed even more strongly if he had said “there is a value in discussing.”
Where the M. Besson thought in terms of Pleasure, my American colleague wanted Value. The idea that there is “pleasure in discussing” is just not an idea that comes easily to the American mind. We discuss things, but we don’t do it for pleasure. We have a much more utilitarian view. Discussion, as the above quote implies, should have some practical “value”; we should be able to cash it in on some tangible goal.

The French apparently see pleasure as a legitimate end in itself. We tend to be a bit more suspicious of pleasure. Something can be pleasant – good food, good sex – but we might add some utilitarian justification (health, energy, self-enhancement, etc.). We are, after all, the culture where people talk about taking a vacation to “recharge my batteries” – so they can return as more productive workers.

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