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Top 40 Philosophy: Taylor Swift, “Blank Space”

Posted in Friendly Philosophy, Music, and Top 40 Philosophy

Alright, enough wallowing in the past. Back to the current Billboard Hot 100, where we find — surprise, surprise! — Taylor Swift again. Billboard tells us that Ms. Swift is “the first woman in the Hot 100’s 56-year history to succeed herself at the top spot.” She’s kicked herself out of first place with a new song, called “Blank Space,” while the song with which we began Top 40 Philosophy (“Shake It Off”) is now at #3.

First, Taylor Swift is adorable. It’s almost painful. Second, the first guy in that video . . . I wish I were that good looking. (As the philosopher Yorke says, “I want a perfect body; I want a perfect soul.”)

While “Shake It Off” challenged the common picture of Ms. Swift as constantly cycling through boyfriends, this song affirms that picture. I suspect (a) Ms. Swift just enjoys playing with the media, and (b) the branding campaign for the current album is, “Keep ‘Em Confused.”

In any case, I want to focus on the following lines from the song: “You can tell me when it’s over / if the high was worth the pain.”

Here’s my problem: I strongly suspect the second line doesn’t make any sense. Let’s imagine that Ms. Swift is a utilitarian, like Jeremy Bentham. Bentham came up with an elaborate theory whereby you could calculate the right action in any circumstance. It is often called the “hedonic calculus.”

But here’s the question: can you take pleasure and pain, which are qualities, and calculate with them as if they are quantities? Is pain negative pleasure, or pleasure negative pain?

Historically, it was difficult for mathematicians to make sense of negative numbers, except as representing debt. $5 of debt counts as -$5. But pain isn’t pleasure that you owe someone else. Nor is pain the kind of thing you can wipe out, just by getting an equal amount of pleasure (like -5 + 5 = 0). If you have a particular amount of pain, and an equal amount of pleasure, they just sit there, side-by-side. Pain is its own kind of thing, and pleasure is a totally different kind of thing. They’re not on the same scale, like negative and positive numbers.

And isn’t whether something is ‘worth’ it about more than pain and pleasure? Isn’t it, more importantly, about importance and meaningfulness and goodness? Aren’t there some things that are so important that it doesn’t matter how much pain they cost you, or how little pleasure they give?

Let’s just say that I’m with Viktor Frankl here, rather than Jeremy Bentham (though Bentham seems to me to have been a positive force in British history).

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