Quite a bit of the GDP of the United States goes into a broad category we can call “entertainment” — television, video streaming services, books and newspapers, concerts, theatre, sports events (live and broadcast), and video games. The entertainment industry amounts to $717 billion in the US economy (link), and professional athletics adds another $73.5 billion (link). This category approaches a trillion dollars, and we haven’t even taken account of the video gaming sector. US GDP is about $19.4 trillion; so entertainment in all sectors may amount to 5% or more of the total US economy.
It is interesting to take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics American Time Use Survey (link) to get an empirical idea of how Americans of varying ages spend their time each day; link. Table 8A breaks down “time spent in primary activities for the civilian population 18 years and over”. Out of a 24-hour day, personal care activities and sleeping amount to 18 hours per day; organizational, civic, and religious activities amount to .27 hours per day; and leisure and sports activities amount to 4.12 hours per day. Work takes 3.94 hours per day (on average; 4.96 hours for men and 3.07 hours for women). (These are averages over a population, which explains the relatively low number of hours spent working.)
Both these observations demonstrate that millions of people value entertainment: they pay for it and the spend their time engaging with it. So entertainment is plainly valued in the lives of most people. But we can still ask a more fundamental question: what is the good of entertainment? Should society be organized in such a way as to facilitate the ability of people to find and consume sources of entertainment? Is more entertainment better than less?
There are a few simple answers to the question.
First, people often want to be entertained and choose to be entertained, and it is a basic principle of liberalism that it is good for people to exercise their liberty by doing what they want to do. (Liberty principle)
Second, people take pleasure in being entertained, pleasure is an important component of happiness, and happiness is a good thing. Therefore entertainment is a good thing, and people should be in a position to be entertained. (Happiness principle)
Third, sometimes “entertainment” is developmental and fulfilling of human capabilities for imagination, empathy, and ethical reasoning. By watching Citizen Kane or reading The Fire Next Time, people gain new insights into their own lives and the lives of others; they extend their capacity for empathy; and they enrichen their ability to think about complex social and moral topics. Martha Nussbaum makes this point in her discussions of the value of literature in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life and Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education. Nussbaum’s views are discussed by Heather McRobie in OpenDemocracy (link). These outcomes too seem intrinsically valuable by the individuals who experience them. This view of the potential value of “entertainment” converges with the capabilities approach to human wellbeing.(Human development principle)
But, of course, not all forms of entertainment are uplifting in an intellectual or moral sense. Six seasons of The Sopranos probably didn’t result in much intellectual or moral uplift for the millions of viewers who enjoyed the series, and an earlier generation’s interest in Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and Car 54 was probably equally unrewarded. So what about “pure entertainment”, without moral, intellectual, or aesthetic redeeming value? What about Tetris, Solitaire, Grand Theft Auto, or the Madden NFL franchise? What about Downton Abbey?
J. S. Mill, far-sighted media critic that he was, distinguished between higher and lower pleasures, and argued that the former are inherently preferable to any agent who has experienced both over the latter. His reasoning is based on his view that human beings have higher faculties and lower faculties; the higher pleasures exercise the higher faculties; and anyone who has experienced both will prefer the higher pleasures. Here are a few lines from Utilitarianism.
Now, it is an unquestionable fact that the way of life that employs the higher faculties is strongly preferred to the way of life that caters only to the lower ones· by people who are equally acquainted with both and equally capable of appreciating and enjoying both. Few human creatures would agree to be changed into any of the lower animals in return for a promise of the fullest allowance of animal pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no educated person would prefer to be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would rather be selfish and base, even if they were convinced that the fool, the dunce or the rascal is better satisfied with his life than they are with theirs. . . . If they ever think they would, it is only in cases of unhappiness so extreme that to escape from it they would exchange their situation for almost any other, however undesirable they may think the other to be. Someone with higher faculties requires more to make him happy, is probably capable of more acute suffering, and is certainly vulnerable to suffering at more points, than someone of an inferior type; but in spite of these drawbacks he can’t ever really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of existence. …. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides. (14)
This position is based on Mill’s idea that people who have experienced both kinds of pleasures will choose the higher (demanding, challenging, aesthetically and morally complex) pleasures over the lower pleasures. But this view seems to be largely refuted by the current entertainment industry; the audience for bad television certainly includes a proportionate share of Mill’s counterparts today (college professors, literary critics, journalists, and pundits). Plainly, there are many millions of people who have indeed experienced both higher and lower pleasures, and continue to enjoy both.
So Mill did not have a very good psychological theory of “entertainment”, even if he had a good aspirational philosophy of living. I doubt that Netflix would want JS Mill to serve as programming chief for its upcoming seasons.
There is probably a nugget of truth in the idea that the challenge and complexity of an activity is a dimension of its continuing appeal to the individuals who engage in the activity. Perhaps Go masters and chess masters take greater satisfaction in their games than do checkers players and aficionados of tic-tac-toe, and people who love literature may take more satisfaction from a novel by Boris Pasternak than Nora Roberts because of the relative complexity, unpredictability, and nuance of Pasternak’s love story. But it is clear that pleasure in entertainment derives from more than this: humor, suspense, nostalgia, complicated plots, character development, amazing special effects, depictions of human emotions, violence, plots that speak to one’s own experience, and so on indefinitely. Why these elements produce pleasure, however, is still unclear.
Perhaps we need to go back to ancient Greek philosophers in our quest for the sources of pleasure in “entertainment”. Is Aristotle right that we enjoy tragedy because of the catharsis it provides, and comedy, because of the physical pleasure we take in laughter? Does Epicurus have anything to tell us about why we enjoy watching Breaking Bad and Blazing Saddles? Can the Stoics shed light on why Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964) and Heaven’s Gate (1980) were so very unpopular with the movie audience? Does Plato have anything to say about whether Waiting for Godot is really entertaining, and whether people can take pleasure in viewing it?
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