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Mere Experiences and the Accountability of Presence

October 25th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

James Polous:

"There's some uncomfortable truth we're acknowledging every time we shy away from the world of real things and indulge in the world of mere experiences -- a truth about which sorts of awkwardness, disappointment, and even suffering we want to face, and which sorts we don't. Behind the intellectual mirage is a perhaps harsh emotional fact: the psychological economy of mere experience comes along with all-too-real, all-too-human downsides -- downsides we accept and endure no less than the encumbrances of life lived, so to speak, in the raw. I'd say that bespeaks a profound disillusionment, on the level of our culture in general, at the point where our hopes, our fears, and our expectations about happiness in the real world meet."

Roger Scruton:

"To a large extent, life on the screen is risk-free: when we click to enter some new domain, we risk nothing immediate in the way of physical danger, and our accountability to others and risk of emotional embarrassment is attenuated. This is vividly apparent in the case of pornography — and the addictive nature of pornography is familiar to all who have to work in counseling those whom it has brought to a state of distraught dependency. The porn addict gains some of the benefits of sexual excitement, without any of the normal costs; but the costs are part of what sex means, and by avoiding them, one is destroying in oneself the capacity for sexual attachment."

They are making slightly different points here.  But beneath the logic of pornography is a committment to "mere experiences," to physical pleasures without the accountability and entanglement that inevitably come with interacting with other human persons.

Or rather, interacting with other bodies.  Beneath the appeal of the pleasure-machine concept is an attenuated understanding of what the human body is and why it matters for our human flourishing (a point made by Lee and George).  There is no escaping the fact that a conversation with an embodied person imposes a different sense of obligations and accountability on us than interacting through a screen.  James may have the fortitude to treat the online world in the same way as the offline world.  Most do not (a symptom not of technology, but a particularly poorly educated society).

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.