Louis C.K. and Philosophy
Calling Us on our Cognitive Dissonance
Cognitive dissonance is always triggered by blatant evidence that you are not as beneficent and effective as you would like people to think. The urge to reduce it is the urge to get your self-serving story straight. (Pinker, 2009, p. 423)
Most of us like to believe we are good, moral people. We would say it’s wrong to exploit workers—but then we go out and buy products made in sweatshops without thinking about it. Louis C.K. is not afraid to admit it: “I have a lot of beliefs and I live by none of ‘em. That’s just the way I am. They’re just my beliefs. I just like believing them. I like that part” (Live at the Beacon Theater, 2011).
By admitting he’d really rather not have to question his own behavior, C.K. makes it a little less uncomfortable for us to look at how we behave. It’s as if to say, “We all do dishonest things, we are all human, but let’s try to reflect on it a bit, admit what we are doing, live with the pain of the dissonance, and maybe possibly, change our ways, even if only little by little.”
In Season 4 of Louie, for instance, Louie and his ex-wife argue over whether their daughter belongs in public or private school. Louie snipes that she’ll end up a Nazi youth paraded around Whole Foods as a trophy. His ex says, “You are way out of line.” Louie replies, “I know that.” He admits, “I can’t say anything worthwhile,” and “I’m upset now and I’m too emotional.” He lets out a deflated groan of resignation and frustration with himself, “There’s no way for me to say anything but shit now, which is all that’s coming out of my mouth.” It’s a classic moment of C.K. the comedian admitting his own struggle to be reasonable—although ironically he’s being brutally honest and self-aware. The show’s seasons trace its titular character’s development with a psychological and philosophical authenticity, all as if to track the development of C.K. the comedian’s own consciousness in recent years (witness the departure from his slightly more bitter humor of six years ago), but at just enough remove to claim that it’s that of “Louie” the character.
In the even more morally searching, near-legendary bit, “Of course, but maybe” (Oh My God, 2013), C.K. describes the conflict of our “good thoughts and bad thoughts.” He notices, “For me, I always have both.. I believe the good thing… and then there is this thing. And I don’t believe it, but it is there.” He goes on from a nut allergy to how we built the pyramids (“They just threw human death and suffering at them until they were finished”) to how America built its railroad (“We just threw Chinese people in caves and blew ‘em up and didn’t give a shit what happened to them”). “You can do anything,” he concludes, enthusiastically, “when you don’t give a fuck about particular people.” We only have smartphones, “Because the factory where they’re making these, they jump off the fucking roof, because it’s a nightmare in there.” He forces the cognitive dissonance in our faces: “You really have a choice. You can have candles and horses and be a little kinder to each other or let someone suffer immeasurably, far away, just so you can leave a mean comment on YouTube while you’re taking a shit.” We like to think we are “beneficent,” as Pinker points out in the epigram above, and that we don’t believe in pushing workers to suicide. But then when we are forced to face the “blatant evidence” that our actions don’t match that belief, when our smartphones come at the cost of human lives of sweatshop workers.
On one of the first flights with internet access, an attendant said the wireless went down. C.K. noticed, “The guy next to me goes, ‘It’s fucking bullshit.’ I’m like, ‘Dude, how does the world owe you something you didn’t even know existed thirty seconds ago?’” (Hilarious, 2010) Many of us might feel just as demanding as the guy did. Behavioral economists call this phenomenon an example of “loss aversion—the disutility of giving up an object is greater than the utility associated with acquiring it” (Kahneman et al, 1991, p. 194). Once the guy gets wireless, he loses all perspective on how good he had it. This is because our sense of value comes not from “states of wealth or welfare, but changes relative to a neutral reference point” (Kahneman et al, 1991, p. 199). It takes mental work to perceive our welfare and remember what we are really enjoying.
In effect, C.K. urges something that happiness researchers recommend. We have to thwart “hedonic adaptation,” the way we become “rapidly accustomed to sensory or physiologic changes,” including “hedonic shifts—that is, relocations, marriages, job changes—that make you happier for a time, but only a short time” (Lyubomirsky, 2008, p. 48). We have to actively practice gratitude for how good we have it, if we want to perceive our subjective well-being accurately.
But the story also illustrates “confirmation bias,” seeking only data that confirms our preconceptions. As Kahneman (2011) wrote, “When faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution” (p. 12). When the wireless breaks, as when we go on automatic so often in life, we avoid facing questions of our being and purpose. Instead we substitute “simply filling time,” as Heidegger (1938/2001) wrote—pursuing “preoccupations for the sole reason that they take up our time” (pp. 78-79). We ask ourselves only “Why can’t I use my technology?” when the harder question is, “What matters most? What should I do with my time in life?”
When C.K. was asked in an interview (2013), “What do you most value in your friends?” he replied, “Friends should always tell you the truth. But please don’t.” That’s him claiming to hate facing honest feedback. And yet, through humor, C.K. makes us pay attention to our own thoughts and behaviors. He even helps us face the hard questions that ultimately give us what we really want. Maybe he’s a friend after all.
Roben Torosyan, Ph.D. is the Director of the Office of Teaching & Learning and adjunct professor of philosophy at Bridgewater State University.
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Heidegger, M. (1938 / 2001). The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, finitude, solitude. Bloomington: Indiana University.
Hilarious: Louis C. K. (2010). Show offered by Comedy Central.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The endowment effect, loss aversion, and status quo bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives 5 (1), pp. 193-206. Full text, free.
Live at the Beacon Theater: Louis C. K. (2011). Show offered by Louis at his site.
Louie S4, E5 (5/19/2014). Season 4, Episode 5: Elevator Part II. FX Network. Viewable with a provider login.
Louis C. K. (2013). Answering interview question “What do you most value in your friends?” in Proust questionnaire, Vanity Fair, January 2013
Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: Penguin.
Oh My God: Louis C. K. (2013). Show offered by Louis at his site.
Pinker, S. (2009). How the Mind Works. New York: Norton.