Unnecessary Necessities

28 May 2021

During the pandemic, you may have been watching Schitt’s Creek. I just finished it, and its characters have inspired this month’s pandemic puzzle. ( I can write about it without spoiling the show beyond the first episode, but if you haven’t seen it and prefer to start a show completely ignorant, STOP READING NOW.)

Here’s the starting point: the characters Moira, David, and Alexis—this is not true of Johnny—all find things necessary that really aren’t. Moira has (and has to have) her expensive wigs; Alexis and David need their expensive outfits; they recoil at the thought of flying coach; etc. So their having ended up in modest circumstances—living in a run-down motel due to financial ruin—sets up one of the ongoing jokes of the show: they experience frustration at not being able to have the unnecessary things they feel are necessary. David’s “Oh, my God!” and Alexis’s “Ew” reliably get laughs.

But underneath the laughs, there is a serious ethical problem lurking that impinges on all of us. Let me set it up by introducing a few terms of art.

Feeling of Necessity: This is the background sense—often unarticulated—that a particular thing can’t be done without. For example, you might have the Feeling of Necessity about having a home with doors that lock, indoor plumbing, etc., as well as having some financial resources, a computer, and decent clothing. The “Necessity” in “Feeling of Necessity” isn’t strict necessity in the philosophical sense, which would mean you feel there’s no possible way for things to be otherwise. Rather, the idea is that this Feeling puts constraints on your deliberation: it prevents you from even considering doing things that would result in loss of anything to which the Feeling of Necessity attaches. (We could introduce various complications, like making the Feeling come in degrees, but let’s keep things simplified for now.)

Perceived Necessities: This is the set of things, for any given person, to which the Feeling of Necessity attaches. The list will vary from person to person. Shoes are among my Perceived Necessities, but for many people around the world they aren’t.

Perceived Necessity Privilege Level (for short, PNPL): This is hard to define. But the basic idea is that some people have a much larger (perhaps more lavish, more expensive, etc.) set of Perceived Necessities than others, and PNPL is a measure of this. Moira has a far higher PNPL than Roland; Alexis has a higher PNPL than Twyla; etc. 

The factors that go into this are no doubt highly complicated, but let’s assume they can combine into a single measure. Importantly, two people can objectively live in the same surroundings, but one may have a higher PNPL than the other; this will happen when more of the things that surround them have the Feeling of Necessity attached to them. Moira, for example, has a higher PNPL than Johnny, even though they live in the same surroundings and have for a long time. Somewhat ironically, having a higher PNPL makes Moira's life feel less lavish, since fewer parts of her surroundings seem like a bonus—they’re just “necessary.” 

And this brings us to our puzzle:

How do we figure out what PNPL is ideal? (Alternatively, how do I figure out what PNPL is ideal for my individual case?)

A secondary puzzle is this:

What should we do to get to that ideal PNPL, whatever it happens to be? 

Having a very high PNPL—like the characters on Creek—is generally bad. As indicated, it easily leads to less enjoyment of your surroundings and more frustration when things don’t go your way. But a high PNPL can also lead to loss of grit, the ability to stick to plans even in the face of adversity. This is because the more Perceived Necessities you have, the more limits there are on what you can do—including as a means to achieving a higher goal. If A, B, and C are on my list of Perceived Necessities, there are far fewer ways to derail me than there would be if A, B, C, D,…, Z were on my list. The more ways there are to derail me, the less grit I have. 

But having a very low PNPL would also be bad. Feeling okay living in squalor would amount to having lost (or never gotten) a sense of dignity. It can also lead to acceptance of circumstances in which you're being treated unfairly; without a healthy PNPL, you’re not aware that some impositions needn’t be accepted. And often, having a moderately higher PNPL gives you the fortitude to make just political demands, like decent laws regarding work safety. I wish, for example, that more Americans had decent healthcare among their Perceived Necessities, since this might lead to beneficial political changes. This would, given how I set things up, require a modest uptick in PNPL.

So you should strive neither for a maximal PNPL nor a minimal one. But that in itself is hardly helpful; it merely focuses the problem. What principles can help us figure out what a healthy PNPL is—at least in our own individual cases? 

This problem is ethically important, because many of us—I suspect myself included—live in ways that gradually raise our PNPL, which means we might unwittingly be doing ourselves harm in the long run. Ironically, we may be ethically harming ourselves by “bettering” our circumstances, for often when we habituate to something, it gets added to our Perceived Necessities and thus raises our PNPL. This problem is so crucial and pervasive, it forms the basis  of a hit Netflix show. 

But does it have a decent philosophical solution?


Image by Gabriele M. Reinhardt from Pixabay 

Comments (4)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, June 1, 2021 -- 4:26 AM



I lost the lottery as I am older than you and also less wise. That said, I have seen this Schitt show before, and I might propose my solutions to your puzzles with some comparisons with performances from my youth.

Schitt's Creek (SC) vs. The Beverly Hillbillies (TBH)

While SC is about giving up necessities, TBH is all about acquiring them. Jed Clampett shoots a hole in his land to discover oil. That shot brings his family riches, a change in venue to Beverly Hills, and sets up an interesting juxtaposition in PNPL between the Rose and Clampett families and the eras from which they come – the 2010s and the early '70s. The "OMG" and "Ew" factor is surprisingly unchanged if flipped.

These two eras present landmark changes in PNPL, but the assumption of a single measure works well enough. I don't want to lose the point here by going too deep as these are both light comedies, but the answer to the first question…

How do we figure out what PNPL is ideal?

… is suggested in the simple comparison. PNPL comes from our family, upbringing, home, and sense of norms in which we come of age. 

In the current era of SC, the US standard of living is in decline in hard-to-measure dollars and not so hard-to-measure life expectancy. In the years before TBH and during the Seventies, life expectations improved consistently and benefited by relative equity in wealth, at least by current standards. SC giving up PN while TBH habituate to new necessities seems right.
Answering your alternate puzzle…

(Alternatively, how do I figure out what PNPL is ideal for my individual case?)

…is more involved. I'd turn to two other shows to help disambiguate…

Green Acres (GA) vs. Blue Jasmine (BJ)

I date myself saying I am familiar with Green Acres. For those who aren't, this is another light comedy from the 70s with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor- as Lisa Douglas - playing a married couple relocating to a farm. Blue Jasmine is a dark movie from 2013 now playing on Amazon. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine French, a divorcee who recently relocated to San Francisco after discovering her husband has been unfaithful. Contrasting Lisa Douglas and Jasmine French answers your alternate puzzler.

This isn't going to give away much, but the contrast here is stark. Not just in comedic/tragic terms but outcomes based on choice. Here the alternate answer as to how to figure your own individual PNPL is to tend the relationships most important to you regardless of environment. Not just your significant others but your kids and extended family who have an impact whether you want them to or not. Most of all, 'Know Thyself.' If that sounds trite on a philosophy blog… see BJ. You will get what I mean.

Blue Jasmine is a feature film (I doubt many would watch a sequel, much less a series) and different than all the other comedic shows mentioned here. The heroine assumes a PNPL without ever reflecting on her choices, and that is perhaps her downfall. However, we choose to figure our PNPL; we best understand its economics and ethics. Perhaps Eva Gabor's character Lisa Douglas is as or less insightful, but her ethics are clear, and her self-knowledge is beyond question. That self-knowledge and tending to relationships serve Lisa Douglas in GA, and in comparison, destroy Jasmine.

Your final puzzle…

What should we do to get to that ideal PNPL, whatever it happens to be? 

… is even more involved than the first two questions. Two more Schitt's Creek-like shows help shed light, maybe…

Gilligan's Island (GI) vs. The Good Place (TGP)

Although it comes from the 70s, GI probably doesn't need a setup as it is in constant rerun, but just in case, it's a tale of a fateful trip of seven characters of varied social type who get stranded on an island. On the other hand, TGP takes place in an afterlife premised on the behavior and karmic weight of the characters' past life on earth. The premise is that one of the characters, at least, is punching above their karmic past and has mistakenly been admitted to TGP.

The star of GI is Bob Denver, who plays Gilligan. He is happy-go-lucky, flawed in intellect but bound to his moral and ethical foundations. The island is named after Gilligan as he usually resolves the dramatic tension in any of the many plots with his moral sense of right, wrong, and loyalty. This is the innocent and hopeful 70's, privileged and admittedly shallow but well played.

TGP is a different setup altogether. The privilege is already played out, and the necessities of the actual good place are enticements enough for the misplaced Eleanor Shellstrop ( played by Kristen Bell) to attempt a change in karma by studying, of all things, philosophy to justify her newfound PNPL.

I don't want to say the '70s were the good old days. That is not how we can get to that ideal PNPL. The answer is not Gilligan's sense of center. In retrospect, we now all know "that" center was hopelessly off due to bias, prejudice, and privilege. As I have and others have said elsewhere, the '60s and the '70s were where we went wrong. We needed to do the hard work to drive equity and build the middle class. We didn’t do it.

We are not in a good place at the moment. I take it from Neil's posts and writing that he, too, thinks we can do better. Not only that but that our PNPL is driving some of the issues in our lives. TGP and GI are still the premises of my answer to what we should do. We need to think. What is best for all, best for our world is best for us. This means pointing out conspicuous consumption at its root. We need to understand the consequences of our every action. We need to actively choose the necessities that create prosperity and better lives for others. 

Johnny's active choices are the answer that Johnny Rose comes to when he looks back at Schitt's Creek for the final time. I'm not sure if it's a philosophical look on Johnny's part, but it works for me. The best news for us all is that it is Johnny Rose and not Jed Clampett who grows the most in his journey. As bad as the world may get, it offers us the greater opportunity to learn.

Tim Smith 

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, June 7, 2021 -- 3:00 PM

Much to my chagrin, I like

Much to my chagrin, I like the insurance ad: you only pay for what you need.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, June 8, 2021 -- 5:52 AM

Read through PT's post again.

Read through PT's post again. And the thorough comments from Mr. Smith. A lot of this comes down to that ubiquitous Jones family. And our desire to keep up with them. And others.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, August 17, 2021 -- 6:21 AM

Thinking more about this post

Thinking more about this post and it's longer view implications. Pretty sure someone has already posited something like what I am about to say. The mythic Jones family was an instrument of economics and marketing. Marketers needed a means of grabbing the attention (and dollars) of the everyday consumer. The algorithm had to be simple and friendly---enough of both to have near-universal appeal. The Joneses were born and we have been racing along with them since.

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