Dec 2, 2012

Rational Limits on Pursuit of Pleasure

I've been researching and writing the follow-up post to my Thanksgiving-time reflections on gratitude -- digging into corners and crannies of texts I've run through previously but hadn't reread recently -- portions of writings of Cicero, Immanuel Kant, Rene Descartes, David Hume, Thomas Aquinas, and Adrian Peperzak.  Rather than attempt to draw all those varied threads into one knot, or at least braid at this time, I've decided today to write instead about one of the several topics I'll be discussing tonight at the first in a new series of philosophy-centered events:  Philosophy Eats.  Tonight, it's Hedonism on the menu, both figuratively -- I'll be giving a talk and then leading a discussion -- and quite literally -- the chef and owner of Global Palate, Jessica Winchell, has assembled an amazingly aphrodisiac set of courses.

One of the matters I mean to bring up -- but not to go into full detail about -- has to do with setting rational limitations on the pursuit of pleasure, as well as one the avoidance of pleasure's contrary or opposite, pain.  There are hedonists, of course, for whom there are no restraints upon pleasure-seeking -- the popular conception associating hedonism with the adage "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die" -- but in point of fact, most hedonists (and certainly those who thought enough about it to leave behind some coherent moral doctrine) don't act according to such an extreme, and likely short-lived, interpretation of that basic idea. 

Why Limit Pleasure?

That is a question well worth mulling over, and one worth not providing an immediate, knee-jerk response to -- there's enough of them out there, drilled into us by one form of authority or perhaps by bitter experience, long before any of us come to study philosophy -- unless, perhaps you're a child-prodigy like the famous defender of  utilitarian versions of "the epicurean philosophy," John Stuart Mill.  Why restrain or restrict one's own pursuit of the pleasant?  Why impose upon oneself the decision, let alone, discipline, of not choosing what pleasures offer themselves to the senses or imagination, of not indulging oneself?  Correspondingly, one can ask about pains -- why should one not do everything possible to avoid them?  Why endure them?

Pleasure -- and it comes in an almost infinite variety of forms and enticements -- is inherently attractive to us humans.  We all experience its enjoyment and its allure.  You don't have to do much explaining to most people -- perhaps one would have to to certain ascetic philosophers or theologians, or to those ruined by prudery or damaged down to the core by ill-administered disciplines -- that they should consider pleasure a good and pain an evil, let alone that it is desirable, worth pursuing and enjoying.  Pleasure possesses a basic capacity to motivate, but also to seduce, to draw us in, to short-circuit rationality, forethought, even the advice of experience.

If you examine the history of moral theory, several broad orientations towards the value of pleasure begin to emerge and distinguish themselves from each other:
  • There are those who regard pleasure as not actually a good.  One can find some who even seem to conceive of pleasure as something bad -- not necessarily as something inherently bad, but as far too likely to lead us astray and away from the genuine good.  More often, pleasure -- as well as pain -- are regarded as neutral, as "indifferent" (adiaphora, in the Stoic terminology), neither good nor bad. 
  • There are others whose moral philosophy rests on what would appear to be a hedonistic basis -- viewing moral values and distinctions made by people as ultimately resting on their perceptions of things as pleasurable or painful, or as leading to pain or pleasure.  But, they also frame pleasure and pain further as indices affording self-preservation or adaptation of the person to their environment -- whether understood in natural terms or in terms of society and culture.
  • Some positions acknowledge pleasure as a genuine good, but as only one good among others -- and not the highest (or even a particularly important) good.  Often such positions will draw a distinction among better and worse pleasures -- these qualitative determinations not being reducible to pleasure.
  • Finally, there are the genuine hedonists, those for whom pleasure is The Good, and pain The Bad.  This involves a commitment not only to saying that pleasure, or lack of pain, is the highest good -- hedonism goes even further in asserting that the goodness of anything else one would call "good" consists in it being a pleasure, being pleasant, or leading to pleasure (or lack of pain).
Now, it is not too difficult to understand why a person who espouses or even entertains any of the first three views would see a need to set limatiations on the pursuit of possible, even the enjoyment of presented, pleasures.  After all, if there is something else, some other more genuine or foundational good, that trumps pleasure, countless instances will arise when one is forced to choose between the two -- pleasure and the genuine good.

A Stoic, valuing self-mastery and freedom from trouble, will have to disengage him or herself from numerous pleasures.  A member of the second group will have to turn aside from certain pleasures that stand in the way of self-preservation or successful adaptation.  A member of the third group -- a virtue ethicist, like Plato, Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas, for example -- would distinguish between more honorable (kalon) or worthwhile (honestum) pleasures which are to be preferred to lower, baser, though perhaps (to the one experiencing, striving for, craving them) more attractive pleasures.  And, whatever they consider to be genuinely good will also demand restriction, even sacrifice, of certain pleasures as well -- at least in the short term, and at least as primary motivations.

What about the person who is committed to Hedonism, however -- would that person need to, and would they grasp the need to, rationally limit their own pleasures?  Let's consider that question first, and them close by returning to a virtue ethics attitude towards pleasure.

Why Would a Hedonist Restrict Their Pleasures?

For one very important sub-family of hedonists, those who think matters through via the moral theory of Utilitarianism, there is a very straightforward answer to this which stems from one of their most central and distinctive commitments -- everyone's pleasures and pains matter.  Admittedly, many hedonists care whether other people experience pleasure or pain -- but one might well take those of others into consideration only because they affect, or least could affect, one's own pleasures and pains.  Utilitarianism goes beyond this, though -- if pleasure is The Good, from a moral perspective, it really doesn't matter whose pleasure it happens to be, mine or someone else's.  That pleasure is equally good, whether I enjoy it or someone else does.  And, given that selfishly pursuing my own pleasure will in many cases prevent greater pleasure on the parts of other people, I ought in such cases limit the pursuit of my own.

Let's set Utilitarianism aside then -- what about other hedonists?  What about a person who says:  the only pleasure I can actually experience is my own.  Why should I not enjoy as much pleasure as I possibly can provide myself?  For the hedonist, after all, all goods are matters of pleasure.  That is the coin with which they are bought, and in which they pay out -- their measure, their means of comparison and exchange.  Why not squeeze out every last bit of pleasure possible?  Why not take every opportunity for enjoyment offered to one?

One possible answer -- but from a hedonist perspective, a mistaken one -- would be that some pleasures are bad ones.  Looking at a few stories about one of the early hedonists -- Aristippus of Cryrene, one of the students of Socrates, and later founder of his own philosophical school -- provides some good examples:
They say that he once ordered a partridge to be bought for him at the price of fifty drachmas; and when some one blamed him, "And would not you," said he, "have bought it if it had cost an obol?" And when he said he would, "Well," replied Aristippus, "fifty drachmas are no more to me."
One might object to indulging in certain pleasures precisely because of their cost.  For a hedonist, however, wealth's value lies precisely in its capacity to purchase objects of pleasure. If you're got enough money, as Aristippus did, there's no inherent need for cost to place restrictions on pursuing pleasure.  Nor was he concerned with social disapproval, for instance in sexual matters:
When a man reproached him for living with a mistress, he said, "Does it make any difference whether one takes a house in which many others have lived before one, or one where no one has ever lived?" and his reprover said, "No." "Well, does it make any difference whether one sails in a ship in which ten thousand people have sailed before one, or whether one sails in one in which no one has ever embarked?" "By no means," said the other. "Just in the same way," said he, "it makes no difference whether one lives with a woman with whom numbers have lived, or with one with whom no one has lived."
This is not to say that a hedonist would not take any account of other things regarded as goods -- wealth, reputation and honor, success, friendship, knowledge, moral virtue -- but these would all be evaluated in terms of the pleasure they provide, either directly or indirectly.  Another story bearing on social disapproval of Aristippus' sexual indulgences culminates in a maxim expressing his reasoning about pleasures:
And he used to live with Lais the courtesan . . . Accordingly, when some one reproached him on her account, he made answer, "I possess her, but I am not possessed by her; since the best thing is to possess pleasures without being their slave, not to be devoid of pleasures."
For this sort of hedonism, the only rational restriction upon pleasures, the only limits which really make good sense, are those which stem from other pleasures.  Not to be the slave of a pleasure means less a superiority allowing one to forbear, to hold back, from pleasures as a whole -- rather, it means not being so slavishly attached to one pleasure, or one cause of pleasure (in this case, Lais and her legendary prowess in providing physical pleasure), that it prevents one from enjoying as many other pleasures as possible.  Only pleasure can limit pleasure.

Are There Better and Worse Pleasures?

Another possibility for rational restriction of pleasures resides in making some distinction of quality between higher and lower, better and worse, pleasures.  John Stuart Mill famously introduces this distinction into (and in his book titled) Utilitarianism, defending it by means of this refinement from its contemporary critics -- or rather, reintroduces this distinction, since Epicurus also made such a distinction, and on similar lines (if not for precisely the same reasons) back in ancient times.  Mental pleasures, for instance, those enjoyed in friendship, in intellectual pursuits, in conversation are more satisfying, more pure than merely physical pleasures -- and likewise mental pains, like guilt, fear, anxiety, or humiliation are worse than physical pains, so removing or alleviating those is also something more conducive to a life regulating itself by the rule:  maximize pleasures, minimize pains.

Aristippus himself didn't set all pleasures on the same level plane, it should be mentioned.  He just happened to hold that physical pleasures were more intense than mental pleasures.  If asked, he might even have conceded that mental pleasures could be longer-lasting than physical ones, but he could still accord a priority to those of the body over those of the mind.  His reasons do make some sense if you think about it: 

the proof that pleasure is the chief good is that we are from our childhood attracted to it without any deliberate choice of our own; and that when we have obtained it, we do not seek anything further, and also that there is nothing which we avoid so much as we do its opposite, which is pain. . . . . [P]leasure is a good, even if it arises from the most unbecoming causes . . . .  for even if an action be ever so absurd, still the pleasure which arises out of it is desirable, and a good.
When it comes to bodily pleasures -- at least many of them -- there is an immediacy to them.  Pop a piece of chocolate into your mouth, and unless you're one of the rare people who don't like chocolate, you immediately feel pleasure.  Some kinds of music and spectacle hit us with the same immediacy.  Sexual stimulation feels pleasurable, sometimes even before those sensations are understood.  One could multiply examples.

One could object, of course:  what about the cultivation that is required in order to appreciate a fine wine as such -- as a fine wine, complex not only in its taste, but its odor, texture, even its visual appearance, its clarity, shine, depth, coloration.  This are notoriously not matters of immediate perception.  Some experience, cultivation, perhaps even learning and consultation are required to fully enjoy such pleasures.  Perhaps one can turn up similar examples applying to -- and extending, intensifying -- any other primarily physical pleasure.

And, this points us precisely where Epicurus and Mill are headed with their own distinctions between mental and bodily pleasures, better and worse, higher and lower.  In order to appreciate the distinction, and all the more in order to find ourselves on the right side of it, we have to engage in processes of education -- not only in perception, in the senses, but in imagination, in intellect, in moral faculties.  This in turn -- like all forms of education -- will require setting aside and sacrificing some pleasures which call to us, even would compel us, were we not to reason that by giving these pleasures up in the present, perhaps even permanently (you can't be a connoisseur of fine wines, for instance, and also remain in the grips of, say, a heroin addiction), we create a progressively greater probability of not only more, but deeper, higher enjoyment.

Again for the hedonist, pleasures place rational limits on pleasures.  Again, for them, only pleasures outline necessary restrictions upon other pleasures -- the intermediary term between all of them being the process of disciplining, of development of the person.  And, here we hit a dangerous point for the hedonist, one of those crossroads where if they do not dogmatically stick straight to their path, they are liable to find themselves straying into virtue ethics.  I'll leave off here -- since we leave in less than hour to travel to the Hedonism talk -- by just citing a passage from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, in book 10, where he is focusing specifically on pleasure -- one which addresses the question:  what does the sort of cultivation under consideration consist in -- just refining one's capacity to feel and enjoy pleasures?  Or, moving towards some moral model?
In all such matters that which appears to the good man is thought to be really so. If this is correct, as it seems to be, and virtue and the good man as such are the measure of each thing, those also will be pleasures which appear so to him, and those things [genuinely] pleasant which he enjoys.

If the things he finds tiresome seem pleasant to some one, that is nothing surprising; for men may be ruined and spoilt in many ways; but the things are not [genuinely] pleasant, but only pleasant to these people and to people in this condition. Those which are admittedly disgraceful plainly should not be said to be pleasures, except to a perverted taste; but of those that are thought to be good what kind of pleasure or what pleasure should be said to be that proper to man?

Is it not plain from the corresponding activities? The pleasures follow these. Whether, then, the perfect and supremely happy man has one or more activities, the pleasures that perfect these will be said in the strict sense to be pleasures proper to man, and the rest will be so in a secondary and fractional way. . .

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