Is pleasure the highest good?

March 3, 2007 at 1:04 pm (bizzare)

The paradox of hedonism: if one seeks happiness, one will never find it. is this true? Can one achieve happiness by pursuing it directly? I am inclined to think not. Happiness is, I think, something derived from the pursuit of other goals. More particularly, can the pursuit of pleasure lead to happiness?

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34 Comments

  1. poor yorick said,

    What a hedonist!!!

    Ahh, there’s more to life than pleasure.

  2. walden said,

    Do you make a distinction between happiness and pleasure? I’m thinking of pleasure as a component, of course a very important one, of happiness. Happiness is, I think, a more general concept. If so, I agree with you that there’s more to life than pleasure, but not if you mean there’s more to life than happiness. What could that ‘more’ be? I think you’ll find that any candidate you care to think of will trun out to be a route to, or a facillitator of, future happiness.

  3. sponge said,

    I don’t think that the persuit of happiness or pleasure is the “highest good”. These persuits might involve the pain and suffering of others.

    On a more personal level, I would say that happiness is a general mood and pleasure is an intense feeling of satisfaction. We can persue happiness and pleasure by free choice, however I think we all instinctively know that short-term pleasures can lead to long-term unhappiness.

  4. gassendi1 said,

    My goodness, Sponge, you sound almost like an analytic philosopher ! You are giving reasons for your conclusions!

    I think that no intelligent hedonist was saying that “short-term” pleasure was good. Hedonists like Mill held he was talking about “enlightened” hedonism.

    As to your first point, the hedonists claimed that pleasure or happiness were intriniscally good. Which is to say, that they were good considered only in themselves, but not for their extrinsic consequences. Those extrinsic consequences might, of course, override the intrinsic goodness ot the personal pleasure. In any case, the hedonists were not particularly talking about moral goodness, but just goodness in general. This was what was called psychological hedonism, not ethical hedonism. The claim was that everyone pursues pleasure as an end or goal. If you are talking about moral hedonism, that is something else again. As Kant pointed out, undeserved pleasure is not a moral good. But this (again) runs into the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic good I made above.

  5. walden said,

    So would Mill’s ‘enlightened hedonism’ be a pursuit of intrinsically good pleasures of the non-base kind? Would these pleasures be of the artistic, social and intellectual kind? Even if this is not Mill’s conception of ‘enlightened hedonism’, let me run with idea.

    How are differing pleasures, such as sensory, artistic, social and intellectual to be compared? Are they different in degree or in kind? If in degree then some way would have to be found to formulate a heirarchy, with perhaps pleasure derived from some harmful sexual fetish at one end and perhaps that derived from conducting the world premier of your own symphony at the other. I do not see what criteria could be developed to establish this heirarchy, however. It would undoubtedly be elitist. The only way to differentiate pleasures in kind that I can conceive of is between sensory and cerebral pleasures. But, in order to establish the priority of ‘enlightened hedonism’ over ‘sensory hendoism’ again requires a criteria which I do not see avoiding the charge of begging the question. Therefore, I reject the possibility of ‘enlightened hedonism’, in the sense I have been using it.

    As to your ponit about the possibility of the extrinsic consequences of an act overriding its intrinsic goodness, I do not think this is coherent. If an act is intrinically good then it is insulated from the effects of any amount of negative extrinsic consequences.

  6. katlin said,

    You may know that in his celebrated essay, Utilitarianism Mill broke with his famous mentor, Jeremy Bentham, and advocated the distinction between quantity and quality of pleasure as measurements of pleasure. Mill held that the quality of a pleasure may so outweigh the quantity as “to render the latter of no consequence.” Thus, he said, “Socrates dissatisfied is better than a pig satisfied.” Mill, of course, gave a criterion by which thought it would be possible to judge the quality of a pleasure as well as the quantity of the pleasure. Mill talked of the “higher pleasures” of knowledge and aesthetic appreciation much as you do.
    As to your ponit about the possibility of the extrinsic consequences of an act overriding its intrinsic goodness, I do not think this is coherent. If an act is intrinically good then it is insulated from the effects of any amount of negative extrinsic consequences.

    I meant by “enlightened hedonism” to answer the charge that hedonism is a philosophy of short term pleasures (not the distinction between quantity and quality of pleasure, as you appear to think I did) The enlightened hedonist considers the long term consequences of his action in regard to pleasure as well as the short term consequences.

    I think you must be mistaken about whether extrinsic consequences can override the intrinsic merit of an act.

    The act of eating a lot of ice cream may be pleasurable intrinsically, but the stomach ache you get from it, may very well override the intrinsic pleasure derived from it.

    The intrinsic pleasure of indulging a child in everything he wants which a parent may get is often overridden by the damage it does to the child’s sense of values.

    There are many such cases.

  7. walden said,

    I take it by ‘override’ you mean something like that the actor, subsequent to his demise (the stomach ache, etc.) will wish that they had not performed the initial act. I see two possible responses to this. Either the negative consequences issuing from the initial act proves that that act was not intrisically good (or pleasurable), or one stipulates of an act labelled ‘intrinsically good (or pleasurable)’ that its consequences are disregarded in its evaluation as such. I prefer the latter approach. Your examples are illustrative; it just cannot be denied that, despite the negative consequences, eating an ice cream and indulging a child are intrinsically pleasurable acts. I think that the sense in which you use ‘override’ just does not succeed in refuting this assertion. No matter how much I subsequently wish I had not eaten the ice cream, it was, at the time, intrinsically pleasurable.

    Thank you for clarifying Mill’s ‘elightened hedonism’. I did not think I had it right, but what is to be made of my alternative concept of enlightened hedonism.

    “How are differing pleasures, such as sensory, artistic, social and intellectual to be compared? Are they different in degree or in kind? If in degree then some way would have to be found to formulate a heirarchy, with perhaps pleasure derived from some harmful sexual fetish at one end and perhaps that derived from conducting the world premier of your own symphony at the other. I do not see what criteria could be developed to establish this heirarchy, however. It would undoubtedly be elitist. The only way to differentiate pleasures in kind that I can conceive of is between sensory and cerebral pleasures. But, in order to establish the priority of ‘enlightened hedonism’ over ‘sensory hendoism’ again requires a criteria which I do not see avoiding the charge of begging the question. Therefore, I reject the possibility of ‘enlightened hedonism’, in the sense I have been using it.”

    Could it be defended?

  8. sponge said,

    “Sponge, you sound almost like an analytic philosopher ! You are giving reasons for your conclusions!”

    Did analytic philosophy invent reason? I think not, but I don’t want to get into that here !!!

    Personally, I see that classical hedonism is wrong. If people only persued short-term pleasure, then capitalism could not exist, since everyone would just spend their money instead of investing it. “Enlightened” hedonism seems to be more accurate. People sacrifice short-term pleasure for longer-term happiness.

    But when people day something is “good”, I think that it is a moral question. It means that I should act this way, or even anyone should act in this way. How can it not be a moral question and just a “psychological” question??

  9. string jeans said,

    Kant makes a new distinction: one between deserved pleasure and undeserved pleasure. Would deserved pleasure be more satusfying than undeserved pleasure?

    What actions, thoughts, or ideas could make the difference between deserved and undeserved pleasures? What’s the difference between the two?

    It seems to me that there is not a way to objectively qualify a pleasure as deserved or undeserved, and that it must be up to the person that recieved the pleasure to reflect upon it after the fact and decide for himself that his actions/thoughts/emotions/ideas were deserving of the pleasure he recieved. But, if it really is on such a subjective level as I am led to believe, couldn’t one argue that all the pleasure he recieves is deserved?

  10. sgtmac46 said,

    Maslow created what he called a “Hiearchy of Needs”. Many of you are probably familar with this, in it he created a pyramid of the types of motives that drive human beings. At the bottom he placed things like air, food, water. A step up he placed sex and companionship, so on up the latter. It was Maslows theory that as a human being was successful in filling each need, he moved up the latter toward a higher goal. At the top of this pyramid was something called “self-actualization”. According to Maslow, this was a level in which people were motivated by a desire to seek a higher function, a level of doing good for the sake of doing and , and just above that “Transcendence” and he stated that this is the ultimate function. Don’t know how this would help, but I threw it in there.

  11. morpheus said,

    One can only make oneself happy.

    The road of happiness beings and ends with happiness.

    You must be careful not to confuse pleasure with joy.

    To the ignorant pleasure IS joy. ( ‘ignorance is bliss’ )

    Joy is when one wipes out one’s ignorance or attains knowledge of one’s highest self.

  12. gassendi1 said,

    It seems to me that there is not a way to objectively qualify a pleasure as deserved or undeserved, and that it must be up to the person that recieved the pleasure to reflect upon it after the fact and decide for himself that his actions/thoughts/emotions/ideas were deserving of the pleasure he recieved. But, if it really is on such a subjective level as I am led to believe, couldn’t one argue that all the pleasure he recieves is deserved?

    An undeserved pleasure would, for instance, be the pleasure someone takes in using money earned by someone else, and not by him. Or the pleasure a car thief takes in driving a car stolen by him.

    What the analysis is of the difference between deserved and undeserved pleasure might be (and probably is) arduous. It might take a book or two. But, from that it does not follow that there is no difference, and that we cannot pick out (as I just have) clear examples of both.

    Of course, after we have an adequate analysis of the distinction, then, we might go on to try to quantify it. For example try to compare one with another in degree. But the fact that it isn’t quantifiable doesn’t mean it does not exist, nor does it mean that we cannot get a tolerably clear understanding of it.

  13. nasser said,

    Well, I do believe that the heist good is not pleasure but completion, and even though that completion is impossible for too many of us to reach, but still, the gurney for that is so interesting and so useful for the society and the individual as well.

  14. the boss said,

    Personally, I believe the highest good for myself is contentment. Hedonism was no more than an exploration of pleasurable experiences along the way, similar to meditation but more along the physical plane.

  15. the boss said,

    too many people know not what they seek. however, happiness can be found if sought, if happiness is what is truely desired. but the key is, happiness comes from within.

    pursuit of pleasure can lead to joy, a specific emotion, however, joy is short lived. happiness can last an eternity.

    it’s all about state of mind. you are responsible for your own emotions. however, i believe for most (if not all) the ability to be truely happy comes thru a sort of epiphany, a self realization. but then, happiness is different for each person. for some, it is pleasures of this world, for others, it is simply contentment. thus, for each, the realization of happiness is different.

    on a personal note, what brought about my own happiness is the realization that flesh might fetter my physical being, demands of the world might require my time, but in any situation, my mind will always be my own. and thus, the only one responsible for my own happiness is myself.

  16. the boss said,

    too many people know not what they seek. however, happiness can be found if sought, if happiness is what is truely desired. but the key is, happiness comes from within.

    pursuit of pleasure can lead to joy, a specific emotion, however, joy is short lived. happiness can last an eternity.

    it’s all about state of mind. you are responsible for your own emotions. however, i believe for most (if not all) the ability to be truely happy comes thru a sort of epiphany, a self realization. but then, happiness is different for each person. for some, it is pleasures of this world, for others, it is simply contentment. thus, for each, the realization of happiness is different.

    on a personal note, what brought about my own happiness is the realization that flesh might fetter my physical being, demands of the world might require my time, but in any situation, my mind will always be my own. and thus, the only one responsible for my own happiness is myself.

  17. the crooner said,

    As far as explaining what people do (a theory of action), the best theory available appears to be one that describes people as acting to fulfill their desires.

    On this model, beliefs + desires form intentions, which in turn cause intentional action. Desires provide the motivational force for intentional action, and also identify the ends.

    Both beliefs and desires are propositional attitudes — that is to say, they describe mental attitudes towards a proposition.

    If a person has a belief that P, for any proposition P, then that person has a mental attitude that the proposition P is true. The person will behave as if it is true. A person who believes that everybody is out to get him will behave as if everybody is out to get him.

    If a person has a desire that P, for any proposition P, then that person has a mental attitude that the proposition P is to be made or kept true. That person will be motivated to act in such a way so as to make or keep the proposition P true. If he has a desire that he is having sex with Jenny, then he will act so as to make or keep the proposition, “I am having sex with Jenny” true.

    Against any doctrine that pleasure, or happiness, or even against Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, evidence suggest that the range of propositions that can be objects of our desire is as large as the range of propositions that can be objects of our belief. Just as people can believe just about anything, they can desire just about anything.

    There is a simple thought experiment that shows how desire fulfillment works, and how it defeats other theories such as the theory that we seek only pleasure and happiness.

    You, and somebody you care a great deal about (e.g., your child) have been captured by an evil extra-terrestrial mad scientist who is interested in conducting all sorts of experiments on humans. It offers you the following two options:

    Option 1: “I will take this other person to another ship and perform all sorts of medical experiments on him. We have become well versed in the art of vivisection, I assure you, and the process will be painful and unending. However, you will be made to believe that your child has been set free and allowed to live a safe and happy life.”

    Option 2: “I will let your child free with enough gold to live a healthy and happy life. However, you will be made to believe that I have taken your child to another ship and perform all sorts of medical experiments on him. We have become well versed in the art of vivisection, I assure you, and the process will be painful and unending.”

    Of course, I will also cause you to forget about this choice.

    Which option do you choose?

    The view that says that everybody is only after their own happiness would have to argue that everybody would select option 1. This is, after all, the option that provides them with the most happiness. However, this is contrary to fact. Most people go with option 2 — they sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of the child.

    We have no actual experiments to point to that involve locking people in a cell and asking them to make this choice. So, maybe, they would all choose Option 1. But, most people asked report that they would not, and no reason can be provided to doubt them. The selfishness theory needs to at least explain why so few people think (incorrectly) that they would choose Option 2.

    The widespread choice of Option 2 is easily explained if we hold that desires are dispositions to make or keep the proposition that is the object of the desire true. The parent with a desire that their child is healthy and happy is disposed to make or keep the proposition “my child is healthy and happy” true. Such a disposition would motivate the parent to choose option 2, since that is the option that produces the desired result, even though the parent will not know it is true, and experience the most severe displeasure and unhappiness.

  18. unrealist42 said,

    This is the difficulty behind the failure of economic theorizing to reflect real world behavior.

  19. XOX said,

    Economic theorising is catching up.

    … in the last 20 years psychologists have returned in strength to the study of feelings ? measuring them, comparing them across people, and explaining them. And many anthropologists have also concluded that there are important universals in human nature, without which it would be impossible for us to understand each other.

    So people concerned with policy can now revert to the task of maximising the sum of human well-being, based on a steadily improving social science. In these lectures I want to develop a picture of this project and some initial conclusions. What I shall do is this. In the first lecture I shall discuss the nature and measurement of happiness and provide compelling evidence that, despite economic growth, happiness in the West has not grown in the last 50 years. In the second lecture I shall ask why happiness has not increased, despite huge increases in living standards, and draw some startling conclusions about the efficient level of taxation. And in the third lecture I shall discuss what other policies really would produce a better quality of life. I shall end with a rousing defence of the utilitarian philosophy, which motivates this whole endeavour.

    The short answer to Layard’s question is, “it didn’t in Bentham’s and Mill’s day, but it does now.” However most economists and almost every politician are still oblivious of this fact.

    If Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong. That is to say, if Daniel Gilbert is right, then you are wrong to believe that a new car will make you as happy as you imagine. You are wrong to believe that a new kitchen will make you happy for as long as you imagine. You are wrong to think that you will be more unhappy with a big single setback (a broken wrist, a broken heart) than with a lesser chronic one (a trick knee, a tense marriage). You are wrong to assume that job failure will be crushing. You are wrong to expect that a death in the family will leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever. You are even wrong to reckon that a cheeseburger you order in a restaurant — this week, next week, a year from now, it doesn’t really matter when — will definitely hit the spot. That’s because when it comes to predicting exactly how you will feel in the future, you are most likely wrong.

    A professor in Harvard’s department of psychology, Gilbert likes to tell people that he studies happiness. But it would be more precise to say that Gilbert — along with the psychologist Tim Wilson of the University of Virginia, the economist George Loewenstein of Carnegie-Mellon and the psychologist… Daniel Kahneman of Princeton — has taken the lead in studying a specific type of emotional and behavioral prediction. In the past few years, these four men have begun to question the decision-making process that shapes our sense of well-being: how do we predict what will make us happy or unhappy — and then how do we feel after the actual experience? For example, how do we suppose we’ll feel if our favorite college football team wins or loses, and then how do we really feel a few days after the game? How do we predict we’ll feel about purchasing jewelry, having children, buying a big house or being rich? And then how do we regard the outcomes? According to this small corps of academics, almost all actions — the decision to buy jewelry, have kids, buy the big house or work exhaustively for a fatter paycheck — are based on our predictions of the emotional consequences of these events.

    And these predictions are almost always wrong.

  20. zooom said,

    The highest good is compassion.

  21. darkcrow said,

    I?m having trouble with the idea compassion is a learned state of mind, what?s your thoughts?

  22. insert curse here said,

    Because compassion gives you pleasure.

  23. drakcrow said,

    Does that mean when I feel compassion for an animal in pain I take pleasure in that scene?

  24. zooom said,

    Compassion does not necessarily have a relationship with pleasure. It is deeper and more meaningful than pleasure. Pleasure is only a byproduct of the ego having its way.

  25. insert curse here said,

    Pleasure is happiness. If there is no pleasure in compassion then compassion isn’t worth much at all.

  26. zooom said,

    Compassion does not necessarily need to involve suffering. It is directing love in the direction of someone in need without forethought. If there is such a thing as Godlike love, it is the love that connects us all together. It is saying to another, you are loved and not abandoned. While we are suffering it is hard to see that the experience can be growth producing, hard to identify suffering with love while we are in pain.

    Compassion is divine love, it is not about pleasure or self satisfaction. Perhaps you have yet to experience it, dear CURSE.

  27. insert curse here said,

    Because you find pleasure in that devine love.

    pleasure:

    Noun
    1. The state or feeling of being pleased or gratified. 2. A source of enjoyment or delight: The graceful skaters were a pleasure to watch. 3. Amusement, diversion, or worldly enjoyment: “Pleasure . . . is a safer guide than either right or duty” (Samuel Butler). 4. Sensual gratification or indulgence. 5. One’s preference or wish: What is your pleasure?

    So from this we can conclude that pleasure is happiness; and if pleasure is happiness, the opposite of pleasure must be unhappiness. So anything without pleasure does not involve you being happy. It will involve you being indifferent, angry, sad, or confused. I am guessing that your divine love makes you quite happy, because if it made you angry or sad you would not seek it.

    Everybody seeks happiness. People buy things to make them happy. They seek friends and lovers that will make them happy. They look for professions and hobbies that will make them happy. Unless you’re a masochist, you don’t say “I’ll give you five dollars if you hit me in the face with a lead pipe.” That is because we would find that to be quite painful, and pain makes us angry and sad. The masochist on the other hand would find pleasure in such an activity.

    Even religious activities are taken part in to seek pleasure. People find pleasure in their sense of protection and knowing, and in their sense of belonging to something. Bhuddists will find pleasure in Nirvana; their whole way of life is based off of the seeking of happiness. All of the mainstream religious followers believe they will find pleasure in heaven. Religion is not devoid of the need for happiness. Who would partake in something that makes them sad?

  28. zooom said,

    That all sounds good and personally I like pleasure the same as the next person, but like I said, compassion is love without forethought of self. And that is the difference between seeking pleasure and being compassionate. That is why it is the highest good.

  29. insert curse here said,

    So compassion, even without pleasure, which implies that it makes you sad, angry, confused, or indifferent, is greater than something that makes you feel happy? I doubt that is what’s going on; the compassion that would be a worthwhile thing ot obtain would involve you being happy. It sounds from your writing that you derive pleasure from compassion.

  30. thinker? said,

    i would definitely agree with that pleasure is the highest good, as it benefits everyone and it seems to a be universal goal. It helps out everyone, i mean who doesn’t like being happy, and even the best thing is being pleasureable and with money to spend at christmas.

  31. gassend1 said,

    Moral good? Would it be a morally good thing for Hitler to be happy? It made him very happy to kill a lot of Jews.

  32. arthur martin said,

    What if killing all the jews would have made Hitler so happy that the amount of his happiness would have exceeded the overall happiness which would have resulted from not killing any jews? Util says “party on Hitler.” Crazy.

  33. gassendi said,

    It may be that happiness is the highest non-moral good. Aristotle gave a strong argument for that. But happiness is clearly not the highest non-moral good. In fact, the Hitler example shows that it need not be morally good at all.

  34. I ARE GOOD said,

    Mill gives an interesting proposition, “pleasure is what everyone desires.” By saying this he means to say it is the only thing people desire. The problem is the idea of pleasure gets tainted. Say if someone takes pleasure in pain, the amount of pleasure they get from it outweighs their pain. People find pleasure where they will and so the goal of ethics for Mill is to make sure there is more pleasure than pain.

    By saying thhat pleasure is what everyone desires it can be declared the highest good. It is not like “Joe likes candy” where you have an inductive fallacy but a case where a universal principle is derived from everything. Interestingly enough Mill’s idea of utility maximizers has formed modern day political science.

    Pleasure is the highest good but you have qualitative pleasure and quantitative pleasure, one better over the other.

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