Monday, June 8, 2009

Ethical Hedonism and the Pursuit of Pleasure

I came across this article on Ethical Hedonism and was interested in some of the concepts presented. One is the confusion of pleasure and the source of pleasure, that the later leads to a misguided moral relativism – different things bring pleasure to different people. Whereas pleasure is something that is intrinsically good, an objective truth (not withstanding phenomenological and existential deconstructions).

The article concludes with the Hedonist paradox ( “Pleasure to be got must be forgot”) and a corollary that the secret to pleasure being one most lose oneself to activity, as pleasures are often accidental outcomes of the things we do, rather than something to be sought. This is the first time I had heard this stated, and like most things Aristotelian, it sounds reasonable at first glance, but on further investigation fails to resonate. After all, life as an enlightened hedonist is the pursuit of pleasure, that we can make choices to increase our pleasure just as certainly as we can make choices to decrease it.

Perhaps this is really pointing out that none of us is omniscience and as such cannot know with absolute certainty that any action we take will yield greater or lesser pleasure in the future. This is certainly true, but in the wake of this dilemma it seems more reasonable to consider one’s actions rather than to fill one’s life with random activity. But this is certainly worth some future though.

The Problem of Other People - Cooperative Hedonism

On the surface it seems hedonism is completely incompatible when dealing with other people. It is by definition completely selfish in nature. So the consideration of others is an easy disconnect. The knee jerk reaction is to go at once to the darkest of desires, murder, lust, thievery, and deception. How could hedonism be allowed in a community where one person desired to kill another for the pure pleasure of it?

This is where enlightened hedonism steps in, as the pursuit of pleasure does not mean the absence on consequences. Thus we hedonists often must weigh the possible outcomes of our pursuits. We may desire, and take great pleasure in finishing a large bottle of cognac, but may choose to enjoy just a glass or two to avoid the unpleasant morning after. Likewise, while at times we may feel murderous rage, most of us understand the consequences of indulging that pleasure.

While hedonism is selfish, in a community of hedonists, the pleasures, fears, and suspicions of others have to be taken into consideration if one intends to maximize their own personal pleasure over time. Thus the example of murderous rage, while a telling test case of the extreme, hardly describes the reality of a community of hedonists.

This may be disappointing to those hedonists coming from a perspective of scarcity, where pleasure is somehow seen to be a finite resource, that for one to have it means that it is deprived from someone else. To be sure this is the case where desires center on material things and their possession. This is the model we live in before the state where hedonism can exist, the acquiring and holding onto our basic needs, such as food or shelter.

In this state hedonism is seen as a competitive endeavor, and the desire to have more, or experience more than someone else becomes in itself a source of pleasure. However, sometimes this competitive approach becomes perverted by our guilt or shame. That the pleasure we may experience somehow deprives it from someone else, possibly someone we love. In the extreme, are the martyrs who presume their denial of pleasure to be noble, that their self sacrifice somehow increases the pleasure of others. To be sure though, they take pleasure in this denial, for the experience of pleasure is subjective. It is not something that can be stored, traded, or accumulated. It is simply experienced in the moment.

But it is the subjective nature of pleasure and desire that allow us to approach from abundance instead of scarcity. Once we realize that our pleasure is ours alone to experience, and that we can experience pleasure in a number of different ways, it is clear that the only pleasure we can truly deprive is our own. Mind you, we can still cause pain in others, depriving them of their needs but they still can take pleasure in our folly, take refuge in pleasant memories, or other existential tricks.

The better strategy for an enlightened hedonist is one of cooperation and negotiation. By working together with others, sharing our desires, we form communities of cooperative hedonism. These can be whole societies, small clubs, or an intimate friendship, as the problem of other people is transformed into opportunities to maximize pleasure, refine tastes, and share our desires.

We might band together to share a common interest, such as bowling, Disneyland, or swing dancing; to find love, or have a family; or we might find ourselves already intertwined in cooperative groups we inherited from structures already in place, like our government, or family upbringing. Regardless of how we enter these relationships with others, they all serve as a springboard for cooperative hedonism. Again, because hedonism and our desires are fluid, each of our relationships and group identities serves us differently, some better than others, some more targeted than others. As rational hedonists it is up to each individual to assess these areas of cooperation and determine how that can best satisfy their desires.

Other people then, become a resource, and their very selfish hedonism is what enables us to indulge our own. Of course, to achieve the greatest success, a rational hedonist is obliged to enter into negotiation. This could be a as simple as making a request for a glass of wine. Among fellow wine connoisseurs, you may be indulging the pleasure of an acquaintance ready to show off his latest find; among strangers you might indulge someone’s pleasure in helping others; in a restaurant, you might indulge your servers anticipated pleasure of getting a good tip. The scenarios are endless, but the act of asking for what you want can suddenly satisfy the desires of others in many unexpected ways. Certainly, if you got your own glass of wine you would still have the pleasure of that drink, but by asking, and engaging some network of cooperative hedonism, your pleasure is shared.

Enlightened hedonism necessitates communication. We must be able to talk about our desires to others if we ever hope to have their help in fulfilling them, sharing them, or even improving upon them. Often, when we hide our desires, we tend to harm ourselves and sometimes even the others who wish to please us. There are times of course, where keeping our desires to ourselves as crypto-hedonists is warranted, the challenge of course is striking the proper balance between the extremes.

Sharing our desires makes us vulnerable, especially to those who approach hedonism competitively, and are resentful of the fulfillment of our desires. This is the real problem of other people, the risk sharing with others. Often our cultural norms dictate what is safe and what is risky to share. I might freely express my love for the music of Celine Dion, but keep my desire for my neighbor’s wife to myself. While the former might risk a certain amount of embarrassment, the later invites condemnation from moralists, her husband or my own wife. Now one can certainly construct a scenario where the decision to share or hide would be reversed – My neighbors and my marriage is an open relationship and my respect for musical tastes would come under great criticism from my peers – but there will always be risks in sharing our desires, and those are the calculations a rational hedonist must make in his or her own pursuit of pleasure.

Perhaps the best thing a rational hedonist can do in dealing with other people, is to take heed from Plato and “know thyself.” In order to negotiate with others in a way that satisfies our desires, we have to be able to know what our desires truly are and that we can honest to ourselves about them. When we know ourselves, we can articulate better what we want and just as importantly to set our own personal boundaries over what we are willing to negotiate.

In this way enlightened hedonists can negotiate with integrity, satisfying their own selfish desires while contributing to the satisfaction of others. This is the ideal of cooperative hedonism.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

What is Enlightened Hedonism

Simple hedonism is easy to understand, the satisfaction of desire, and the pursuit of that satisfaction. In this simple state its drawbacks are easily revealed as well. When we pursue our pleasures on a whim, disappointment is often the result as we neglect something else we value or hold pleasurable, or fail to recognize the consequences of our pure desires. In contrast enlightened hedonism takes account of just such things to not only ensure their satisfaction, but even enhance them, improve upon them, and elevate them, maximizing the pleasure experienced.

Enlightened hedonism also acknowledges the fact that simple hedonism often results in the same trap of indolence that our initial acquisition of comfort brings. That state when needs are satisfied and only wants remain – a place of stasis that we often find ourselves trapped in.

In other words those pleasures we satisfy immediately out of habit loose the same amount of pleasure they once created. These pleasures themselves become routine and uninspired despite the fact that they still might produce pleasure. The enlightened hedonist realizes this and moves to find ways to build on those original pleasures.

Thus where food was once simply sustenance, it also becomes a pleasure to the hedonist. The enlightened hedonist takes the pleasure of eating and expands on it to take pleasure in exploring different flavors, of expanding his or her pallet – this can be a chef working to create a new entrĂ©e or a gourmet, seeking a new cuisine. Food is but one example; all pleasures have their enlightened purveyors.

The enlightened hedonist of any pleasure is an explorer and adventurer. He seeks new ways to indulge a favored pleasure, or maybe even experiments with new ones. The enlightened hedonist never stops at satisfaction, for he knows staying at that point leads to indolence, stasis, and the entropy of pleasure.

While orgasm may belong to the hedonist, seduction and foreplay become part of the pleasures of the enlightened hedonist – for if orgasm where the sole goal of sex, there would be no need to proceed beyond masturbation. Fantasies and the erotic interaction with other people just begin to play a greater role for the enlightened sexual hedonist. The activities may still result in orgasm, but both the activities themselves as well as the end result create an even higher state of pleasure.

There are roadblocks to enlightened hedonism. Often it takes shape in the guilt of the hedonist. Hedonism is always selfish, which generally is not accepted in polite society as an ethical way of being. This also can lead to shame, or even the fear of being ostracized by the people you love.

As a defense, people often become crypto-hedonists – They still, like everyone else indulge their selfish desires, but they either carry these out in secret, or sometimes create in themselves a denial and repudiation of their desires. Sometimes pleasure is then taken through the denying of the one thing desired most – often unsuccessfully, thus we have the archetype of the scandalous preacher who’s desires are perverted by their repression.

Resentment also sometimes accompanies hedonism, as those who have denied their own pleasures resent it when others indulge those pleasures without consequence. Sometimes it’s to avoid the resentment and possible confrontation that we hide our desires in crypto-hedonism.

Thus, there are times though when the hedonist must keep his pleasures to himself. And while one might argue that in the best of all possible worlds, no one should be a crypto-hedonist, for some, the very act of satisfying their pleasures in secrecy may bring its own clandestine pleasure, and enhancement to the overall experience. Anonymous donors to charities can take pleasure in hearing others wonder who made that generous gift. Perpetrators of a great prank may take pleasure of getting away with it. Regardless if the ultimate pleasure is having the secret unmasked, sometime pleasure is taken in simply having a secret.

Unlike the single-minded goal of survival and satisfying basic needs, enlightened hedonism can take many paths. Since our pleasures are all subjective, and we must make choices as to what wants and pleasures to pursue and how to pursue them, there is no way to obtain “the single most pleasurable life.” We can leverage our friends and mentors to tell us of the paths they have taken to indulge their wants, but in the end, we must each decide as individuals what our enlightened path to hedonism is. In this respect, approaches to hedonism are existential, we create ourselves and define ourselves by the pleasures we decide to pursue and the way we decide to pursue them.

In this way the ethics of enlightened hedonism may seem an oxymoron, as it does not exist in the metaphysically objective world. Rather ethics and morality will always have to be defined and negotiated in terms of “what’s in it for me.” We are, at our core selfish beings; recognizing that fact enables us to move beyond ourselves and involve others as partners and accomplices in achieving our mutual desires.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Rational versus Enlightened

The other day a friend tweeted, “people never really think about consequences. It may feel good for the moment but how does it affect others??” Immediately I thought well, this is the at the “core” of rational hedonism. By thinking things through, contemplating the potential outcomes or consequences of our acts can save us from future disappointments, and perhaps even lead us to greater experiences of pleasure.

But almost as soon as I condensed that response into the requisite 140 characters, I realized that this was only the beginning. Yes to be rational, contemplative, logical, can yield a well thought response and greatly increase the odds of having a better outcome. But as much as we like to think that reason will bring certainty, that it can find the best of all possible paths, it often still falls short. Just as the scientific method can bring us “closer” to truth, verisimilitude to borrow a phrase from Karl Popper, truth itself is always remains theory or speculation.

So really, to lead the most fulfilling life, to follow the path to “enlightened” hedonism there comes a point where one must approach things with more art than science. There is a real risk that one can miss opportunities while trying to analyze the best course of action to take. Perhaps this is a flipside to the existential maxim that the failure to make a decision is a decision in itself. Our lives are finite, so we often lack the luxury of time to think things through to all their possible outcomes. Sometimes we must act swiftly to seize an opportunity, thus sometimes we must rely on luck or intuition to lead the best life and find enlightenment.

May we all make good choices, both those well reasoned, as well as well felt.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Hermit and the Nymph

I chanced upon this delightful tale of Indian mythology that seems to demonstrate Epicurean hedonism in much less dry terms. Exerted from the Star Online by Dr Devdutt Pattanaik:

Life on earth, he began, was created with a great churning of primal waters. First to spring forth from this was Laxmi (or Lakshmi) - the joy of life incarnate, the goddess of beauty, plenty, health and wealth.

Where a beautiful woman goes, prosperity follows. This is why Hindu brides are decked in such finery. They represent diminutive doubles of Laxmi herself, and as wealth follows them into their new homes, so they bless them.

Out of the waters also came the apsaras, beautiful water nymphs (from the Sanskrit apsa for water), embodiments of human emotions, or rasa, who danced for the delight of heaven.

Everywhere the apsaras went, sparkling water flowed, feeding life, generating bounty, laughter and pleasure. But water did not come without its dangers, as the tale of Gajendra at the lotus lake exemplifies.

While idling by the lake with his herd, Gajendra, King of Elephants, was attacked by a crocodile that clamped its jaws around his leg and attempted to drag him under. Gajendra implored Vishnu for aid and was saved in the nick of time. “The water that gives us lotuses also gives us crocodiles,” was the King’s verdict.

Yes, the same water that creates lush, lusty, sensual life can also destroy. And so began asceticism, a rejection of beauty, riches, and other such water-derived hedonism. Shortly after which began the eternal struggle of the dry and dusty holy hermit and the wet, voluptuous nymph so celebrated in Hindu imagery.

One holy man in particular mastered rejection so well that drought followed in his footsteps. Heaven’s response? “Let’s send women to him, beautiful women, and remind him of the joys of life.”

For the key to life is not dry abstinence nor watery excess, but a wise and harmonious balance - a beautiful balance - between the joy and sorrow water brings

Friday, May 1, 2009

French Economic Stimulous Boon to Hedonists

Apparently the French government in an effort to promote its wine and cheese industry will be hosting cocktail parties in America (NPR Story). It looks like Thursday, June 4th kicks off this celebration as the "French Cocktail Hour" - I'll see what I can do to help the French economy, but more importantly maintaining the proper joie de vivre befitting a hedonist.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Enlightened Hedonism - The Subjectivity of Desires

A critique of hedonism is that it is a selfish act, and as such, concepts of altruism, or self-sacrifice that are normally expected of a moral system are absent. Morality seems to require that our desires be denied or sublimated for some common good. In practice though, these moral systems still must convince someone to accept and internalize the “moral” path so that it becomes more desirable that an act requiring sublimation. Thus our desires to steal are replaced by our desire to live in an orderly predictable society, or perhaps a desire not to be beaten or killed by the intended victim. This is the social contract that is negotiated every day.

The challenge of most moral systems is the appeal to some sort of metaphysical objectivity. Sometimes that might be God’s will. Often the Golden Rule is invoked, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” But whatever the categorical imperative underpinnings, it is our own selfish and subjective existential experience of the world that trumps all these metaphysical systems.

Now let me make this clear, enlightened hedonism need not be godless and free of some objective reality, or spirituality. Rather these things are simply irrelevant outside the personal beliefs of the person pursuing his or her desires. Questions of the existence of God, or the internal experiences of other people, are all questions that shall remain a mystery to hedonism. Our own experience and internal dialogue are our only window into the world and we can only speculate as to what exists outside our experience.

While we can presume that others have similar experience of the world as we do, it is still a fundamental mistake we make in our day to day interactions. Everyone is unique, and despite any similarities, there will always be differences. Thus as we start to examine and indulge our own desires we must also realize that they may not be shared.

A mistake of the unenlightened hedonist is that his desirers are universal. “Everyone wants to get ‘high,’ ‘laid,’ ‘revenge,’ etc.,” claims the unenlightened as he alienates himself from those around him. There is nothing wrong these pursuits in themselves, but when projected onto others one runs the risk of creating resentments, being annoying, and possibly jeopardizing the very pleasures hoped to indulge.

At first blush this doesn’t seem to be a problem; after all we are all comfortable with having different likes and dislikes, different tastes - we say, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” completely comfortable with notion of subjective value in matters of aesthetics. However, giving the same treatment to our ethics and moral values seems different – doesn’t everyone accept murder as wrong?

Yet can it be any other way? Once our basic needs are met, what is to guide our way or pull us out of our indolence? The answer of course is our desires, our own personal pursuit of happiness. Still, if everyone is pursuing their different and contradictory passions does not all social interaction descend into anarchy and chaos? How can this possibly form any sort of moral or ethical code? But it does - particularly when we take an enlightened approach to our hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure through knowledge.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Enlightened Hedonism and the Will to Pleasure

In most discussions of ethics, hedonism is often called up as a negative example. It’s almost a given that the selfish act of increasing one’s pleasure is inherently flawed and contradicts numerous ethical principles, such as “providing for the greater good,” “the reduction of suffering,” or in some circles even “God’s will.” And yet, it is often the starting point for any theory of value, as it is one of our most primary existential experiences. After all, if I’m doing something because it feels good, and the “right” thing is contrary to that, I need something fairly compelling to make me want to change.

But I think we dismiss hedonism too quickly. While most moral theories call for us to reject our base hedonism, I call to groom and refine them, to maximize and even elevate our selfish pleasures. I call this, Enlightened Hedonism. Furthermore, I contrast it as an elevated form of hedonism that rises above the random satisfaction of immediate desire. Still, it is something much more than deferred gratification.

But before we proceed down this path, we need to understand that this will to desire is not a beginning state, rather it only comes into being after certain precedents are in place. There are forces that pull, and those that push; that attract or repel; Eros and Thanatos; love and death. The pursuit of pleasure and desire is thus contrasted with the avoidance of suffering and pain.

Pain remains the primary motivator, and our suffering that gets our first attention in deciding what course of action to take. These are represented in the lower level needs of Maslow’s hierarchy – food, shelter, safety, etc. We feel suffering when they are absent. Thus any sort of enlightened hedonism is not possible until that suffering is alleviated. To be sure there are many philosophers and schools of thought that see life as suffering but I think this only tells half the story.

Fortunately, most of us already have our basic needs met, though we may not have realized or accepted that yet. The reduction of suffering produces a mindset of scarcity. So that despite the goods or wealth we may have accumulated, we see its finite mortal nature. What we have, we can loose. As long as we think in those terms, our minds dwell in the expectation and anticipation of nothingness. Enlightened hedonism is a call to reverse that dichotomy, and to start thinking in terms of abundance, what can be accumulated and enjoyed as opposed to what can be lost.

It is dwelling between these two states that is the biggest nemesis to enlightened hedonism, the state of indolence. Here we are in place of comfort, with basic needs provided for, personal pain and suffering no longer motivate. Boredom sets in with the ennui of indecision. No path seems right – nothing seems to matter – and we get the first taste of nihilism. Here we may dabble with our first taste of hedonism, indulging our pleasure with little thought or reflection; we turn to drink, sex, or other thrills to make us feel that we are alive only to return sober and sated into the inertia of indolence.

The goal of enlightened hedonism is to move out of this state, to explore different pleasures, and pursue them. It is a process of self discovery, and self actualization. But it must begin here, in a state where one can begin to change one’s mind set from scarcity to abundance.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Hedonism and the Recession

Reading an article in the Toronto Star, Canadians won't surrender guilty pleasures, I’m reminded that hedonism carries with it connotations of extravagance and decadence. One almost presumes that to be a proper hedonist one must be wealthy, or rather born into wealth where notions of “day jobs’ are just irrelevant. But I think this article shows that even in economic downturn, most of us are still well able to make room to continue to indulge at least some of our pleasures. This I think is an illustration of enlightened hedonism in action.

There is of course the old adage that money cannot buy happiness, but we all know form a practical standpoint, it certainly can make it easier. Even that ancient manual of hedonism, the Kama Sutra, reminds its readers that one must have some means in order to fully explore one’s pleasure.

The truth is, few of us reside in that wealthy class where work and compromise is never required, and yet we all find time to pursue our wide and diverse desires. We all must go through our existential arithmetic, weighing the circumstances at hand, taking into account the risk of our potential actions, and of course the benefits or pleasures that we seek.

But as an enlightened hedonist, looking for the pursuit of pleasure not just as a distraction, or entertainment, but as a path to fulfillment, there may be other opportunities that emerge. One of the key outcomes of a change in economic circumstances is it forces one to look at their priorities and thus spurs a round of creative thinking. One cannot remain complacent, but rather must explore, experiment, and take a risk that otherwise may have never taken.

To be sure one could (and to some extent probably should) take the approach of finding acceptance and appreciation for the pleasures one has: being with friends, taking in the beauty of one's surroundings, or finding gratitude in what one still has. But there is also a more active approach one can take, seizing this as an opportunity to take action and find new ways to satisfy ones desires - or perhaps even discover new pleasures to pursue. It starts with engaging one's curiosity, asking "what can I do in these new circumstances?" It continues with a bought of creative brain storming exploring new possibilities, and ends with experimentation, testing the new ideas, and perhaps discovering some new pleasures for further exploration.

So while I may have to pass on that flight to Paris and dinner at Man Ray, perhaps I’ll stay home, take a walk, pull out some art supplies and try to create something pleasing. Who knows what I might come up with?

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Sign of More Hedonistic Times

This in from the Washington Post:

Obama Invites Congressional Leaders for Cocktails at the White House

It appears President Obama will be holding regular cocktail parties on Wednesday evenings. I'm sure the Bush administration had their own fun in the White House, but I can't help but smile at this news. Oh I know it's just another avenue to leverage one's political capital, but what a nice touch? I can't help but wonder about what cocktails are ordered for this affair, or if there is an official White House mixologist shaking up drinks with a Presidential Seal. Cheers to the Chief.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Hedonism as a path to Enlightenment

In my contemplations about hedonism I’ve gone back and forth as to what to call this particular brand of considered hedonism. I started out calling it “enlightened,” but ultimately backed away from that as sounding a bit too pretentious. I then tried “rational” on for size, hearkening back to those empiricists of the Victorian era, but as I went back to rewrite some of my original pieces, it just didn’t fit – I really was talking about hedonism as a path to enlightenment.

I’ve been thinking about Buddhist concepts of enlightenment (or my understanding of them), where enlightenment is obtained by weaning oneself off of one’s desires. That the pursuit of pleasure dictated by one’s desire often results in disappointment, unhappiness, and ultimately leaves a person unfulfilled. I certainly feel this is true in the pursuit of material things, but have certain disconnect when applied to experience.

The desire to travel, to meet people, to experience the new and different – I suppose whenever there are expectations, there is the risk that they will go unfulfilled, but that is a critique of expectations and not necessarily desires. Certainly an enlightened hedonist would know these dangers and how to navigate through them.

Buddhism and many other religious practices often tout a certain suffering and asceticism as a path to enlightenment. Here, through their denial, desires are overcome and transcended. Whether fasting or flagellation, there is a sense that by denying the body and the physical world, the spiritual world is obtained. I don’t deny that can be a path to enlightenment, in fact it may be one of the few paths available to someone still living in a culture of scarcity, where people still struggle to meet basic needs. But in a world of abundance, I wonder if another path is possible: a path of enlightened or rational hedonism.

If I return the story of Buddha himself (and I must confess I am no real scholar on the topic), that path may already be refuted with his renunciation of his shielded royal life when he learns of the suffering of others. But Buddhism seems to define “happiness” as the absence of suffering – and to me, happiness and pleasure are so much more than this. Then again perhaps enlightenment has nothing to do with happiness at all, unless that term is equated with “contentment” or “inner peace.”

None-the-less, I believe this hedonist path must be explored, if for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity and experience the world.

Perhaps where some shun the suffering of desire, I shun the suffering of contentment. So this path to enlightenment may not lead to “inner peace.” But rather to the “most fulfilling life” Fulfillment becomes enlightenment, as each experience moves against ignorance, and improves self knowledge.

Where enlightenment typically means the overcoming of desires, enlightened hedonism seeks to focus on uncovering our desires and refining them. These desires are not denied but rather enhanced or celebrated.

Perhaps for me this is a reaction to growing up in a Western culture, where Judeo-Christian morality seems to look at success or pleasure as temptations the ultimately lead to a path of evil or damnation. In reading some Hindu texts, it was refreshing to learn that among the four aims of man is both prosperity (Artha)), as well as love and sensual pleasure (Kama) - the other two aims being ethical behavior or duty (Dharma) and enlightenment or release (Moksha). In the Hindu world, all four of these aims are interdependent; each is required to be successful with the other, so Kama, which I see akin to hedonism, is a required component of achieving enlightenment.

So, I’m encouraged that perhaps my exploration is simply a continuation of a conversation begun a few thousand years ago.