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?