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.