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.