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The Happiness Thing 13 April 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Philosophy, Psychology, Spirituality.

We are pleasure seeking creatures. This is how Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the father of utilitarianism, put it:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. … They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think: every effort we can make to throw off our subjection, will serve but to demonstrate and confirm it.

As we know from our lived experience, however, happiness plays hard-to-get. She eludes her most ardent suitors, and sometimes arrives at the doorstep of the most unlikely prospects.

I just learned something cool in my class on utilitarianism yesterday: the paradox of hedonism (thank you, Michael Stocker). Someone who seeks pleasure (i.e., a hedonist) will naturally direct his actions toward the pursuit of pleasure. Everything he does will be justified by this rationale, and everyone he interacts with will become a means to this goal. Not the most admirable approach, we might say, but surely a rational one. Except that by treating his friends and loved ones as means, the hedonist is at the very same time compromising those relationships. Insofar as human relationships are not purely instrumental things, the most satisfying ones do not emerge from people looking out for their own happiness. A lover of pleasure does not a lover make.

As it turns out, then, there is something self-defeating about the pursuit of happiness. There is more to the story, of course, but I thought this would be a good beginning.



1. VARANGALI - 13 April 2006

It seems to me that pleasure here has a static definition: each hedonist knows what he/she is pursuing, and that which is pursued does not change. Can’t hedonism itself cause a shift in pleasure?

I think the pursuit of pleasure has decreasing returns: i.e., if I love watching movies, the amount of pleasure I get after the 30th viewing will be more than the pleasure I get from the 145th. As such, I’ll move on to some newer source of pleasure, say, chocolate-covered ants (eww). Over time, my pursuit of pleasure will be just a blend of disappointments, like chasing a light at the end of a never-ending tunnel, but with plenty of bends and turns that give hope.

Does hedonism, then, destroy pleasure itself?

2. The Turk - 14 April 2006

I agree with you ABD. Its goes back to my arguement about this world. We are often stuck in paradox here. You can’t have your cake and eat too. Mango is better than papaya. However, papaya is good for you in even in large scale but mango in large scale, runs and sugar increase etc. Papaya on the other hand reduces sugar? Pleasure on a large scale in negative to us always on some level. Doesn’t matter what it is. Which is the irony which is life? Damned if we and Damned if we don’t!

May Allah Guide All of US to the Right Path
“without frustation.” :)

3. ABD - 14 April 2006

varangali: i take your point about decreasing returns–in which case, we have an added problem (though i imagine this one applies to non-hedonists as well). also, we have to grant the possibility that one could move back and forth between movies, chocolate delicacies and other things in a way to renew my pleasure in each of them.

the turk: yeah, it’s funny how so many things that feel/taste good aren’t good for you. i wonder whether we can develop ourselves to enjoy things that actually are good for us… and ameen to your du’a.

4. The Turk - 14 April 2006

abd: its not funny; it’s darn right miserable. you ever watch the show Becker? I love and watch that show even though its been cancelled. Becker complaints about life etc pretty match up with me. Though I am not turned off by God as he is.

I think Man like our Infamous jinn has a pride issue. We think we are smarter than our Creator. Who was that poet Galib ; I think wrote something Question to Allah and Answer of Allah. The termity of demanding an Answer and writing a reply from your Creator. We tremeble at the feet of our parents but we dare challenge Allah?

I was similar in my ways however my goal now is gaining enough understanding that I can bear life and its varagies. Because I will never understand completely and Allah(swt) hasn’t revealed the answer just that He has it.

Also I don’t believe in acquired taste. That is mind of matter; then what the diffrence of eatting some thats good and some that tastes like it pulled of the sewage lake. Its good, bad or bland.

Allah (to whom belong all the praises)
Forgive us all of the sins we may commit

5. talib - 17 April 2006

isn’t the more fundamental paradox the fact that pleasure cannot exist in the absence of pain? one could argue quite easily, for example, that hunger, even the mildest hunger, is pain (needs are called “needs” because without placating them, we experience discomfort or pain). and the pleasure one derives from eating is simply the assuaging of the pain of hunger. it seems to me that all worldly pleasures are derived from dealing with these pains. but real pleasure, the peaceful, transcendental kind believers are after, is achieved through gradually alleviating the source of the greatest pain: separation from one’s Creator.

6. The Turk - 17 April 2006

Thanks Dr. Jou. I didn’t of that way… “separation from one’s Creator”.

I agree with you there. Joined with Allah I would know all that I wanted to know and would be content.

May we all return to Allah with his blessings. Innshallah.

7. other|matters » The Happiness Thing II - 13 July 2006

[…] Happiness is elusive, and seems to slip away as soon as we are about to put our hands on it. In the first post of this series, I talked about how the conscious pursuit of pleasure (i.e., hedonism) can be self-defeating. A reasonable response to this problem would be to say that we shouldn’t have defined happiness so narrowly in the first place. If only we could get the right definition of happiness, we would avoid the problems that the hedonist runs into. […]

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