Fallacies of Pleasure and Good

Hercules' choice embodied by two women: duty and pleasure. Ah, women... existing only for temptation yet again. Go antiquity!

A C Grayling, in his 2007 philosophical signpost, The Choice of Hercules, writes that John Stuart Mill was greatly (and perhaps rightly) criticised for defining a difference between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures. The ‘good life’, Grayling posits, is a delicate balance between the pleasures of life we all know only too well, and the dutiful ‘greater’ good tendered by the Judeo-Christian tradition for the betterment of the long-term gain: one’s soul. The pleasures of life, the wine, the drugs, the smoking, the massages, the brisk walks in the sun, the appreciation of a good book under a tree, the rush of exercise (unbeknownst to some) or even urination are all historically frowned upon as hollow. The ‘better’ life is the life of humble servitude in favour of the preservation of one’s immortal soul.

John Stuart Mill: quite a serious facial for someone wrapped in a bow like a present.

In the case of Mill, his attempt to define the difference between (as Grayling puts it) the appreciation of Aeschylus’ plays and the enjoyment of a beer at the pub are certain, classifiable and important. His many critics shout him down as being pompous, elitist and stubborn. As Grayling himself asks, why does some obscure objective view of the act of enjoyment come into play? Surely when discussing pleasure, the person enjoying the act is the object of inquiry?

The difference between the two is one of immediacy versus a prolonged happiness, in more ways than one.

Firstly, the immediate pleasure one gains is the primary notion under scrutiny. Those first few bubbles reaching your lips, the satisfaction of the cool liquid of a finely-brewed beer (although perhaps I should strike finely-brewed and use Victoria Bitter as an example since we’re contrasting the high-brow with the low here) and the sense of reward many associate with this magnificent feeling of joy to come at the end of a long, hard day is not to be scoffed at. What business has an enthusiast for Greek antiquities’ plays admonishing such pleasure in the name of snobbery?

Victoria Bitter: pleasure at its most raw and virile expression. Be a man: drink VB. Do it!

Does the pleasure being mental rather than physical (or as Grayling notes, mental and physical rather than just physical) mitigate its usefulness to the individual receiving it? Simply put, it doesn’t. Enjoyment and pleasure should be sought for its own end (not excusing, of course, those who seek pleasure at the expense of others, who should all suffer their own indignities as recompense), and the pleasure which comes with the drinking of Victoria Bitter should be held in no higher regard for the person doing the enjoying than a chortle at a witticism from The Persians.

The second type of pleasure is more long-sighted than mere enjoyment (in a sense), the Judeo-Christian belief in duty as a form of good springing from the same principle. ‘Pleasure’ is a societal mode involving the ongoing happiness index of the entire peoples. Granted, the majority of people still commit the flawed ‘us and them’ mentality to such philanthropy, and continue to seek pleasure for their kind at the expense of pleasure for some ill-defined ‘other’, yet this doesn’t mitigate the underlying principle at play: that what is good derives from what is ‘best’ for the happiness of the masses. This utilitarian principle of happiness drives the notion that ‘duty’ (to one’s family, country, god or gods, gender, sexuality etc) will bring about more happiness in the long run, and it is right to subserve one’s own immediate pleasure in the pursuit of such measured and egalitarian ends.

At a previous time in history, as Desmond Morris has stated in his many zoological examinations of our humble species, such postponed pleasure or ‘shared’ pleasure originated in the coupling of animals. The biological imperative to evolve a kind of ‘love’ in order to bring about lasting partnerships saw us able to form family units and progress into a nomadic dissidence from our ancestors; the first tribes were born.

Flashing forward several hundreds of thousands of years, a societal need for a similar prerogative became necessary. The care for one’s own family had to extend beyond the grasp of known kin and into a group mentality capable of grand gestures (wars) and cultural subtleties (language, currency, celebratory tradition etc). As such, religious traditions spawned a mythical afterlife which would serve as an ultimate goal for those willing to lead the dutiful life. The prolonged pleasure principle, long understood by our forebears, had become so difficult to perceive (as our numbers swelled) as ever returning in kind to our immediate kin that a greater purpose was needed. The end result of an entire life of servitude, duty and care would lead to an eternal salvation of the soul.

Forsaking immediate pleasure for the call of duty.

This principle served to form what we now understand as ‘society’. The tension between the good life of simple pleasures and the ‘good’ life of philanthropy, selflessness and care served to cause guilt for those who enjoyed too much of the former, and pride in those who obeyed the latter. Long term happiness for the many, being a chief concern of religion, erupted into a culpable doctrine of proliferation (literally).

This long-term notion of good being ‘better’ than the short term can be seen on any level and in any scale.

Why drink Victoria Bitter when you could drink Pure Blonde for marginally less immediate pleasure, safe in the knowledge that you’ll feel less bloated later on? Why listen to pop music devoid of depth (to borrow Grayling’s example) when there is a subtle depth to Bach and Vivaldi untouched by modern media? Why indulge in the pleasures of casual sex when it runs the risk of destroying your marriage? Why refuse a backhander from a businessman when the results of an action (or inaction) may not be felt for generations, if at all? Why give birth when overpopulation threatens to destroy us all as tensions approach a breaking point and technology reaches doomsday levels?

The desire to push the species onwards can falsify any potential pleasure-giving activity on some level, and the grey areas are becoming harder and harder to define.

The black and white notion of pleasure now versus pleasure in the future has become so muddled as to be misleading. There will always be someone to criticise that our thinking isn’t prescient enough; that our idea of doing good for our country, family, descendants or even species isn’t showing enough foresight to be truly ‘good’.

Aeschylus. Strange that he's from further back in history than John Stuart Mill. After all, Aeschylus is an early adopter of 3D.

Putting aside these long-winded concepts of forever, though, dealing with pleasure on a more manageable level yields a problematic result: pleasure and good are always defined by lack. To illustrate, the most measured of people will know that to be ‘good’ at something is to do it. To be a good doctor, one must attempt, fail and learn. To be someone who is so learned as to know the works of Aeschylus inside-and-out, one must first read Aeschylus.

As such, we can interpret any act perceived as giving pleasure as an admission of an unhappy itch yearning to be scratched. The distillation of intellectual whims into concise blog entries is merely designed to render the author a person capable of such elegance in person. The use of words in such a blog one is still struggling to remember correctly and use in everyday speech is designed to do just that. Each instance of doing is an act of being (or attempting to be). One exercises in order to become fit, one enjoys beer in order to be a person who is satisfied.

Consequently, the person reading Aeschylus considers himself a philistine, the person drinking beer considers themselves thirsty. Mill would be positing that the former, worrying about one’s intellectual inferiority, is a far deeper concern than the latter example of thirst. Yet if you ask whether the intellectual elite who study Aeschylus have ‘contributed’ more to society than the beer drinker, you must note that the two are co-dependent.

Beer built the pyramids!

The beer drinkers of this world have built the pyramids, fought our wars (if you consider that a positive thing) and in a more modern world, are also our doctors, our philosophers and our presidents. The Aeschylus-readers of modernity would not be in a position to enjoy such luxurious (and self-indulgent) philosophical pursuits without the support of plumbers, gardeners, physicians or those who work humbly away in printing presses, mastering the copies of the manuscripts they so desire.

“Philosophy only occurs in a society that can produce philosophers.” says Peter Adamsons, British philosopher. And he is quite correct. Once we became a society large enough for specialisation to thrive, each depends on the other for their practise. The elitist snob re-reading Aeschylus owes his pastime to the aid of thousands. Those labouring to permit such a lifestyle owe the Aeschylus-readers of this world for their pursuit of emancipation, their declaration of human rights and other purely theoretical and ‘meaningless’ pursuits. And yet, before such ideas, important as they are, to bear fruit, it is these same labourers which must fight the despots and monarchs with their very lives to see such change brought about. As such, the revolutionaries of France saw themselves destroyed in the fight with more vitriol and volume than they did during their oppression. They fought and died, and their fighting caused the deaths of countless more, for an ideal created by those Aeschylus-readers who would eventually survive such plebeian conflicts.

So regarding some kind of ‘higher good’, the productive member of society always deserves their pleasure, be it Aeschylus or Victoria Bitter (ironically named after a queen), and each is ‘good’ for society in equal measure to their inputs.

On that note I fully plan to read Aeschylus and drink a beer tonight (although not Victoria Bitter as it contains animal products). Shameful epitome of middle-class that I am. But before that I’ll need to dream up a suitably elite-sounding title for this blog post. Hmm….

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