Friday, July 26, 2013


There’s an old bit about how the essence of Puritanism was the fear that somebody, somewhere was having a good time. Is there a hedonistic obverse to this idea? If pleasure is the highest good, does it matter who is feeling their oats? Of course most of us would insist that it matters a very great deal how the goodies are distributed. Thus even utilitarians have some truck with deontology when they insist on the greatest happiness for the greatest number. They insist on an element of fairness even though concepts like fairness seems to go along with an entirely different moral philosophy. If pleasure really were a quantity like mass, one could imagine a consistent hedonist who only considered the sum total of pleasure resulting from some arrangement and didn’t care if it only accrued to a few or even just one. I imagine a divine monster arguing that a supreme pleasure is justified even if it would only be enjoyed by a single individual and that individual would not be him. Indeed, I think that actual psychopaths reason in this way, even when they wouldn’t be the ones who do the enjoying—it’s the Sadist’s version of veil of ignorance. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure the Marquis would accuse Bentham of inconsistency in insisting that the happiness be spread around. Why should that matter? Mill is often accused of messing things up by insisting on adding to Bentham’s purely quantitative view of pleasure a dimension of quality: he didn’t want to have to admit that a happy pig might find in its swill a superior felicity to an Oxford don could experience from reading a Horatian ode. It’s worse than that, though, and not just because the pigs are bound to outnumber the dons. One needs a separate principle of justice or has to face some pretty alarming implications.

Part of the logical appeal of putting a supreme valuation on pleasure is that it allows us to believe that there are genuine ultimates in the universe. Something that is pleasurable is not thought to be good because it is leads to something else, but because of what it is in the present. Like pain which doesn’t stop hurting even if it isn’t the foreplay of death or some other future evil, a moment of ecstasy gratifies even if might not be worth its consequences. It just is; and requires, or so we would sometimes like to believe, no exegesis unlike things such as love or virtue that have to mean in order to be and therefore disappear into the very act of being understood. On this view, pleasure is an end in itself, an infra-cosmic eschaton, which, unlike some postulated act of creation from nothing or interminably postponed day of justice, has the virtue of actually occurring, though Blake’s “eternity in the palm of your hand” may not be very grand when you consider the reality of the thing. That’s not the real problem, however. If pleasure and pain aren’t good and bad because of what they lead to, if they really are absolute, it also really doesn’t matter who experiences them since they are more fundamental than the persons or animals in whom they occur.

Mostly I take this line of thought as a reductio ad absurdum of the notion that anything subjective—pleasures, pains, sense data—is even a temporary ultimate. I decided long ago that experience is what I used to call vanishing. The nearest thing to what we dream of as presence is a certain hesitation in the perpetual departure of things and that’s as true of pleasure or pain as of anything else. Nevertheless, I recognize the appeal of the error.  

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