Here we have part 3 in the series based on Kristian’s Ethics –– a manuscript providing advice to my younger son that I started writing about 20 years ago, and which I serialized a bit of on Myspace 3 years ago.
To repeat, my basic premise here is that I believe Aristotle is right, that happiness –– defined as the successful realization of human pursuits which are naturally ends unto themselves –– should be the basis for ethics. But the operative question is, what sort of pursuits which are ends unto themselves for us can we successfully realize? Humans are, after all, notoriously bad at predicting what will make them happy. I am thus starting out by going through various alternative categories of sources for happiness, considering which provide the greatest satisfaction. Last time in this series I pointed out some of the limitations of seeking happiness by way of comparison. I will now move on to the area which is considered by many to be the true core of happiness: pleasant physical sensations which can be lumped together under the title of pleasures or comfort.
I use this term in a much broader sense here than its standard usage. Basically what we are considering here is any physically pleasant sensation which could be said to have a relatively clear evolutionary purpose in terms of prolonging life and improving one’s chances for reproductive success. Such sensations would include flavor, intoxication, sexuality and general painless function. Generally speaking, the pursuit of these sorts of pleasures is what many people naively assume that they most want in life.
Aristotle considered the balanced attainment of all of these things to be essential to true happiness. A man who experienced no culinary pleasures, no moderate buzz from wine and no sexual satisfaction, and/or who lived in constant pain, was not, in his opinion, someone who could be categorized as “happy.” While this conclusion intuitively makes sense, there are many examples of people who –– for reasons of religious devotion or on account of traumatic experience –– have chosen to live without any given one or two of these forms of physical satisfaction; sometimes all of them even. Can we really exclude the possibility that Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi lived happy lives on this basis? We’ll come back to that thought.
If we start with the consideration of pleasures which come by way of flavor, it is easy to see how this sort of positive taste experience could have developed from generation to generation. The ability to sense which foods that will provide us with strong boosts of energy and the nutrients our bodies need on the one hand, and to sense which foods might contain parasites and poisons that could endanger our survival on the other, would be important to our basic survival. But along with the other things to be mentioned in this chapter, this tool for survival has since become far more a means of recreation for many of us. We don’t eat tasty things to improve our odds of survival; we eat tasty things for the sheer pleasure of it.
If you give the average five-year-old a couple of large coins and ask him what he will buy with them, by far the most common answer will be, “candy!” Oh, the simple joys of childhood! […] As people get older, their bodies’ needs change, and with them their tastes also change. The sugary gradually loses its natural appeal, and instead we start to crave things that are rich, creamy and robustly flavored. While adults’ tastes aren’t as simple as children’s, for adults too a major share of life’s pleasures come from taste experiences, and almost every time someone makes a list of their top ten pleasures in life, a good meal is in there somewhere.
But besides the challenge of keeping our calorie intake balanced with our day to day activity level, we have to acknowledge that a lot of the things which taste best to us are the things our bodies least need. Sugars, starches and saturated fats are particularly nasty culprits these days, leading to continuously rising rates of diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay and complications of obesity for vast numbers of people. The old adage that “all sweet things should be tasted” certainly does not hold true these days, if it ever did.
Aristotle wrote about the pleasures of food together with the pleasures of wine. Wine can be part of any outstanding adult culinary experience as one of the many flavors that come together as part of the pleasure, but there is obviously more to wine than that. The alcohol involved is one of many chemicals people can use to trigger particular sorts of pleasurable sensations in their central nervous systems. These pleasures can be grouped together under the heading of intoxication. How and why these chemicals developed in such a way to trigger pleasure centers in our brains is a long discussion unto itself; but the fact is that they do have such an effect, so why not use them?
There are plenty of different answers to that, including the various risks of destroying your body while seeking such highs, and the risk of losing track of the need to be productive somehow to keep supporting this and other forms of pleasure seeking. No need to go into detail explaining here the risks and lack of long-term pleasure involved in being an alcoholic or drug addict. For that matter the same sorts of risks apply to the use of some “drugs” –– chemicals affecting the central nervous system –– that people don’t actually take with any conscious intent to “get high” –– caffeine and nicotine being the most obvious examples.
But even so, there’s a lot to be said for carefully using mild and familiar chemicals to give yourself a bit of a buzz every now and again. I’m not making any statements in favor of illegal chemical recreation here, but I don’t think that people should be made to feel guilty for having a cup of coffee, or a bar of chocolate, or a glass of wine every now and again. And if we consider this category of personal satisfaction to be ethically acceptable, as long as we consider factors of personal and public safety carefully enough in the process, I don’t see where other forms of intoxication need to be forbidden. There are some pretty serious qualifications here though, and when in doubt I strongly recommend erring on the side of caution here.
It might be argued that the thing these chemicals are most directly substituting for in our brains is the sensation that comes from sex. Obviously this thrill was “intended by nature” to make us reproduce and keep our genetic lines going, and perhaps also to create a stronger bond between the lovers to help maintain the sort of partnership necessary to raise children; but just as obviously sex is used as a source of pleasure in ways that have nothing to do with building families. In fact intentionally removing the reproductive and emotional bonding elements of sex is an important part of its pleasure for some people.
Should that be forbidden? “Absolutely,” say the Catholics. “Not at all,” say some reconstituted versions of pre-Christian religions. In between these extremes we can find many different levels and variations of restriction on sexuality in the name of “protecting the family.”
I used to believe quite strongly and idealistically in only allowing sexuality within marriage, as a means of strengthening that bond. But when my marriage to Kristian’s mother eventually fell apart the threat of promiscuous sex had nothing to do with it. All things considered I don’t regret the sexual restraint I exercised in my younger years, because it saved me from feeling guilty about my marriage failing. (The crisis of faith I had over the matter is a separate issue.) But even so, these days I’m inclined to believe that restricting sex is perhaps the least effective way of building partnerships and protecting families, and there’s a fair amount to be said about sex for its own sake.
That being said, there are plenty of risks involved in sex: pregnancies that the lovers aren’t ready for, STDs, sex being used as a tool in ugly power struggles and unexpected emotional reactions to unmatched levels of commitment to the relationship. All in all, even more than with drugs, it is vital to know what you’re getting yourself into with sex and not to mess with things that you’re not sure of or ready for. Beyond that, there’s something about being in love which can make sex a whole lot better, but that’s for another chapter.
Beyond all of the above, happiness by way of comfort can be just a matter of things physically “working right” and not hurting. There’s a lot to be said for the comfort of a warm shower, a soft bed, properly fitting quality jeans, a razor that doesn’t tear the skin off your face (or whatever other part of your body you are shaving), tools that are properly ergonomically designed, and a host of other things that enable us to do what we have to do without giving us extra aches and pains in the process. What’s wrong with that? As long as it doesn’t lead to new forms of helplessness when we don’t have these things, and greater dependence on an unsustainable consumption driven lifestyle, absolutely nothing.
There’s also a lot to be said for physical fitness for its own sake in this regard. Some people try to get fit to improve their sex lives, or to compete more effectively with others in various ways, but just being able to feel your body working the way it is supposed to on a long run or bicycle ride or swim is a significant pleasure unto itself. While fitness can become a rather absurd manic addiction unto itself, as one of the basic joys of a balanced healthy lifestyle I really don’t believe that there’s anything to be said against it.
So when you put all of these things together, is this the best life has to offer? Is it some combination of these things that should make our lives worth living?
On the one hand humanistic psychologists rightly point out that if these forms of happiness are at a critically low level –– especially if someone is starving to death and/or in chronic pain –– no other forms of happiness is likely to make any difference to them. Christian missionaries trying to spread their message in desperately poor communities have noticed the same thing. One motto for promoting humanitarian relief of physical suffering before trying to preach to anyone is, “Empty bellies have no ears.” But does that mean that once the belly is full, the person becomes happy? Moving up the comfort scale from there, can true lasting happiness be found through something akin to the Playboy lifestyle?
This question has two significant aspects to it. First of all, should physical pleasure serve some purpose beyond itself –– prolonged genetic survival in particular? And beyond that then, what factors could/should limit our pursuits of intense physical pleasure?
We can look at the first side of this in terms of the cuckoo bird’s foster parents. When we see this classic strategy used in nature we tend to feel sorry for the little sparrows or larks or whatever who get tricked into feeding and caring for what to their eyes a particularly cute chick, hatched from an egg in their nest, because we know that this sneaky chick is killing their own offspring and preventing them from being able to keep their own family lines going. But what if feeding this big baby intruder actually gives the foster parents their own sense of thrill and satisfaction? Is this any worse than a human guy getting off on watching some silicon enhanced porn star, which cannot possibly improve his odds of successfully parenting children? I mean, there too instinctive reflexes that were designed to keep this creature’s genetic line going are being artificially stimulated, leading him to behave in a way which actually reduces his chances of genetic survival. Should we care?
Or for that matter there is the urge to eat unhealthy foods because they taste good. If our pleasure programming, intended for purposes of improving our odds of survival is being deceived here too, should we put sensible survival strategies ahead of the process of enjoying the satisfaction of our various appetites, or should we just go ahead and “feed the cuckoo chick in our nest” because it feels good?
If we resist the pleasure urges in favor of survival, we are implicitly admitting that there really is something more important to us than the pleasure itself. If, on the other hand, one wants to live strictly for a sense of physical pleasure and euphoria, perhaps the most consistent way of following that path is to be a drunk or junkie who never has to come down from his high. Eventually it will cause him/her to die early, but if the thrill is more important than survival, what difference does that make?
Then again, perhaps the most sensible path is to follow a strategy of spreading out the physical pleasure experiences over a longer period of time; not destroying oneself carelessly in order to maintain the hope of experiencing more years of good food, pleasant partying and satisfying sex. But how can you really plan for the best experience overall then? How can you adjust things to have the longest run with the most pleasure and the least pain possible? And if that’s all you really have to shoot for, isn’t there a pretty serious risk of the stress of figuring out your strategy taking away the joy of the party itself?
I have to admit, I enjoy many forms of physical pleasure, in spite of the risks that I know I’m taking with my health with some of them. But at the same time I believe that there is more to life than that. If physical pleasures were all there were in life I don’t think I’d be so satisfied with my life. There just has to be more than that… and fortunately there is. If you don’t believe me, try to refute the arguments in the next few installments in this series.