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1 The protean standard of hedonism

1 The protean standard of hedonism

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234 PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE



of life, which was the very ordinary pleasures that could be experienced in a

tranquil life.2

When we say that pleasure is the end, we do not mean the pleasures of the

dissipated and those that consist in having a good time, as some out of

ignorance and disagreement or refusal to understand suppose we do, but

freedom from pain in the body and from disturbance in the soul. For what

produces the pleasant life is not continuous drinking and parties or

pederasty or womanizing or the enjoyment of fish and the other dishes of

an expensive table, but sober reasoning which tracks down the causes of

every choice and avoidance, and which banishes the opinions that beset

souls with the greatest confusion.

(LS 21B5)

Pleasure was, as Epicurus put it, the straightedge (yardstick, kan n; see first

quotation at the head of this chapter), simultaneously the end for which we

should (rationally) aim and the standard of value to be used in making our

judgments about what to do.

Placed against this criterion, it was clear to him that one should be lawabiding,

not because by itself being so gave one a better life but because breaking the law

risked retaliation from people (LS 22A5), which in turn jeopardized, in a way

that simply was not worth the risk, one’s prospects for a life of pleasures enjoyed

in tranquility. Such excellences of character as one needed to live this quiet,

private life were, as one of his opponents, a Stoic named Cleanthes, put it (21O),

mere handmaidens to pleasure. Indeed, Epicurus assigns a role to what he calls

phron sis, which like Aristotle he treats as the chief virtue and source of all other

virtues. But instead of making phron sis subservient to theoretical wisdom, or to

the exercise of theoretical wisdom in contemplation, he makes it entirely

subservient to living pleasurably as he understood it (21B6). In the Nicomachean

Ethics, Aristotle recommended philosophical contemplation because it exercises

the characteristic human capacity on the best possible object, making it the

activity most worthy of human beings, but he also insisted that it is an enjoyable

thing to do. Epicurus made no distinctions in terms of what is worthwhile; if it is

enjoyable and will not reduce your prospects for further enjoyment, then it is a

constituent of your eudaimonia.

Aristotle had dismissed the view of those who identified pleasure as the good

that belongs to human beings, because pleasure is something that we share with

other creatures. But Epicurus could easily reply that he was recommending a

perspective on pleasure (the use of pleasure as a kan n) that was possible only for

a human being. All animate creatures make efforts to adjust their relations to the

environment (heat loss, oxygen intake) and seek to undergo certain kinds of

process (ingesting food, engaging in reproductive activities); they also exhibit

aversions to undergoing certain processes. What an animal avoids is taken to be

uncomfortable, distressing or painful for it; what an animal seeks is taken to be



PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE 235



comfortable, enjoyable or pleasurable for it. For the most part, these responses

are to fairly immediate stimuli. What makes this kind of seeking and avoiding

distinctively human is that humans are able to represent to themselves the

connections between events and to time their responses in order to secure and

avoid what lies at some distance in the future. They are also able to represent

their lives as a whole and to weigh the consequences of actions (pursuits and

aversions) for the overall pattern of experiences, those that they prefer to undergo

and those that they prefer to avoid.

The word ‘weigh’ in the last sentence involves the metaphor of standards and

measurement, which we have been following through a variety of traditions. In

this case, the metaphor is anchored to the fact that faced with alternative turns of

events people can say of each considered in isolation which they prefer to

undergo. With a further exercise of imagination, they can consider each as a

package of consequences both short- and long-term and say which total package

they would prefer to undergo. It often takes an effort of imagination to make the

latter sort of comparison, as well as efforts to discipline one’s habits of response

and to endure some short-term discomforts in order to find and follow a course

of action that will have better overall prospects of comfort and enjoyment and

fewer of pain and distress. Thus one may invest time comparing retirement

plans, resolve to give up smoking or steel oneself for a trip to the dentist.

Rational hedonism (from Greek h don , pleasure) recommends the policy of

making the effort to find and adopt the course of action with maximal prospects

of comfort, enjoyment and pleasure and minimal prospects for pain, distress and

discomfort. One can, of course, not trouble to make the effort of imagination and

simply respond, as an animal does, to immediate prospects without giving

thought to or having concern for long-term consequences. This might be called

‘hedonism of the present moment.’

There are also those who find the effort involved in rational hedonism and its

effects (e.g. the realization of the possibility that one may unavoidably find

oneself in a no-win situation) to be an overwhelming source of distress. As a

consequence, these people recommend ‘living for today’ as the best policy. They

may envy, and recommend the life of, those who never develop much of their

human capacity for appreciating long-term consequences and for controlling

their current actions accordingly. The conclusion they reach is in effect that

rational hedonism, if thought out carefully and consistently, reduces to hedonism

of the present moment. From the standpoint of someone who believes that what

is distinctive about human beings is their ability to use discursive thought to

control their actions, to recommend hedonism of the present moment is to

recommend abandoning an important part of one’s humanity.

However, it is quite unfair to suggest that anyone who offers to explain what it

is for a human to do or live well in terms of pleasure and the avoidance of

distress is thinking only in terms of hedonism of the present moment. Epicurus

held that in general mental distress (fear, apprehension) could well be worse than

bodily distress (21R2)—the resulting insecurity is the reason Epicurus gave for



236 PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE



not preying upon one’s neighbors (22A5) —but he did not for that reason

recommend living for today. His rational hedonism required constant

mindfulness of the consequences of one’s actions and habits. This is obviously

not a life that could be sought without an investment of discursive thought.

Epicurus offered an image of this life as sober, frugal, restrained, aiming more

at avoiding distress than seeking exhilaration or euphoria. Although his

recommendation of this life was based on the idea that alternatives would yield

more distress and less enjoyment overall, there is no attempt, the metaphors of

standards notwithstanding, to quantify pleasure and justify his recommendations

on the basis of anything like numerical calculation. Determining what to do or

how to live on the basis of measuring and calculating the pleasures and pains

that would result from different options is an idea that pre-dates Epicurus—it

appears, for example, in a dialogue, the Protagoras, which Plato wrote before

Epicurus was born—but the conceptions of measurement and calculation

involved were probably no more sophisticated than what would have been used

on a building site.

It may well have taken developments in commerce (double-entry bookkeeping) and natural science (mathematical physics) before someone like Jeremy

Bentham, who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, could

see and take seriously the possibility of the elaborate sort of reckoning that

would deserve to be called ‘a calculus of pleasure and pain.’ The image of

numerical assignments and computations of the sort that we make in

engineering, however, encounters a number of conceptual difficulties. Bentham

himself appreciated what is known as the ‘law of diminishing returns,’ which is

illustrated by the familiar observation that twice as long of the same pleasurable

activity or twice as much of the same pleasurable food is often not twice as

pleasurable. The mathematics of measurement, however, commonly relies on the

principle (known as the Archimedean axiom) that where one quantity is less than

another, there is a finite number by which one can multiply the smaller so that it

exceeds the latter. If ‘returns’ are diminishing, there may be no finite number of

the lesser quantity that will as an aggregate exceed the greater.

‘Quantity’ is used here to refer to a measurable thing, an object with a length

or weight—or a pleasurable or painful experience, if the notion of measuring

pleasure and pain is to make sense—rather than a numerical value. (The term

‘magnitude’ may be used for the numerical value assigned to a quantity.)

‘Multiplying’ quantities by n means adding (aggregating) n things with the same

magnitude. Mathematicians have acquired an interest in the consequences of

suspending important axioms, e.g. in geometry, and doubtless find nonArchimedean measures interesting, but it is far from clear that any practice that

might be built on such a concept of measure would provide a basis for the kind

of adjudication that we are seeking. The problems raised in the next paragraph,

however, render even this question otiose.

Familiar measuring practices also assume that any two (would-be) quantities

are comparable, either greater than or less than or equal, and that equal quantities



PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE 237



are for the purposes of the measuring practice indistinguishable and may be

substituted one for another. Neither of these assumptions is secure when it comes

to the things we undergo that we regard as pleasures, enjoyments, comforts,

pains, distresses or discomforts. There are definitely circumstances in which we

are clear which of two alternatives is going to yield more of what we want or do

not want, but there are many circumstances in which the attempt to compare

seems out of place and the fact that we would not rate one of them as offering

more of what we want in no way warrants treating the two as interchangeable.

The reason for this was noted by Aristotle. Pleasure is not one thing; pleasures

differ in kind depending on the kind of thing that is found to be enjoyable. This

for Aristotle was a consequence of his theory that pleasure ‘completed’ an

activity, and since in general different things are completed in different ways it is

hardly surprising that the pleasures that are derived from different activities are

very different (1175a21–b23). But the observation does not require the support

of theory; the pleasure of tasting ripe raspberries is as unlike that of hiking in the

mountains as the two activities are unlike one another. The idea that one could

compare the pleasures involved and decide whether one is greater than the other

reduces to whether people are able to say they have a preference for one over the

other. Now when we talk about pleasure in the abstract, it is made to sound like

something objective that can be measured; preferences, on the other hand,

obviously depend on whose preferences are in question and often on the

transient circumstances that people find themselves in. Someone feeling restless

and overfed would prefer a hike in the mountains; someone physically exhausted

and in need of refreshment would clearly prefer a serving of raspberries.

There are also differences in preferences that emerge if we factor out the

effects of special circumstances. All things being equal, some people would

prefer to eat more and some would prefer to be more active; the former are said

to take more pleasure in eating, the latter to take more pleasure in activity. It

depends on the sort of people they are. This is another point that Aristotle made.

What people enjoy or find distressing is a sign of their states of character

(hexeis). People who are self-controlled are more comfortable abstaining from

excessive eating, drinking or sex and find it annoying if for some reason they are

obliged to participate (to the same degree) in activities that self-indulgent people

relish. Likewise, a brave man finds danger less distressing than a coward

(1104b4–10). The reason for this is that preference, and consequently what

people enjoy or find distressing, is a function of habituation. Many tastes are

‘acquired’; many aversions are ‘grown out of.’

Another aspect of Aristotle’s theory, that pleasure is or arises in unimpeded

activity (1153a15), explains this. The more people do something and become

habituated to it, the easier they will find it (the less impeded they will be in doing

it) and consequently there is a greater chance they will enjoy doing it. But again

there is no need for theory to support the claim that what people enjoy or find

distressing depends on the sort of people they are, or the sort of people they have

become through habituation. This observation could provide a basis for Aristotle



238 PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE



to raise a much more telling objection against Epicurus. Pleasure is not in fact a

stable kan n; if taken as a kan n it will have one shape when the preferences of

some individuals are taken into account, other shapes when other people’s

preferences are taken into account. If this is to amount to more than the ‘every

man is the measure’ doctrine attributed to Protagoras by Plato (see Section 5.1),

the question that needs to be addressed is, ‘whose pleasures are to be the

measure?’

Some people derive pleasure from robbing or intimidating their fellow human

beings. Epicurus believed that individuals who gratify themselves in this way are

very likely to be made so miserable by the people they prey upon that they will

not count their earlier enjoyments as worth the cost. It is not clear that this will

always be the case; some scoundrels will, after pleasures purchased at their

neighbors’ expense—and enjoyed in some considerable measure because they

are at their neighbors’ expense —derive enough enjoyment (however perverse)

from defying their neighbors’ best efforts to exact vengeance as to make the

package seem worthwhile. Epicurus believed that no pleasures purchased

through injustice could make up for the fear of what will be done to one by those

who have cause to exact vengeance, but some people find that risk adds interest

and increases the enjoyment, rather than the distress, that they derive from what

they do.

Epicurus in effect held the measure to be not pleasure so much as the person

who can enjoy sober conviviality, frugal comfort and private (rather than public)

preoccupations. People who are not habituated to enjoy this kind of life would be

told that they are confused; they are not getting as favorable a balance of

pleasure over pain as life can afford. But the pleasures people derive and the

distress they experience is in large measure a function of what they are

habituated to do. On what basis can it be said that with different habituation they

will experience less discomfort, distress or pain and have more comfort,

enjoyment or pleasure? The Epicurean life involves suppressing impulses not

only to overindulge in food, drink and sex but also to seek public recognition.

There will be some discomfort, not to say distress, in reaching a point where

living like this becomes easy and enjoyable; that is to say, most people are not

content living as Epicurus recommended without first undergoing some form of

discipline.

But if people can come to enjoy a lifestyle in which these otherwise natural

impulses are severely curtailed, could they not habituate themselves to very

different lifestyles and simply learn to live with whatever frustrations this

entailed? People might choose a life (of sensual pleasure, fame, power) involving

risks that Epicurus deemed to be too great. They could allow the risks involved

to intensify whatever satisfactions such a career entailed and live with the

frustrations in the same way that Epicurus is reported to have lived with great

physical discomforts in old age—by concentrating on the memory of past

pleasurable experiences (24D). Could we say that this attitude (toward sensual

pleasure, fame, power) would lead to a less pleasurable life overall than one



PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE 239



centered on simple meals and small talk with a circle of friends? If a person took

more pleasure in working to benefit other people than in the security derived

from staying out of the public gaze, more pleasure in playing a musical

instrument extremely well than in a secure economic future, or more pleasure in

reaching a profound level of understanding nature than in small talk, might we

not raise questions about which were better things to enjoy? What humans

actually do enjoy is, after all, in some measure a matter of choice. It is true that

what we are able to come to enjoy is given to us as part of our (individual or

species) nature, but in recommending his preferred lifestyle Epicurus tended to

obscure this important difference by suggesting that what we do enjoy is what is

given to us as part of our nature.

The claim that there are better and worse things to enjoy (or ‘higher and lower

pleasures’) seemed to the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill both

obvious and the most effective way to defend his own hedonism-based ethics

against the charge that it was ‘a doctrine worthy only of swine’ (1861:282). Mill

located himself (280) within an intellectual tradition stretching from Epicurus to

Bentham (his father’s close friend) and insisted that ‘there is no known

Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of

the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value

as pleasure than to those of mere sensation’ (282).3 Mill based his claim on the

preferences for what he regarded as ‘higher pleasures’ that he believed would be

displayed by ‘those who are competently acquainted with both’ (283). For ‘it is

an unquestionable fact, that those who are equally acquainted with and equally

capable of appreciating and enjoying both do give a most marked preference to

the manner of existence which employs their higher faculties’ (ibid.).

Not everyone ‘equally acquainted’ was ‘equally capable,’ however. Mill

entertained an objection to the effect that ‘infirmity of character’ (284),

specifically ‘indolence’ and ‘selfishness’ (285), might render one unfit to

appreciate the higher pleasures. His defense was that no one ever chose thus to

become incapable of enjoying the higher things, but he allowed that ‘Capacity

for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not

only by hostile influences but by mere want of sustenance’ (ibid.). In other

words, competence is a matter of habituation, not merely of trying two things and

finding one more agreeable than the other. Indeed, the habituation required is one

that, as Aristotle would have insisted, reflects one’s character. Why does ‘a being

of higher faculties… never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower

grade of existence’ (283)? Mill entertained a variety of explanations based on

character, ‘pride,’ ‘love of liberty,’ ‘love of power,’ ‘love of excitement’ and

offered his own, ‘a sense of dignity’ (284). The measure in Mill, even more

obviously than in Epicurus, is not pleasure but the person of good character.



240 PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE



10.2

Private pleasures and public responsibilities

Selves, friends and fellow citizens

Epicurean aspirations were for a life with as little discomfort and as much

innocuous pleasure as could be managed. Excellences of character, in particular

the chief excellence of phron sis, were to be cultivated and exercised precisely to

the extent that they contributed to the realization of that aspiration. Aristotle had

in the Nicomachean Ethics a loftier aspiration. Although he believed that

contemplation afforded the highest type of pleasure available to a human being,

this was because it was pleasure in a far more worthwhile activity. But the

consequences of his lofty aspiration were disturbing because it appeared that as a

result of giving it the attention it deserved, the cultivation and exercise of the

ethical excellences, including that of phron sis, would be left only with the role

of making sure that one’s life would provide maximum opportunity for that

activity.

It needs to be stressed that neither Aristotle nor Epicurus imagined that

individuals seeking eudaimonia would try to do so on their own. How ever

unconvincing Aristotle’s argument for the status of friendships as necessary

constituents of eudaimonia may appear (end of Section 9.2), it is clear (1169b33–

4) that he regarded a life devoted to contemplation as involving close

relationships with other human beings. But the social circle needed to sustain this

appears rather similar to that which Epicurus assumed would be necessary to

experience a maximum of the innocuous pleasures that life affords.

Epicurus is even more emphatic than Aristotle on the importance of having

friends if one is to live well: ‘Of the things wisdom acquires for the blessedness

of life as a whole, by far the greatest is the possession of friendship’ (22E1; see also

22F5, 7). And Aristotle’s remark that living together for human beings means

more than, as in the case of cattle, feeding in the same place (1170b11–12;

quoted at the end of Section 9.2) should be considered alongside the remark

attributed to Epicurus by Seneca: ‘you should be more concerned at inspecting

with whom you eat and drink, than what you eat and drink. For feeding without a

friend is the life of a lion or a wolf (LS 22I).4

Relationships with friends, along with family ties, constitute private life.

‘Private’ has its roots in the Latin word privus, meaning ‘each single’ (cf. Greek

idios, from which we have ‘idiosyncracy,’ ‘idiotic’) and traditionally stood in

opposition to the public. But the original conception of the private affairs of an

individual involved a family (its economic survival and its ancestral cult) or any

other people that an individual found it agreeable to pass the time among

(friends).

The idea that social relations of all kinds are inessential to being human —that

you can associate with others if you want, but you could as easily do without—

would have struck ancient thinkers as bizarre. Aristotle’s attitude to those who

live without others is clear:



PLEASURE AS THE MEASURE 241



And one who by nature and not through fortune is without a city is either

better than a human being or (like the ‘tribeless, lawless, homeless one’

condemned by Homer, at the same time naturally outcast and belligerent)

worthless, like an isolated piece on a board game.

(1253a3–6)

It is only in recent centuries, with the rise of the ‘partnership’ (societas) concept

of human relations (see Section 7.1), that it has become common to attempt to

conceive human individuals in isolation from all social roles and relationships.5

For all his emphasis on the importance of friends, there are important

questions to be raised about the status of friendship in Epicurus: for example, if

pleasure is the sole end in life, can friendship have any status other than as

instrumental means to pleasurable experiences? The implication would be that

once people offer no prospect of affording you pleasure, there ceases to be any

reason for treating them as friends. Aristotle’s analysis of friendship affords a

different view of the implications of Epicurus’s position.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle defines a friend (philos) as one ‘who loves and is

loved in return’ and defines love (philein) as ‘wishing for anyone the things

which we believe to be good, for his sake, but not for our own, and obtaining

those things for him as far as it lies in our power’ (1380b36–81a2). In the

Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle indicates that there are three main reasons why

people come to wish well of each other: they find each other pleasant, useful or

good (1155b19). Friendships based on the first of these—on a mutual

appreciation of each other as a source of pleasure, comfort or agreeable

experiences—are common among young people and if based on nothing else are

fairly transient. Friendships based on the second are the foundation of business

partnerships. Aristotle regards those based on the third as final (complete,

perfect, teleia; 1156b5) friendships. Insofar as all three relationships involve

wishing friends to have what is good and trying to see that they get it, the

eudaimonia of each person becomes a constituent of what that person’s friend

regards as the chief good in life. When people do well (fare well) or get what

their friends regard as good, this becomes part of their friends’ fulfillment. This

is what lies behind the remark at 1170b7: ‘a friend is another self’

Whether or not other people and their welfare are necessary constituents of

eudaimonia, the possibility that other people may function as constituents in a

person’s eudaimonia is itself extremely interesting and important. Whatever we

may do to help our friends will be done as much for ourselves as for them; if we

have stable conceptions of the good for our own lives, so we will have stable

desires to help and see our friends do well, as they will be a part of that

conception. Those who have this status in our lives (who are to us ‘other selves’)

are not instrumental means to our eudaimonia; any effort or sacrifice that we

make on their behalf will be in our own perceived interests. As it is not at all

uncommon for parents to take the view that the prosperity or well-being of their

children is a constituent of their own prosperity or well-being, this possibility



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