Hedonism is the thesis that happiness and pleasure are the same. But is that true? Does the enjoyment of pleasures like good food, chocolate, sex and a myriad other things that we consume everyday — do these things really make us happier?
Confusing pleasure and happiness
The argument comes from Richard Taylor’s book “Virtue Ethics” (2002) which could be directly from Aristotle. Like every Aristotelian, Taylor wants to link happiness with moral goodness, because that’s the whole point of the Aristotelian argument: that there is no happiness in being a bad person, a mean person or a criminal, and that egoism never pays off for the egoist. This is very much opposed to what many societies seem to be advertising today. Financial success and excessive consumption of goods (the world be damned) are often seen as the way to a happy life. Our economies need us to consume things and to throw them away again at a crazy, suicidal rate, in order to keep the system running. And too often, this is justified by the idea that the more pleasure we manage to consume, the happier we will be. But is that so?
Most people seem to think that know what happiness is, writes Taylor, which is unfortunate, for this prevents them from learning. One has no incentive to inquire into what one thinks one already knows.
Taylor goes on to explain why even many philosophers would tend to confuse happiness with pleasure. Pleasure is something easy to understand. It is “familiar, identifiable, and even measurable,” while happiness seems to be a more “problematical or dubious” concept. If, as utilitarianism thinks, happiness is nothing but pleasure, then the morally good action can be easily identified as that action that maximises pleasure. And since pleasures can be measured (three chocolate cookies are certainly better than one), finding out what the morally right action is becomes straightforward. Ethics becomes as measurable as science, and the morally right action could, in principle, be calculated impartially by a computer.
The idea that happiness is nothing but pleasure even has its own name: it is called hedonism
, from Greek “hedone,” which means pleasure.
From our everyday modes of speaking, we are familiar with this confusion. Taylor:
For example, being happy and being pleased, seem, at one level, to be about the same. Someone who is happy with something — with his job, for instance — can also be described as pleased with it.
We find it difficult to imagine that someone might be happy when they are in constant pain (rather than experiencing pleasure). We equally cannot imagine how someone whose life is filled with pleasures might be unhappy — or can we?
Pleasure and happiness are different
But Taylor insists that both things, although they often appear together, have little in common – except that they are regularly confused with each other.
Pleasures, for example, can be located in the body. If we ask where someone experiences the pleasure of a chocolate cookie, a piece of music, or a pleasant human touch, it will be easy to point out the location of each pleasure. This is because our pleasures are directly experiences by our senses and our sensory organs are triggered by physical stimuli that we can easily locate in space and time. In contrast, it is almost impossible to say where exactly the happiness of a happy, long marriage is experienced, or the happiness of a university graduation, or the happiness of having many friends and a meaningful, fulfilling job. These feelings of happiness are somehow “inside us,” not triggered by external stimuli, and not experienced at a particular location on our bodies. As Taylor says, no one would speak of the unhappiness of one’s tooth or toe.
Another difference is that pleasures last only a short time: they come and go. The pleasure of a chocolate cookie lasts for as long as we are eating it and is gone shortly after. I can remember yesterday’s ice cream, but I cannot be today pleasured by that ice cream. It would be a dream for overweight people like me if we could just experience the pleasure of an ice cream that we ate in the past over and over again, without needing to add more calories every time. Happiness seems to be a more stable affair. One is not a happy person in the morning, unhappy by noon and happy again ten minutes later. We can imagine exceptional situations where something like that could happen – for example if we receive (wrong) news about the death of a beloved relative – but normally one stays happy or unhappy for longer periods of time. It could even happen that one is happy but not pleasured, for example if one has just got a new dream job but at the same time has a cold and a headache. Conversely, one could be unhappy (for example, at a funeral) but pleasured by a piece of chocolate.
Can bad acts bring true happiness?
And now comes the Aristotelian move: Again, says Taylor, pleasures sometimes arise from bad sources, just as pains sometimes arise from good ones; but one can hardly speak of genuine happiness as being rooted in evil (…).
One can imagine getting pleasure from some selfish act, or even a kind of sadistic pleasure from causing pain in others. But no one would be willing to say that sadists are genuinely happy. If this is true, then we are already fully booked into the Aristotelian project that identifies true happiness with the moral good. Moreover, Taylor remarks, “happiness” is always a term that carries an implicit approval. One cannot well say: “That dude over there is really happy, but I think that this is worthless and he’s a bad man.” Something seems contradictory in that sentence. By saying that someone is happy, we implicitly claim to admire, perhaps even to envy that person. We cannot think of genuine happiness as something bad, while it is easy to list any number of questionable pleasures.
And, finally, the word pleasure has a plural: we can have multiple pleasures. This is precisely the case because they are both fleeting (disappearing in time) and distinct in space (by acting upon our senses in different ways and in different locations). Happiness, in contrast, is only one. English does not even allow us to talk of “happinesses”. As an enduring state that somehow involves the whole person, it is not possible to have more than one happiness, in the same way that one can only have one past, one future, or one health.
Rationality and creativity
We talked before about the theories of happiness of Bertrand Russell and Richard Taylor. I think that you can easily see Aristotle peeking out behind the shoulders of both. All three philosophers refuse to accept that we can separate human happiness from virtuous action. For all three, being happy is an action and a skill, the result of one’s practice of the virtues, guided by one’s wisdom, experience and insight.
What interested me in Taylor, particularly, is how he switches the focus from Aristotle’s practical wisdom to creativity. In ancient Greek times, it was plausible to say that the specific human ability, what distinguishes us from animals and plants, is our rationality. And so, for Aristotle, this is what we should be cultivating in order to reach our maximum potential as human beings.
Today, in a world increasingly governed by AI technology and algorithms, rational behaviour is not limited to humans any more. Machines can drive cars, diagnose diseases, play chess and process vast amounts of information much better than we ever could. In such a world, what does it mean to be human? Taylor, therefore, looks away from raw rationality towards other abilities that only humans have. And, as far as anyone can see today, creativity seems to be one such ability that machines have not yet mastered.
We may be worse chess players or car drivers than our computers, but when it comes to doing something new and exciting, to bringing fresh ideas into the world, we are still the only ones made in the image of the creative forces that shaped the universe.
And it all begins by ordering a meal that’s not on the menu.