For very many women, as for many males, pleasures constitute the framework of the meaningful life. And I don’t mean sweets, kisses, nice words, promises, and hugging though they give important satisfaction too. There are more basic pleasures that we all should take care of. For example, the very feeling that you have a meaningful life or a good life can give a profound sense of pleasure. More profound that temporary successes and momentary achievements. A bad feeling that you have a meaningless life and that no one needs you and your efforts must be painful and frustrating. Even more, it most often generates more frustration, stress, and discomfort. There must be a connection between the meaningful life and the pleasant life (or the meaningless life and pain).
To be happy, you must be wise (Santayana)
A deeper analysis of this connection is beyond the scope of this text. Such a discussion would have to include phrases as: ‘a good life,’ ‘a worthy life,’ ‘a life dedicated to a valuable cause,’ and similar. Also, we would have to discuss the individual and social aspects of the good life. This is not an easy distinction. For example, the mother seeing the pleasure of her baby or her family feels pleasure herself, although it’s not her own pleasure. You can’t set the borderline between the pleasure of the mother and the pleasure of her baby. It’s difficult to clarify this distinction at the moment. Now, it’s enough to say that pleasure and pain have a natural and biological origin. This means that these two are the most obvious guides for us to take. At least this is what many thinkers of the hedonist tradition have claimed for centuries.
WISDOM OF CHOOSING PLEASURES AND AVOIDING PAINS
This does not mean that the hedonists claim that we can avoid pain. We cannot. We have to go to the dentist even when we expect it to be painful. But we also expect many pleasures after. The same with giving birth to the baby. Something very painful. But the women calculate that this pain will be short and the happiness after will be long. The same with punishments for wrongdoing, and I think of emotions, not about corporal punishment; punishments, though themselves painful both for the parent and the kid, should lead to pleasant consequences. A nice and fruitful coexistence can be one of such pleasures.
Hedonists are famous for claiming that pleasure is the highest good and pain the worst evil. These thinkers and philosophers say that even if some people deny it, they act in this way anyway. For example, some religious people don’t refer to pleasure but to the Salvation and Heaven as the main aims. But the hedonists would say that these people assume that salvation will give them pleasure and happiness in Heaven. This is the real, yet undeclared reasons why such people are religious. This is the real reason why they believe so much. The secular people also believe in pleasure and happiness but locate them on this earth. From this point of view, both these groups of people want the same: pleasure and happiness. But they understand these words in different ways.
The hedonists claim that there is nothing better than pleasure and nothing worse than pain. For you and your beloved around. For a bigger community and for the society in general. And it’s natural. The biology of the nervous system of any living creature makes these two the basic orientation points in life. Whatever you do, you do for pleasure and to avoid pain, the hedonists would say. These two are like orientation points for each of us. Immediate pleasures or postponed in time. Trivial pleasures, as having a good time drinking coffee. More serious pleasures as profits from education. And very serious pleasures, as a complete fulfillment after having lived a good and meaningful life. Horace’s ‘Carpe diem’ (‘seize the day’), or ‘enjoy every moment,’ is the most famous hedonism’s aphorisms. The most famous hedonist maxim is by J. S. Mill. In the second chapter of his Utilitarianism (1863), we read: “the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
Both refer to very many activities you may be doing. A successive collection of various sorts of satisfaction make for happiness. This includes also positive emotions, successes, excitements, and similar things. Happiness means all these things in the course of the lifespan (no big difference between pleasure and happiness here). You can’t have anything better than that. Many thinkers see a biological unity of all living organisms in this. Animals have joys and pleasures, at a more basic level though. Take a look at your dog or your cat. They don’t need much more than pleasures out of a few things. Sleep, food, water to drink, safety and your company. Unless you’re brutal to them and inflict pain.
Human needs are usually (not always, though!) more complex. It’s so because humans have much more developed the social life. We, humans, are more conscious of different types of social and political interests. Some fight for high social prestige. Some want a long-life education. Much satisfaction and much pain come out of communal relations. Everything depends on your successful realization of the challenges here. Your social position, the reaction of the people around, and so forth. Also, humans have usually (not always, though!) many more choices than animals. Including conflicting choices. Again, much satisfaction comes out of the skilful realization of the aspirations. Much excitement we can get out of resolving conflicting choices. And much dissatisfaction and frustration come out of mistaken decisions that you can hardly repair now. All this makes it necessary for us to use our reason to assess which pleasures to choose and in what way. Our rational thinking is the best tool to assess how to avoid pains of whatever sort. Animals can’t do it. We can. They cannot predict many things. We can. They don’t refer to cultural memory. We do.
Without pleasures, life doesn’t have much sense and no good. And it doesn’t mean you are an egoist. Think once again of a woman and her baby. The hedonists would translate this relationship into the pleasure of having and raising kids as basic. The pleasure of seeing them grow. The pleasure of giving them love and receive a loving hug. The pleasure of having them healthy and the pleasure of assisting them when ill or in despair. Does it mean that you have to have a baby to be happy? Not always, because there is a pleasure of having a baby and, for other people, a pleasure of not having a baby. Or, the pleasure of having a baby for a woman at a certain stage of her life, and the pleasure of not having a baby at some other state. Not the same pleasures for everyone! Not the same pleasures for you at different stages of your life!
But I leave it as a different problem. Now, I’d like to focus on conflicting pleasures and conflicting pains. When one person doesn’t know what to choose. To dedicate these coming years to have a baby or to have a good education (if these two look pleasant)? To stay in your city and start a business or to visit another country and see what happens? To say faithful to your partner or to have a lover? To go on diet (pain) in hope to look sexy or to give up such effort? Many conflicts of pleasures that need resolving in a proper way. ‘A proper way’ includes taking into consideration many factors, not one, and I will be talking about it now.
To do it, I will interpret Jonathan Bentham’s idea of ‘the calculus of pleasure’ in the contemporary context. Bentham was a very famous British philosopher. He was a founding father of a very important movement, utilitarianism. Besides, he is one of the most representatives of hedonist ethics ever. You can find his ‘calculus of pleasure’ in his An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation, 1781 (especially in chapter IV). The book starts with these words: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”
CAN WE CALCULATE PLEASURES?
There is an obvious challenge for those who ascribe much importance to pleasures. And to avoid pains. What types of pleasures are we talking about? Corporal pleasures as sleeping, eating, drinking, having a dress to put on when cold, making love? Intellectual pleasures as having spectacular impressions while reading a classic book? Individual pleasures as when you think of yourself? Or social pleasures, when we shared them with others? And what about a possible hierarchy of pleasure? Some pleasures must be higher or more important than others. You cannot put a trivial pleasure for a higher good. I mean, some people do it but it’s a bad strategy for the good life. Trivial pleasure can offer a limited potential of momentary pleasures. And the higher good opens up an ocean of long-lasting and profound pleasures. At least in theory. Anyway, the criteria which pleasures are better than others should be clear to everyone.
It’s not so easy to propose any definite classifications. You can check this out yourself. Did you ever think you can calculate pleasures? I mean, to calculate which pleasures are worthy more than others? And which types of pain we want to eradicate first? Or, which kind of pains are necessary to get more pleasure afterword? To have criteria that would tell you which pleasures are less risky and more profitable? And to focus on multiplying pleasures or to limit pains? It’s easy when you want to write a list of pleasures (and pains) on the paper. Pleasures are pleasures and they are nice. But what if you face conflicting pleasures in the practice of life? For example, when you have to choose between two people you love. You have to choose between, say, the pleasure you get from your trustful relationship and the pleasure you hope to get from a new love affair. Or, the pleasure of eating sweets and the pleasure of being slim. Many more examples at hand. Well, Conflicting pleasures appear every day. They are more serious or less important. But, as a result, they will provide more profound pleasures or more trivial. Less dangerous or not. More fruitful or less. And there will be a panorama of shades: intensive pleasures, less intensive, momentary. We can calculate them all. Or think them over. Can we calculate anything here? Some thinkers have already tried, and Bentham’s ‘calculus of pleasure’ is one of such attempts. Let me say more about it.
INTENSITY OF PLEASURE
First, we have to think of the intensity of a given pleasure. Or of an action that will bring about an intensive state for pleasure for you. You know; we do some nice things, but some of them give more excitement, other less. Some are more sensational others less. Let’s assume that an excitement, a positive sensation, joy, and similar states make for pleasure that can be more or less intense. Of course, more intensive pleasures are better than less intensive. So, the more intensive pleasures we should look for in the first place. And here the problem starts. Problem number one is this.
Bentham warned us that ‘intensity’ is NOT the only criterion you should take into consideration; it’s one of many! It’s a good start to think about ‘intensity’ while calculating pleasures. But be careful here! It would be irresponsible to choose a given activity in hope that it will give you the intensity and disregards the consequences! Drug addicts should be first on the list of the negative examples here. You risk a lot having a drug dose. You expect the intensity of pleasure, but ignore many other factors (those I discuss below) that may appear after. Something similar happens with pain. The fast reduction of pain doesn’t mean an effective reduction of pain. Let’s think of a toothache as a trivial yet telling example. To reduce a toothache you can take a painkiller thinking it’s over. But everybody knows that a visit to a dentist would be a more thoughtful strategy. Problem number two is this.
You can calculate all this yourself. And you can refer to yourself. But it seldom is the case. Even when we aren’t aware of it, we refer to the social dimension. First, we refer to other people that can be affected by our actions, our family in the first instance. Second, we refer to the social context, for example to the legal system. The action that will give an intensive pleasure can be legal or illegal and it can change much. For some, the illegal action will be more exciting; for others, the risk will make them paralyzed so that they wouldn’t see any pleasure of doing it.
DURATION OF PLEASURE
The attitude toward pleasure and pain changes when you add the other factor, which is ‘duration’ of the given pleasure. How long can a given pleasure last? We are drinking coffee, with pleasure, for twenty minutes or so; should we make this time longer? And what is pleasant here: drinking coffee or drinking coffee in a nice company? Or drinking coffee in a nice company and in a nice coffee bar? Or these three plus free evening, plus a nice cake, plus many other factors. Which of them should be longer? All of them?
Other examples. We read a fragment of our favourite book for an hour or two, but then it becomes boring. Watching TV the whole evening can give more pleasure. Well, not so much. Is watching TV for hours gives an intensive pleasure? It’s not pleasure but a habit that we perform in a mechanic way having nothing else to do? If so, TV becomes a time filler deprived of any particular excitement, satisfaction, and pleasure. Unless a time filler kills boredom and this is its main function. It’s main pleasure. Anyway, in the case of a choice, for example, to watch a TV for 3 hours and to read a book for 3 hours, we can use this calculus. Both activities last for the same time and the better would be one that would give more intensity. Then, you have the first dilemma. To choose an action that will give an intensive pleasure or one that will give pleasure for a longer period of time?
You can’t think of performing an action that will last longer and result in intensive pleasure. Having both is not possible very often. But it’s not impossible. One of the things we can think of here is love. The process of being in love can take months or years. The intensity of pleasure here also may be high. If this love is mutual, we have other positive factors that are involved (I will discuss them below). This is the reason why so many people say that a happy love is the most precious (pleasant) ‘thing’ in life. And an ‘unhappy’ love is one of the most terrible (unpleasant) you can experience
CERTAINTY THAT PLEASURE WILL OCCUR
The next factor we should take into consideration is the certainty that pleasure will occur (or that pain will disappear). It’s important when we want to invest our time, our energy, and our money into the realization of an aim that, as we hope, will give us pleasure. But we are not sure if our choice will be the right one. If we get an intensive and long enough pleasure out of this action. That’s the problem. And that’s why this point is so important. The proper calculation must embrace the factors that may occur in future. So, not only the ‘intensity’ and the ‘duration’ are at stake here. From now on, we think not only about coping with the pleasure that is intensive and long but also that is certain. Three groups of factors at the same time! Well, we can’t be 100% sure that something will take place. But, we can predict that something is more or less probable. Let’s take this example.
You work hard on saving some money to go on a vacation trip. You assume this trip will certainly give you some satisfaction. Of course, much depends on your expectations. But, even if your expectation is not high, you don’t know if the trip will be worthy of the money you earn for it. There may be a better way? I mean, you can find out a more certain way of having a pleasant time? It may happen that you work hard to pay for the trip that will be terrible. Why? Because you will go there with your partner with whom you will quarrel all the time. Or, because you get terrible conditions in the hotel. Or, the weather will be crazy and it will be raining all the time. That’s the issue. Bentham and other philosophers want us to calculate this to reduce the unwanted effects. Many of these factors you can predict in time. Well, time is the thing that needs more comments.
I previously said that we ‘certainty’ of the action means that you know that in some time you will get gratification. But when? Does it matter when the time of the realization of the ‘certain’ pleasure is going to take place? Yes, it does. It’s another problem. It’s easier to calculate that some activities will give us ‘certain’ satisfaction soon. It’s less risky to claim that some activities will give us sure satisfaction in some years. Yes, it’s very risky, but it’s a part of the problem with calculating our pleasures.
PROPINQUITY OR WHEN THE PLEASURE SHOULD APPEAR
One of the basic (again basic!) questions about having pleasure is: when the pleasure should appear or the pain disappear? In other words: how remote or how near is the pleasure we want to enjoy? In the entry above, I talked about ‘how sure’ we are that the pleasure will appear. Or, ‘how sure’ we are that pain will be reduced. Now, I talk about the time that the pleasure, sure or not, will appear. How remote or how near is the reduction of pain that we want to get rid of? The time possibility stretches from ‘in a minute’ to eternity.
Many people look for immediate gratifications and don’t think too much about what’s gonna happen next. It’s nice to get, say, 50 Euro very soon than 500 Euro sometime later. But there are people who invest some money to get profit years later! Some others are patient enough to wait for a heavenly paradise sometime afterlife. Somewhere in the middle we have hundreds of things. Here, the main problem is if it makes any sense to invest your energy in things that may give you pleasure years after? We have a panorama of important issues now.
Bentham suggests we should take into consideration this factor too. While comparing two possible pleasures and both fulfilling the rest of the criteria, this one may appear deciding. Just think if the pleasure you expect to have should appear soon or at a remote point in time. Something similar happens in the case of pain. Think if the pain you want to reduce should disappear soon or at a remote point in time. In sum, we cannot ignore propinquity while calculating pleasures and pains in a solid way.
FECUNDITY OR THE PROBABILITY THAT THE PLEASURE WILL LEAD TO OTHER PLEASURES
There are many activities that give us pleasure. But many of them aren’t fertile and don’t lead us to other having other pleasures. We shouldn’t ignore this aspect in our calculations, Bentham suggests. This is a different type of calculating pleasures than the previous. Now, what we should take a look at is a tendency. A tendency or a direction in which the realization of similar acts will go. We don’t analyze the particular pleasure and specific act. Now, we think of the tendency that the pleasure can offer rather than of the very act of pleasure. In your calculation now, you compare two activities from the viewpoint of their reproductiveness. So, we have one of the types of activities has a bigger potential in one type or more types. For example, communicative skills. Let’s assume, you have already developed good family relations thanks to your communicative skills. The pleasure you get out of a good communication with your beloved doesn’t end here. You can use your communicative skills in very many other areas and enjoy the effects later on. This type of activity seems to be fertile or fecund.
In opposition to this, here is a group of pleasant activities that lead to nothing else. You got them and they are unproductive later on. They lead to nothing else. You keep the event in your memory. You remember the pleasure you got out of it. And you feel it’s another event in the series of nice event. They were intensive in pleasure, but they are also in a sense impotent. Any examples? Some extreme pleasures, when we achieve them, don’t open us to next pleasures. We can only hope to repeat them, and get a similar extreme intensity. On the other hand, there are others that open to you new perspectives and new pleasures. It would be better to focus on the second rather than on the first. Bentham calls it ‘fecundity’ of pleasures. They are better than those pleasures that can’t generate more pleasure. There is also an opposite side of this. Let’s think of a woman who is painfully unhappy. She disseminates her pain and frustration onto other people around. Perhaps her children, her partner, her colleagues. Here we have an example of the purity of pain.
We deal with ‘purity’ when the realization of this particular pleasure will open us to next pleasures of the same sort. For example, when you learn a foreign language. Let’s say you do it for pleasure. Except for the pleasure, however, you have many possibilities to use this language in a nice way. You don’t have but you can go to the country in which this language is in use. You can watch TV in this language, etc. In other words, the pleasure of learning a foreign language does not end with the pleasure of learning this language. There are many other things later on. In this case, we talk about ‘purity’ or the high probability that this particular pleasure will lead to other pleasures of the same kind.
The ‘purity’ of pain means the probable sequence of other pains. For example, education will open us to the pleasure of reading interesting books and the cultivation of reading books will lead us to the consecutive sequence of this type of excitements.
Until now, I have been talking about pleasure (and pain) in a sort of individualistic tone. The calculation of pleasure and pain within the limit of a given person. It is you yourself that calculate your activities that generate pleasures. As if pleasures and pains were about your personal affairs. This tone is misleading. I recommend you should try this from time to time. Thinking of your pleasures (and pains) is an important part of rational life. But this is not all. We don’t live in isolation. I mean, a good life and a happy life doesn’t mean you live on a desert island. Almost always, we have to take into account the others. By doing something we affect other people. Especially, those who are very close to us.
I indicated this problem at the very beginning of this text. I mentioned a woman having a baby and calculating the pleasures and pains for both. It’s very easy to see when a mother so often precludes her pleasures to the pleasures of her baby. And her partner. And her family. And her community. And the public interest, and so on. Anyway, one of the basic problems of a hedonistic approach to pleasures (and pains) is: whose pleasures (and pains)? Should we exclude the social dimension here? Most often, what we call ‘a good mother’ means that she should dedicate herself and sacrifice, at least at some moments, to her baby. In education we can see ‘good teachers’. Doesn’t the term ‘good teacher’ mean that she precludes her pleasures to the pleasures of her students?
This final point in Bentham’s theory raises the problem in a clear way. By the way, it also shows the characteristic dimension of the utilitarian version of hedonism. It’s a social philosophy, not individual. Maximum pleasure for the maximum greatest number of people is the ideal of this ethics. The social profit is at stake, not the private. And it is according to the view which is not egoistic. It says that it’s easier to live a happy and pleasant life when other people around also enjoy a happy life. So to make more pleasure we can’t ignore the social consequences of the activities that give pleasures to us.
SUMMING UP AND WARNING
Some philosophers (Mill for example) criticized Bentham. Pleasures are higher and lower, they said, so we should not compare pleasure on the quantitative basis. We must think of the quality of pleasures first. There is no doubt that this factor makes the whole process of calculation of pleasure more difficult. But, not impossible. Especially, when we see it not as mathematics. It’s life and we don’t have to be exact in our calculations. Something else is crucial. A better awareness of the factors that we should take into account while thinking about pleasure and pain.