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ON RELATION BETWEEN HAPPINESS AND PLEASURE

Автор Доклада: 
N. Redkin
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ON RELATION BETWEEN HAPPINESS AND PLEASURE

UDC 17.01

ON RELATION BETWEEN HAPPINESS AND PLEASURE

Nikolay Redkin, postgraduate
National Research University Higher School of Economics


This article examines the relation between pleasure and happiness. It is important to consider our intuitive understanding of happiness, which as important as our idea of pleasure in this context. Pleasure is not limited to physical sensations, yet most alternative definitions are too rigid. Pleasure should be seen as a broad term incorporating a wide range of our subjective experience, including purely mental events. Once we have adopted this view on pleasure, a plausible ethical theory, incorporating happiness as intrinsically valuable yet defined by its relation to pleasure, becomes possible.
Key words: welfare, happiness, hedonism, mental state, pleasure

Making any meaningful decision – in politics, economics, or personal life – requires us to adopt a certain system of values to evaluate the various alternative options and the corresponding results. If we are taking the consequentialist position, and judge our actions by their results, then we need to decide, broadly speaking, what exactly is our ultimate end. Sometimes the final goal of any policy is described as human welfare, but what does it mean? One of the most widely accepted answers to this question is “happiness”, which is often assumed to be valuable for the sake of itself, to possess intrinsic value. But what exactly do we mean by “happiness”, and how do we measure it?
It is indeed tempting to try to evaluate happiness by linking it to some objective parameters, but we have to remember that happiness is first and foremost a subjective state.
Happiness is a complex internal state, so our natural impulse is to define its constituent parts, the exact feelings, thoughts or any other phenomena which produce such a state. And an obvious candidate for this role is pleasure, which, in turn, leads us to philosophical hedonism as a possible solution to the problem of defining and measuring happiness.
In modern philosophy, ethical hedonism, as a view that ascribes intrinsic value exclusively to pleasure is not a very popular position. Most contemporary works rarely miss an opportunity to label hedonism as “discredited” or “untenable”, quickly dispatching it and proceeding to examine the views which they hold in higher regard (e.g. Kymlicka, 1990; Millgram, 2000). On the other hand, the idea of happiness having intrinsic value seems to meet with less opposition. Since these concepts are clearly related, many attempts have been made to define happiness purely in terms of pleasure.
However, attempts to directly identify happiness with pleasure, most notably by Jeremy Bentham (1789) and John Stuart Mill (1863), had very limited success, and were met with general resistance. According to our intuitive understanding of these terms, there is a certain distinction between happiness and pleasure, and these theories were not able to satisfactorily explain the exact nature of this difference. Happiness appears to be a broad concept, being a complex mental state, and pleasure is considered to be a simple and often rather “lowly” feeling.
Still, if we take a closer look, “pleasure” turns out to be a rather broad term that encompasses many different kinds of feelings. This is a long-standing issue in ethics, known as “the heterogeneity problem” (Feldman 1997; Heathwood 2007: 25; Smuts 2010). Indeed, is had been argued that there in fact is no such thing as “pleasure in general”, no single specific feeling, common for all kinds of pleasure (Alston 1967). Philosophers who supported this viewpoint suggested that different feelings described by this term have little to do with each other in terms of direct experience, and are grouped according to other criteria, for example them being desirable (e.g. Sidgwick 1907, pp. 125-31). Many psychologists share this understanding of pleasure, and utilize similarly broad definitions, such as “a positive experienced state that we seek and that we try to maintain or enhance” (Kahneman et al, 2003: 112). It is debatable whether such approach is justified or not (see Feldman 2010: 37), but still it serves to illustrate the ambiguity of our understanding of pleasure.
Despite this common broad understanding, intuitively, we tend to associate the word “pleasure” with something vaguely “low”, of mostly physiological character. Overall, these intuitions seem to identify pleasure with “sensory pleasure” as defined by Feldman:
“...sensory pleasures are ‘feelings‘— things relevantly like feelings of heat and cold; feelings of pressure, tickles, and itches; the feeling you get in your back when getting a massage.”(Feldman, 2004: 56)
If pleasure is defined like this, it is easy to understand why Bentham’s utilitarianism was called “philosophy of swine” by its detractors (e.g. Carlyle, 1850). Such a theory indeed would be quite unattractive. And, of course, Feldman is right to conclude that any ethical theory assigning intrinsic value exclusively to such experience would be false:
“… a person can be unhappy at a time even though he is feeling more sensory pleasure than pain at that time; and that a person can be happy at a time even though she is feeling more sensory pain than pleasure at that time. Thus, the examples show that hedonism of the Bentham-Mill-Sidgwick variety is false.” (Feldman, 2010: 34)
However, did classical utilitarians actually support such a concept of pleasure? Bentham, for example, provides us with an elaborate classification of types of pleasure:
“The several simple pleasures of which human nature is susceptible, seem to be as follows: 1. The pleasures of sense. 2. The pleasures of wealth. 3. The pleasures of skill. 4. The pleasures of amity. 5. The pleasures of a good name. 6. The pleasures of power. 7. The pleasures of piety. 8. The pleasures of benevolence. 9. The pleasures of malevolence. 10. The pleasures of memory. 11. The pleasures of imagination. 12. The pleasures of expectation. 13. The pleasures dependent on association. 14. The pleasures of relief. ” (Bentham, 1789: 35)
As we can see, sensory pleasures are explicitly mentioned as a distinct category, and Bentham later presents a list of such pleasures, which includes pleasures of taste, touch and other things that we would expect. But this means that simple pleasures 2 to 14 are, in Bentham’s opinion, not sensory – and most of them clearly do not fit the definition of sensory offered by Feldman.
Numerous examples can be used to support Bentham’s position and show that many kinds of pleasure exist beyond just sensory. Suppose there is a person, who, because of some sort of accident or illness, has lost all of his senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and any others like sense of temperature or ability to experience physical pain. Still, this person remains fully conscious. Suppose this person reflects upon a certain positive thought - for example, his knowledge that this condition is reversible and that he will soon be cured. In this case, is it possible to say that such thought brings him pleasure? There seems to be little reason to think otherwise. Our intuitions regarding this situation suggest that he does experience pleasure, even though he is completely deprived of any sensory input. Thus, we can infer that this pleasure was caused by thought process alone, probably corresponding to Bentham’s “pleasure of imagination” or “pleasure of expectation”. Our common sense supports the possibility of such purely mental pleasure, since there are appropriate terms in our everyday language, for example “pleasant thoughts”. But, when we speak about “pleasant thoughts”, what kind of pleasure are we actually referring to?
One possible explanation would be to argue that such pleasant thoughts and other positive phenomena of mental nature do not, in fact, represent a different kind of pleasure. Rather, they cause us to experience sensory pleasure. It is hard to argue that some thoughts tend to produce certain feelings, which, in themselves, may possibly be classified as sensory pleasures. Such feelings have frequently been described as an “inner glow”, “warm feeling inside” and in other similar terms. However, is possible that such experiences are actually not sensory in nature, but we merely tend to interpret them as sensory, and describe using the same terms. Smuts (2010) uses the same words to describe what is known as “hedonic tone”, a “feel-good” quality of pleasure. This quality is not distinct from the feeling of pleasure itself, and is universal for all kinds of pleasure, not just sensory.
It is equally possible that positive thoughts do sometimes cause sensory pleasure, but at the same time they are capable of causing pleasure of purely mental nature. In other words, if a person has a pleasant thought, and experiences some sort of sensory pleasure simultaneously or directly afterwards, it does not necessarily follow that this sensory pleasure represents the entirety of pleasure caused by this thought, nor does it mean that any pleasant thought necessarily causes sensory pleasure.
Still we can consider the possibility that all pleasure caused by positive thoughts is entirely sensory. But in this case sensory pleasure appears to be a far more complex phenomenon than one which is implied by the definition given earlier. In fact, it becomes possible to explain most, if not all, of our positive experience in terms of sensory pleasure.
It seems that it is our best option to accept that pleasure need not necessarily be described as consisting of two sharply distinct categories. Indeed, for the purposes of axiology this may be counterproductive. Instead of that, we can describe pleasure as a complex experience, with no clear dichotomy between sensory and mental. When we say that a certain event had caused a certain person some pleasure, we actually mean that this person obtained pleasure by anticipating this event, directly experiencing it, reflecting on the fact that he is experiencing it, remembering the event afterwards, et cetera. All of this can be understood in a holistic way, as a single experience incorporating both sensory and mental features, as well as having some additional qualities.
How exactly is pleasure related to happiness? It is probably safe to assume that most contemporary philosophers will agree that there exists at least some sort of causal relation between them. At a bare minimum, anyone would most likely agree that experiencing pleasure can cause a person to be happier, even though most will argue that pleasure alone is not sufficient for true happiness. In positive psychology, according to the PERMA model proposed by Seligman (2011), well-being is constituted by five following elements: Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. These aspects can be associated with eudaimonia as understood by Aristotle, but pleasure (as a positive emotion) is still considered to be essential. Research in neurophysiology likewise suggests that happiness and pleasure are fundamentally linked, with pleasure being at least one of the most important factors contributing to happiness (Kringelbach and Berridge, 2010). For example, pathological lack of pleasure, or anhedonia, obviously amounts to a formidable obstacle to happiness.
It seems unlikely that happiness can be fully identified with pleasure or a sum of all pleasures in a certain time period. The definition of happiness most commonly associated with hedonism, happiness as a positive balance of pleasure and pain over a certain period of time, arguably fails a test of our intuition because we do not feel an abstract thing like “balance” – we feel happiness, as a distinct and easily identifiable state. But even if happiness is not a positive balance of pleasure and pain, we can attempt to answer two following questions. First: is it possible to be happy if this balance is not positive? Second: is it possible to be unhappy if this balance is positive? In other words, happiness is not equal to positive sum of pleasure, but such positive sum can be a necessary or even a sufficient condition for experiencing happiness.
Happiness can be described in terms of pleasure without reducing it to a crude and counterintuitive sensualistic concept. Still, “to determine” does not fully equal “to be”. Or, to put it differently, “to be” can be understood in more than one way. A diamond can be said to be carbon, but this is not a full and exhaustive description. In the same way, it is perhaps possible to say that happiness, in some limited way of understanding, is pleasure, but at the same time happiness is more than pleasure. Perhaps all individual pleasant experiences during a certain time interval, understood in a holistic way, create a certain overall emotional “tone”, which is perceived by subject as a whole. This state is what we describe as happiness. Thus, in terms of value pleasure for its own sake would be meaningless, but if pleasure is shown to contribute to our happiness, then it is highly important.
In conclusion, it can be said that while Bentham’s project of ensuring rational decision-making by evaluating any outcome in terms of net gain in pleasure is widely regarded as unfeasible, human happiness is arguably still our best choice when it comes to determining the intrinsic value. Happiness and pleasure are undeniably linked, and we should not let the crude and incomplete sensory concepts of pleasure convince us otherwise. Thus, work in hedonistic and utilitarian tradition can prove instrumental in determining public of personal welfare.

References:

  1. Alston, W., 1967. Pleasure. In: P. Edwards (Ed.), The encyclopedia of philosophy (pp. 341-347), New York, Macmillan Publishing Co & The Free Press.
  2. Bentham, J., 1789. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Batoche Books, Kitchener, 2000.
  3. Carlyle, T., 1850. Latter-day pamphlets, Chapman and Hall.
  4. Feldman, F., 1997. Utilitarianism, Hedonism, and Desert: Essays in Moral Philosophy, Cambridge University Press.
  5. Feldman, F., 2004. Pleasure and the Good Life: Concerning the Nature, Varieties, and Plausibility of Hedonism, Oxford University Press, USA.
  6. Feldman, F., 2010. What Is This Thing Called Happiness? First Edition., Oxford University Press, USA.
  7. Hearthwood, C., 2007. The Reduction of Sensory Pleasure to Desire. Philosophical Studies
  8. 133, pp. 23-44.
  9. Kahneman, D., Diener, E. & Schwarz, N., 2003. Well-being: the foundations of hedonic psychology, Russell Sage Foundation.
  10. Kringelbach, M. L., Berridge K.C., 2010. The Functional Neuroanatomy of Pleasure and Happiness. Discovery Medicine, 9(49), pp. 579-587.
  11. Kymlicka, W., 1990. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Oxford:
  12. Oxford University Press.
  13. Mill, J.S., 1863. Utilitarianism, Wiley-Blackwell, 2003.
  14. Millgram, E., 2000. What’s the use of utility? Philosophy and Public Affairs, 29(2), pp. 113-136.
  15. Seligman, M., 2011. Flourish. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  16. Sidgwick, H., 1907. The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed, London: Macmillan.
  17. Smuts, A., 2010. The Feels Good Theory of Pleasure. Philosophical Studies (forthcoming). 
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