Sunday, January 17, 2016

Reflections on Hedonism

          What motivates one to study Philosophy? Or, an even more rudimentary question, what motivates one? I think the importance of this question is highly underestimated. Next time you go to work or school or a coffee shop, look around you. Chances are, there will be other people around - coworkers, students, baristas, janitors, executives. Some will be richer, some will be poorer, some will be older, others will be younger, men, women, single, married, and perhaps any other adjective you can think of. However you feel inclined to categorize them (or not, depending on who you are), ask yourself this question: what are they doing with their lives? And why? Are they having fun?
          I constantly ask this question of myself and those around me. In fact, it is a question that has more or less shaped my perspective on life. Earlier this week, for example, I was surfing around cyberspace and found the online profile for a person who was aspiring to be the manager of a Starbucks store. What struck me as particularly bizarre about this was that this seemed to be her ultimate goal in life. She expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about the prospect of entering training for the position, noting that she "loved her job", and that her life was centered around it. In stark contrast, by the time I left my position working in retail and coffee shops, the idea of suicide seemed very inviting. To take it one step further, I also wondered why many of my coworkers hadn't killed themselves yet either. While I was still living in San Diego, I met a girl that aspired to be a "certified public accountant". My initial thoughts after hearing that, if I recall, were something along the lines of "...oh" and "...that sounds...thrilling?...". During my time as an undergraduate at UC San Diego, I recall sitting in a linguistics course on the first day of classes for the quarter. The instructor had asked each of us what our motivations were in taking the course and studying linguistics. I remember my response being something along the lines of "so I can get a better understanding of the most primitive aspects of human psychology", and that this response was sharply at odds with one given by another student. When the instructor finally came to him, his answer was something like "so I can further my skills in French, ASL, and German, and apply for grad school at Stanford, Yale, and UCLA, while also applying for career opportunities in various language labs throughout California", to which the instructor replied, "Oh my, that's a pretty hefty goal". This student then responded "well, I'm just trying to be marketable and successful". Almost immediately, my reaction to this was "what exactly do you think it is you would be successful at?" Even now, I am willing to bet that that particular student is still doing nothing important.
          Alas, I have slowly come to the conclusion that virtually nothing most people do is of any importance whatsoever. Humans seem to be just as existential as every other creature that we would like to think we are superior to. We think we build civilizations unrivaled in their structure and majesty, yet one can't help but feel that ant colonies or beehives exhibit more organization and structure than human cities and neighborhoods [1], which can easily become dysfunctional and chaotic. Humans also have a penchant for destruction, as evidenced the sheer number of mass shootings, bombings, wars, and riots that constantly take place around the globe everyday [2][3][4], and one can't help but notice the similarities to swarms of locusts ravaging entire fields of crops [5] or the wild ferocity of the wolverine [6]. It is no secret that humans reproduce in the same way that other mammals do, like dogs and cats, and, also much like other mammals, humans nurse their young and stay in families. And, like almost every other creature, humans have a life span and eventually die (a certain kind of jellyfish is the one potential exception to this rule [7]). If a human gets hit by a car and left on the side of the road, it's hard to imagine that it has some other kind of existential state than that of the rabbit roadkill right next to it. Indeed, when one starts looking at the micro-level, the exact same things happen to the human carcass that happen to the rabbit carcass. The flesh and organs rot and become a nutrient-rich sludge, scavengers pick the meat off the bones, and the vitamins and minerals that result from the decomposition process seep into the ground and fertilize the soil (as the expression goes, the dead are "pushing up daisies"). It seems, then, that our belief in our superiority or uniqueness as a species is misplaced. I can't seem to find what this characteristic is that allows us to think we are significantly different than any other scavenger, any other predator, or any other prey in the global ecosystem, this supposed trait that allows humans to regard themselves as being on some kind of existential level above the food chain. Accordingly, an important set of questions logically follows: we don't seem to regard the behaviors or lives or societies of ants as particularly important, so why humans? Or, of more interest to me, dogs, cats, locusts, bears, snakes, and virtually any other creature don't seem to have these same abstract concepts of good and evil, justice and freedom, vice and virtue, so where do we get them from? Do they actually exist?
          Such an understanding of humans provides the context needed to understand some of the questions I asked earlier. When we look at my former classmate, who spent so much time trying to make himself "marketable" and "successful", we can wonder what the point of it all is. After all, at the end of the day, he will suffer the same fate as the person next to him or the ant or the rabbit, and end up as an organic sludge falling off of bones. Did he enjoy the process of becoming "marketable"? Probably not. Yet, he spent so much time preoccupied with it only to end up at the same place as the coworkers, janitors, baristas, students, scholars, presidents, thieves, pacifists, and others mentioned in the first paragraph. And then we can ask what exactly it is that he thinks he would be "succeeding" at? Again, he is just going to die like, say, the book clerk down the street. So who was more "successful" with his or her life - the linguistics student or the book clerk? Perhaps the next question we should ask, then, is what it means to be successful in life.
          The previous paragraphs are meant to set the stage for the remainder of this piece, an explanation of, and justification for, hedonism, what I take to be the best answer to the preceding question. It should be self-evident that humans are creatures that all eventually die, either by accident, disease, famine, or natural causes. As such, it seems that one can reasonably wonder what exactly we are supposed to do with this thing in between birth and death called "life", what the point of it all is. It's kind of like giving a child a new toy that he has never seen before. He stares at it, perplexed. "What does this do?", he may wonder, or "what am I supposed to do with this?" Does he keep it and hold it dear? Is he supposed to see it as a fragile object and keep it safe, like a delicate flower vase? Does he play with it? Or does he just throw it away? And what would the consequences be if he just threw it away? Faced with such questions, those naturally curious among the species will venture out to try and find the answers. In many ways, such a drive for answers seems to be the underlying motivation for many of the old fables and stories that humans are supposed to learn from as children. The lessons that one is supposed to learn from the stories of Robin Hood and his exploits against the Sheriff of Nottingham seem apparent, and similar motifs can be found in many other tales. At the same time, humans are also supposed to find answers in significantly more mature, dire stories, from the slaughter of the Trojans in Homer's Illiad, to the madness of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sometimes, humans are presented with conflicting information. Moses' interactions with the Pharaoh of Egypt, for example, or the tales of Nero playing the lute while Rome burns, lead us to distrust the authority of monarchs, yet we are also to regard King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table as the apotheosis of virtue. Indeed, trying to find the answer as to what to do with one's life is clearly no easy feat.
          Many of our species point to the exploits of others (fictional or real) as the best source of information as to what to do with our lives, but perhaps we should consult other sources. As illustrated above, there is a kind of futility in following in the footsteps of others, which, at least to a degree, seems to undermine the idea (Arthur, for example, suffered the same fate as Mordred, despite all of his amazing virtues). What then? Where can we look for information as to what to do with our lives? The ancient Greeks seemed to have an aversion to equating man to beast (Aristotle's outline of what is good for vegetables, animals, and persons in the Nicomachean Ethics suggests this, and even Lucretius endows men with qualities that animals don't have in Book III of De Rerum Natura [8]). But the similarities to so many other creatures seem so apparent, especially with the advances in modern medicine and Biology, which have come a long way since the time of the Greeks. And the idea of acknowledging the similarities between people and animals is not new. In stark contrast to many other Enlightenment thinkers, Julien Offray de La Mettrie continued the tradition of materialism found in the writings of the Epicureans and Carvaka school of Indian philosophy. Perhaps we should, at least for the time being, entertain the idea of looking towards other creatures for information as to what we should do with our lives, given the seeming futility of pursuing the normal avenues that humans generally regard as "successful".
          And what do we learn from observing other creatures, other creatures that we seem so similar to? Well, other creatures don't seem to have the same virtues that humans have. Wolves, for example, don't appear to be concerned with Justice. Lions don't seem to have these notions of "extra-marital sex" and "wedlock" and "purity". One can then wonder why humans value them. But that is a slightly different topic for another time. What we are more interested in is what does motivate these creatures in their daily lives. Clearly, lions or crows aren't aiming to live up to some arbitrary set of virtues, and wolves aren't concerned about a six-figure salary, or being "marketable". Instead, such creatures appear to be driven by their desires. One can observe wolves play, hunt for food, and so on. This should not be construed as the claim that humans need to be "primitive"; indeed, many species other than humans exhibit structure and social interaction sometimes unrivaled by other creatures (again, one simply needs to look at an ant colony for evidence of this). Instead, the lesson that can be learned from observing other creatures is that, contrary to the current structure of Western society, humans, too, can be driven by their desires.
          What is hedonism? Simply put, hedonism is the idea that pleasure is the only intrinsic good and pain is the only intrinsic bad, and that, insofar as one wants to pursue the good in life and avoid evil, one is morally justified in pursuing his or her pleasures and avoiding pain. Despite my seemingly straightforward answer, there is a lot of disagreement about what this actually entails. Among laypeople, for example, there seems to be a common misconception that hedonism entails constantly drinking and doing drugs and having perpetual sex. At the same time, this understanding of hedonism is at odds with the account of hedonism provided by Epicurus in the Letter to Menoeceus [9]. Sometimes hedonism is motivated by a desire to be an alternative to the status quo of the time, much like the Carvaka doctrine was to the varieties of Hinduism that dominated Ancient India [10]. And all this assumes that we actually know what pleasure and pain even are. David Sobel, for example, spends time considering what pleasure actually is in his paper "Varieties of Hedonism", which has huge implications for our understanding of human psychology; is pleasure a genuine sensation "like a tickle or pins and needles"? Is pleasure simply whatever the person deems desirable at the time of feeling it? Or is something only pleasurable if and only if the person wants the experience to continue into the future (the converse implication is that something ceases to be pleasurable when the person no longer wants it to continue) [11]? Even beyond Sobel's exposition on the various ways we can understand pleasure, further questions abound; to what extent do we forsake other ethical doctrines in favor of hedonism as a genuine framework for human behavior? Exactly what new behaviors does hedonism allow for that other ethical doctrines don't? Is hedonism a truly credible, or even feasible, ethical doctrine? A thorough answer to all of these questions would require more than the one essay that I am writing here, but I will at least try to answer some of them in the remainder of this piece. In short, I hope to show that hedonism is indeed a feasible ethical doctrine and that, despite the contention that it may have with other, more popular ethical doctrines, it does not necessarily entail the destructive behaviors that typically get thrust onto it. My primary argument in support of hedonism has already been hinted at: the similarities between humans and other creatures that are motivated by pleasure. But, for those that still cringe at the idea that humans are like animals, the mere strength and intuition of the ideas underlying hedonism alone should be captivating enough.
          I will admit that my primary argument in favor of humans being hedonistic is not logically deductive, but rather inductive: Humans are like all of these other creatures that are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, so humans should do it too. Such an argument clearly does not establish the tight-knit logical entailments that characterize deductive arguments. Perhaps the strength of this argument instead lies in the seeming self-evidence of its propositions, as well as the arbitrariness of the alternatives, alternatives that appear to have become ingrained in American society as the norm. The similarities that I laid out in the first few paragraphs, for example, seem to illustrate truths that I imagine most people would adhere to; few would deny that humans reproduce in the same way as other mammals, or that ant colonies appear to exhibit a high degree of structure, much like human cities. It would take a large amount of mental gymnastics to argue that a dead human lying on the side of the road is on some kind of higher existential plane as the dead rabbit lying right next to it, when we can observe the exact same decomposition process happening to it as that happening to the rabbit, all other things held constant. Again, I don't think most people would deny this (this may be a dangerous presumption on my part, but that is a discussion for another time). The more questionable part of my argument comes in the second half of it: "so humans should do it too". It does not logically follow that because one creature does something, other creatures should do it too, even if they are vastly similar.
          Does this immediately render the idea false and my argument futile? Not necessarily. Another avenue of support for the idea that humans should observe other creatures for guidance on what to do with their lives is what I would call a lack of better alternatives. Such a claim is particularly relevant in the current state of American politics - it is election year, and candidates from both ends of the political spectrum claim to champion "true American values" and want to "bring America back to its roots" and "make America great again". Was America ever great? And if so, when? And what about it exactly was so great? Are these supposedly "great" characteristics the ones that the candidates are promoting? What exactly are these "American values"? Florida senator Marco Rubio, for example, famously suggested that people should not strive to be philosophers, but rather, welders, because "welders make more money than philosophers" [12]. When compared to what I have said so far, Rubio's proposition begs so many questions. Is "making more money" the only criterion we should use when deciding what one should do with his or her life? Many in American society seem to give this criterion a lot of weight and importance, as Rubio does, but such a notion is misguided. For it is not beyond the realm of possibility that someone achieves this goal of earning a high-income, but is absolutely miserable. A senior accountant at an investment banking or law firm, for example, may have a six-figure salary, but could be bored out of his or her mind. And if one's life is boring, we are left to wonder whether or not it's worth living. Conversely, it is possible for someone to have a meager income, but also constantly be enjoying life. I have once written about a bookstore clerk who lives in a small apartment with little more than a mattress to sleep on, but relishes the fact that she gets to be surrounded by the words of Keats and Yates, makes enough of an income to go out to dinner and enjoy a movie on weekends, and perhaps has her share of casual sex, one of several possible examples of a hedonistic life. Thus, we come full circle back to the question I had at the outset of this paragraph: is the life of the accountant or Rubio's welder a better alternative to the life of the bookstore clerk? It doesn't appear to be. And this is not to say that accountants or welders cannot enjoy what they do or experience pleasure in the same way as the bookstore clerk. But, if pleasure is a better alternative to misery, which I take to be self-evident, than suggesting that one should strive to do something that is not necessarily pleasant, as Rubio does, and as many Americans foolishly believe, is misguided. In other words, a human's desire to do something pleasant should outweigh the responsibility to live up to society's standards of "success" if those standards do not necessarily entail something pleasant.
          Hopefully this clarifies my comparison of humans to other creatures. Other creatures seem to be driven by what will satisfy them and what they will enjoy. They behave in accordance with whatever their desires may be. A dog or cat or lizard will do what it wants to do. It won't do something it doesn't want to do. As primitive as this sounds, such a framework for life seems deeply profound, and reflected in the ethical doctrine of hedonism. The conflict arises when we compare this doctrine to what is prescribed for us by society. We are slowly conditioned to demonize those who are driven by their desires, and are instead taught to value things like glory, money, and patriotism, which at times appear to conflict with what one desires. Casual sex, for example, is something that is considered taboo, despite the fact that many people desire it. An accountant may achieve the goal of making a lot of money, even though he or she would rather be doing something else. Some people swear unyielding allegiance to a country's domestic or foreign policy without ever really considering whether or not those policies are truly improving their lives. And again, it is not clear what the rational justification is for adhering to these values over pursuing one's desires, particularly when faced with the prospect that humans are like other creatures that pursue their desires and don't appear to have any other existential value beyond that of these other creatures, and the idea that pursuing one's desires is more pleasant than not pursuing one's desires (where the values prescribed for us by society do not necessarily reflect our desires).
          I can already foresee several criticisms leveled at this argument. I will take a moment to preemptively respond to some of them here. A critic may argue that hedonism is exemplified by self-destructive behaviors like smoking, drug use, alcoholism, and complications arising from deviant sexual practices, and thus advocating for hedonism is, essentially, advocating for these practices. While I will concede that such behaviors are compatible with hedonism, hedonism does not require or entail them. Epicurus, for example, famously made an argument in the Letter to Menoeceus where he advocated abstaining from small or fleeting indulgences if the reward is a greater pleasure later [13]. On this view, it is perfectly consistent with hedonism for one to refrain from doing drugs, despite the transitory pleasures they may provide, in order to revel in the greater pleasure of good health later. Accordingly, the characterization of hedonism as advocating self-destructive behaviors is a disingenuous one. Perhaps, then, a critic may argue that suggesting that humans should pursue their desires in the same way that other creatures pursue theirs adds a degree of "primitivism" to human nature, which seems to undermine, or run counter to, the advancement of human society. Again, this would be making a large presumption of my theory. Comparing humans to other animals does not mean that humans have to behave like other animals in every way. I am not advocating for humans to strip naked and start grazing around pastures or live in the jungle. Sure, humans share the drive for self-preservation with other animals. This does mean humans need to become tribal and territorial and revert to a kind of "caveman" mentality. The ability and drive for humans to build advanced civilizations is not suddenly rendered useless by highlighting the similarities between humans and other creatures. A critic may then try to point out that hedonism precludes many careers or activities that have become commonplace in American society, or undermines the goal of innovation and experimentation, by describing those career as "boring" or "undesirable". It seems as if the idea behind this criticism is the assumption that people will always find recreation more enjoyable than intellectual or scientific endeavors, and thus there will be a sharp decline in the amount profound work in the arts and sciences because everyone will be too busy enjoying sex, playing games, or partaking in some other kind of leisurely activity. Such a conclusion, however, is a hasty one. Simply put, the assumption that people cannot take pleasure in artistic or scientific endeavors, or that there will always be something more pleasant than the arts and sciences, hinges on a novice understanding of pleasure. Oscar Wilde, for example, wouldn't have written The Picture of Dorian Gray if he instead wanted to go play Poker at a gentleman's club. Sigmund Freud wouldn't have spent the time developing his psychoanalytic theories if he didn't genuinely want to. Heinrich Schliemann wouldn't have devoted his adult life to digging through the sands of Turkey if he didn't honestly have a passion for finding the city of Troy. Such mature pursuits are indeed compatible with hedonism insofar as such mature pursuits are pleasurable. The idea that it is not possible to enjoy such endeavors is an erroneous one.
          The aim of the above piece was to re-introduce hedonism as a plausible ethical theory in American society and to remove some of the taboo surrounding it. I do not intend for this piece to be an end-all-be-all source for hedonism. On the contrary, if anything, I think it serves as a good introduction to the topic that merits further investigation. I also aim for it to provide a framework from which one can approach and re-assess our values as a society, as well as some food for thought going into this election season. Despite its contention with more popular ethical theories, hedonism has made a kind of resurgence in contemporary philosophical circles, with a handful of philosophers taking up the lofty endeavor of making hedonism palatable for a more modern audience. The work of Fred Feldman and David Sobel are good places to start, as well as the old classics like Epicurus or Leucippus. Some may call this view nihilistic, insofar as it relies on the idea that humans have the exact same existential value as beasts. Such skeptics, though, would be in denial, as this would require turning a blind eye to all of the similarities that I highlighted in the early paragraphs. It is much more preferable to be realistic, without regard to how "negative" or "positive" a view is, than to just always be blindly optimistic.

[8] Lucretius. The Nature of Things, III.308-322. Trans. Stallings. Penguin 2007.
[9] Epicurus. "Letter to Menoeceus". The Epicurus Reader. Inwood and Gerson, trans. Hackett, 1994.
[11] Sobel, David. "Varieties of Hedonism" in The Journal of Social Philosophy, vol.33, no.2, 240-241. 2002.
[13] Epicurus. "Letter to Menoeceus". The Epicurus Reader. Inwood and Gerson, trans. Hackett, 1994.

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