March 18, 2010

Aristotle's Hedonic Salad

A longstanding philosophical disagreement I have with some is that there is a difference between happiness and pleasure.  Today, I got a good wrinkle on that debate.

I was asked whether I get more pleasure from my writing, from reading, or from watching football on television.  The context was mainly my interlocutor's observation that when he watches a football game, he generally finds it only moderately entertaining, and he observes that I seem to get a lot of pleasure out of it.  He was curious as to why he and I responded differently to the same thing, and even more curious about how he could find some way of measuring the degree to which our responses differed.

My answer was a bit off-the-cuff and called back on a concept I originally learned way back in high school when I took a philosophy class through the local junior college.  In the context of discussing utilitarianism, the professor had suggested that one way of looking at "the good" which utilitarian ethics are supposed to maximize would be to say that pleasure is good and pain is bad.  So, how then to measure pleasure and pain and thus evaluate whether a particular action was moral or not?  This isn't something you can quantify, right?

Well, let us posit that pleasure can be quantified.  My old philosophy professor suggested that the appropriate name for a unit of pleasure would be a "hedon."  So my response to the question about how pleasurable I found watching football to be was that if reading a regular book would generate ten hedons per hour, watching a football game would generate fifteen hedons per hour, and reading a really good book would generate thirty hedons per hour.

From there, we played with this intellectual vanity a little bit and suggested that there are quite a few activities that generate diminishing rates of hedonic production.  My friend observed that I seemed to like watching about one football game a day, but that I grew somewhat impatient and pensive during a second game; my response to a second game in a row was similar to his response to the first game.  Thus, diminishing returns -- the first game generates a lot of hedons, the second game, not as many.  This was eventually reduced to the idea of "saturation," meaning that we had varying appetites for the activity in question.

Now, yet another participant in the conversation pointed out that things he liked to do were not things that he considered pleasurable at all.  For instance, some of his hobbies cause him to endure some degree of physical pain.  Thus, the concept of the "anti-hedon" was worked into the conversation, as was teasing out the implication that a pleasurable activity, when its benefits and burdens are weighed, is really something that has a "net hedon production."  Presumably, the pleasure that this fellow gets from his activities outweighs the pains, so by doing them, he achieves a net gain of hedons.

And of course, the generation of hedons may create as a byproduct a certain number of anti-hedons, such as the pain endured by a mountain climber over the course of climbing the mountain, which the climber calculates as less than the pleasure that will be gained by reaching the summit.  Certain activities involve very little effort or cost to generate hedons, such as the initial example of watching a football game on TV -- the main cost of that activity is an opportunity cost because you could be doing something else with those three hours instead of watching sports on TV.

We briefly amused ourselves with the idea that this could create an entire hedonic calculus, by which the hedons and anti-hedons of a particular activity could be weighed and the curves of diminishing returns would lead to an economically-computed action plan resulting in the achievement of an Epicurean ideal state.  I think there is something to this, as I explore below.

So, after dealing with a sidebar about whether Epicureanism is about maximizing pleasure or whether it's really about minimizing pain, we returned to the question of mixed activities and evaluating net pleasure or net pain.  Our friend whose hobbies require him to endure pain resisted the idea of a hedonic calculus to his decision to do these things, intimating that his hobby generated very little pleasure at all and suggesting that indeed, his hobbies produced a net hedonic loss.

Why, then, would he do them?  These are hobbies we're talking about here, not work or government-compelled duties or any other sort of obligation.  He suggested that reducing a decision to do something to a question of whether it generates more pleasure than it does pain is to look through a lens that conceals more than it reveals.  But that doesn't take us away from the question that maybe my friend is a masochist?

While that's possible, I think what's really going on is that it is insufficient to quantify pleasure and pain.  Pleasures and pains are also qualitatively different from one another.  The pleasure of sex is qualitatively different from the pleasure of achieving a difficult task, and both of these are qualitatively different than the pleasure of receiving praise.  The physical pleasure-pain spectrum for my friend's activity is negative, but if the analysis is made along the achievement spectrum, my friend is able to defer seeking a reward for long enough that he will endure both physical pain and short-term frustration of learning how to do something, in exchange for the long-term satisfaction of achieving the difficult goal of succeeding and learning.

Now, perhaps for the masochist, pain is simply another qualitatively distinguishable form of pleasure.  If that is the case, then the masochist seems to be dysfunctional because pursuit of the qualitative "pleasure" generated by enduring suffering must necessarily negate and even outweigh a different sort of pleasure.  This eventually descends into a paradox in which negating hedons generates new hedons -- or perhaps not, if one "flavor" of hedon is converted into a different "flavor" through the psychological process of masochism.

Now, none of this really answered the initial question of why it is that my friend doesn't like football as much as I do.  But I think the larger point is that this provides an objective, or nearly-objective, platform from which happiness can be defined as a function of pleasure, without descending into the sort of sybaritic vision of life that seems unsatisfying when considered in the abstract -- after all, if pleasure could be generated by direct electric stimulation of the brain, why wouldn't we all become wireheads?  But it seems obvious that most people would reject such an existence if given a choice.

All this talk of quantifying and qualitatively classifying pleasure led me to think that happiness might be defined as a hedonistic salad.  There are many different kinds of pleasures in life, as well as different kinds of burdens and pains. They have to be balanced against one another. A well-lived life is one that has a range of different kinds of pleasures, likely ones which are generated by qualitatively different activities, each of which is quantitatively done to the point where the subject activity begins to produce diminishing returns.  Each person's individual happiness is a function of her ability to measure her net generation of multiple varieties of hedons through a variety of activities.

The result of this looks more Aristotelean than Epicurean to me.  If happiness is a hedonic salad, with just enough, but not too much and not too little of one kind of pleasure (eating) and a similar "just right" kind of another kind of pleasure (education) and the right balance of still a third kind of pleasure (sex), then aren't we really looking at life lived according to what Aristotle called "the golden means"?

The question of why different people take different levels of pleasure out of different activities is not one that I can answer with this bit of intellectual gyration.  But I can better define now what happiness means in terms of distinguishing it from and defining it in relation to pleasure.


bobvis said...

Hi TL!

Nice post. Since I am sympathetic to pragmatism as the least indefensible ethical system out there, I should address a few of your points.

>"Our friend whose hobbies require him to endure pain resisted the idea of a hedonic calculus to his decision to do these things, intimating that his hobby generated very little pleasure at all and suggesting that indeed, his hobbies produced a net hedonic loss."

It's important to remember that this is a separate question from much of the other material you address in your post. This is a behavioral question. Your friend may just be irrational. Or there may be some not-yet-considered motivation behind his actions.

>"Pleasures and pains are also qualitatively different from one another."

Yes, and even different pleasures are qualitatively different from one another. This does not break the ethical system though. We can trade off qualitatively different things. We can decide that it is worth the money for us to drive a car rather than a cheaper motorcycle. Money and safety (human life) are qualitatively different things of value, but the world doesn't break just because we learn to shut up and just make the comparison.

In other words, hedons may be of different flavors, but we can still add them up and use them to suit our purposes.

> if pleasure could be generated by direct electric stimulation of the brain, why wouldn't we all become wireheads?

Maybe. But we need to remember your earlier point about diminishing returns. Television is satisfying, but not indefinitely. The wirehead nightmare happens only in systems where we don't respect the diminishing returns. If we do, we will automatically be lead to the salad without the need to mandate from the beginning that we want a salad..

Burt Likko said...

It's good to hear from you, Bob!

I plead guilty to the charge of poor sentence construction as to "Pleasures and pains are also qualitatively different from one another," and your clarification is the point I wanted to make.

If the basic idea of a "hedonic salad" as "happiness" has merit, then perhaps a deeper question would be whether happiness is actually consuming that salad (generating the hedons), or whether it is making it (optimizing the balance of different kinds of hedons).

bobvis said...

Practically speaking, the journey almost always is more valuable than the reward. (I question how happy winning the lottery would really make us.)