We are continuing our exploration of dead ends when it comes to the pursuit of happiness. So far, we’ve considered happiness as wealth, success, and fame. In this episode we’ll consider the idea, perhaps one of the most popular views out there, that happiness is found in the experience of pleasure.
The view that happiness consists in the experience of pleasure is called a hedonistic view of happiness. The idea is that pleasure is an objective intrinsic good and when we have it, we are happy (even if there are other objective intrinsic goods).
This is a view that makes sense to me. After all, as embodied beings, we are wired for pleasures. Pleasure is a good thing, so why not turn up the dial to maximum, as it were, and pursue pleasure as the goal in life? In fact, this is such an attractive view that it has even been defended by Philosophers—for example the utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that the goal in life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. So, there is something right about hedonism. But, as we’ll see, if pursued as the end in life, there is something deeply wrong with hedonism too.
What’s wrong with the idea that happiness is the experience of pleasure.
First, consider Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. Through the voice of Lady Philosophy, the idea that happiness is found in pleasure is merely waved away as obviously false:
Of bodily pleasure I can think of little to say. Its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse. The fact that pleasure doesn’t bring happiness is “known to everyone who cares to recall his own excesses” .
Or consider the early modern philosophy Blaise Pascal, he says that “pleasant pleasures are false . . . absent pleasures are vain” . The pursuit of pleasure as the end in life will leave you dissatisfied.
There are at least four problems with this view of happiness as the experience of pleasure.
First, the experience of pleasure can’t make us whole. As the quotes from Boethius and Pascal indicate, the pursuit of pleasure as an end will lead to anxiety, remorse, and emptiness. Pleasure, like wealth, fame, and success might be an ingredient in happiness, but it is not the thing our hearts long for most deeply. Pleasure cannot lead us home. Hedonism doesn’t user us into an Elysium Field, only a “dark black hole in the universe.”
Second, pleasure is fleeting but happiness is enduring. The idea is that the pleasure of sex or a run or eating or reading a good novel or whatever are momentary, bite-sized episodes of pleasure. Pleasure doesn’t last and so if we need it for happiness, then happiness will not last either; it will also we just over the horizon. The problem with this kind of life, according to Brooks, is “that the person in the aesthetic phase sees life as possibilities to be experienced and not projects to be fulfilled or ideals to be lived out. He will hover above everything but never land. In the aesthetic way of life, each individual day is fun, but it doesn’t seem to add up to anything” . So, with each new pleasure, there is a diminishing return, and we are left always seeking more and more to recapture that initial stirring—the pleasure was meant to awaken our hearts for God, but if we become focused on the pleasure instead of that which we long through the pleasure, the pleasurable experience will satisfy us less and less.
Third, the reckless pursuit of pleasure can be deadly. Either literally or figuratively. Let’s begin with literally. There is a cultural phenomenon, associated with the music scene called The 27 club. While it is not a literally club, and while there is nothing special about the age 27, the club is constituted by famous members who have all died at the age of 27—musicians such as Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Morrison, Kurt Cobain, who all lived a wild life of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and then died at a young age because of it. The point is that the kind of lifestyle encouraged by hedonism, if faithfully followed, can be literally deadly—these famous singers all died due to drug or alcohol related accidents. But, hedonism can be deadly in other ways too. James K. A. Smith calls this the problem of getting what you want . The idea is this. We think we want unfettered freedom; freedom to do whatever we want. But when we add this kind of unfettered freedom to the multiplicity of options before us in modern Western Society, and in the end we become enslaved. The point is that pleasure, while a good thing, is not only not the heart’s deepest desire, but if it is held out as our highest good, it will end up enslaving us in a prison of our own making.
Fourth, Nozick’s experience machine. Suppose you could plug into a machine that would simulate any experience you want: the rapturous joy of sex, the thrill of a drug-induced high, the multi-layered sweet fullness of an 1896 Château Chalon, the grandeur of reading—or writing—a novel, the sublimity of a Beethoven symphony and the riot of a punk-rock concert, the exhilaration of summiting Everest, the satisfaction of winning the Boston Marathon, the sacredness of becoming a parent, and so on. The philosopher Robert Nozick famously asks, “Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?” . Should you? Would you? Nozick thinks we shouldn’t plug ourselves into the machine for three reasons.
First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them… A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob… Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance .
Many today think that happiness is chiefly found through the experience of pleasure. This idea is so seductive that even philosophers have argued for its truth. Happiness is the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain, according to the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill. But this idea is false. Pleasure might be an ingredient of meaningful happiness, but it is not equivalent with happiness. Otherwise, why not plug in to the experience machine and enjoy?
How should we think of pleasure? What role does pleasure play in our lives? Should we seek it or avoid it? Here are three claims related to pleasure.
First, pleasure is an ingredient in the happy life.
Second, pleasure is an intrinsic good.
Third, pleasure is a gift from God that should be enjoyed by us in creaturely response.
In support of this last claim, we want to return to something we’ve shared before in these podcasts, the idea that only in Christianity can we find a proper union between meaning and pleasure. As the theologian Miroslav Volk describes in his book Flourishing, “Pleasure without meaning is vapid meaning without pleasure is crushing… [But] The unity of meaning and pleasure, which we experience as Joy, is given with the God who is Love” . In other words, in Christianity we find this perfect union of soul and spirit, pleasure and meaning, in God. This helps us see the world in a different light, as gift, as sacrament, to be enjoyed in creaturely response.
Thanks to our season five sponsor:
- Augustine, Confessions
- Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
- David Brooks, The Second Mountain
- Stewart Goetz and Joshua W. Seachris, What is this thing called the Meaning of Life?
- Anthony Kiedis, Scar Tissue
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
- Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
- James K. A. Smith, On the Road With Saint Augustine
- Blaise Pascal, Pensée
- Miroslav Volf, Flourishing
 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, 59.
 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. By A. J. Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin Books, 1995), 19.
 David Brooks, The Second Mountain (New York: Random House, 2019), 18.
 James K. A. Smith, On the Road With Saint Augustine (Grand Rapid, MI: Brazos, 2019), 62.
 Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 42-45.
 Miroslav Volf, Flourishing (New Yaven: Yale University Press, 2015), 201.