Monday, May 28, 2012

Pleasure: WTF?

Jean-Baptiste Regnault, Socrate arrachant Alcibiade du sein de la Volupté (Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure). Oil on canvas, 1791. Via Wikimedia Commons
One of the serious professional hazards of being a professional philosopher is that you find yourself thinking -- brooding, even -- about the very stupidest questions.  These questions have no answers.  Worse, they're questions that the very thinking about them leads you down a rabbit hole that ends in existential paralysis.

Well.  They lead me down a rabbit hole of existential paralysis.  Your results may vary.

It starts with a treat.  Did you ever have the experience of giving yourself a treat -- a nice, pleasurable treat -- and then asking yourself, WTF was the point of that?  Not good.  And it's bad enough if you ask yourself this question after you have the treat.  The paralyzing part comes when you start asking yourself the question before you have the treat.  Then you can pretty much forget it.

For example, I'm in the habit these days of having a little chocolate after dinner.  Quite a pleasure.  If you're human, you know that having a little bit of chocolate often leads you to want a little more chocolate, or to want chocolate at other times, or whatever, and then the whole treat thing becomes a kind of exercise in self-denial -- leading to what I should have called "the paradox of treats."

Sometimes after I've had my bit of chocolate, I think to myself, well, what was the point of that, anyway?  I mean, I wanted it, so I had it, and I enjoyed it.  But now that the enjoyment is over, it's hard to see how the enjoyment counts for anything. And if you're dealing with the kinds of pleasures that make you fat, poor, addicted, and boring (TV, I'm looking at you here), then you really gotta wonder:  what is your mind doing to make you think "worth doing" instead of just "stupid"?

The non-philosopher answer is easy:  it's worth doing because it's pleasurable.  But how is that any kind of answer at all? 

What makes this answer unsatisfying is that it doesn't give you any guidance on how -- or even whether -- to use the fact that something's pleasurable in planning whether and how you'll do it.

I've just been reading this book Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and one of the things they talk about is how inside each person there's an "Automatic System" -- the "Doer" who eats too much chocolate, binges on new Louboutins, and skips the gym for Jersey Shore, and a "Reflective System" -- the "Planner" who decides how much chocolate is the right amount, knows to spend the money on groceries instead of shoes, and makes up a comprehensive workout plan to achieve ideal fitness.

This metaphor strikes me as a reasonable description of the feeling of selfhood and self-control, and it's one of the illuminations of my life that the Planner can't be a scold.   Your Doer is more like a cat than a person, and cats don't respond to nagging.  What you have to do is structure your Doer's environment.  Want kitty to eat less?  Give her less food.  Want to watch less TV?  Get the TV out of the house.

But the metaphor is totally unhelpful at explaining why the Planner would Plan for one thing rather than another.  Thaler and Sunstein give the example of the Doer making you eat too many nuts at a party and thus spoiling your dinner.  And they say something like the Planner would have some ideal number of nuts to eat, but eating just that many is really difficult, because the Doer is getting in the way, wanting the whole bowl.

But if the nuts are just a pleasure and are getting in the way of enjoying dinner later, why would the Planner plan on eating any nuts at all?  I mean, you maybe have a goal of staying alive through food, but why would the Planner ever take pleasure into consideration in making Plans?  I just don't see why pleasure is something you'd factor in.  Especially given that, as I said before, it's totally ephemeral and when it's over it's over

I guess I just don't get how the Planner is supposed to operate.  Why ought he care about pleasure at all?  When it comes right down to it, why ought he care about any one thing any more than any other? 

Thaler and Sunstein say that the planner evaluates choices in a "cool" moment.  But if you're in a cool moment, why would you care about pleasure?  And on what grounds do you prefer anything to anything else?  Isn't it only the warmth of emotional and lustful involvement that makes some things seem good and some seem bad?

As I understand it, the pop-psychology self-help answer to these questions is something like "Oh, pleasure's important, just don't get carried away."  Aristotelian, in spirit.  Of course this answer does nothing for me:  I don't know why it's important; I don't know what it is to get carried away or not; and I don't get why, if it's pleasure we're talking about, being carried away isn't just what you'd want.

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