Out of Sleep: Hello and thank you for being here today.
Consistent Hedonist: It’s a pleasure to be here today.
OoS: And pleasure is what life is all about?
CH: Ha ha! To arms right away, eh? No time for pleasantries? Very well then. Yes, pleasure is what life is all about. Pleasure and survival. Survival for the sake of more pleasure, and pleasure coming from engaging in acts that tend to prolong survival.
OoS: Can you please give us some examples of survival-prolonging pleasure?
CH: Certainly. I should begin, however, with what might be an obvious caveat. When I say survival-prolonging, I’m talking about the survival of my genes, not of my own life or self. And, even more importantly, I’m talking about behavior that, in the ancestral environment in which we evolved as a species, led to greater survival.
OoS: Right. Because many behaviors that were appropriate back then are inappropriate now.
CH: Inappropriate or at least sub-optimal. There are some famous examples of this. The universal human craving for fats and sweets is a good thing on the African savannah. Fats like animal grease and sweets like ripe tropical fruit were the most concentrated form of energy available. Eating one serving of such food could give our ancestors as much energy as they got from an entire day of foraging for greens. But of course, in modern America, eating massive amounts of fat and sweets (and simple carbohydrates like white bread) is easy and cheap. People do it all day long and they get fat and sick as a result. We’re not designed to handle the modern diet.
OoS: Can you please clarify, then, whether you consider eating all the fats and sweets you can get your hands on to be a pleasure or not? That is, does a truly consistent hedonist eat at McDonald’s for every meal?
CH: Certainly not. After all, one of life’s great pleasures is variety. But beyond that, I can get higher grade pleasures from more, shall we say, refined eating habits. By eating a healthy diet (though a lovely diet, I assure you), I optimize my physical body, which allows me greater access to all kinds of other pleasures. I have more energy, I can earn more money, I’m more sexually attractive and more virile, etc.
OoS: So it’s not simply a matter of going for the nearest cookie, so to speak. There is discipline and planning involved in being a hedonist.
CH: Well, yes and no. I can only answer for myself. I’m quite an intelligent fellow, if I do say so myself. And even a minimal amount of thinking and observation teaches one that consistently going for the nearest cookie no matter what is a bad, bad idea. So yes, one must have a bit of discipline.
Incidentally, I suppose I’m implying that I’m a bit more disciplined in going after high-grade pleasures than the average fellow. But even the stupidest people have some of this discipline built in. Indeed there are hedonic counter-incentives built in, so that what’s pleasurable in some circumstances is not so in others. Hopefully all this is obvious. So even a massively fat and impulsive person, when offered a huge fast food meal immediately after gorging himself on all-you-can-eat fast food, even this low-intelligence, low-impulse-control person will reject the french fries.
OoS: And what separates that person from a more refined hedonist is that the stupid person needs hedonic feedback to resist temptations, whereas someone like you can pro-actively create situations with higher and greater pleasures. By abstaining from McDonald’s, you get greater pleasures down the road.
CH: Precisely. I suspect none of this is new to you. I don’t mean to be needlessly confrontational, but are you patronizing me with easy questions?
OoS: My apologies. They are indeed easy questions, and no your answers aren’t surprising. It’s certainly not intended to be patronizing, though. I’m merely trying to cover all our bases before we get to thornier questions.
CH: Certainly. Proceed.
OoS: Let me ask you then, a tougher question. One that I also suspect I understand the answer to, but which… well, it’s a poor interviewer who puts words in his interlocutor’s mouth. The question: How do you determine which pleasures are worth pursuing? Is it instinctual? And do you ever question your judgment, wishing you had pursued some other course of action?
CH: I’ll take the second question first. The answer is yes, in two ways. Yes in a simple way: sometimes it’s obvious I’ve followed a course of action that’s failed to maximize my pleasure or which has obviously hurt me in some way. Like say, ordering an obviously inferior bottle of wine, or pursuing a business venture that ends in massive losses. A certain twinge of regret is natural.
Incidentally, I don’t believe people who say they don’t regret anything in life. It sounds bold and admirable, but it’s not true. It’s perfectly natural and indeed unavoidable to feel that twinge. Claiming not to feel it is like claiming not to wince when you stub your toe. Everyone winces. Wincing and sucking breath through your teeth does not serve any purpose, and the truly consistent non-regretter would instantaneously, upon stubbing his toe, ignore it and continue walking stoically.
Now perhaps the non-regretter wishes to say that he doesn’t double over in exaggerated, self-pitying pain, and does not sit there and mope for hours over his stubbed toe. Very well, neither do I. But not being a crybaby is not the same thing as never feeling regret.
That leads me to the more complex “yes” in answer to the question “do I regret my choices?” And this centers around the question of emotions that are sub-optimal from a hedonic point of view. We can save questions of moral qualms for later?
OoS: As you wish.
CH: Because it’s a related question. But let me simplify it for now by taking the example of a spurned lover. He doesn’t miss his beloved for any ethical reason that I can detect. A Natural Law theologian would say something about the union of their souls, and so in that context the spurned lover has had violence done to his soul and therefore feels pain. Of course I reject Natural Law, but the point is that the pain suffered by the lover is basically a hedonic pain (not a moral one, if you will allow me the simplification for now). His lover’s absence is not hurting any innocent parties; he simply craves to be with her.
OoS: Yes, please continue.
CH: So there’s this pain, the pain of longing for another person’s body, for her smell, for her warmth, and being denied it. It’s incredibly intense, and it can be excruciating. It can feel like the end of the world not to have that person near.
OoS: Your Natural Law theologian would have a thing or two to say about that.
CH: No doubt. He’s a chatty fellow. From my point of view though, this is all part of the hedonist life. This suffering is part of it.
OoS: You surprise me. Now this is getting interesting. Can you please elaborate?
CH: The pain is exquisite. There’s intense pleasure to be had in wallowing in these feelings, don’t you see? The agony, it’s beautiful. Just like pressing on a wound to feel the delicious pain. These aren’t new observations, of course. There’s an entire literature on the loveliness of romantic longing. My point is only to observe that there’s no inconsistency here from the hedonist’s perspective. It’s not just greasy fast food hamburgers, you see? It’s a watercress salad, too. And sometimes it’s the physical agony of straining muscles to the breaking point, even vomiting after an intense work-out can feel good in its way. Do you see?
In matters of the heart, it’s not just the fulfillment of sexual desires, but the longing that goes along with them, that gives pleasure. Pleasure is a many-sided thing. I know this is still shunting off the difficult philosophical questions about nihilism and God and whatnot, but before we even get into that territory, let’s make sure we aren’t selling short pleasure as pleasure.
Because I know your position on this issue, Out of Sleep. I know you think my philosophy is bankrupt and probably evil too. But, if I may say so, most of the refutations of hedonism I have seen tend to talk in simplified or dismissive terms about what pleasure actually is.
“Oh sure,” they say, “orgasms and epicurean delights and electronic entertainment.” And if you point out that some hedonists have more complex pleasures, they might say with derision, “Yes, you can enjoy Shakespeare and Beethoven too, good for you. It’s still all so empty.”
And yes, it is empty. But that’s simply a given. My point is that hedonism at its highest level is not that far from your theism, at least experientially. There is beauty, agony, longing, joy, irony, ecstasy, etc. There are regrets, there are triumphs. It’s not just hooking a morphine tube to your arm and staring into a flickering television screen until the power runs out.
OoS: Very well. I will say that it does seem a point worth making. I defend myself from ever having implied anything of the kind, but I suppose it is a common assumption among those who abhor hedonism as a philosophy.
So we are agreed then, we will toss out the “morphine tube hedonist” straw man, and admit we are dealing with a complex and at times contradictory set of experiences when we talk about the hedonist lifestyle.
CH: Very gracious of you.
OoS: Not at all. You do realize, though, that you are opening yourself up for the question of why painful emotions such as romantic longing should feel good. You are aware, I presume, of a very strong theistic explanation for that.
CH: Whether I “open myself up” or not, my friend, makes no difference. I expect you will be making your theistic arguments one way or the other. In the meantime, I intend to call it like I see it. And for each of your theistic arguments, I have a materialist retort. And I believe my arguments to be much stronger than yours.
OoS: Naturally. Well, we are out of time for today, shall we pick it up again tomorrow? We haven’t even got to the thorny questions yet.
CH: I look forward to it… it will be a pleasure.