Happiness: the ultimate goal that all humans strive towards in their short-lived life on this planet we call earth, well not all humans of course, we don’t want to leave the nihilists out of the picture here on a funny note. While discussing the notion of happiness, you are bound to stir controversy, as different people have different perception on what makes us happy. This can be quite problematic while diving deeper into the situation we have at hand, which is: can pleasure lead to happiness?
If one is to argue that pleasure indeed, does not lead to happiness, I’m certain the scope is broader than arguing for the latter. However, I’ll be targeting both sides of the pendulum and hoping to find out a reasonable situation on which I can build my argument around.
First off, if you are to talk about pleasures, we need to understand the different forms of pleasure that can be achieved in this world. Some people might go for artistic pleasure, or some people might strive for bodily pleasures, and so forth, it’s a recurrent cycle just like the flipping of a coin when it comes to counting the different forms of pleasures that humans can try to attain in their lifetimes, or try to sustain in a broader sense of things. This talk about the abundant amount of pleasures available to us, prompts up the talk about Utilitarianism. Personally, I love to keep the definition of Utilitarianism sweet and short, it’s simply the greatest amount of utility (pleasures, benefits, …) for the greatest number of people realistically achievable to. Plain and simple. However, what is important of this mentioning of Utilitarianism, is its founder Jeremy Bentham. He’s highly important because he invented what I’m basing this argument on, which is the Hedonic Calculus. The Hedonic Calculus aims to statistically or mathematically measure the certain act you are trying to do on a pleasure and pain scale, and the comparison of the scores should afterwards prompt you towards venturing forward with the action intended or backing out of it. Now I know that this ‘scale’ was highly rejected in the philosophical realm, but I beg to differ. It offers a very pragmatic way to solving this swing-state that always seems to happen to people before indulging in a certain state of pleasure. Humans are quite good at knowing what can harm them, and what certain types of pleasures are not for them, so I don’t find this method to be problematic at all. Let me give a practical everyday life example on which I can base an actual function of the Hedonic Calculus. Let’s take the example of playing the violin on first hand. Playing an instrument is very intense, and can lead to a strong pleasure. Learning to play an instrument is pleasurable on the long run as well, so it’s going to last for quite a long time. If someone willingly goes for learning the violin for a choice, then the percentage of the pleasure to occur from the music played is likely. Like everything else, learning takes some time, but with patience, soon the learner will be able to get the attainable pleasure soon. There’s nothing as sensible and emotional as playing music, so concurrently, playing the violin will spark a lot of emotions in you. Also, playing the violin is the purest of acts, no bad pleasures I can think of that can occur because of it. By adopting the violin as your source of pleasure, you aren’t negatively affecting anyone, on the contrary, you can emit your pleasure by playing to other people. I just followed the seven different ‘steps’ on which someone can base a pleasure and what it radiates based on the Hedonic Calculus, and in terms of practicality, it certainly sounds very effective to me.
On this basis, pleasure can lead to happiness, but a problem is present. What if playing the violin stopped providing pleasure? What if at an older age, your fingers simply cannot handle the instrument anymore? What if at a younger age you simply gave? There’s always different things we must take into consideration with this literal measurement of calculating pleasure, and the rebuttal to it was very minimal and simple, and it was the few lists of questions that I provided.
In terms of happiness, let’s try to now deconstruct the notion of pleasure leading to happiness, since we already paved the way in the latter example of questionnaires.
The example of pleasure that I gave, which is playing a musical instrument, isn’t a type of pleasure that most ordinary people in the world would strive for. When talking about pleasure, the first thing to pop to one’s head is sexual, or worldly pleasures, and that’s actually very true in concern to pleasure. Most people view these generic ‘wants’ as pleasure, and they are entitled to do just that. For Plato, this is problematic, and he classifies those material needs as the ‘appetitive element’. The other elements in Plato’s Republic strive for being in line with your spirit, and achieving things that would fulfill you on a spiritual level. Plato here only proves that we need to strive or achieve a balance, on order to get to the desirable happiness that usually every human wants in life.
Deontological ethics in my opinion is the best weapon to fight against the argument at place. We simply have to take in the ethical codes of conduct and the rules at hand in terms of actions and their moralities. This applies because pleasurable actions usually have ethical boundaries to them, usually advocated to by a certain set of rules, and that’s only normal. Let’s say for example, someone achieves their pleasure that leads to their happiness by committing rape against young children. This is unethical, and the rules of society bind us with a duty to not commit such an act, even if it might lead to our happiness. I find this very appropriate while dealing with this type of pleasures, because often society rules in our favor against them, and people simply can’t indulge in such acts as rape, or they simply need mental help if they still insist on doing so, or being sent to jail.
We can also look in the scope of virtue ethics while dealing with the aspect of pleasure. Virtue ethics have to do with the person and his build up, and what makes us human. We should act in a way that shifts away from the deontological ethics of duty and act in a way that gets us closer to our characters, and to who we are, and lead us to a place where happiness is found in the bigger picture, not just in pleasures. For example, Aristotle (the father of Virtue Ethics), says that friendship can lead us to happiness, hence the pleasure of friendship. Our happiness doesn’t necessarily have to do with what is mundane, or simple pleasures that is. The enhancement and development of all these good virtues will lead us to the point of Eudaimonia, which is happiness, and this consequently leads us to a satisfying life.
For me personally, away from all the philosophical explanations of the fact that if pleasure can lead to happiness, my answer to that is that I’m simply still not sure yet. I know this doesn’t come off as deep, but I just don’t have enough experience yet in life, to determine what is it that has yet to drive me to reach my state of what I call happiness. Sure, I have desires like everyone else, but I still find it very early to even think of my desires having a long term effect on my happiness. Or maybe, I’m just a nihilist that sees no pleasure and seeks no happiness? Perhaps. I still think it’s early to tell for me.
As our technology advances, and as humanity grows, I think that happiness is something we will always try to strive for, no matter what the means of achieving it is. I find humans hard-wired or ‘programmed’ in some way to indulge in what they find can make them happy, and I don’t think humans will ever change in regards of that. Does indulging in what we find as pleasure worth it? All we can do is try if we really have to, and see where that takes us.