It’s a commonly held view that people do whatever they do in order to have pleasure. That would be the same as to say that human beings are behaving machines whose behaviour is based on a maximization of pleasure procedure.
This is a more complex form of the general happiness overrating phenomenon i’ve been looking at some time ago. The problem i am trying to point is that people tend to consider happiness to be an ultimate goal, the very thing that moves everyone. But this idea is impossible to verify directly, and indirectly seem to contradict some basic facts of life.
First, let’s try not to belittle the human by calling it a machine. To say that we can understand a human as we would understand a machine does not mean that the person would act in automated ways, predictable and devoid of creativity and soul. It would only mean that the essence, or the basic process, of the human is the pleasure maximization. After all, as no one can claim to build anything able to feel pleasure, this machine we are talking about is not that machine-like after all. So, instead of “machine” let’s use “system”.
Our human-understood-as-system definitely has something we can perceive and identify as pleasure. Also, this thing has a very strong correlation with behaviour reinforcement — that is, behaviour that produces pleasure has a greater chance of being repeated than behaviour that doesn’t.
Well, Behavioural Psychology has already shown that a very large portion of human behaviour can be described as a pleasure maximization loop. More precisely, a loop where each behaviour progressively receives positive or negative reinforcements which will determine the appearance of such behaviour in the future, and where positive reinforcement is understood as pleasure.
(As a side note, the Behaviour sciences do use the argument where if someone does something that causes him pain he is exchanging this pain in order to achieve a bigger pleasure in other are of his psyche, or to avoid a bigger pain. Needless to say, this is cheating, but we’ll overlook that for now.)
Neurological studies of addiction also do strengthen this idea, as they indicate that the brain has some strong feedback loops involved in enhancing the chance of some kinds of behaviour.
But the question is: are those sorts of self-reinforcement behaviour-inducing feedback loops the pleasure itself, or are they just general decision-making devices and the feeling of pleasure is some sort of emergent property of the system that normally arrives after those loops have been activated? To put it another way: are those loops all that is involved in feeling pleasure?
This question is undecidable by default, for pleasure is a subjective thing, by definition.
But all those questions propose situations where pain and pleasure are directly present, like a children having to opt between a candy and broccoli, or a mouse having an electrode directly connected to the place of his brain usually related to pleasure-feedbacks.
What about situations where pain and pleasure are not directly present? Example: “What are you gonna be when you grow up?”
It is easy to downplay this, and argue that it is the same as “What career do you believe will bring you the most pleasure in the future?” If we do this, we are assuming that every kind of evaluation of the future, and every kind of imagination of the paths available, and every form of comprehension of one’s own place in the world, that all this is translatable into pleasure quantities. And this is assuming quite a lot.
There is a general sense of fulfilment in life, that “it is worth the cost”, that “i wouldn’t make anything different if i was back at the beginning”. It seems that this sense is not directly connected to amounts of pleasure and pain received during life. That is, people who had everything can be miserable, and people who had a hard life can feel good about themselves.
So, we have yet another different idea of happiness to make things even less clear. The easy way out of is to assume that this larger-scale self-fulfilment sense is just another form of happiness/ pleasure, so to say a “condensed” form of it, and that pursuing one of the other is essentially the same pursuit.
But our central basic idea is already clouded by two whole layers of assumptions that are utterly undecidable, unverifiable and that are only there to justify a fortiori the idea in the first place. In other words, the fact that human beings do whatever they do in order to have pleasure is not a fact at all, but just an artefact of the paradigm we are used to.
Indeed, more than an idea, this happiness-overrating is itself an assumption. We just assume that happiness is the goal of life, without wondering about it, or even accepting that it might be an issue. One can’t question it, for people seem insanely attached to believing in this, even when it is obviously wrong.
What is important for an assumption is not that it is logically valid, but instead that it is teleologically valid. That is, it is important that the assumption is in accordance with our concrete aims and practices — that it is valid “in the real world”™.
I know many do think that, in this context, there is not much one can argue against pleasure being the quintessential force behind human behaviour. But, the way i see it, just the contrary happens.
In teleological terms, the assumption that happiness is sought after by humans is not a truth, but only a form-of-reading. That is to say: happiness is not a fact, but an interpretation of what one experiences. One never sees “happiness itself”, or the “motivation” behind an action: one only sees an action, or an expression of content. We do ascribe ideas like “pleasure” and “purpose” to what we experience.
So, saying that “humans do pursue happiness above all else” is like saying “i will call /happiness/ to whatever humans do seek”.
And, in case one did come to meet a masochist, this would be like saying “i will use the name /happiness/ to mean gruesome pain”!
Although the seek-happiness-above-all-else idea might seem a very accurate depiction of what happens when you see someone choosing from a menu his favourite meal, the same idea does come to some problems when you try co comprehend society or evolution, or, for that matter, most non-trivial issues in life.
For example, it is completely obvious that to be a fan of a soccer team is bound to make one miserable when the team loses, and, as any team will lose some of the time, it will definitely make you miserable. It is very shallow to assume that the amount of happiness experienced when the team wins will overcome the sadness of the defeats: if this simple balance was all that there were to fandom, everyone would be a fan of the team that wins — and someone would just pay 11 guys to consistently lose.
So, even if pleasure experiences are very important in human behaviour, they are not the essence of it. Humans do certainly seek pleasure, but not only pleasure and not pleasure above all else.
If this is so, why do the idea of happiness-above-all-else seem so right? Why it sounds so good?
For starters, to imagine that “someone did something for a reason” (as opposed to “he did it”, without further explanation or reason or way to imagine what he will do next) gives one a richer understanding of the world. It makes one’s ideas better prepared to grasp whatever happens around oneself.
In other words, the idea of humans-seek-happiness allows we to think of our peers as predictable systems instead of imponderable transcendental souls that only Bog could comprehend. It gives us a model of human beings. But it is not the only idea that does so.
Nevertheless, this deceptively simple idea is at the centre of more than one ideology, therefore having a deep and hidden influence. The obvious examples are the Utilitarianism doctrine, which is the basis for human rights, and the United States Declaration of Independence, which is in many ways the prominent symbol of the importance of democracy and therefore an orientation for the way nations organize themselves and the lives of their inhabitants.
There is much to be said about other ways to model-think about humanity, and how those could make us happier than the one we criticize here, but this post is already too long.
[[Other posts that might be related: HAPPINESS series.]]