The Ethics of Pleasure

How can we justify enjoying ourselves when there is so much suffering in the world? What if we didn’t have such a good time all the time and took life more seriously? These are kind of searching questions that don’t quite keep us up at night.

In this post, we’ll hear from some of humanity’s greatest minds on the subject of pleasure. And we’ll hear from mine. There’ll be contributions from Greek philosophers, the Enlightenment and, erm, Woody Allen. And afterwards we’ll tackle some of the everyday ethical dilemmas that cause us such debilitating confusion, such as: Pint or salad?

The Ancient Greeks favoured mastery of man’s desires, the discipline of moderation, though you wouldn’t know it from their pottery. They considered self-control to be freedom in its purest form, because with control, reason overrides desire and frees us from impulsiveness (except around pert slave boys, obvs).

Another desire mastered

Aristotle said that pleasure is the ‘natural accompaniment of unimpeded activity’, though with that sort of talk, I imagine he was shit in bed.

He had a point though. Without constraint, surely we gravitate towards fun, not spreadsheets. He considered pleasure to be neither morally good nor bad, but felt it should not be pursued for its own sake and never in heels. Otherwise, happiness found through intoxicants – or madness – could be considered intrinsically good, which he found unacceptable.

We know drugs can be good, however, as long as you haven’t abandoned the kids, or left the iron on, or left the kids ironing, or ironed the kids. Look, fuck the iron and kids, I am trying to smoke a spliff here.

As for madness – surely the only good thing about it is the possibility that the insane could be happy in their own giddy world?

Not all Greeks agreed with Aristotle, of course. The father of hedonism – the school of thought that argues pleasure and happiness are the primary and proper aim of human life – is considered to be Aristippus of Cyrene, who, though Libyan, studied under Socrates (the Greek philosopher, not the hirsute Brazilian midfielder).

Aristippus wasn’t simply a caner, though. He would extract pleasure wherever he could, often from unpromising circumstances, like Deserters might on finding an abandoned armchair next to some bins, just when you needed a good sit down between pubs.

Aristotle: Shit in bed?

His Cyreniac school parted from Socrates’ belief in the ‘higher’ pleasures of the intellect, preferring the more physical delights of love, wine and kebabs. Metaphysical joy is all very well, but how do you dress for it?

The Enlightenment era saw a further examination of the principles of pleasure, through the libertine works of Casanova, Crébillon, Diderot, Marivaux, Sade and many others. Their focus on pleasure, desire and seduction ruffled feathers in a society that privileged the virtues of manners, hard work, rectitude and suffering. You’d think following the libertines would be a no-brainer, but the pious had fear and guilt on their side, while the fun-seekers were only armed with booze and sex.

The trump card of the righteous though was eternal damnation. Your reward for a good life would be found in heaven. You keep your side of the bargain and we’ll never know if your God did. As deals go, it is the opposite of ethical, like moral snake oil.

‘You can live to be a hundred if you give up the things that make you want to live to a hundred,’ said Woody Allen, who, to be fair, is nearly a hundred and doesn’t seem to have given up much.

The contemplation of a supreme being gives pleasure to the spiritual. The contemplation of a supreme pint gives pleasure to me. And then I get to experience that pint. So who’s the cunt?

Casanova told us that pleasure only takes place in the present.

‘Pleasure is both an immediate feeling,’ says Enlightenment scholar Catherine Cusset. ‘And the result of the struggle against everything that impedes pleasure.’

Like work, traffic, hemorrhoids and Michael Gove.

The philosopher Michel Foucault taught that pleasure is an ‘ethical technique’ whose purpose is to transform. So we can learn to take pleasure and make it central to our lives, if we make it foremost in the ordinary decisions we take all the time, such as in these commonplace questions:

Spliff v sorting your emails

Everyday Ethical Dilemmas

Cereal v Bacon Sandwich

For cereal: No living thing has been slaughtered for your muesli. No intelligent creature has been prematurely culled so you can gorge on its flesh.
For bacon: Bacon.
Conclusion: Bacon.

Lie-in vs Getting to work on time

For lie-in: Cures tiredness and helps you be late for work.
For getting to work on time: There are literally no advantages to this policy.
Conclusion: Shall we call it a draw?

Driving v Walking

For driving: Comfort, music and sitting down in a weatherproof pod blowing out noxious fumes.
For walking: Fresh air, being alone with your thoughts, no drink limit.
Conclusion: Why limit yourself? Walk (to the pub).

News v Sports pages

For news: There’s a satisfaction in being well informed about matters that are relevant to our lives.
For sports: There’s a satisfaction in being well informed about matters that are utter piffle.
Conclusion: Bearing in mind that high blood pressure is a killer, I’m opting for swerving news. It has so rarely contributed to my day’s happiness, unlike, say, triumphant underdogs.

Booze at lunch v A productive afternoon

For booze: Booze is smashing.
For productivity: There’s that sense of achievement.
Conclusion: Choose booze. If you want to avoid that disappointment in yourself for not achieving anything in the afternoon, you can always take a lovely nap in the bogs.

Another pint v An early night

For pint: It’s a waste of question marks when someone asks if you’d like another pint.
For early night: Feel virtuous and refreshed the next day.
Conclusion: Sleep when you’re dead, or, in the mornings.

Last train home or a dab of MDMA?

For train: Your lovely bed.
For molly: The thing about MDMA is that it gives you the impression you’re having an amazing time. Therefore you are. That’s philosophy.


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Image credits: Main image by Javier Soltero used under this license. Pleasure (spliff) by Leonardo Vargas used under this license.