I consider myself basically a negative utilitarian-ish. That is, I consider that to avoid suffering is the highest moral priority, and that to increase enjoyment has little or no relevance. However, I am much less radical than this may seem. In fact I am in favor of focus on the idea of XNU+ proposed by Jonathan Leighton, where the “+” symbol attaches importance to pleasure and happiness, if only for a practical reason: surely we’ll become more effective altruists if we allow ourselves and we feel entitled to be selfishly happy, occasionally enjoying of some of the pleasures of life, instead of being continually and relentlessly obsessed with reducing suffering. I also consider that, at least when they are limited to a certain local context, a large number of actions apparently aimed at achieving pleasure are morally defensible because, according to my interpretation, they are actions aimed at avoiding the suffering that would result from not achieving that pleasure. For example, I believe that the greatest motivation to sleep, eat or have sex is not the pleasure that these activities produce, but to avoid possible suffering or frustration in their absence. On the other hand, when I look at reality as a whole, it seems to me that the priority is to reduce intense suffering (the x in xNU +), and that we are all immoral for not doing so.
As I have said, in its conventional version negative utilitarianism gives little or no relevance to enjoyment except for consequentialist considerations like those I mentioned. But we could think of a radical negative utilitarianism where enjoyment was not only morally despised, but refused ontologically. That is, what if in the sensible world (the world where we the beings feel) there was only pain (and suffering) and never pleasure (and happiness)?
This hypothesis seems crazy (how is it possible that there is no pleasure, if it is obvious that we experience it?). I found it for the first time more than 20 years ago in a footnote in the book “The Brain Computer” by José Antonio Jáuregui, who is said to come forward to the paradigm shift in psychology researchers who started Antonio Damasio. With the eliminativism something similar happens. In the light version, eliminativism despises the existence of subjective or sentient experience, and believes that everything related to the mind can be explained not handle the idea of “I” or “subjectivity.” In a more radical version, eliminativism believes that simply subjective experiences do not exist: they are an illusion of the mind.
Could pleasure be an illusion of the mind? Robert Anson Heinlein proposed in one of his novels an anesthesia that does not eliminate pain but the memory of pain. This idea is also mentioned in the book “The worst of evils” of Dormandy. In the same way that there could be this “anesthesia that does not take away the pain but the memory of the pain” could also exist a mechanism that generated a false memory of a pleasure that never existed, so that what we call pleasure is in reality the memory of pleasure, and then perhaps the real pleasure… never existed.
Warning: this text includes a very effective method to quit smoking, but the same method can have negative consequences if applied in other contexts. If the reader does not have the ability to control “at will” going out and entering a state of greater or lesser concentration; if you are in doubt about whether you are willing to “let go” and “stop thinking” while enjoying certain activities avoiding recurring or obsessive thoughts at inappropriate times, it may be better not to continue reading. Ideally, this text should be read only by people with the ability to control and direct their attention. For example, those who have the skills and resources to park or forget problems that can not be resolved now, or who are able to cheer when being sad is inconvenient.
At least, I personally know an example of something very similar to this. In my experience, for a heavy smoker, smoking does not produce pleasure, but a false memory of pleasure, which is the cause of addiction. The method I used to quit was to observe the action of smoking carefully and in the most conscious way that I was able, trying to recognize as clearly as possible the pleasant experience of doing so, finding no pleasure in it. That is, the more conscious the act of smoking, the less pleasure I got (or thought I got) smoking. I set myself the standard of just smoking in a conscious way, observing the pleasure obtained. Finding no pleasure every time I did, I quit smoking. The technique is not without danger because if I did not go back to smoking maybe it was because I reached a point where I found it impossible to smoke and enjoy (or believe I enjoye) it. It seems possible that in the case of applying this technique to other pleasurable activities like eating or having sex, these activities would lose their interest, which does not seem a good idea.
In short, pleasure and consciousness seem incompatible. Notice that not only can consciousness impair pleasure, but many pleasures seem to be linked to the loss of consciousness and / or individuality.
That is to say, on the one hand, by increasing consciousness, pleasure diminishes:
- Certain “physical” pleasures may diminish or even disappear by making them more conscious, such as the pleasure of smoking.
- The same seems to happen with other more “psychological” pleasures. For example, if someone asks us at a party, “How are you doing?” Immediately the act of valuing one’s enjoyment will have the effect of diminishing the enjoyment. The only reasonable use of the question happens in the undoubtful boring parties (replace “party” by “congress”, “meeting”, “class”, etc.) in a conversation in which “What about the party” means “What a boring party!!! Isn’t it? “And “Very well ” should be translated as “Soporific the less”.
On the other hand, by decreasing consciousness, pleasure increases:
- Loss of consciousness produces pleasure. People who faint say that the experience was pleasant. I have also experienced it personally.
- Drugs that reduce consciousness produce pleasure.
- The “state of flux” that occurs in activities in which the difficulty progressively adjusts to the skill, as occurs in video games or in a professional career, seems to produce a pleasant absence of consciousness.
- The effect of orgasm is known as “La petite mort” , little death.
- The “tantric sexual energy” relates the annulment of the ego with carnal desire and pleasurable states generated.
- Meditation, the loss of the “I”, and the dissolution of the “I” in the “oneness” are related to pleasant experiences.
We can unite all the ideas mentioned here in a coherent hypothesis about the nature of reality that I baptize as Paneudaimonia, and would be:
The whole universe is absolute pleasure, except in the domain of what we know as sentient beings, in which all experiences imply different types of suffering. Each time a sentient being experiences pleasure, this is because it reduces its “I”, that is, it reduces its “identity independent of the rest”, approaching a fusion with the All (in this hypothesis the “I” is considered as something gradual, not binary). From a practical point of view, and according to this hypothesis, before birth we lived in a paradise of happiness and that’s where we will return after death. The passage through this world of suffering (which we could literally call Hell , should be as short as possible. If this hypothesis seems possible, this might help us to think twice before dismissing such “extreme” positions as the pro-mortalism defended by Jiwoon Hwang.
In short, under this hypothesis we consider the possibility that what we call “pleasure” may not be what it seems, and may even not exist. At least, it might not exist in that world in which we have an “I”, a “subjectivity” of its own, oblivious to the rest. In the most optimistic version of this hypothesis, pleasure does exist, but in order to do so, one must stop being “I” and merge with the “All.” This loss of ego would not necessarily be binary, but gradual. Of course, this hypothesis on consciousness may seem terribly far – fetched as many others, including eliminativism, which surprisingly -at least for me-, has acquired a respectable recognition in the scientific environment. Of course, the fact that other hypotheses are pilgrim is not an argument to defend this one, but an element to illustrate the lack of consensus on the problem of consciousness, surely fruit of the difficulty we have to understand what it consists. I believe that we must avoid becoming attached just to a single theory that is intuitive to us, and strive to understand other hypotheses and to extract from them at least indications of paths that can be explored in honest, impartial and skeptical research aimed at reducing suffering and maximizing happiness. Something we all want.
– Thanks to Jorge Ortiz for suggesting me include the decrease of consciousness in video games.
– Thank to Justin Kwong for the suggestion of mentioning this essay by philosopher Peter Zapffe: https://philosophynow.org/issues/45/The_Last_Messiah where he goes into how humans are too well endowed with consciousness and how they attempt to limit their own consciousness.