Against Hedonism

(The reader might enjoy this post more by picturing a 1940’s movie character pounding a table or pointing sheavenward while he rants this.)

Some of us are stuck in a world where we have to discover the meaning of life for ourselves.  In some places and times, people could rely on tribal roles to guide their lives and to give them meaning.  As human societies became systemized, these systems guided our lives, but the narratives to provide meaning started to multiply.  Systems don’t care about tribe. Capitalism strips away values blindly, cutting away tribal prejudices as well as virtues. System operators who hold values that reduce profitability are simply removed from the playing field, outcompeted by other players who are willing to discard more and more of their values.

I myself turned to subcultures to provide meaning when I was still a teen.  I read all about the emptiness of a systematized existence from the Beat writers.  I identified with the punk rockers shrieking over the banality of our suburban existence.  I unplugged from the system, dropped out of college, tried to find meaning in art and rebellion.  But realities started kicking in as I grew older and I chose to discard my meaning rich life for one that provided healthcare.  I became systemized, entered the corporate world. I became the repulsive salaryman.

The question of meaning is really the question of what values SHOULD we hold.  What is valuable enough to devote our energies toward? What stories inspire us enough to get out of bed each morning?  To fulfill our roles in some project greater than ourselves? Now of course, the elites have always been struggling with these questions because they are the ones that craft the stories to guide their tribes.  Consider the Greek philosophers obsessed with defining virtue. Perhaps it’s a shame that the elites have failed the common man and left him flailing without guidance. Or perhaps no one can listen to stories when their stomachs are empty and their prospects are dimmed by the systems that rampage the planet.

The Bay Area intelligentsia that bothers to concern itself with such questions seems to have converged on the notion that we should strive for the most pleasure for the greatest number of people over the greatest periods of time, what we might call hedonic utilitarianism.  Now of course this raises some sticky questions since pleasure is hard to define and measure, which is the problem that my friends at QRI are focused on. Also there is the question of how to value the pleasure of populations? Is a society with a small number of people whose lives are awesome and vast number whose lives are terrible better or worse than one where everyone is just ok, but no one is terribly happy or sad?

And if this were just a question of morals, then you can claim whatever values you want. Expressed values are just preferences, similar to preferring vanilla over chocolate, or the axioms that serve as the foundations of mathematical equations.  If I wanted to take a properly sociopathic position, I would argue that our values are simply the rules that allow us to operate in a given subculture. But neurotypicals get nervous when I talk like that, so I tend to avoid it. (Avoid hanging out with neurotypicals, that is.)

The real thing that annoys me is when people start saying things like values are universal or that humans provably value pleasure.  You can say that people OUGHT to value X or Y or whatever, I don’t care (1). When you try to say that humans DO value pleasure, it gets my hackles up.  And that’s why I get in fights on Facebook.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy pleasure, ask anyone who has seen me drunk.  It’s more that if I were able to offer a hedonist a box that would allow them to feel a broad range of pleasures from orgasm to the joy of discovery, to the warm glow of helping humanity thrive for millions of years, while in fact, unknown to them it could all be an illusion and all of humanity might be suffering, I predict the hedonist wouldn’t like that.

And then they will say something like, well I’m a utilitarian, so I value all life and all future life, blah blah blah, and I’m back to not listening again.  Or Andres will say something like, yeah well, what if all these are true: you have experience, all experiences exist eternally, and you are all beings experiencing all experiences.  And then I pick up the pieces of my brain, and go back to the question that really annoys me. Is all human behavior really driven by pleasure?

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to this position.  I used to say this about altruism: we help others selfishly, because it benefits us.  It either makes us feel good about ourselves or it is rewarded by the group or it impresses potential mates or whatever.  And I can’t even argue that I don’t enjoy some virtuous acts. But the idea that all human behavior is driven by pleasure seeking seems to imply something else as well: that no behavior is instinctual or habitual. I do want to argue that some virtuous acts simply aren’t rewarded with pleasure or even rewarded with reduced suffering. But I will start with the instinctual and habitual cases because those are easier.

It seems obvious that a lot of what we do is simply force of habit.  I get up and go brush my teeth every morning, less to avoid the suffering of film on my teeth and more because it’s simply the habit that has been installed through repetition.(1.1)  Can a case be made that we prefer familiar tasks because they are less costly from an energy expenditure perspective? Sure. Are we aware of that as pleasure? Unlikely.(2) Is the familiar always a preferred state?  No, sometime we seek novelty. Maybe we only seek novelty when we have an excess of energy to process it with?  Not sure on that one.

A side point I would like to make is that certain friends of mine *cough Mike* refer to hedonism as preferring preferred states which just so… tautological.  Well yes, we prefer preferred states. But do we do things that we would prefer NOT to do? Sure. All the time. And then comes some argument about avoiding damage to self image (3) or computing the total future pleasure or some other complex explanation easily trimmed away by Occam’s razor.  Perhaps SOME of us are simply programmed by evolution to be dutiful? Would that be so hard to buy? I can see all manner of ways in which a predictably dutiful agent will be rewarded in environments that require a lot of (sometimes costly) cooperation.

And I’ve been dutiful.  And being dutiful feels truly awful sometimes.  So awful that in hindsight I really can’t believe that I fulfilled some of those duties.  And I might have said that I couldn’t have looked myself in the mirror afterward if I hadn’t fulfilled my self-perceived duties.  But it’s not like I did the math in my head and added up the number of hours I would have suffered. Because I can tell you, the suffering of my conscience from neglecting some duties would have been tiny compared to the suffering of fulfilling them.  Rationalization is a painkiller for sure.

Or consider those who choose suffering for a cause over the comforts of staying at home.  Are they really just blissing out on how cool they are being as the enemy drops mortars on them?  They do their duty, and it’s a grim and terrible thing sometimes and it’s an impulse that has been corrupted countless times, high and low, by leaders and by dysfunctional partners alike.   BUT, it’s not an impulse properly captured by “hedonism.”

To the degree that humans ARE driven by pleasure seeking, then the most likely reason WHY that would be adaptive would be that environments aren’t predictable and autonomous behavior can’t always be genetically encoded.  Sometimes behavior should be rewarded, other times it should be punished.  But is this true of ALL behavior?  That would suggest that there are simply no invariant aspects of fitness landscapes over time.  I mean, clearly a hedonist would allow that breathing isn’t rewarded per se, so IT can be autonomic, oxygen being a predictable environmental resource over evolutionary timeframes.  But what about parenting?  If a child became too annoying and parents simply abandoned them, then the species wouldn’t last very long.

Parenting is difficult to describe in hedonistic terms. Most parents admit to being less happy while their children are in the home.  Caregiving sort of sucks and is not super rewarding. Don’t let anyone fool you. But our species keeps doing it.

We can note that sex is rewarded much more than parenting.  Which suggests that we need to learn which partners to connect with, but we don’t get much choice over which children we care for.  Or more generally, more rewarded behaviors might be more dependent on learning as a consequence of relating to aspects of environmental interaction that are more variable. 

The problem is that good models of what drives human behavior are being developed and refined more and more. These models are allowing human behavior to be controlled in ways we haven’t seen since, uh, well since religion and tribal roles dictated our behavior actually.  I guess surveillance capitalism will in fact solve the human need to have their lives guided and give everyone a purpose in life again. I’m not sure if it’s so much worse to serve the Church of Zuck than to serve Rome actually. But if we want to build better futures, help rescue the masses from this post-modern world devoid of meaning, then we need to get to the heart of the question and discard this outdated hedonist model. It’s been stretched beyond the breaking point of credibility.

1 Actually, that’s not true, a lot of stated values annoy me.
1.1 I grant that operant conditioning suggests that habit formation likes a reward in the loop, but I was on a roll, so this concession ends up in the footnotes.
2 Based on Libet’s work, I’ll probably get myself into trouble if I try asserting that any decisions are conscious. Consciousness is probably just a social storytelling skill or maybe a meta level to resolve conflicting urges. Then again how can descriptive hedonists make their claim if behavior isn’t conscious?
3 Actually I might buy some version of the argument that preservation of self-image drives some behavior, but not because of pleasure or avoidance of pain, but because behaviors that violate self-image are illegible to us.

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