Sunday, 16 October 2016

On The Higher & Lower Pleasures

The test of a higher pleasure, according to John Stuart Mill, is that those who have experienced both the lower and the higher always prefer the higher. So, for example, a man who could claim categorically that he always prefers the works of Sophocles to the works of Ibsen can say that, to him, Sophocles constitutes a higher pleasure than Ibsen.

There are a few problems with Mill's higher and lower pleasures - not the least of which is comparing apples and oranges (and oranges and books, and books and holidays, and holidays and sex, and sex and fast cars - you get the point), and the issue of the distinction between pleasures necessary for survival (food and drink) and pleasures unnecessary for survival (Shakespeare and The Beatles) whereby the latter may be higher in terms of pleasure but lower in terms of necessity.

But the problem I want to focus on here is the possible bias a Victorian polymath philosopher might have towards pleasures, compared with, say, a twenty-something working class female in 2016. Let me first start by trying to identify what I think the best physical pleasures are. I'm assuming that if it's true for me there's a good chance it'll be true for others too.

Good sex with someone you love is right up there with the best physical pleasures, as is eating a delicious meal when you're famished. Relaxing in a comfy recliner chair after some hard exercise is a very nice sensation, as is the feeling of freshly washed and ironed sheets on your skin when you first get into bed. A nice scenic view is very pleasing, as is cuddling, and doing something kind and generous for somebody else is highly rewarding too (you may want to classify the last one as an emotional pleasure).

But what about the intellectual pleasures associated with things like philosophy, art and literature? Is the complete works of Shakespeare a higher pleasure than the complete works of Alan Bennett or the complete box set of Nicolas Cage films? Is Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or Radiohead's OK Computer a higher pleasure-pairing than David Bowie's two Tin Machine albums?

John Stuart's Mill's test of a higher pleasure - those who have experienced both the lower and the higher always prefer the higher - may not apply to a man who loves Nicolas Cage films and is bored stiff by Shakespeare. It may be very difficult to get him to prefer reading Hamlet to watching Con-Air. In what has become a hugely famous quote, John Stuart Mill explains how we understand and not understand higher pleasures:

"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is only because they only know their own side of the question.”

I think a good way to frame it would be like this. We can accept that there are people who prefer the complete works of Shakespeare and people who prefer the complete box set of Nicolas Cage films - but if you found people that know them both, and asked them whether they would choose to spend the rest of their life in the Lake District with only the complete works of Shakespeare or the complete box set of Nicolas Cage films, the vast majority would choose Shakespeare.

The reason being, of course - it would not be difficult to find out that works of genius like Shakespeare's plays are imbued with possibly unsurpassed deep and enriching qualities that get right to the heart of the psychology of being human, and the important questions of life that we grapple with.

Why is it, then, that in these modern times (particularly) more people seem to gravitate towards the easier and more superficial pleasures over the arguably more rewarding and deeper pleasures? I think there are two main reasons. The first, and probably the lesser of the two reasons, is that people are getting a smidgen of those rewarding and deeper pleasures in their more superficial pleasures - be they books, TV shows, movies or video games.

The second, and I think by far the primary factor, is that when it comes to straightforward simple pleasures that demand little brainwork versus the more complex intellectually satisfying pleasures, humans have a tendency to favour the path of least resistance. Or to put it another way, when faced with the immediate prospect of watching Citizen Kane or Face Off, more people would choose Face Off because, although Citizen Kane may turn out to be ultimately more artistically nourishing, it's a lot easier to relax on the sofa with a beer watching an action movie like Face Off.

Implicit in this is the phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting - the tendency humans have to prefer current rewards over distant rewards of a higher value. So for example, if I offered you £100 tomorrow or £110 this time year next year you'd probably pick £100 now. But if I offered you £100 on this day in 2017 or £110 the day after in 2017, you'd quite rationally choose the latter. Humans are said to discount the value of the later reward by a factor that increases with the length of the delay.

Psychologist Daniel Read of Warwick Business School and his colleagues have conducted experiments that indicate a connection between hyperbolic discounting and why we are more likely to choose a film like Face Off over a film like Citizen Kane the majority of the time.

What Read and his colleagues found was that experimental participants (students, from what I recall), when given the opportunity to select a film like Citizen Kane or Face Off to watch next weekend, were more likely to choose the highbrow film. But when the weekend arrived, they often changed their minds if given the option.

I think hyperbolic discounting has a lot to do with why so many people tread along nicely with the lower pleasures like surfing YouTube for funny videos when ultimately they'd find life more enriching if they pursued the higher pleasures. There is a human habit to suppress those deeper desires for fulfilment whereby what wins through more often than not is the seduction of the low hanging fruit.

For many it would take being stuck on an island or in a log cabin with a choice of lower or higher pleasures before they invested their time in the indulgences of the higher pleasures. But those higher pleasures definitely do exist; even if, prior to the effort of commitment, they can be quite abstruse and arcane.