Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Enlightened Hedonism?

Some friends recently decided to end their marriage (amicably), after discussing (in a public forum) the paradox of choice (the more choices we have, the more dissatisfied we become with any single choice).  One of my friends remarked that for him this meant that marriage contracts might be better made for brief periods (e.g. five years) rather than for one's entire life.  This discussion and the events around it got me thinking about my own relationships, and what holds them (and me) together.

I see the paradox of choice, and I think it is part of human nature.  As with other aspects of human nature, it is better dealt with than ignored.  (To ignore it is to invite it to find you unprepared, leading you to make decisions that you are likely to regret later, with the benefit of hindsight.  Personally, I like to know my enemies, including the one who dwells between my ears, and keep them close when I cannot avoid them entirely.)

To make a choice is necessarily to make oneself vulnerable (to disillusionment, disappointment, unexpected consequences, etc.), especially when the choice involves something truly momentous (as the choice to get married undoubtedly does).  But not choosing is also weak, since choices are a necessary part of life (much as intimacy is: as bad as a bad marriage is, no marriage at all might be just as bad).  How do we allow choice without letting it take us places where we do not want to go?  Historically, people create narratives that allow them to "have their cake and eat it too" -- narratives that promise future choices (maybe an eternity of them) in return for making a limiting choice here and now.  Oftentimes, these narratives seek to be prescriptive, telling people what choices are acceptable (e.g. monogamous heterosexual marriage) and what choices are not (e.g. homosexual marriage, serial monogamy facilitated by divorce, polygamy, polyamory).  These prescriptions can be helpful for folks, for reasons that I will get to in a moment, but as a result of my personal experience, I am hesitant to recommend any one of them to the entire human race as the only prescription for happiness.  To me, it seems that human happiness, generally speaking, is incoherent: different people have different ideas about happiness, such that there is no one way of life (or marriage) that guarantees it generally (for all that many different ways work with more or less success for larger or smaller groups of people: I would be miserable in a homosexual marriage, but a homosexual person wouldn't; the fact that there are more people like me and less like the homosexual does not mean that his experience is somehow "wrong" or invalid, or that he should not have the opportunity to marry his way, in my view).

Given this laissez-faire attitude toward human morality on my part, many friends wonder where my personal moral stability comes from.  How do I avoid giving in to the temptation to drop whatever I may have now and pursue more attractive options elsewhere?  Why don't I drop my allegiance to my wife the same way I dropped my allegiance to LDS church leaders?  (The short answer is that I have yet to catch her lying to me brazenly about matters of vital interest to me, but that is really just incidental.  There is a serious question here, one that deserves more than a glib answer, however en pointe.)

Confronting the collapse of my faith in men whose character supplied my (legitimate) need for moral authority as teenager was rather frightening.  As a kid, I made some moral choices because God (in the form of prophets ancient or modern) told me to, and that was the ultimate answer to all questions (the decision beyond which there was no appeal).  History shows that this kind of thinking has deep roots, with oaths before God featuring among the earliest binding contracts known to (civilized) man.  What happens when the God guaranteeing all these oaths is revealed to be a rhetorical fiction, a puppet played from the inside by some old duffers who wear the mantle of divinity with a good deal of humanity?  What happens when you realize that there is no man in the sky watching every move you make?  (Or as Plato would have Socrates ask in the Republic: what happens when you wear the ring of Gyges, a ring that makes you utterly invisible, allowing you to do anything you please without normal untoward consequences?)  In the narrative I grew up with, this event was a terrible disaster: without God as the real ground for morality, human life becomes "evil" animal hedonism.  (Remember the scripture in Mosiah 3:7, where "the natural man is an enemy to God, and is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father."  The good man must give himself up to the absolute moral authority of God or lose his goodness.)  My own descent into hedonism has not (yet) borne this narrative out, but I am constantly confronting it (in the assumptions religious believers make about me when I am indifferent toward theism, and/or in the stories I hear of and see in the lives of people around me who do value things differently as atheists than they did as religious believers).  In concrete terms, people wonder why I don't leave my wife (for example) or (at least) treat my relationship with her as casually as I do my relationship with (say) the LDS church.  Where does my moral foundation lie?  Why are promises sacred?  Are there any points at which a promise becomes non-binding, for me?  Where are those points?

It is fitting that I should answer these questions with a disquisition on pleasure, since pleasure and pain are really the heart of what they inquire about (how much pleasure are you willing to pass up to keep a promise? how much pain will you endure before breaking a promise?).  Here it is very useful to bring up the Buddhist teaching (confirmed by my personal experience) that pleasure and pain are really the same thing, a fleeting impression on the human psyche that brings mixed consequences (causing us to notice factors in our environment differently, with the result that we alter our behavior in a way loosely calculated to improve the chance that our genes survive, to add a modern biological garnish to the ancient dictum).  If I know that pleasure is pain, then I instinctively recoil from it at least as much as I spring toward it.  I love it and court it, as I must, but I also aim to keep it at a safe distance.  Rather than embrace it uncritically, drinking deep every time nature (or God or whatever is pulling the strings that make the universe dance) proffers the cup, I hang back, stealing in for a drink only when I think it is safe (judging from my own and others' experiences, in that order: my experience of myself trumps what other people tell me about themselves).  How does this kind of thinking look in real life?  How do I use it in real situations?  Let's see.

(1) How much pleasure am I willing to pass up to keep a promise?  Big pleasures come with big consequences.  Intimate relationships require time and commitment to work in a way that is sustainable and stable (as I like my pleasures to be).  When I enter into an intimate relationship with someone, a really pleasurable (and pleasant) relationship like marriage, I invest in that person.  I spend time with that person.  I talk to that person.  I think with that person.  I let that person shop for me, work for me, sign for me, even think for me (in situations where that is required).  Why would I throw that investment away merely because somebody else walks by one day with a cute rear-end (or whatever)?  That would not make sense.  It would not even be pleasurable (from my perspective: the pleasure of chasing a new romantic interest pales in comparison with the pain of losing my wife, to whom I have already devoted so much time and interest).

In my mind, the paradox of choice means that modern life is uniquely cruel to people who obsess over making the right choices (thinking that they have to find the right brand of shoes among 500, or the perfect wife or romantic partner among the population of co-eds at the local university or church or wherever).  Much of the time, the criteria we come up with to facilitate choice in situations of super-abundance are worse than useless.  We become obsessed with noise and ignore the really important information (the information that is actually relevant to our personal sense of pleasure).  Instead of taking five minutes to decide what shoes we need, going to the store, and buying those shoes, we walk into the store undecided, try on 30 pairs, buy 5, and then go home to wonder over and over again whether we should trade some of them in and/or buy some of the ones we rejected.  Instead of pursuing with gusto the romantic adventures that life thrusts upon us, we move obsessively from one partner to another, chasing our illusions of "the perfect mate" from one "failed" relationship to the next (and so on until we become Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, Newt Gingrich, or Rush Limbaugh: these are not terrible men, but I would not want to marry them--in some bizarre world where I am a heterosexual woman). In marriage, from my perspective, the noise is other people (who seem better than your spouse when you don’t know them as well). The information that really matters is how your spouse is (am I abused? am I abusive? is there something that I really need that I cannot get, something that my spouse really needs that I cannot give?).  If my marriage became impossibly bland--empty, passionless, etc.--then I would consider ending it (as much for my wife's good/pleasure as for mine: why should she be trapped in a relationship that is merely a shell of what it should be, what it once was?).  But I would never end my marriage on a whim (merely because a lady with nice parts flirted with me).  That would be decidedly unpleasant (I think).

There is something really profound lurking here, a truth that is applicable all along the depth and breadth of human experience (my own and that of other people too, as near as I can tell).  Democritus expressed this truth by saying that “the sweetest pleasures are the rarest.” While the extreme version of this is untrue, there is something solid to the idea of limiting one’s exposure to certain pleasures more than one might instinctively want to. Take fasting for example. I stopped eating three square meals a day, and suddenly maintaining a healthy weight became effortless (calorie-restriction does still work, but it feels so much easier when instead of eating three small meals every day, I get to eat one or two huge ones). Consider sex. Every now and then, my wife and I are separated for environmental reasons (she has a period, I am sick, the kids are obnoxious), and whenever this happens, our next amorous encounter registers off the charts (not that we have a bad sex life meantime, but the difference between sated-sex and famine-sex is amazing). Work is the same. I get more done, I am more creative in the office, and my physical work-outs are much more productive, when I make the effort to stay away and avoid “punching the clock” just to convince myself that I am doing something. I think these empirical realities (in my life) are important, since they represent a reality that many modern men overlook entirely (coming from a background that takes scarcity for granted and works to cultivate abundance, which was foreign and desirable to my grandfathers as it is not to me).

This leads me to an interesting dichotomy between my ideas of (i) general human happiness and (ii) particular human happiness. (i) Generally speaking, I think human happiness is better served when there are many options available for people to try.  Marry a woman (or several).  Marry a man.  Marry your dog.  The market should be as free as possible. (ii) Speaking particularly, however, I think happiness is all about eliminating options.  People generally should be maximally free to pursue their own happiness; that said, pursuing one's own happiness requires cultivating one's own garden without being too concerned about anybody else's.  Pick the method(s) that work for you, and ignore everything else.  When I examine my personal morality carefully, I am all about taking away my own choices. In a culture defined by glut, I deliberately cultivate famine (spending hours without food, days without sex, and as much time as possible not working). I do this because I find that constant glut (which my environment recommends reflexively) is not pleasant: who wants to binge all the time on endless food, sex, or work?   Not me.  Confronting my morality with complete honesty (as I wear the ring of Gyges) has taught me this lesson about myself.

(2) How much pain will I endure before breaking a promise?  Periodically, people talk about certain emotions being unlimited, invoking words like "divine love" or "compassion" or "grace" to point to the idea that the universe always gives you another chance (even if that comes only in another life).  While I see some utility in this idea, I confess I am not really convinced.  If you rape me, I might forgive you, but I am never going to put myself deliberately in your company again.  I am not going to make myself vulnerable (no matter what some god says).  Our relationship is (for this life at least) permanently altered.  If you lie to me about things that are vitally important to me, then I am never going to trust you with my dearest secrets.  Not because I don't love you.  Not because I don't believe that you might still have some good qualities.  Not because I think you should die horribly in some tragic accident.  I just don't have the stomach for making myself deliberately vulnerable to somebody I have good reason not to trust.  I don't set myself up to fail.  If a relationship is not working, then I think the understanding on which that relationship exists needs to be re-examined, and it may end up needing to change.  That is acceptable.  Change happens.

My wife has discussed behavior that might lead her to end our relationship.  If I were abusive or sexually promiscuous (chasing skirts like better men before me), then she would step out of the marriage without any guilt.  I think this is wise.  Cultivating a good marriage is the right thing to do (because it is most pleasant, in my experience), and ditching a bad marriage is the right thing to do (because it is most unpleasant, in my vicarious experience).  The reality that the healthiness of my relationships depends on constant care becomes very obvious in this paradigm, which will not let me off the hook with the specious plea: "Well, you signed up for this crap when you took me at the altar, so take it--the good along with the bad!"  Instead of settling down to this sort of complacency, I am expected to court my wife every day, reminding her that I am really a pleasant person to have around.  She could end our involvement at any moment, and my awareness of that fact keeps me from taking her utterly for granted.

In summary, I have found that hedonism is not altogether dehumanizing (in the bad sense).  Now that I look back, it seems to me that I was always a hedonist, even when I was religious.  The difference between me as I am and me as I was is that I now understand my relationship to pleasure much better.  I see how I react to pleasure, how I value it, and I have learned to minimize the sorts of behavior associated with it that tend to bring unpleasant consequences (as I perceive them: others are welcome to decide differently, provided that they do not dictate to me unilaterally from their experience just as I would never presume to dictate to them).  This does not mean that I value pleasure perfectly now, that I never make mistakes, but I do like to think (and it seems true) that I learn better from my mistakes now than I did five years ago.  One benefit that comes from partaking of the forbidden fruit is that you really do become wise. 


  1. It occurs to me that my perspective on pleasure is well illustrated by a verse in the Dhammapada:

    Do not turn away what is given to you,
    Nor reach out for what is given to others,
    Lest you disturb your quietness.

    I choose the pleasures and the values that life has given me, rejecting the pleasures and values that it has not given me (leaving them for others, who may take them or leave them: to me that is indifferent). Rather than regret the family I did not have, the friends I did not make, or the career I did not choose, I aim to enjoy the family, friends, and career that I did choose. What I value most is tranquil enjoyment of real pleasures, pleasures that I know are fleeting, but that I can enjoy here and now without tormenting myself over the possibility that I might have chosen differently in a parallel universe.

    It surely helps that I have been blessed with a good family (by an indifferent universe, which might just as easily have made me the offspring of crackheads) and friends (by the same universe, aided this time by my own inconstant effort to build and maintain relationships).

  2. Coming back to your blog after a long hiatus. Forgot how good it was. I came to a similar conclusion as you, except I labelled it "Wise Hedonism". I think a crucial point that you made is that pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. We should not seek to live a life devoid of pleasure and pain, but by the same token, we shouldn't get too caught up in it either. And furthermore, you are right that the best way to practice hedonism is sometimes to famish yourself (with sex, food, or anything). I don't disagree with what Mosiah says about the natural man, because I think it is saying something quite different, but you are right. In retrospect, I wonder why I needed these "Brethren" to push me around all my life (and scare me with damnation and hellfire), when in reality, there is a "right" way to be "carnal", which is simply being in tune with your body's needs and wants and responding with moderation. The Word of Wisdom is a good example of something that takes things a bit too far. I very recently started drinking coffee and alcohol. Have I gone off the deepend? Honestly, I maybe drink a coffee a weekand a few beers at the end of the month when my mother takes the kids for the weekend. Honestly, both instances are just kind of nice, pleasant. I've discovered the joys of kicking back a few beers with friends. I'm only slightly resentful that I never enjoyed that simple pleasure until now, because before I thought it would piss God off. So yeah, yay for famine sex.

    1. I am always glad when people like my ramblings. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      For me, part of being happy is letting go of regrets about the way things were less than ideal (way back when or five minutes ago). If I care too much about making everything perfect, then I neglect to enjoy things for what they are. I used to care too much about the way things should be. Now I just try to see them for what they are, and enjoy that (rather than fight it or resent it).