more fragments on pleasure and behavioral direction

The copilot asked me to write more about this.

Some of the prompts from our conversation:

I was thinking more theoretical.  Like, just because it feels good doesn’t mean you should do it.  And maybe the intersections of that with your theism.

Rough draft: Why is “pleasure” an insufficient motivation/factor in ethical decision-making?

So that’s going to be the general theme of this post.

Let me start with a story.

[cw: harm to animals, medical things]

My family keeps horses on the property, and on New Year’s Eve, our neighbors lit fireworks.  Our horses have heard fireworks before, usually from down the street.  It frightens them, but they’ve always been able to handle it.  This year, though, the fireworks were going off closer to the barn than our horses have ever experienced before.  Horses have sensitive ears and also have easily-triggered panic responses.

They were losing their minds all night.

The next day, Amirra, one of the horses, was sick with an illness that can be caused, among other things, by excessive stress.

We had a vet called out to the barn.  Amirra had to have her stomach pumped.

I can’t say for certain what caused her to colic.  All I know is that the fireworks can’t have helped any.

And sure, our neighbors were just having fun, not trying to hurt anyone, not aware that what they were doing could hurt anyone.  Maybe they even had more fun than they would have if they’d gone a little further down their driveway instead of being so close to the barn.  I wouldn’t want to stop them from celebrating the night or anything.

But when things like this happen, it does make me resent the entire practice of setting off fireworks as a holiday tradition.  The fact that lots of people enjoy fireworks — i.e. that they are a source of happiness — doesn’t change that.

See, I don’t view happiness/unhappiness or pleasure/discomfort or fun/distress with some kind of debt/payment model where one can cancel the other out, like a negative number negates a positive number.  Emotionally, they can be experienced as opposites.  Ethically, to me, they aren’t even on the same plane.

And that’s not to say that fun is a moral bad, obviously.  It just doesn’t have inherent moral standing.  If you knew what you were doing at the time, the weight of hurting my horse doesn’t get trumped by the fact or possibility that you enjoyed yourself in the process.

In a contextless world, I do think that, between two options, if the only difference is that one is more fun than the other, it makes sense to go with the more fun of the two.  I’m all for that.  But that only goes for situations were it is that simple.

And saying this — about pleasure and ethics and behavioral decision-making maps — has complications of its own.

Because: some pleasure-based pursuits are more derided than others, as in the case of activities-culturally-associated-with-women being scorned as frivolous, unimportant, and indicative of wrong priorities or inferior “intelligence” (a mess of a concept unto itself).

Because: harm-reduction metrics are not straightforward when recovery needs and coping mechanisms conflict with one another, as can be the case with various abuse survivors.

Because: the value of Productivity (selectively) treats “unproductive” pursuits and even inactivity as a waste of resources, as a sign of deficiency, as a mark against you, regardless of a realistic assessment of your abilities.  Under that lens, rest and triviality are cast as a form of neglect, as a bad use of your time when you could be Doing Good In The World and Contributing To Society — when “doing good” only ever means being Productive in a way that participates in cycles of material profit.

Because: the value of Health (aka healthism) links pleasure-based pursuits with irresponsibility and accords “healthy” a moralistic weight.  You’re supposed to make “healthy choices,” eat “healthy” food, live a “healthy” lifestyle, forge “healthy” relationships; making bad choices is “unhealthy.”  Healthism just barely overlaps with my views in that it says “pleasure (as a feeling) can be bad (as should-not-do)” but overapplies a medical lens in want of moral (should/should not) guidelines.  It’s the natural extension of scientism & of eschewing “religion” (whatever that means) as a thing of the past, while still grappling with a need for behavioral direction.

And.  God.  You want to talk about how God is involved in this?

I almost feel like I’m not allowed.  Christianity has a… complicated relationship with asceticism, for one thing.  Not that I’m well-versed in the history, but I’d say we’ve been negotiating our anti-fun Image for a pretty long time.

Nun telling a group of children 'if you're happy and you know it, that's a sin!'

This image haunts me.

But to actually answer the question… well, the simplest way to put it is that I don’t believe Christianity is supposed to be easy.  Not in the boring “suffering as virtuous” sense, which is vain and pointless, but — well, I’ll draw it out like this:

Allegiance to God entails honoring what God honors.  And because God calls us (the sentient stewards of the Earth) Xir children, that means honoring each other — taking care of each other, even (especially) when it isn’t easy.  Even (especially) when it takes sacrifice.  Because sacrifice — to point out the obvious — is kind of the whole model our religion is built around.

God gave us the keys, and considering what we’ve done with the place, there’s a lot of work to do.

It doesn’t say anywhere that it’s supposed to be fun.

It does say (all over the place) that what God asks of us can contradict or interfere with fun.  And (surprise) that notion gets abused in all the ways you can imagine, just like everything else.

But to continue developing that thought, I think the ideals of (my conceptualization of) the-Christianity-that-should-be has a lot of overlap with the political radical (the feminist, the womanist, the trans and indigenous and disabled activist, and so on) in that pursuing capital-j Justice can come at the cost of many people’s Comfort, mental and material, including your own, and in the same way that undercutting comfort doesn’t make you any more right, it doesn’t make you any more wrong.

To me, the matter is clearest when you have all the information you need in your hands and you can make a reasonable guess as to the effects of your choice (whether X will harm someone or protect someone from harm — where harm is defined by should-not-do rather than does-not-like-feeling).

And when I try to map ethics, that’s the framework I want to struggle with — What about when you don’t have all the information you need?  What is harm?  Which harms “matter” and which are just subtractions of comfort (like hearing your actions called misogynist)?  And what about when you’re balancing your own need for psychological relief with your long-term well-being?  Even abandoning an explicitly-moral framework, how do you decide what’s “best” for you?

I don’t have all the answers to those questions.  What I know is that they’re the questions I’m interested in.

And within the realm of these discussions, “I’m happy” and “It makes me feel good” and “I like it” are nice, but they don’t necessarily have a rhetorical point — they don’t necessarily have any relevance in sketching our maps when more factors than pleasure/unpleasure are at play.

So, in conclusion: just because it feels good doesn’t mean you should do it.  Because you might make my horse sick.

(My horse is doing fine now, by the way.)

This is just a broad overview, of course.  Analyzing the advisability and ethics of anything more specific kind of needs to be done on a more case-by-case basis.


4 responses to “more fragments on pleasure and behavioral direction

  • Hezekiah the (meta)pianycist

    I agree that pleasure doesn’t have moral standing. An interesting thing in Judaism, relative to Christianity, is that because Judaism regards the body as equally holy as the soul, participating in bodily pleasure (example: sex for pleasure) is also potentially holy. Sex entirely for pleasure between married people in Judaism is not ever condemned, and even more traditional forms of Judaism allow women to use birth control (I say women bc traditional Judaism often says no to elective vasectomy but would permit elective hysterectomy). (Also it’s weird for me to be using that kind of gender language as a trans person to another gender-interesting person? Although it’s worth noting that traditional Judaism has no issue with people medically transitioning, so the birth control stuff wouldn’t be used to stop any trans people from pursuing transition things that have a side effect of decreased/nullified fertility.)

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