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Friday, January 6, 2012

The Greatest Pleasures

"If it feels really good, do it!" Most of us slightly older souls remember this hedonistic advice from the counterculture of the '60s and 70's. I think many then associated the sentence with other popular sexually suggestive idioms such as "Make love, not war" and "Let it all hang out."

I can't help but think we, in the age of Aquarius and free love, ignited many of the "just do it" attitudes even more prevalent today. Just look at the goods we see boldly advertised on television commercials today. I regularly see commercials for products to help with sexual dysfunction and male/ female arousal. Today, we even see popular commercials and ads selling a variety of massaging vibrators, penis enlargement products, and condoms that do everything from glow in the dark, provide various shapes and textures to increase enjoyment, offer edibility (Ugh!) and insure QuickStrips technology that somehow makes for super easy deployment.

What have we created? I hope everyone, by now, has learned that "It it feels good, do it!" was largely a stupid, selfish experiment in failure. Unfortunately, I think the opposite is true -- "we" have not learned this lesson. So many today look for immediate gratification regardless of  any later ill consequences. And, I wonder if hedonism, a theory which holds that all and only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and all and only pain is intrinsically not valuable, has taken over the cultural mindset of the majority.

A stereotypical hedonist is someone who never misses an opportunity to indulge of the pleasures of "sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll," even if the indulgences are likely to lead to relationship problems, health problems, regrets, or sadness for themselves or others. This understanding of hedonism is known as “Folk Hedonism," an egotistical view full of a reckless lack of foresight. I believe many people practice this today, perhaps unknowingly as they show little resistance to anything that offers pleasure. Blind faith and instant gratification seems to rule the day.

OK, So You Believe in Hedonism? Try This View.

Even hedonistic philosophers would likely disagree with the "all or none" views of someone practicing Folk Hedonism. For example, as an ethical hedonist (and certainly a in believer Quantitative Hedonism), the 18th-19th-century English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, believed that right and wrong could be determined by weighing the “pleasures” and “pains” of any given action, with an action that produced more pleasure than pain being morally right. This hedonistic view adheres to the ethical significance of altruism, or the concern for the welfare of others.

Folk Hedonists rarely consider how likely their actions are to lead to future pleasure or pain, focusing instead on the pursuit of immediate pleasure and the avoidance of immediate pain. So while Folk Hedonists would be unlikely to study for an exam, anyone using Bentham’s philosophy would consider the future happiness benefits to themselves (and possibly others) of passing the exam and then promptly begin studying.

Bentham argued that happiness was the ultimate good and that happiness was pleasure and the absence of pain. He acknowledged the egoistic and hedonistic nature of peoples’ motivation, but he argued that the maximization of collective happiness was the correct criterion for moral behavior.

Bentham’s greatest happiness principle states 
that actions are immoral 
if they are not the action 
that appears to maximize the happiness 
of all the people likely to be affected; 
only the action that appears to maximize 
the happiness of all the people likely to be affected
is the morally right action.

Popular writer Garth Sundem says, "While this (Bentham's view) would be great by itself (in a geeky kind of way), what makes it truly spectacular is the fact that Bentham actually created an algorithm to define exactly how much pleasure and pain an action would cause." This is an application of some simple algebra to life. Bentham's Hedonic Calculus is a method of counting the amount of pleasure and pain that would likely be caused by different actions. (Garth Sundem, "If It Feels Good, Do It: Jeremy Bentham's Hedonistic Calculus,, April 6 2009)

Here is the Way Bentham's Calculus Works:

To determine an individual’s honest pleasure or pain from an action, Bentham suggested weighing all of the following criteria:

1. Intensity (the pleasure’s strength),
2. Duration (how long pleasure would last),
3. Certainty (the probability action will result in pleasure),
4. Propinquity (how soon the pleasure might occur),
5. Fecundity (the chance the pleasure would result in further actions), 
6. Purity (the probability these further actions would be pleasures and not pains), and 
7. Extent, (the effects of said decision on other people).

Now, don't ask how Bentham arrived at all of these measurements -- such as how he accounted for all the possible variables or how he quantified the intensity of pleasure. I'm sure the 18th and 19th centuries put an entirely different spin on many of the terms employed in these calculations than most would accept now. Just accept the terms in your own manner so we can do a little thinking here.

Jimmy's Dilemma (or For the Love of Joy)

So, just for illustration, let's design a scenario that presents its character with a calculated risk of what the hedonist Bentham would consider pleasure or pain.

32 year-old Jimmy is a married man with a pretty, loving wife and two happy children, a 10 year-old daughter and a seven year-old son. Jimmy is a good father. He has a good-paying job at the auto plant, and he is happy (speaking in the relative terms of life). Like any red-blooded American male, Jimmy does notice and occasionally comment about the desirability of other beautiful women. Still, he loves his wife, has never been unfaithful, and takes his vows of marriage seriously. He does enjoy having fun and he likes being friends with others.

Joy is a very beautiful 25 year-old woman who has recently been hired at the plant. She is single, hetero-sexual and is widely considered by the male employees as an ideal "babe," every man's eye candy. Not conceited, she has a pleasant personality and a kind, gentle nature. She doesn't speak much of her personal life in conversations with others at the plant; however, she seems to have taken a "special" interest in Jimmy. To Jimmy, she is a good friend and a genuinely beautiful person. Jimmy knows Joy feels as if she can trust him, and they are quickly becoming confidants.

One day at work, Joy appears troubled and tells Jimmy she would like to speak with him. Of course, Jimmy says, "Sure, what's up?" But Joy tells him she has to talk in private away from the prying ears of others because the subject is "personal." She suggests Jimmy should meet her after work for a few minutes at her nearby apartment. Trusting both himself and his female friend that the innocent visit would consist purely of conversation, Jimmy agrees to her terms.

The work day ends and Jimmy drives to Joy's apartment. Once inside, Joy relates the painful story of how her fiance, Ed, has called off their engagement and left her for another woman with a huge bankroll. As the details pour out and the emotions swell, Jimmy offers Joy his condolences. He gives her a consolatory hug and Joy responds by passionately kissing Jimmy. She tells him, "I have wanted you ever since I began working at the plant."

Should Jimmy respond to Joy's bold advances, lift her off her feet, and proceed to engage in the "wild thing"?
Let's apply the algebra. (0 = no, + = yes, ? = unsure) The decisions in red are my own. You can do your own as well.

1. + Intensity (pleasure’s strength),

Jimmy has never been with a woman as beautiful and sexy as Joy. In fact, he has never even had a pretty lady "put the moves" on him with such abandoned passion. Aroused and curious, he thinks this opportunity would be unbelievable intense. It represents a naughty fantasy that could come true.

2. - Duration (how long pleasure would last),

Considering Jimmy has his first opportunity for extra-marital sex with a very attractive woman and he has to respond or leave, he knows the pleasure, if he took it, would be relatively brief. He has to go home to his wife soon, and he already has some "splainin'" to do. The pain on the home front is likely to last a long, long time.

3. + Certainty (the probability action will result in pleasure),

This is a no-brainer. Joy is hot and willing, and she has planned this rendezvous to end with a "bang." The pleasure will more than likely meet any expectation Jimmy has. The sexy kiss has already gone straight to Jimmy's brain and released a flood of dopamine and he feels like like a missile full of testosterone ready to blast off. Of course, this is immediate pleasure, which says nothing about the possibility of continuation.

4. + Propinquity (how soon the pleasure might occur),

Again, a no-brainer. The pleasure propinquity is fully cocked and loaded. Much to his dismay, Jimmy would likely experience a release much sooner than he would want. In fact, if he continues, a pre-apology may be in order.

5. ? Fecundity (the chance the pleasure would result in further actions),

Depending upon many factors -- the strength of the love Jimmy feels for his wife after his initial unfaithful encounter, the very real probability of his wife seeking a divorce, the workings of Jimmy's conscience after his infidelity, the fact that Joy could view Jimmy as a "dud," the possibility that Joy is using Jimmy for some kind of personal gain (such as making her ex-fiancee jealous) -- I rank this as a wash. People often tell each other lies before entering into a sexual encounter and after such an act. Of course, Joy could be lovestruck and at Jimmy's beckoned command.

6. - Purity (the probability these further actions would be pleasures and not pains),

This is a huge victory for "don't go down that path." Unbelievable pain will likely result sooner or later, even if Jimmy keeps this sex a secret. It is likely Jimmy will cause some irreparable, permanent damage that will scar his wife, his children, and even himself. Further complications of the immediate pleasure could be financial disaster (a divorce settlement, child support, and possible his job) and loss of friends who view Jimmy as a liar and a cheater. Suicide and murder are even possible outcomes.

7. - Extent, (the effects of said decision on other people).

Only one person -- Joy -- is not going to feel the considerable extent of pain involved in a fulfilled opportunity for pleasure, and that's largely because she offered the bait but it was Jimmy who knew he had no business putting himself in a position to take it. Joy knew her feelings for Jimmy and she thought that she had provided him "a deal he couldn't refuse." Even if Joy loves Jimmy with all her heart, her willingness to engage quickly in sex despite his married status raises serious questions about her future fidelity. She may well have a bad mental problem. If that is not the case, she still knows she is a "babe" who will have an untold number of future opportunities for love and attention. Jimmy is sure to have fewer chances at extended satisfaction than Joy.

So, the final score on my card reads +3 -3 and ?. This is a complete indecision and a pretty accurate representation of what would result in a real situation. Jimmy would definitely have to look at the results in the categories that mean the most in the long run, and, of course, he would have to overcome the instant gratification temptations of his "little brain" (We all know a lot of costly mistakes are initiated with that organ.) to do what is considered moral by common standards.

Review the categories of purity and extent, 
and I think, even to a hedonist, 
if Jimmy made the decision 
to have a sexual encounter, 
his decision would not maximize 
the happiness of all the people 
likely to be affected, 
so such a decision would be 
considered immoral.


Even if you are content to live for pleasure, don't accept the Folk Hedonistic view. If gaining pleasure is your purpose in life, be sure the pleasure you gain from making decisions maximizes the happiness of everyone affected -- everyone. That is a big order, and the order takes major thought and consideration when you deal with issues that may be clouded or, as of the moment, unclear.

Look at Jimmy's score again. Would anyone in their right mind think such a closely contested decision necessitates immediate action or instant decision making? Don't take these 50/50 odds with your life. The wrong decision is going to permanently alter Jimmy's happy life. Even if he does fall madly in love with Joy, divorces his wife, and becomes even more Joy-full (sorry for that), how does the on-the-spot decision to have one passionate bop in bed cause everything to fall into place?

Klemmer and Associates proudly call themselves "the premier leadership and development company." On their Leadership Training Blog, Lesson 34, ( Klemmer and Associates Leadership Blog) Klemmer states, "Leaders do today what will feel good tomorrow. Average people simply do what feels good."

Troubling decisions that can possibly backfire can be put off whether...

You and your significant other think using a condom doesn't "feel good enough."
Your best friend tells you how "unworldly good" a crushed oxy is going to make you feel.
Some of your buddies think you should move out of the family home to "have some fun" together.
You think joining a clique of risk takers could be sweet since they talk about "all the crazy fun" they have.

"If it feels good, do it” was a half-truth that got distorted. From drugs to sex, "doing it" may make you feel good at that moment, but it doesn't guarantee you will have the same good feeling tomorrow.. Similarly, being lazy and procrastinating on things you need to do now feels good in the moment, but won't make you feel good tomorrow.

Klemmer contends, "Other things don’t feel good today, but do feel good tomorrow. Studying for school may not feel good today, but it feels good tomorrow. Having a needed but uncomfortable conversation with someone does not feel good in the moment, but it feels good tomorrow. Exercise may not feel good today, but it feels good tomorrow. So, one key my mentor taught me: do only those things that will feel good tomorrow . . . today."

And, hey, according to Jeremy Bentham, one of the great HEDONISTS and utilitarians of all time, you should always do the math before seeking personal pleasure or avoiding personal pain. Why? Because doing the calculations is most likely going to produce "good for you" and "good for everyone" involved.

P.S. - You can still see Bentham, but he doesn't field questions. He is kept in a special cabinet at University College London to this day. When Bentham died in 1832, he left a will with specific instructions pertaining to the "disposal and preservation of the several parts of my bodily frame." His skeleton was to be "clad in one of the suits of black occasionally worn by me" and seated upright on a chair, under a placard reading "Auto Icon."

Bentham suggested that his corpse might then be able to preside over regular meetings of his utilitarian followers. For ten years prior to his death, Bentham purportedly carried in his pocket a pair of glass eyes that were to be embedded into his embalmed head. Here, however, Bentham’s plan went awry. His face was grossly disfigured in the process of preserving it, and a substitute wax replacement had to be created.

The real embalmed head was placed on the floor between Bentham’s legs, where it resided until 1975, when it was kidnapped by a group of students demanding £100 for charity. The university paid £10, and the head of the great moral philosopher was returned. (

Auto Icon Bentham

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