Saturday, 17 January 2015

Defending Dionysus: The Hedonic Treadmill. Part II of II.

I have started so I will finish but first I will give a short recap so that people don't have to skip over to part one of this little literary duet for context.
The driving point of "Defending Dionysus" is that hedonism is not necessarily something which we should shy away from and the idea that it degrades our humanity is largely a claim made from a position of hysteria. Someone skilfully pursuing hedonism has very little incentive to avoid winding up in hospital having their stomach pumped, as per the worries of the epicureans, and every incentive to practise "higher" arts as per the worries of... well... snobs.

So I knew when I wrote part one that I would have some more thoughts on this topic, and what do you know? I did.

There is one issue regarding hedonism that has been tumbling around in my brain or at least jogging around; I am referring to, of course, the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill describes a psychological process in which a person adapts to changes in their overall wellbeing establishing a general baseline of happiness that all other experiences are measured by. If you have heard of the hedonic treadmill then you will have no doubt heard of the study conducted by Brickman et al on Lottery winners. The study found that after winning the lottery, in the long run, happiness did not increase; there was a brief spike after which the winners acclimatised and were no longer perceivably any more happy than people who had never won the lottery.

This would seem to raise the question:

If lottery winners have money and the ability to satisfy their desires better, why aren't they happier? What does this mean for hedonism?

It means that simply being capable of satisfying desires is not necessarily the goal of a skilful hedonist. It may be that a skilful hedonist is a hedonist that is aware of the hedonic treadmill and in turn looks to pursue eudemonia not by pursuing a constant maximisation of pleasure but by pursuing the right pleasures in the right doses.
In fact the idea of "maximising pleasure" may be misleading. After all, humans long for a number of qualitatively different pleasures. These pleasures cannot be easily compared or tallied up using a single over-arching metric and so being a good hedonist may indeed involve taking advantage of different kinds of pleasure to offset the treadmill.
Variety is the spice of life and by changing between pleasures it may, and of course this is all speculation at this point until the evidence is in,  be possible to seek out and switch between pleasures that our minds have not become accustomed to and thereby escape the monotony of a "baseline level of happiness".

So, why discuss hedonism anyway?
 Is it because I believe hedonism, on its own, can function as a moral system? No.
Do I think practising a skilful form of hedonism may actually lead to a good life? Maybe.

The more germane reason for writing these pieces has its roots in my more existential and physicalist streaks. If we are going to construct a theory that can provide a comprehensive explanation of what it is that humans live for in a godless, spiritless universe then it is going to have to be suitably secular in its groundings. If we do find a sober and suitably atheist account of purpose it is going to have to be rooted in our most basic biological motives which are to seek pleasure and avoid pain.*

*For those of you about to claim that reproduction is our prime motivator I refer you to this little piece on sex. ->
While reproduction is the "goal" of all biological entities, for humans at least, pleasure takes precedent when it comes to our actual motives (even when pleasure is weighed against reproductive goals). That being said the attached article distinguishes between sexual pleasure and comfort/attachment which I don't think can count as a criticism of my position as long as we aknowledge that comfort is a form of pleasure.

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