People sometimes think that pleasure-seeking is a matter of eating, drinking, sleeping, and sex but this takes too narrow a view of pleasure. Suddenly learning that we have won the lottery is pleasant. Getting away from a lion is pleasant. Giving vent to our anger is a rich pleasure. And feeling better than our fellow human beings is a rich pleasure that motivates many of our actions.
There are many ways of feeling better than others, just as there are many kinds of tasty desserts. We can feel that they are less refined than we are, or less beautiful, or less accomplished. Many of these ways for modern people have a mixture of pain in them because we know that we are not supposed to glory in our superiority. We feel a little guilty for being snobs or jerks.
One brand of pleasure that avoids this admixture of pain is the pleasure of self-righteousness. We enjoy the feeling that we are morally better than other people. This plays out in politics. Consider for example the issue of immigration. Those who want to liberalize immigration enjoy the feeling that they are more compassionate than their mean opponents. Those who want to restrict immigration enjoy the feeling that they are courageous enough to take an unpopular stand.
If both sides are hedonists, how do we decide between them? By determining which sort of hedonism is more likely to bring about a longer lasting pleasure.
The restrictionists pleasure, of indulging in nationalism is inherently self-limiting. A nation state brings the pleasure of belonging but carries with it the pain of fear of those who are different from us. Since we are always worried about the different people coming over and taking our stuff, it is not a very forward thinking form of hedonism.
The most hedonistic proposal is to enjoy the success of everyone. It allows us to enjoy the feeling of being good people and thus better than those who are not on the side of justice. And it lets us enjoy the vicarious pleasure of seeing our friends and brothers and sisters flourish.
The only worry I have with it is that it seems to force us to forego the pleasure of feeling that of all people we are the best of all. If we strive towards a world in which everyone is both doing well and doing good, don’t we lose that particularly delicious sensation, of feeling that the very finest person of all is our own self?
And is that acceptable?
It is not.
That is why I propose that the institution of romantic love be preserved. Within the secrecy of the bedroom we get to indulge our aptitude for pleasures, including the sublimest pleasure of infinite self-righteousness and absolute smugness.Of course the price for that is to somehow think our way through to acknowledging that the person we are sharing the bed with is great too. It’s a tricky thing to manage, I know, but I recommend giving it a try. One tip is to reflect that anybody who acknowledges how uniquely great I am cannot be all bad him or herself.