Monday, February 6, 2012

The Pleasure You Have Been Denied

This is the second post in a series exploring the moral and practical importance of pleasure and meaning; the first is Enhanced Running.

My best friend's name is Lennon. She has an unusually high capacity for aesthetic appreciation, which sometimes produces strange results. When we take her to a great restaurant she has never tried before, she experiences at once great pleasure and great irritation: pleasure with the food, and irritation that we've never taken her there before. "Do you hate me?" she will ask, implying that ill will toward her is the most plausible explanation for failing to share this particular intestine hot pot (or whatever) with her. We have named this phenomenon "to Lennon," as in "Wow, it was so good I Lennoned!"

To "Lennon" is to become aware, by experiencing a new pleasure, that one has heretofore been denied that pleasure. At least some people seem to experience the awareness of having been denied pleasure in the past as a painful experience. My question: what is the moral importance of pleasure denied?

Asymmetry Redux

The antinatalist asymmetry, posited by David Benatar in Better Never to have Been, rests on an alleged difference in our moral intuition between unfelt pleasure and unfelt pain. Most of us agree that pain experienced by a living being is bad, and the pleasure experienced by a living being is good. Similarly, most of us agree that the pain avoided by not coming into existence is good. What is contested is the value of the pleasure foregone by a never-born person; some say it's bad, but Benatar makes the case that it's merely neutral. Let me for now label it "contested," thus:

Never BornBorn
No Pleasure (contested)Pleasure (good)
No Pain (good)Pain (bad)

The intuition supporting the asymmetry is that there is nothing particularly bad about pleasure denied to a being, if that being never comes into existence. What the simple formulation above elides is the reality that most of the pleasure that's possible in a given life is not actually experienced. Most living beings experience some pleasure, but most pleasure is denied to living beings that come into existence just as it's denied to those who don't. Coming into existence changes the quality of this denied pleasure from a deprivation never felt into a deprivation that may possibly become the subject of Lennoning.

On the other hand, never-born beings experience no pain; born beings all experience some pain, but no one experiences all the possible pain he might experience. Is there a "reverse Lennon" phenomenon that makes us happy when we realize we have avoided some possible pain? How did we feel when told to eat our food as children because there were some children who had no food? Did that increase our pleasure or decrease our pain? To me, it has always seemed cold comfort and of no particular value to know that others suffer more than I, or that it might be worse for me in a counterfactual situation. Pain not experienced by living beings is good, but is it better than pain avoided by never-living beings? Intuitively, it seems not.

A diagram representing this more complicated situation might look like this:

If the category of "pleasure denied" is indeed morally important, as those who deny Benatar's original asymmetry assert, then this counts against life to a great degree, because the space of "pleasure denied" is great for a living being, This is especially true if we give weight to the intuition of "Lennoning" - that pleasure denied to an existing being is worse than pleasure denied to a never-existing being. We could create even a third category, as I hinted in my previous post: pleasure denied to a being who is aware of the denial, which must be the worst kind of denied pleasure, and which correlates tightly with inequality.

Pleasure, Pain, and the Privileged Inside View

Is being born a good thing? Those who consider the question from the "hell yes" side tend to privilege individuals' own judgments as to whether they are personally happy to have been born (see imaginary survey justification), and frequently take the alleged rarity of suicide as strong evidence that most people privately feel benefited from being born.

Assuming arguendo that most people both report and act like they are happy to have been born, can we infer that the pleasure of life generally outweighs its pain?


It is a clear fact of the world, from studying actual suffering, actual happiness, actual suicides, actual hikikomori refuseniks and actual happy people, that the balance of pleasure and pain has almost nothing to do with the perceived value of life.

For instance, one of my friends suffers from almost constant migraine headaches, and has for most of her life. She suffers unimaginably, but she is very religious and takes a great deal of meaning from life. She would identify herself as glad to be born if asked, and I would be amazed if she were suicidal. Clearly, she is not weighing the benefits against the harms of life; rather, she is playing a part in a meaningful story, and that experience of meaning is what makes her want to get up in the morning. It is often those who suffer greatly who take the most meaning from life, and it is often the physically comfortable who reject it.

To the extent that we privilege an individual's self-reported happiness to be alive over some kind of objective analysis of costs and benefits, we are privileging that individual's theory of the goodness of life. In almost no case that I am aware of is an individual's theory of the value of life tied to having more pleasure than pain in life. In almost all cases, it is story, meaning, and social belonging that convince us that life is worth living.

People do not endure pain because pleasure makes up for it. People endure pain because they feel themselves to be the protagonist in a story, and enduring the pain of life is worth something meaningful to them. To the extent that their stories of meaning (religion, liberalism, etc.) have objective truth values, it may be that most people who judge that life is worth living are wrong.

What I mean by "wrong" is not that they should immediately kill themselves; what I mean is that each person's theory of why life is worth living is not objectively correct in a manner that may be proven in some way to a sad person who wants to die. The creation of people necessarily means the creation of both happy and sad people - people who are happy to have been born, and people who aren't. Creating the people who aren't happy to have been born is a serious wrong that requires justification. (Note that this is a different statement than the statement that the creation of any person is a serious wrong.) If the justification is that it's necessary to create sad people in order to create happy people and creating happy people is somehow good, then the happy people owe the rest of us something to make up for putting us through this bullshit - specifically, they owe us the freedom to alleviate our pain, since we don't share their meaningful story, and in fact judge it to be wrong, just as they judge the meaningful stories of most others to be wrong.

On Doing Good

The fact that it is a (probably objectively untrue) story of meaning, rather than a cold analysis of pain and pleasure, that causes people to want to live and go forward in their stories, has implications for how we might do good for others, if at all.

I have long considered Mother Theresa to be a villain, because she famously privileged her counterfactual story of meaning (Catholicism, afterlife, salvation) above the suffering of real people. However, in refusing anesthetics to patients in her clinics in deference to her story of meaning, she may have reinforced the story of meaning for those miserable beings in her care. Is it better to suffer miserably but still want to go on in life, or to be basically comfortable but want to die? I am in the latter condition and would consider it a tragedy to be placed in the former condition. But on the other side of the looking glass, it may be seen as a great good to give someone a sense of meaning, even if the meaning isn't factually correct.

Is it good to give someone a sense of meaning that makes him continue on in life, even though he suffers massive pain? Or is it bad to "trap" someone in a story that he will feel compelled to pursue, even to his great detriment?

On the other hand, is it good to give people pleasure, even though it won't make them want to live any more than they already do? Is it bad to cause people pain, even if the pain gives them a meaningful reason to live?

I do not have a tidy answer to these questions (except my usual Debbie Downer rhetoric), and raise them to point out that the "everybody seems pretty glad to be here" argument in favor of birth is morally problematic precisely because it fails to examine the reasons we might feel "glad to be here."


  1. I haven't been reading your blog that long, so maybe you've already dealt with the problem I'm going to bring up. Forgive me if I'm being redundant.

    Okay, so a pleasure/pain calculus is in some cases a good tool for trying to decide which action of a particular set of actions should produce the most optimal outcome, but nobody to my knowledge experiences pleasure and pain as a calculus. Most of the time, we quickly forget our pains and pleasures, and those that we can't forget or experience habitually form part of our identities.

    So even if St. Peter met us at the Pearly Gates with a print-out of our lifetime pleasure to pain ratio it would have little meaning for us.

    Therefore, how can one attempt to justify or reject life by a metric that isn't phenomenologically germane?

    To put it another way, when I'm passing a kidney stone, I wish I were never born; when I'm having an orgasm, I wish I could live forever. Adding up the number wishes on either side doesn't tell us which wish is ultimately mistaken.


  2. That's exactly the question - you see my point exactly.

    Pleasure/pain is NOT the calculus people actually use in the world; they consider pain to be justified and life worthwhile based on story, meaning, social belonging, etc. What I'm saying is to the extent that we privilege the phenomenologically germane stuff (as you put it), we privilege lies.

    What does it mean to be living for a lie? The stories our parents find meaningful are not the ones we find meaningful. Most of us happily find a meaningful story, even atheists. But many of us don't. If I find life to be meaningful because I think I have an afterlife with Jesus awaiting me and so do any children I might have, does that make it okay to have children even though I'm wrong? What if my children find out there's no Jesus? Can I rely on the likelihood of them finding a meaningful story to believe in and justify their pain? From my position outside of any story, ALL stories like that appear to be wrong. Is the truth of a story an important quality as long as it justifies a human's existence to herself?

  3. I'd say that when we hear that people feel glad to be alive, we are not looking at things from the right perspective. Morality isn't concerned with thoughts, it's concerned with what people objectively perceive to be right or wrong. If you punch someone in the stomach so hard that their intestines come out, and despite not consenting, they later came round to believing that that attack was a morally good action, that doesn't mean that it WAS a morally good action. A harm was done, whether or not the victim THINKS it was or not (this whole thing reminds me a lot of your classic post on Rob's 'Pathetic Golem' by the way).

    Say there is a family named the Gratefuls. One day you decide to steal all their food. They think this a great thing, and despite not consenting to it, love you for it. They die of starvation. You have robbed them of more than food - you have taken away the happiness (positive utility) they would have had in the future. What seems more morally intuitive? The robber (you) is just because the Gratefuls thought it was a good thing, or the robber is unjust because the Gratefuls lost utility. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but Bryan Caplan doesn't seem to get it at all.

    Sorry, this is more of a response to Bryan Caplan than a comment on the questions you posed (which I too don't have a nice buzzword collection to offer in finding solutions)

    1. The same "no-brainer" is used to justify the prohibition on assisted suicide.

    2. The problem there is that the utility of the life in question is not necessarily positive.

      Hypothetically, the Gratefuls could be better off having starved. At any rate, natural selection takes care of people like the Gratefuls relatively quickly.

  4. Very good post. One remark, not a refutation: Don't underestimate the potential placebo effect from subjective perceptions of meaning.

    Also, some of us actually measure do pleasure and pain and judge life quantitatively.

  5. Anon,

    I think a potential placebo effect actually reinforces the argument that meaning-bound narratives undermine the "grateful to be here" disposition. In clinical trials placebo effects signal objective limits to the efficacy of a given treatment. In present context, a placebo effect means that hedonic justifications are limited by their reliance on bullshit. Maybe it's a good idea, in the absence of a proven remedy, to try to sustain the palliative bullshit for those who are already caught in the soup of narrativity (even if this effort comes at the expense of truth-seeking), but the stakes are infinitely higher when the placebo effect is used to justify the creation of new beings who may or may not be sufficiently assuaged by the selection of meaning myths on offer.

    Also, I really like estnihil's little parable.

  6. Chip, I agree that placebo effects can be harmful if they prevent real remedies but ceteris paribus, they're not neutral but helpful. This means that the non-illusioned onlooker may be too pessimistic in judging the wellbeing of those who use these placebos, all else equal, which then would be a bias to correct.

    As for the distress of pleasure denied, it reminds me of people who felt depressed after watching Avatar because they perceive their own lives to be less valuable after seeing the virtual superstimulus world. I know these effects exist but think they can be controlled by those who experience them. I have actively made it a habit to anchor my expectations and appreciation to the zero line of non-consciousness. That helps to deal with a lot, including loss aversion, sunk opportunity costs, "the grass is greener" effects etc.

  7. @Sister Y

    I think I see what you are saying now. It occurs to me that I was mainly reacting emotionally to your ideas. You are asking such "strange, wicked, questionable questions," as Nietzsche says. Emotionally, it just feels wrong that the will to truth could ever trump the will to life. This is not an argument, just a confession.


    1. "Emotionally, it just feels wrong that the will to truth could ever trump the will to life."

      People are like this. I'm *not* like this. I, like Mitchell Heisman, choose objectivity over life-affirming values and behaviors, at least in principle.

      So I am not fit to live in this world: I actually care about what's TRUE!

  8. Wow, Sister, you hit the nail on the head with this one.

  9. "The pleasure in this world, it has been said, outweighs the pain; or, at any rate, there is an even balance between the two. If the reader wishes to see shortly whether this statement is true, let him compare the respective feelings of two animals, one of which is engaged in eating the other." - A. Schopenhauer


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