Pleasure and Happiness
Problems of Humanistic Ethics
Happiness is not the reward of virtue, but is virtue itself; nor do we delight in happiness because we restrain our lusts; but, on the contrary, because we delight in it, therefore are we able to restrain them.—Spinoza, Ethic.
a. Pleasure as a Criterion of Value
Authoritarian ethics has the advantage of simplicity; its criteria for good or bad are the authority’s dicta and to obey them is man’s virtue. Humanistic ethics has to cope with the difficulty which I have already discussed before: that in making man the sole judge of values it would seem that pleasure or pain becomes the final arbiter of good and evil. If this were the only alternative, then, indeed, the humanistic principle could not be the basis for ethical norms. For we see that some find pleasure in getting drunk, in amassing wealth, in fame, in hurting people, while others find pleasure in loving, in sharing things with friends, in thinking, in painting. How can our life be guided by a motive by which animal as well as man, the good and the bad person, the normal and the sick are motivated alike? Even if we qualify the pleasure principle by restricting it to those pleasures which do not injure the legitimate interests of others, it is hardly adequate as a guiding principle for our actions.
But this alternative between submission to authority and response to pleasure as guiding principles is fallacious. I shall attempt to show that an empirical analysis of the nature of pleasure, satisfaction, happiness, and joy reveals that they are different and partly contradictory phenomena. This analysis points to the fact that happiness and joy although, in a sense, subjective experiences, are the outcome of interactions with, and depend on, objective conditions and must not be confused with the merely subjective pleasure experience. These objective conditions can be summarized comprehensively as productiveness.
The significance of the qualitative analysis of pleasure has been recognized since the early beginnings of humanistic ethical thinking. The solution of the problem, however, had to remain unsatisfactory inasmuch as insight into the unconscious dynamics of the pleasure experience was lacking. Psychoanalytic research offers new data and suggests new answers to this ancient problem of humanistic ethics. For the better understanding of these findings and their application to ethical theory a brief survey of some of the most important ethical theories on pleasure and happiness seems desirable.
Hedonism maintains that pleasure is the guiding principle of human action, both factually and normatively. Aristippus, the first representative of hedonistic theory, believed the attainment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain to be the aim of life and the criterion of virtue. Pleasure to him is the pleasure of the moment.
This radical—and naive—hedonistic standpoint had the merit of an uncompromising emphasis on the individual’s significance and on a concrete concept of pleasure, making happiness identical with immediate experience.44 But it was burdened with the obvious difficulty already mentioned, which the hedonists were unable to solve satisfactorily: that of the entirely subjectivistic character of their principle. The first attempt to revise the hedonistic position in introducing objective criteria into the concepts of pleasure was made by Epicurus, who, though insisting upon pleasure being the aim of life, states that “while every pleasure is in itself good, not all pleasures are to be chosen,” since some pleasures cause later annoyances greater than the pleasure itself; according to him, only the right pleasure must be conducive to living wisely, well, and righteously. “True” pleasure consists in serenity of mind and the absence of fear, and is obtained only by the man who has prudence, and foresight and thus is ready to reject immediate gratification for the sake of permanent and tranquil satisfaction. Epicurus tries to show that his concept of pleasure as the aim of life is consistent with the virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and friendship. But using “feeling as the canon by which we judge every good,” he did not overcome the basic theoretical difficulty: that of combining the subjective experience of pleasure with the objective criterion of “right” and “wrong” pleasure. His attempt to harmonize subjective and objective criteria did not go beyond the assertion that the harmony existed.
Non-hedonistic humanistic philosophers coped with the same problem, attempting to preserve the criteria of truth and universality, yet not to lose sight of the happiness of the individual as the ultimate goal of life.
The first to apply the criterion of truth and falsehood to desires and pleasures was Plato. Pleasure, like thought, can be true or false. Plato does not deny the reality of the subjective sensation of pleasure, but he points out that the pleasure sensation can be “mistaken” and that pleasure has a cognitive function like thinking. Plato supports this view with the theory that pleasure springs not only from an isolated, sensuous part of a person but from the total personality. Hence he concludes that good men have true pleasures; bad men, false pleasures.
Aristotle, like Plato, maintains that the subjective experience of pleasure can not be a criterion for the goodness of the activity and, thereby, of its value. He says that “if things are pleasant to people of vicious constitution, we must not suppose that they are also pleasant to others than these, just as we do not reason so about the things that are wholesome or sweet or bitter to sick people, or ascribe whiteness to the things that seem white to those suffering from a disease of the eye.”45 Disgraceful pleasures are not really pleasures, “except to a perverted taste,” while the pleasures which objectively deserve this name accompany those “activities which are proper to man.”46 For Aristotle, there are two legitimate kinds of pleasure, those which are associated with the process of fulfilling needs and realizing our powers; and those which are associated with the exercise of our powers when acquired. The latter is the superior kind of pleasure. Pleasure is an activity (energia) of the natural state of one’s being. The most satisfactory and complete pleasure is a quality supervening on the active use of acquired or realized powers. It implies joy and spontaneity, or unimpeded activity, where “unimpeded” means “not blocked” or “frustrated.” Thus pleasure perfects activities and hence perfects life. Pleasure and life are joined together and do not admit of separation. The greatest and most enduring happiness results from the highest human activity, which is akin to the divine, that of the activity of reason, and in so far as man has a divine element in him he will pursue such an activity.47 Aristotle thus arrives at a concept of true pleasure which is identical with subjective pleasure experience of the healthy and mature person.
Spinoza’s theory of pleasure is similar, in certain aspects, to Plato’s and Aristotle’s; but he goes far beyond them. He, too, believed that joy is a result of right or virtuous living and not an indication of sinfulness, as the antipleasure schools maintain. He furthered the theory by giving a more empirical and specific definition of joy which was based upon his whole anthropological concept. Spinoza’s concept of joy is related to that of potency (power). “Joy is a man’s passage from a less to a greater perfection; sorrow is a man’s passage from a greater to a less perfection.”48 Greater or lesser perfection is the same as greater or lesser power to realize one’s potentialities and thus to approach more closely “the model of human nature.” Pleasure is not the aim of life but it inevitably accompanies man’s productive activity. “Blessedness (or happiness) is not the reward of virtue but virtue itself.”49 The significance of Spinoza’s view on happiness lies in his dynamic concept of power. Goethe, Guyau, Nietzsche, to name only some important names, have built their ethical theories on the same thought—that pleasure is not a primary motive of action but a companion of productive activity.
In Spencer’s Ethics we find one of the most comprehensive and systematic discussions of the pleasure principle; which we can use as an excellent starting point for further discussion.
The key to Spencer’s view of the pleasure—pain principle is the concept of evolution. He proposes that pleasure and pain have the biological function of stimulating man to act according to what is beneficial to him individually as well as to the human race; they are therefore indispensable factors in the evolutionary process. “Pains are the correlatives of actions injurious to the organism, while pleasures are correlatives of actions conducive to its welfare.”50 “Individual or species is from day to day kept alive by pursuit of the agreeable or avoidance of the disagreeable.”51 Pleasure, while being a subjective experience, can not be judged in terms of the subjective element alone; it has an objective aspect, namely, that of man’s physical and mental welfare. Spencer admits that in our present culture many cases of “perverted” pleasure or pain experience occur, and he explains this phenomenon by the contradictions and imperfections of society He claims that “with complete adjustment of humanity to the social state, will go recognition of the truths that actions are completely right only when, besides being conducive to future happiness, special and general, they are immediately pleasurable, and that painfulness, not ultimate but proximate, is the concomitant of actions which are wrong.”52 He said that those who believe that pain has a beneficial or pleasure a detrimental effect are guilty of a distortion which makes the exception appear to be the rule.
Spencer parallels his theory of the biological function of pleasure with a sociological theory. He proposes that “remolding of human nature into fitness for the requirements of social life must eventually make all needful activities pleasurable, while it makes displeasurable activities at variance with these requirements.”53 And further “that the pleasure attending on the use of means to achieve an end, itself becomes an end.”54
The concepts of Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Spencer have in common the ideas (1) that the subjective experience of pleasure is in itself not a sufficient criterion of value; (2) that happiness is conjunctive with the good; (3) that an objective criterion for the evaluation of pleasure can be found. Plato referred to the “good man” as the criterion of the right pleasure; Aristotle, to “the function of man”; Spinoza, like Aristotle, to the realization of man’s nature by the use of his powers; Spencer, to the biological and social evolution of man.
The foregoing theories of pleasure and its role in ethics suffered from the fact that they were not constructed from sufficiently refined data based on precise techniques of study and observation. Psychoanalysis, in its minute study of unconscious motivations and of the dynamics of character, laid the foundation for such refined techniques of study and observation and thus enables us to further the discussion of pleasure as a norm for living beyond its traditional scope.
Psychoanalysis confirms the view, held by the opponents of hedonistic ethics, that the subjective experience of satisfaction is in itself deceptive and not a valid criterion of value. The psychoanalytic insight into the nature of masochistic strivings confirms the correctness of the antihedonistic position. All masochistic desires can be described as a craving for that which is harmful to the total personality. In its more obvious forms, masochism is the striving for physical pain and the subsequent enjoyment of that pain. As a perversion, masochism is related to sexual excitement and satisfaction, the desire for pain being conscious. “Moral masochism” is the striving for being harmed psychically, humiliated, and dominated; usually this wish is not conscious, but it is rationalized as loyalty, love, or self-negation, or as a response to the laws of nature, to fate, or to other powers transcending man. Psychoanalysis shows how deeply repressed and how well rationalized the masochistic striving can be.
The masochistic phenomena, however, are only a particularly striking instance of unconscious desires which are objectively harmful; all neuroses can be understood as the result of unconscious strivings which tend to harm and to block a person’s growth. To crave that which is harmful is the very essence of mental sickness. Every neurosis thus confirms the fact that pleasure can be in contradiction to man’s real interests.
The pleasure arising from the satisfaction of neurotic cravings can be, but is not necessarily, unconscious. The masochistic perversion is an example of conscious pleasure from a neurotic craving. The sadistic person getting satisfaction from humiliating people, or the miser enjoying the money he hoarded, may or may not be aware of the pleasure he derives from the satisfaction of his craving. Whether or not such pleasure is conscious or repressed depends on two factors: on the strength of those forces within a person opposing his irrational strivings; and on the degree to which the mores of society sanction or outlaw the enjoyment of such pleasure. Repression of pleasure can have two different meanings; the less thorough and more frequent form of repression is the one in which pleasure is felt consciously but not in connection with the irrational striving as such, but rather with a rationalized expression of it. The miser, for instance, may think he feels satisfaction because of his prudent care for his family; the sadist may feel that his pleasure is derived from his sense of moral indignation. The more radical type of repression is that in which there is no awareness of any pleasure. Many a sadistic person will deny sincerely that the experience of seeing others humiliated gives him any feeling of pleasure. Yet the analysis of his dreams and free associations uncovers the existence of unconscious pleasure.
Pain and unhappiness can also be unconscious and the repression can assume the same forms just described with regard to pleasure. A person may feel unhappy because he does not have as much success as he desires, or because his health is impaired, or because of any number of external circumstances in his life; the fundamental reason for his unhappiness, however, may be his lack of productiveness, the emptiness of his life, his incapacity to love, or any number of inner defects which make him unhappy. He rationalizes his unhappiness, as it were, and thus does not feel it in connection with its real cause. Again, the more thorough kind of repression of unhappiness occurs where there is no consciousness of unhappiness at all. In this case a person believes he is perfectly happy, while actually he is discontented and unhappy.
The concept of unconscious happiness and unhappiness meets with an important objection which says that happiness and unhappiness are identical with our conscious feeling of being happy or unhappy and that to be pleased or pained without knowing it is equivalent to not being pleased or pained. This argument has more than merely theoretical significance. It is of utmost importance in its social and ethical implications. If slaves are not aware of being pained by their lot, how can the outsider object to slavery in the name of man’s happiness? If modern man is as happy as he pretends to be, does this not grove that we have built the best of all possible worlds? Is the illusion of happiness not sufficient or, rather is “illusion of happiness” not a self-contradictory concept?
These objections ignore the fact that happiness as well as unhappiness is more than a state of mind. In fact, happiness and unhappiness are expressions of the state of the entire organism, of the total personality. Happiness is conjunctive with an increase in vitality, intensity of feeling and thinking, and productiveness; unhappiness is conjunctive with the decrease of these capacities and functions. Happiness and unhappiness are so much a state of our total personality that bodily reactions are frequently more expressive of them than our conscious feeling. The drawn face of a person, listlessness, tiredness, or physical symptoms like headaches or even more serious forms of illness are frequent expressions of unhappiness, just as a physical feeling of well-being can be one of the “symptoms” of happiness. Indeed, our body is less capable of being deceived about the state of happiness than our mind, and one can entertain the idea that some time in the future the presence and degree of happiness and unhappiness might be inferred from an examination of the chemical processes in the body. Likewise, the functioning of our mental and emotional capacities is influenced by our happiness or unhappiness. The acuteness of our reason and the intensity of our feelings depend on it. Unhappiness weakens or even paralyzes all our psychic functions. Happiness increases them. The subjective feeling of being happy, when it is not a quality of the state of well-being of the whole person, is nothing more than an illusory thought about a feeling and is completely unrelated to genuine happiness.
Pleasure or happiness which exists only in a person’s head but is not a condition of his personality I propose to call pseudo-pleasure or pseudo-happiness. A person, for instance, takes a trip and is consciously happy; yet he may have this feeling because happiness is what he is supposed to experience on a pleasure trip; actually, he may be unconsciously disappointed and unhappy. A dream may reveal the truth to him; or perhaps, he will realize later that his happiness was not genuine. Pseudo-pain can be observed in many situations in which sorrow or unhappiness are conventionally expected and therefore felt. Pseudo-pleasure and pseudo-pain are actually only pretended feelings; they are thoughts about feelings, rather than genuine emotional experiences.
b. Types of Pleasure
The analysis of the qualitative difference between the various kinds of pleasure is, as already indicated, the key to the problem of the relation between pleasure and ethical values.55
One type of pleasure which Freud and others thought was the essence of all pleasure is the feeling accompanying the relief from painful tension. Hunger, thirst, and the need for sexual satisfaction, sleep, and bodily exercise are rooted in the chemism of the organism. The objective, physiological necessity to satisfy these demands is perceived subjectively as desire, and if they remain unsatisfied for any length of time painful tension is felt. If this tension is released, the relief is felt as pleasure or, as I propose to call it, satisfaction. This term, from satis-facere = to make sufficient, seems to be most appropriate for this kind of pleasure. It is the very nature of all such physiologically conditioned needs that their satisfaction ends the tension due to the physiological changes brought about in the organism. If we are hungry and eat, our organism—and we—have enough at a certain point beyond which further eating would actually be painful. The satisfaction in relieving painful tension is the most common pleasure and the easiest to obtain psychologically; it can also be one of the most intense pleasures if the tension has lasted long enough and therefore has become sufficiently intense itself. The significance of this type of pleasure cannot be doubted; nor can it be doubted that it constitutes in the lives of not a few almost the only form of pleasure they ever experience.
A type of pleasure also caused by relief from tension, but different in quality from the one described, is rooted in psychic tension. A person may feel that a desire is due to the demands of his body, while actually it is determined by irrational psychic needs. He can have intense hunger which is not caused by the normal, physiologically conditioned need of his organism but by psychic needs to allay anxiety or depression (although these may be concomitant with abnormal physiochemical processes). It is well known that the need for drinking is often not due to thirst but is psychically conditioned.
Intense sexual desire, too, can be caused not by physiological but by psychic needs. An insecure person who has an intense need to prove his worth to himself, to show others how irresistible he is, or to dominate others by “making” them sexually, will easily feel intense sexual desires, and a painful tension if the desires are not satisfied. He will be prone to think that the intensity of his desires is due to the demands of his body, while actually these demands are determined by his psychic needs. Neurotic sleepiness is another example of a desire which is felt to be caused by bodily conditions like normal tiredness, although it is actually caused by psychic conditions such as repressed anxiety, fear, or anger.
These desires are similar to the normal, physiologically conditioned needs inasmuch as both are rooted in a lack or in a deficiency. In the one case the deficiency is grounded in normal chemical processes within the organism; in the other case it is the result of psychic dysfunctioning. In both cases the deficiency causes tensions and the relief from it results in pleasure. All other irrational desires which do not assume the form of bodily needs, like the passionate craving for fame, for domination, or for submission, envy, and jealousy, are also rooted in the character structure of a person and spring from a crippling or distortion within the personality. The pleasure felt in the satisfaction of these passions is also caused by the relief from psychic tension as in the case of neurotically conditioned bodily desires.
Although the pleasure derived from the satisfaction of genuine physiological needs and of irrational psychic needs consists in the relief from tension, the quality of the pleasure differs significantly. The physiologically conditioned desires such as hunger, thirst, and so on, are satisfied with the removal of the physiologically conditioned tension, and they reappear only when the physiological need arises again; they are thus rhythmic in nature. The irrational desires, in contrast, are insatiable. The desire of the envious, the possessive, the sadistic person does not disappear with its satisfaction, except perhaps momentarily. It is in the very nature of these irrational desires that they cannot be “satisfied.” They spring from a dissatisfaction within oneself. The lack of productiveness and the resulting powerlessness and fear are the root of these passionate cravings and irrational desires. Even if man could satisfy all his wishes for power and destruction, it would not change his fear and loneliness, and thus the tension would remain. The blessing of imagination turns into a curse; since a person does not find himself relieved from his fears, he imagines ever-increasing satisfactions would cure his greed and restore his inner balance. But greed is a bottomless pit, and the idea of the relief derived from its satisfaction is a mirage. Greed, indeed, is not, as is so often assumed, rooted in man’s animal nature but in his mind and imagination.
We have seen that the pleasures derived from the fulfillment of physiological needs and neurotic desires are the result of the removal of painful tension. But while those in the first category are really satisfying, are normal, and are a condition for happiness, those in the latter are at best only a temporary mitigation of need, an indication of pathological functioning and of fundamental unhappiness. I propose to call the pleasure derived from the fulfillment of irrational desires “irrational pleasure” in contradistinction to “satisfaction,” which is the fulfillment of normal physiological desires.
For the problem of ethics, the difference between irrational pleasure and happiness is much more important than that between irrational pleasure and satisfaction. In order to understand these distinctions, it may be helpful to introduce the concept of psychological scarcity versus abundance.
The unfulfilled needs of the body create tension, the removal of which gives satisfaction. The very lack is the basis of the satisfaction. In a different sense, irrational desires are also rooted in deficiencies, in a person’s insecurity and anxiety, which compel him to hate, to envy, or to submit; the pleasure derived from the fulfillment of these cravings is rooted in the fundamental lack of productiveness, Both physiological and irrational psychic needs aye part of a system of scarcity.
But beyond the realm of scarcity rises the realm of abundance. While even in the animal, surplus energy is present and is expressed in play,56 the realm of abundance is essentially a human phenomenon. It is the realm of productiveness, of inner activity. This realm can exist only to the extent to which man does not have to work for sheer subsistence and thus to use up most of his energy. The evolution of the human race is characterized by the expansion of the realm of abundance, of the surplus energy available for achievements beyond mere survival. All specifically human achievements of man spring from abundance.
In all spheres of activity the difference between scarcity and abundance and therefore between satisfaction and happiness exists, even with regard to elementary functions like hunger and sex. To satisfy the physiological need of intense hunger is pleasureful because it relieves tension. Different in quality from satisfaction of hunger is the pleasure derived from the satisfaction of appetite. Appetite is the anticipation of enjoyable taste experience and, in distinction to hunger, does not produce tension. Taste in this sense is a product of cultural development and refinement like musical or artistic taste and can develop only in a situation of abundance, both in the cultural and the psychological meaning of the word. Hunger is a phenomenon of scarcity; its satisfaction, a necessity. Appetite is a phenomenon of abundance; its satisfaction not a necessity but an expression of freedom and productiveness. The pleasure accompanying it may be called joy.57
With regard to sex a distinction similar to that between hunger and appetite can be made. Freud’s concept of sex is that of an urge springing entirely from physiologically conditioned tension, relieved, like hunger, by satisfaction. But he ignores sexual desire and pleasure corresponding to appetite, which only can exist in the realm of abundance and which is exclusively a human phenomenon. The sexually “hungry” person is satisfied by the relief from tension, either physiological or psychic, and this satisfaction constitutes his pleasure.58 But sexual pleasure which we call joy is rooted in abundance and freedom and is the expression of sensual and emotional productiveness.
Joy and happiness are widely believed to be identical with the happiness accompanying love. In fact, to many, love is supposed to be the only source of happiness. Yet, in love as in all other human activities, we must differentiate between the productive and the nonproductive form. Nonproductive or irrational love can be, as I have shown before, any kind of masochistic or sadistic symbiosis, where the relationship is not based upon mutual respect and integrity but where two persons depend on each other because they are incapable of depending on themselves. This love, like all other irrational strivings, is based on scarcity, on the lack of productiveness and inner security. Productive love, the closest form of relatedness between two people and simultaneously one in which the integrity of each is preserved, is a phenomenon of abundance, and the ability for it is the testimony to human maturity. Joy and happiness are the concomitants of productive love.
In all spheres of activity the difference between scarcity and abundance determines the quality of the pleasure experience. Every person experiences satisfactions, irrational pleasures, and joy. What distinguishes people is the respective weight of each of these pleasures in their lives. Satisfaction and irrational pleasure do not require an emotional effort; only the ability to produce the conditions relieving the tension. Joy is an achievement; it presupposes an inner effort, that of productive activity.
Happiness is an achievement brought about by man’s inner productiveness and not a gift of the gods. Happiness and joy are not the satisfaction of a need springing from a physiological or a psychological lack; they are not the relief from tension but the accompaniment of all productive activity, in thought, feeling, and action. Joy and happiness are not different in quality; they are different only inasmuch as joy refers to a single act while happiness may be said to be a continuous or integrated experience of joy; we can speak of “joys” (in the plural) but only of “happiness” (in the singular).
Happiness is the indication that man has found the answer to the problem of human existence: the productive realization of his potentialities and thus, simultaneously, being one with the world and preserving the integrity of his self. In spending his energy productively he increases his powers, he “burns without being consumed.”
Happiness is the criterion of excellence in the art of living, of virtue in the meaning it has in humanistic ethics. Happiness is often considered the logical opposite of grief or pain. Physical or mental suffering is part of human existence and to experience them is unavoidable. To spare oneself from grief at all cost can be achieved only at the price of total detachment, which excludes the ability to experience happiness. The opposite of happiness thus is not grief or pain but depression which results from inner sterility and unproductiveness.
We have dealt so far with the types of pleasure experience most relevant to ethical theory: satisfaction, irrational pleasure, joy, and happiness. It remains to consider briefly two other less complex types of pleasure. One is the pleasure which accompanies the accomplishment of any kind of task one has set out to do. I propose to call this kind of pleasure “gratification.” Having achieved something which one wanted to accomplish is gratifying although the activity is not necessarily productive; but it is a proof of one’s power and ability to cope successfully with the outside world. Gratification does not depend very much on a specific activity; a man may find as much gratification in a good game of tennis as in success in business; what matters is that there is some difficulty in the task he has set out to accomplish and that he has achieved a satisfactory result.
The other type of pleasure which is left for discussion is not based on effort but on its opposite, on relaxation; it accompanies effortless but pleasant activities. The important biological function of relaxation is that of regulating the rhythm of the organism, which cannot be always active. The word “pleasure,” without qualification, seems to be most appropriate to denote the kind of good feeling that results from relaxation.
We started out with the discussion of the problematic character of hedonistic ethics, which claims that the aim of life is pleasure and that therefore pleasure is good in itself. As a result of our analysis of the various kinds of pleasure we are now in a position to formulate our view on the ethical relevance of pleasure. Satisfaction as relief from physiologically conditioned tension is neither good nor bad; as far as ethical evaluation is concerned it is ethically neutral, as are gratification and pleasure. Irrational pleasure and happiness (joy) are experiences of ethical significance. Irrational pleasure is the indication of greed, of the failure to solve the problem of human existence. Happiness (joy), on the contrary, is proof of partial or total success in the “art of living.” Happiness is man’s greatest achievement; it is the response of his total personality to a productive orientation toward himself and the world outside.
Hedonistic thinking failed to analyze the nature of pleasure sufficiently; it thus made it appear as if that which is easiest in life—to have some kind of pleasure—were at the same time that which is most valuable. But nothing valuable is easy; thus the hedonistic error made it easier to argue against freedom and happiness and to maintain that the very denial of pleasure was a proof of goodness. Humanistic ethics may very well postulate happiness and joy as its chief virtues, but in doing so it does not demand the easiest but the most difficult task of man, the full development of his productiveness.
c. The Problem of Means and Ends
The problem of the pleasure in ends as against the pleasure in means is of particular significance for contemporary society, in which the ends have often been forgotten in an obsessive concern with the means.
The problem of ends and means has been formulated by Spencer very clearly. He proposed that pleasure connected with an end necessarily makes the means to this end also pleasureful. He assumes that in a state of complete adjustment of humanity to the social state, “actions are completely right only when, besides being conducive to future happiness, special or general, they are immediately pleasurable, or that painfulness, not only ultimate but proximate, is the concomitant of actions which are wrong.”59
At first glance Spencer’s assumption seems plausible. If a person plans a pleasure trip, for instance, the preparations for it may be pleasureful; but it is obvious that this is not always true and that there are many acts preparatory to a desired end which are not pleasureful. If a sick person has to endure a painful treatment, the end-in-view, his health, does not make the treatment itself pleasureful; nor do the pains of childbirth become pleasureful. In order to achieve a desired end we do many unpleasant things only because our reason tells us that we have to do them. At best, it can be said that the unpleasantness may be more or less diminished by the anticipation of the pleasure in the result; the anticipation of the end-pleasure may even outweigh completely the discomfort connected with the means.
But the importance of the problem of means and ends does not end here. More significant are aspects of the problem which can be understood only by considering unconscious motivations.
We can make good use of an illustration for the means-ends-relationship which Spencer offers. He describes the pleasure which a businessman derives from the fact that when his books are balanced from time to time the result proves correct to a penny. “If you ask,” he says, “why all this elaborate process, so remote from the actual making of money and still more remote from the enjoyments of life, the answer is that keeping accounts correctly is fulfilling a condition to the end of money making, and becomes in itself a proximate end—a duty to be discharged—that there may be discharged the duty of getting an income, that there may be discharged the duty of maintaining self, wife, and children.”60 In Spencer’s view, the pleasure in the means, bookkeeping, is derived from the pleasure in the end: enjoyment of life, or “duty.” Spencer failed to recognize two problems. The more obvious one is that the consciously perceived end may be something different from the one which is perceived unconsciously. A person may think that his aim (or his motive) is the enjoyment of life or the fulfillment of duty toward his family, while his real, though unconscious, aim is the power he attains through money or the pleasure derived from hoarding it.
The second—and more important—problem arises from the assumption that the pleasure connected with the means is necessarily derived from the pleasure connected with the end. While it may happen, of course, that the pleasure in the end, the future use of the money, makes the means to this end (bookkeeping) also pleasureful, as Spencer assumes, the pleasure in bookkeeping may be derived from an entirely different source and its connection with the end may be fictitious. A case in point would be an obsessional businessman who enjoys his bookkeeping activities tremendously and is greatly pleased when his accounts prove to be correct to the penny. If we examine his pleasure we will find that he is a person filled with anxiety and doubt; he enjoys bookkeeping because he is “active” without having to make decisions or take risks. If the books balance he is pleased because the correctness of his figures is a symbolic answer to his doubts about himself and about life. Bookkeeping to him has the same function as playing solitaire may have for another person or counting the windows of a house to still another. The means have become independent of the aim; they have usurped the role of the end, and the alleged aim exists only in imagination.
The most outstanding example—relative to Spencer’s illustration—of a means which has made itself independent and has become pleasureful, not because of the pleasure in the end but because of factors completely divorced from it, is the meaning of work as it developed in the centuries following the Reformation, especially under the influence of Calvinism.
The problem under discussion touches upon one of the sorest spots of contemporary society. One of the most outstanding psychological features of modern life is the fact that activities which are means to ends have more and more usurped the position of ends, while the ends themselves have a shadowy and unreal existence. People work in order to make money; they make money in order to do enjoyable things with it. The work is the means, the enjoyment, the end. But what happens actually? People work in order to make more money; they use this money in order to make still more money, and the end—the enjoyment of life—is lost sight of. People are in a hurry and invent things in order to have more time. Then they use the time saved to rush about again to save more time until they are so exhausted that they cannot use the time they saved. We have become enmeshed in a net of means and have lost sight of ends. We have radios which can bring to everybody the best in music and literature. What we hear instead is, to a large extent, trash at the pulp magazine level or advertising which is an insult to intelligence and taste. We have the most wonderful instruments and means man has ever had, but we do not stop and ask what they are for.61
The overemphasis on ends leads to a distortion of the harmonious balance between means and ends in various ways: one way is that all emphasis is on ends without sufficient consideration of the role of means. The outcome of this distortion is that the ends become abstract, unreal, and eventually nothing but pipe dreams. This danger has been discussed at length by Dewey. The isolation of ends can have the opposite effect: while the end is ideologically retained it serves merely as a cover for shifting all the emphasis to those activities which are allegedly means to this end. The motto for this mechanism is “The ends justify the means.” The defenders of this principle fail to see that the use of destructive means has its own consequences which actually transform the end even if it is still retained ideologically.
Spencer’s concept of the social function of pleasurable activities has an important sociological bearing on the means-ends-problem. In connection with his view that the pleasure experience has the biological function of making activities which are conducive to human welfare pleasant, and thereby attractive, he states that “remoulding of human nature into fitness for the requirement of social life, must eventually make all needful activities pleasurable, while it makes displeasurable all activities at variance with these requirements.”62 He continues that “supposing it consistent with the maintenance of life, there is no kind of activity which will not become a source of pleasure, if continued, and that therefore pleasure will eventually accompany every move or action demanded by social conditions.”63
Spencer touches here upon one of the most significant mechanisms of society: that any given society tends to form the character-structure of its members in such a way as to make them desire to do what they have to do in order to fulfill their social function. But he fails to see that, in a society detrimental to the real human interest of its members, activities which are harmful to man but useful to the functioning of that particular society can also become sources of satisfaction. Even slaves have learned to be satisfied with their lot; oppressors, to enjoy cruelty. The cohesion of every society rests upon the very fact that there is almost no activity which cannot be made pleasureful, a fact which suggests that the phenomenon that Spencer describes can be a source of blocking as well as of furthering social progress. What matters is the understanding of the meaning and function of any particular activity and of the satisfaction derived from it in terms of the nature of man and of the proper conditions for his life. As has been pointed out above, the satisfaction derived from irrational strivings differs in kind from the pleasure derived from activities conducive to human welfare, and such satisfaction is not a criterion of value. Just because Spencer is right in proposing that every socially useful activity can become a source of pleasure, he is wrong in assuming that therefore the pleasure connected with inch activities proves their moral value. Only by analyzing the nature of man and by uncovering the very contradictions between his real interests and those imposed upon him by a given society, can one arrive at the objectively valid norms which Spencer strove to discover. His optimism with regard to his own society and its future, and his lack of a psychology which dealt with the phenomenon of irrational cravings and their satisfaction, caused him unwittingly to pave the way for the relativism in ethics which today has become so popular.