On "Desires" And Their Relationship To Pleasure

  • [Cassius Admin Note: This thread was excerpted from a longer discussion on another topic, but it quickly turns into a discussion of desire and its relationship to pleasure.]


    Say I have a headache. An aspirin might remove the pain, in which case you could say that the resulting pleasure is a byproduct. Or a pleasant nap in the shade might remove the pain, where you could consider pleasure to be the active principle.


    Or say I'm depressed. I could take a pill, which might remove the pain, with pleasure as a byproduct. Or I could actively pursue activities meaningful to me, pleasure being the active principle.


    I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but having put the thoughts in writing I would react that using pleasure as the active principle is certainly more empowering and, well, pleasurable.

  • I don't think I agree with that, but let me talk this out.

    Quote

    Say I have a headache. An aspirin might remove the pain, in which case you could say that the resulting pleasure is a byproduct. Or a pleasant nap in the shade might remove the pain, where you could consider pleasure to be the active principle.

    Is the decision to take the aspirin pleasurable? Does pleasure precede the removal of the pain in this way? Then when the headache is gone, is that a stable pleasure?

    Yes, the nap is a pleasurable activity. Does that fall then into the kinetic pleasures.

    Epicurus did seem to differentiate among kinds of pleasures: joy, merriment, ataraxia, aponia, the pleasures from eating bread and water if you're hungry, etc. BUT they are all pleasure, none better than others. And we decide on pleasures to pursue by their consequences.

    Quote

    Or say I'm depressed. I could take a pill, which might remove the pain, with pleasure as a byproduct. Or I could actively pursue activities meaningful to me, pleasure being the active principle.

    Same here. Is the decision to take the pill pleasurable? According to Epicurus, it has to be pleasure or pain. Every action has to elicit a reaction either painful or pleasurable. He didn't leave any middle ground.

    Thoughts?

  • I think you're on the right track to say that there are all sorts of types of pleasures, and some occur with the removal of pain, and some occur when we shift our attention from one pleasure to another.


    As I understand it a classic example of a pleasure that is not a removal of pain or want is that of smelling a rose. The smell does not necessarily remove a pain, and we weren't "in lack of a good smell" before smelling it. Our attention turned from one pleasure to another without any removal or displacement of any sort of pain.


    Again I think we generously acknowledge that there are all sorts of pleasures, without ever flipping all this on it's head by saying that the goal is "absence of pain." The goal is technically only "absence of pain" from a very very limited perspective - when we are talking about the total quantity of human experience and we're observing that we want the totality of experience to be pleasure(s) with as little pain(s) as possible (preferably, but perhaps not practically for a human, zero).

  • I would react that using pleasure as the active principle is certainly more empowering and, well, pleasurable.

    I absolutely agree with that and would say it is so blindingly obvious as to not need saying, except that we are confronted with a real life situation (in which there are apparently as many as there are professional philosophers) in which we DO have to say it.

  • Quote

    Is the decision to take the pill pleasurable? According to Epicurus, it has to be pleasure or pain. Every action has to elicit a reaction either painful or pleasurable. He didn't leave any middle ground.

    In this case, taking the pill is not necessarily pleasurable (unless you take it with honey as per Lucretius ;)). It is a reaction to the pain. If the pain goes away then that's pleasurable. So we're following the feelings as a guide to action. Pleasure can be an attraction and/or a reward, pain an aversion and/or punishment. We can either strive to elicit a feeling, or notice and respond to a feeling. Or one after the other. That's how we've evolved to operate, to my understanding.


    But you're raising an interesting point Don in that taking a pill could be considered a neutral act. That brings two thoughts to mind. 1) An act (or state) is never neutral, but our lack of attention to the act may make it appear neutral. 2) An act (or state) may be subservient to another act or state and so may appear neutral because of 1). Which leads to 3) the more aware we are of our feelings, the more pleasure there is available to us. Which then becomes another argument against pursuing "absence."

  • Hmmm...

    I don't think so. Let me talk through the headache scenario to see where I end up:

    Headache - pain

    Desire to remove that pain - pleasure in anticipating the removal; kinetic pleasure?

    Desire to locate and take medication - same pleasure continues

    Taking medication - kinetic pleasure similar to eating to alleviate hunger.

    Removal of pain - stable pleasure


    There is no neutral state according to Epicurus. We must be experiencing or feeling either pleasure or pain.

  • I didn't state that very well: I'm agreeing that there's no neutral state.

    Quote

    1) An act (or state) is never neutral, but our lack of attention to the act may make it appear neutral.

    This was intended as a rebuttal to someone who might think something is a neutral state.


    As for the desire to remove the headache pain in your walk-through, I guess you could call that a pleasure of anticipation but I would just call it a desire to remove pain: an avoidance of pain. Same with the desire to locate and take medicine. But these are subjective: your experience might be the anticipation of the pleasure of relief, but I'm imagining being in the throes of the headache and just wanting to get rid of it. We both experience pleasure as it begins to dissipate. Further, although eating is generally a pleasurable experience, not so with taking a pill. Again, that's subjective but the relief of hunger or of the headache are both pleasures. My point is that daily experience is a constant interplay between pleasure and pain, our reactions to them and our choices and avoidances regarding them. This is biology, whether our goal is pleasure or the absence of pain. However our higher level choice of a goal affects how we approach everything and, at least to me, this is the key difference between our approach and Jordan's.


    I brought up the neutral act/state because I think that that is a place where someone pursuing "absence of pain" would be likely to go astray, thinking that they're experiencing a "fancy pleasure" when they've really just dulled their feelings.

  • Quote

    I guess you could call that a pleasure of anticipation but I would just call it a desire to remove pain: an avoidance of pain.

    Ah! But isn't the "desire to remove pain" a pleasure? You are in pain and have a pleasant desire to alleviate that pain. The desire and anticipation of relief is pleasurable. I know that's not the usual way to think about it! But I'm wondering - viewing it through an Epicurean lens - if that desire can't be considered a pleasure since Epicurus says "You have to tell me if your reaction to that desire itself is pleasure or pain. Why are you pursuing it? Because the consequence of that desire leads to more pleasure than pain."

  • This is where I distinguish between faculties and impulses. I think that biologically it's a difference between serotonin and dopamine if I understand it correctly. I've been trying to clarify this for myself and I think it's an important detail although I may be in left field.


    All pleasures are good, all pains are bad. These are faculties. But some desires are natural, some vain, some needed for life or for well being or other reasons. These are impulses, as I've been thinking of them. The removal of pain is a pleasure due to their dichotomous relationship. But the desire to remove pain might be pleasurable or it might not be.


    Quote
    "You have to tell me if your reaction to that desire itself is pleasure or pain. Why are you pursuing it? Because the consequence of that desire leads to more pleasure than pain."

    Bingo! It's not the desire itself that's a pleasure or pain, it's your reactions to it and to the consequences of it.

  • I think I agree 🙂

    I'm trying to wrap my brain around your last statement:

    Quote

    It's not the desire itself that's a pleasure or pain, it's your reactions to it and to the consequences of it.

    I definitely agree that desires are neither good nor bad, but I'm trying to decide if that means that I don't think they're pleasurable or painful.

    We have a desire, what you're calling an impulse. What comprises a desire/impulse? It has to be a cognitive event or an act of reason. Right? We have to think about the desire. But we have a reaction to that rational act, a pre-rational reaction that is pleasurable or painful through our canonical faculty of the pathē/feelings. So, if I read you correctly: the thought or desire itself - the cognitive rational impulse brought into being by our material brain's function - cannot itself be a pleasure. But that impulse provokes a reaction in our reflexive pre-rational faculty.

    So then...Is there such a thing as "a pleasure" or is it always "an experience of pleasure" or "a pleasant experience." Same for pain. Does pain exist as an entity or can it only be a painful experience. Pain cannot exit y outside of experience. Or can it. Is pain a thing? Is pleasure a thing? It can these two only be experienced?


    I have a feeling that I'm meeting you by the rabbit hole in left field :)

  • Exactly! But as I think further an impulse isn't cognitive/rational: it's an urge to act. A desire can be cognitive/rational or not.


    For instance advertising is designed to create a desire for something. Maybe craving is a useful word. A desire/impulse/craving can stimulate a pathe/feeling as you describe.


    Biologically, to my limited and simplistic understanding, dopamine is involved in anticipation, craving and desire. Serotonin is involved in pleasure/pain. To me this is a potentially helpful distinction, although I'm really not sure if this is scientifically accurate....


    Maybe we should go ask Alice ;) (I'm dating myself on that one!)

  • Hmm...

    I *think* there has to be a rational aspect in this. The use of the words desire, craving, urge, etc. strike me as cognitive experiences. That's why Epicurus can say desires are the result of groundless beliefs or not.

    One has a belief - a thought in your mind - that is either based on truth or not, based on whether we accept the truth of our sensations and mental perceptions or not.

    That belief then leads to a desire. "I believe i need that." "I want that." I think this can even be subconscious - you just feel like you need something. Or you're hungry. That's a more immediate desire based on your sensation of an empty stomach.

    Epicureans then weigh what happens if the consequence of that desire, urge, impulse, is achieved or it is not. In the case of hunger, you'll want to satisfy that desire... But how? And are you actually hungry (paying attention to Sensations) or are you emotionally or stress eating. I can be guilty of that! Not applying my Epicurean practices.

    Those considered consequences elicit a pleasurable or painful reaction or feeling.

    We then make a choice to pursue that desire or to flee from it based on that feeling.

    Non-Epicureans don't weigh consequences necessarily. If they see a pleasurable experience arising from that desire, they follow it. No matter if it leads to pain down the road or not.


    And just so you know, I'm basically going full stream of consciousness here. You all are just along for the ride 🙂


    PS I got the Alice reference ;)

  • I think it's important to remember what word Epicurus used to refer to "desire" επιθυμία epithumia. From LSJ:

    ἐπιθυ_μ-ία , Ion. -ιη, ,A. [select] desire, yearning, “. ἐκτελέσαιHdt.1.32; ἐπιθυμίᾳ by passion, opp. προνοίᾳ, Th.6.13: generally, appetite, Pl.Cra.419d, etc.; αἱ κατὰ τὸ σῶμα . Id.Phd.82c; esp. sexual desire, lust, Democr.234 (pl.), Pl.Phdr.232b, etc.; αἱ πρὸς τοὺς παῖδας . X.Lac.2.14.
    2. [select] . c. gen., longing after a thing, desire of or for it, ὕδατος, τοῦ πιεῖν, Th.2.52, 7.84, etc.; “τοῦ πλέονοςDemocr. 224; “τῆς τιμωρίαςAntipho 2.1.7; “τῆς μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν πολιτείαςAnd.2.10; “τῆς παρθενίαςPl.Cra.406b; “εἰς . τινὸς ἐλθεῖνId.Criti.113d; ἐν . “τινὸς εἶναιId.Prt.318a, Tht.143e; “γεγονέναιId.Lg.841c; εἰς . τινὸςἀφικέσθαι θεάσασθαιId.Ti.19b; “. τινὸς ἐμβαλεῖν τινίX.Cyr.1.1.5; . ἐμποιεῖν ἔς τινα an inclination towards . ., Th.4.81.
    II. [select] . = ἐπιθύμημα, object of desire, ἐπιθυμίας τυχεῖν Thalesap.Stob.3.1.172, cf. Lync. ap. Ath.7.295a; ἀνδρὸς ., of woman, Secund.Sent.8; πενήτων ., of sleep, prob. in ib.13.

  • Post by Cassius ().

    This post was deleted by the author themselves ().
  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “On "Desires"” to “On "Desires" And Their Relationship To Pleasure”.
  • Are we in agreement that desires are distinct from pleasures?


    As to desires v impulses, I'm thinking that that might be going too far down the rabbit hole to be useful. What's important regarding desires is evaluating them as to whether or not to pursue them. In order to do that we must be cognitively aware of them which is the point at which they become useful.

  • As for me I agree that as used in English the word "desire" definitely implies something different than a "pleasure." I see the contrast being that between a fully formed mental concept (desire) vs an automatic "feeling" (Pleasure).


    I say "in English" because Don's list of greek words has me concerned about being too broad! ;-)

  • Are we in agreement that desires are distinct from pleasures?

    Yes!

    I'm still wrestling with the word pleasure. This may be pedantic or semantic but, I don't think "a pleasure" is a thing. This strikes me as somewhat Platonic as if there's Pleasure out there. We can construct a sentence as " Pleasure is X." But I think pleasures have to be directly associated with an action, whether that's an external action (eating ice cream) or internal action (satiety after eating). More specifically, pleasure is only our reaction to an action.

    As to desires v impulses, I'm thinking that that might be going too far down the rabbit hole to be useful. What's important regarding desires is evaluating them as to whether or not to pursue them. In order to do that we must be cognitively aware of them which is the point at which they become useful.

    Agreed!

  • In terms of the Canon, I think pleasure/pain is a reaction to a sensation or prolepsis more than to an action directly, sort of an ongoing feedback loop with feelings being the feedback. Physical actions cause sensations, to which feelings are reactions. Do mental actions stimulate prolepses to which feelings are a response? Since there's some uncertainty regarding the prolepses, I'm not sure if this holds. It seems logical though. Maybe I should say it feels right. ;)

  • Here's my perspective, as of this writing. Let's call it a work in progress:

    The canonical faculties are Sensations, Mental Perceptions (or Prolepses), and Feelings (of Pleasure/Pain).

    I want to say I read this elsewhere on the forum so bear with me:

    We sense something in the real world either through our physical senses (smelling, tasting, touching, etc.) OR our mental Perceptions (thinking) THEN this elicits a reaction of pleasure or pain.

    So, in light of this, I think a desire is a mental perception to which we have a pleasurable or painful reaction. But what are desires like? Or made of?

    One selection where Epicurus talks about desires is:

    Quote

    ...keep in mind that some desires are natural whereas others are groundless; that among the natural desires some are natural and necessary whereas others are merely natural; and that among the necessary desires some are necessary for happiness, some for physical health, and some for life itself.

    Necessary desires are required for different reasons. And also...

    Quote

    PD 11: If we had never been molested by alarms at celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by the misgiving that death somehow affects us, nor by neglect of the proper limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need to study natural science.

    Here we are told we need to learn the limits of both pains and desires. I would say that pains are limited to short if severe, bearable if long; desires are limited to natural and necessary. Not that we can limit them, but that we need to learn the limits of them. But Epicurus also wrote:

    Quote

    VS 135. If you want to be wealthy, Pythocles, don't increase your riches but reduce your desires.

    Seneca also uses this. In light of the last quote, it would seem to mean "be aware of the limits of his desires" although the original just says "take away desires." Concentrate on natural and necessary ones.

    So, we've seen desires paired with pains. Now this:

    Quote

    VS 203. Insofar as you forget nature, you will find yourself in trouble and create for yourself endless fears and desires.

    From this, we have to ask ourselves what are the similarities between fears and desires? Among pains, fears, desires? Can fears be groundless or empty like desires? Or natural? Or have limits? What allowed the comparison? Could fears be the mirror of desires? One attracts, the other repels? Could these be the mental parallel of the feelings of pain and pleasure? Fear and desire?

    Quote

    485. Unhappiness (kakodaimonia - the opposite of eudaimonia) is caused by fears, or by endless and empty desires; but he who is able to rein these in creates for himself a blissful understanding.

    So, kakodaimonia can be caused both by fears and desires... So there is a common effect those two can have. So fear and desire, but not any desires - only endless, empty ones. And here it says one can "rein in" both fears and endless, empty desires. What does it mean to "rein" them in? Does that again refer to understanding limits or something else? It would seem to follow that eudaimonia/happiness can be caused by the opposite of fears (?) and limited (not endless) desires based on true Philosophy (not empty ones). And happiness is part of a pleasurable life.


    A common thread seems to be limits. Pains are limited. Desires are limited. But fears and desires can be unlimited... But that's not a positive thing. Are some fears justified or based in true perceptions and sensations? And we know Epicurus talks about the limits of pleasure. Is Epicurean philosophy at its root understanding all natural limits? That wouldn't be a goal but a means to maximizing pleasure.


    My reason for laying all this out is to see what desires are akin to in Epicurus's writings to see what similarities we can find and how they relate to the Canon, pleasure, and other parts of the philosophy.

  • From this it appears that fears and desires are opposite mental constructs. But there are visceral fears and desires as well. I'm thinking that Epicurus might say at this point that everyone knows from experience what "fear" and "desire" mean; what we need to understand is how to work with them.


    Which leads us to the quotes above and to "limits." As we live in a world of atoms and void, limits would be different for each of us. Not the definition, which we know from experience, but where a limit occurs. Would a limit then be the sweet spot at which one achieves maximum pleasure?