There is no such thing as pleasure

post by RichardKennaway · 2010-10-07T13:49:48.476Z · score: 3 (10 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 18 comments

By saying that there is no such thing as pleasure, I don't mean that I don't enjoy anything. I mean that I can find nothing in common among all the things I do enjoy, to call "pleasure". In contrast, I can find something in common among all physically painful things. I have experienced toothache, indigestion, a stubbed toe, etc., and these experiences differ along only a few dimensions: intensity, location, sharpness, and temporal modulation are about it. I perceive a definite commonality among these experiences, and that is what I call "pain". (Metaphorical pains such as "emotional pain" or "an eyesore" are not included.)

However, I cannot find anything in common among solving an interesting problem, sex, listening to good music, or having a good meal. Not common to all of them, nor even common to any two of them. There is not even a family resemblance. This is what I mean when I say there is no such thing as pleasure. But that's just me. I know that mental constitutions vary, and I suspect they vary in more ways than anyone has yet discovered. Perhaps they vary in this matter? Are there people who do experience "pleasure", in the sense in which I do not?

Why is this a LessWrong topic? Because people often talk about "pleasure" as if there were such a thing, the obtaining of which is the reason that people seek pleasurable experiences, and the maximisation of which is what people do. But it appears to me that "pleasure" is nothing more than a label applied to disparate experiences, becoming a mere dormitive principle when used as an explanation. Does that difference result from an actual difference in mental constitution?

If there are people who do experience a definite thing common to all enjoyable experiences, this might be one reason for the attraction, to some, of utilitarian theories -- even for taking some sort of utilitarianism to be obviously, trivially true. My experience, as set out above, is certainly one reason why I find all varieties of utilitarianism a priori implausible.

18 comments

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comment by [deleted] · 2010-10-07T15:26:14.319Z · score: 12 (14 votes) · LW · GW

Nausea is physiologically and neurologically quite different from pain. The only commonality is that we don't enjoy either.

comment by nerzhin · 2010-10-07T18:00:21.535Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Dizziness. Fear. Exhaustion. Hunger. All very unpleasant, all quite different from pain.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-10-07T20:46:33.389Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, there's no commonality to unpleasant experiences in general. Physical pain was just an example where there is (for me) a real thing common to them that I can give a name to, in contrast to "pleasure", for which there is not.

comment by Relsqui · 2010-10-07T21:33:06.047Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think the point is that you're comparing Granny Smiths to oranges. If you want to argue that pleasure is less specific than its opposite, to talk about "pleasure" and "displeasure" makes more sense than to talk about "pleasure" and "pain."

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-10-07T21:44:59.260Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My purpose was to talk about pleasure, not about pleasure and its opposite. Displeasure is also a non-thing.

comment by NateSkiba · 2010-10-07T23:05:03.687Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Just to clarify: are you categorically denying the reality of broad categories? Or is there a more subtle point here that deals more with positive feelings?

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2010-10-07T23:02:35.277Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

The fact that we can divide these varying experiences into "pleasant" and "unpleasant" ones does suggest that they have something in common at some level in the brain, though. Then perhaps utilitarianism can be about maximizing expected pleasantness instead of expected pleasure.

comment by Sniffnoy · 2010-10-07T17:29:38.763Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Itching as well.

comment by magfrump · 2010-10-07T20:12:30.570Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

With all of the pleasurable experiences you describe, I often (usually?) experience a feeling of relief afterward.

After eating a good meal, or sex, or listening to good music, or solving a hard problem, I imagine myself sitting back and letting out a breath--and that moment of reflection is very similar between these activities.

I'm not formulating this very well but it is a direction that I would look for a commonality for pleasurable activities.

comment by thomblake · 2010-10-07T17:50:39.012Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Agreeing with others, you don't go too far enough. I find painful things about as dissimilar as pleasurable things.

On the other hand, it seems like I'm "carving nature at its joints" to separate things that I like from things that I dislike - there is something that poetry and pushpin have in common that is not shared by a stubbed toe.

comment by Alicorn · 2010-10-07T14:19:24.190Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it would make more sense to you if you substitute "enjoyment".

For my part, I can't find anything in common between certain pairs of physical pains. A sinus headache and a burn are both clearly physical pain but I don't detect a sameness between the way they feel.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2010-10-07T20:57:26.865Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps it would make more sense to you if you substitute "enjoyment".

That just calls the same nonexistent thing by a different name. Even the verb, "to enjoy" does not label a thing that I am doing or being when I enjoy something.

Servant wrote:

People do find a definite thing common to all enjoyable experiences: they enjoy them.

but again, drawing a line around the set of things of which some statement is true does not amount to there being a thing that makes that statement true.

For example, the cholera bacterium is the thing that is present in every case of cholera, but sickness is not a thing that is present in every case of sickness.

comment by Obstat · 2010-10-09T03:02:33.110Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Melancholy; loneliness; listening to a terrible song; eating a shit meal; awkward sex.

These posses qualities as diverse and textured as your "pleasure".

You are comparing cerebral pleasure to physical pain, yet you have ignored cerebral horrors and physical pleasures.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2010-10-08T09:12:23.849Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

You could argue that "pleasure" is a broken word, that brings up associations that are usually useless or distracting in the context of other things categorized by that word. But it's clear what the word refers to, so people can well use it.

You'd need to make a case for its usage leading to incorrect inferences. Given the sequence on words, this discussion must be held to a higher standard.

comment by Servant · 2010-10-07T20:01:26.257Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

"If there are people who do experience a definite thing common to all enjoyable experiences, this might be one reason for the attraction, to some, of utilitarian theories -- even for taking some sort of utilitarianism to be obviously, trivially true."

People do find a definite thing common to all enjoyable experiences: they enjoy them.

Your comment raises a good point though: it would be very hard to measure one sort of enjoyment with another, especially between the "carnal pleasures" and the "intellectual pleasures", which both produce enjoyment...but how much? Without a way of measuring pleasure, you're left with subjective judgement, which may be of little use.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2010-10-09T01:44:35.117Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are people who don't feel (as much) pleasure. I've heard clinical depression defined as anhedonia (plus some other stuff).

It's quite clear that there are different ways in which we're satisfied. I don't feel like I'm fully happy unless I'm satisfied in all of them (maybe I'm able to focus only on a momentarily intense and therefore hyper-salient satisfaction briefly, but not forever). This doesn't answer your question about pleasure, but I would equate utility to this global happiness.

comment by sixes_and_sevens · 2010-10-08T09:13:54.108Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I can certainly group pleasures into consistent and overlapping categories. Most things that give me pleasure:

  • make me feel good about myself
  • make me look good in the eyes of anyone else present
  • involve giving another person or people pleasure
  • involve executing some sort of well-defined skill
  • involve some sort of satisfying pattern-matching
  • involve discovery of something clever

Anything that isn't in this list which I might describe as pleasurable involves some sort of direct physiological pleasure-giving stimulus (orgasm, chocolate, etc.).

I'm pretty sure that based on this criteria I can predict with a fair degree of accuracy whether or not I will find an activity pleasurable; the more criteria an activity meets, the more likely I am to gain pleasure from it, and the greater that pleasure will be. If a coherent concept of pleasure doesn't exist, what am I predicting?

comment by jsalvatier · 2010-10-07T16:08:32.878Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I fall into your camp on the pleasure issue. However, sarahC has a good point. There are lots of things I 'like' which don't have a lot in common, and a lot of things which I 'dislike' which also don't have a lot in common. Human desires are complex.