Hedonism and Fulfillment

On Friday night (1996/8/16) I watched the Future Fantastic program entitled Brainstorm:
Science fiction has always promised that technology will be a gateway to any experience we want to have. We will have experiences in the mind that we may never have in fact. The world will become one of infinite possibility.

The program was essentially about the future of virtual reality. It placed some emphasis on the role which science fiction writers have played and are playing in creating our vision of this future.

I didn't much like the picture they painted. In particular there was too much emphasis on new kinds of experience. The idea that the good life is about seeking and finding lots of new and wonderful experiences, comes close to comitting (alongside hedonism and utilitarianism) the naturalistic fallacy.

In this little discussion of the topic I survey degrees of enlightenment in hedonism and suggest that the most enlightened hedonists must in the end reject hedonism. I have chosen the word fullfillment as the best I can find, if we must have one, for that which the enlightened might seek.

1. Hard Drugs must be the paradigm case of unenlightened hedonism. Hard drugs create a radical detachment between pleasure and pain and those real world circumstances which would otherwise give us pleasure and pain. Addiction causes progressive neglect of personal well-being and ultimately destroys its victim. Pleasure is not always a blessing, even if it can be sustained.
3. Electronic Games. If the downside of television its passive nature, electronic games show that interaction can still be mindless, addictive and disabling rather than enabling. They still have all the upside potential and more. Pavlov's dogs are no better fulfilled than couch potatoes.
5. Achievement. Beyond mere transient passive pleasure, beyond its enhancement by interactivity there is the question of engagement and achievement. Achievement is a source of pleasure deeper and more enduring than the transient and superficial pleasure derived from new experiences. The antithesis of pathological drug dependent detachment from reality is engagement with the world in a constructive effective manner. This is what it takes to get control over your life. It involves understanding where you are, wanting a change, working toward the change and eventually getting there. Of course we don't expect to get everything our own way, but engagement in life and personal fulfillment depend on a reasonable hit rate.
7. Purpose. The enlightened hedonist will have a sense of purpose, for it is only in the context of a purpose that the value of an achievement can be realised. Personal fulfillment involves effective pursuit of our own purposes.
2. Television - the "opium of the masses"? In a milder way television, like many popular pastimes, is like a drug. It is a passive medium which provides a transient escape from the real world. It doesn't have to be that way, and for many it isn't. It can be a source of information and enlightenment which helps us to live our lives and get where we want to be. Even as mere entertainment it is more easily integrated into a positive lifestyle than the real narcotics.
4. Virtual Reality enhances the technology in a value-neutral way. More scope, more pleasure, more potential both to disable and to enable. If virtual reality is just the avenue to wonderful new experiences then it is just a more powerful and debilitating electronic opiate. It is only when virtual reality is deployed in support of some real life which goes beyond mere experience that it can enrich our lives in a positive way.
6. Book of Records. Even where the value of achievement is recognised it can easily be translated into "Book of Records" mindset. In this mindset achievement is just about doing more, of anything. The idea that some achievements are more worthwhile than others may be but dimly perceived. But for those who can spot them, the differences between worthwhile and worthless achievements translate into differences in payback. Worthwhile achievements glow warmer than the other kind, on a sliding scale that goes a long way in both directions.
8. Values. Values are the stuff from which purposes are made. What makes purposes worthwhile rather than futile. Well founded conviction in values from which the purposes flow takes us closer to nirvana.
9. Fulfillment, a deep and enduring pleasure in self and life cannot be realised by seeking pleasure. Pleasure comes from striving for worthwhile ends and from the knowledge of having contributed our best talents and efforts where they count for most. Pleasure is not something which we should seek, but something which comes to us when we successfully seek something more worthwhile.

UP © RBJ created 1996/8/18 modified 1997/5/2 HOME