The Battlefield – Pleasure Versus Morality

People madly pursue materialism to lead a happy life. A person’s main belief is that expensive products give pleasure; hence more the money, more the pleasure, more happiness. In leading a pleasurable life, if some ethics need to be compromised, so be it. When the ultimate goal is happiness, some sacrifices are worth it. It is better to subdue the conscience, than listen to the voice within when hurting someone or breaking laws. It is a dog eat dog world, and the toughest will reach the top of the food chain. Therefore, morality be damned; either ways everyone is doing it, so why not me? Morals won’t pay the medical bill, money will.

To live a happy life, does one has to choose between pleasure and ethics? If so, what is pleasure? As per Oxford dictionary – a) feeling of satisfaction or contentment; b) source of enjoyment and delight; c) sensual gratification or indulgence. Materialism focuses on b and c parts of the definition, it doesn’t give contentment. Simply put, a content person sleeps when his/her head touches a pillow. Money gained from an illegal means cannot provide contentment. The insidious fear of being caught  generally erodes all feelings of peace and contentment.

To illustrate, let us say that a person has acquired US$ 50 million through fraudulent means. To protect himself from being caught by intelligence agencies, he has involved 50 other people in the fraudulent activities. He has ensured that those 50 others also earn US$ 50 million each. He has cleverly used 20 different countries with 20 different methods of frauds over a period of 10 years to remain undetected. He lives in the lap of luxury and so do the other 50. Do you think, any of them can say they are happy? Most probably, they need sleeping pills, alcohol and drugs to have eight hours of sleep at night.

The misconception about morality arose from Utilitarian or Happiness theory by philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The theory differentiates between right and wrong on the basis of happiness obtained by the majority.  It holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure. Hence, people misconstrued that doing immoral things is okay if it makes the majority of the people happy.

However, J.S. Mill pointed out a fundamental misinterpretation by most, of the term pleasure and morality. He said it is incorrect to assume that pursuit of pleasure equals an immoral sub-human behavior “worthy of a swine.”   Human beings have faculties higher than animals hence degrading themselves to pursue perverse desires isn’t suggested by the Happiness theory.

The theory on the other hand mentions the higher order of pleasures. Michael Sandel in his lecture gave a simple example of the same. He asked a question to his students  – if given a choice, would you watch Shakespeare’s play, Simpsons or Fear Factor. Though most would watch Simpsons, Shakespeare’s plays offers better mental enlightenment and higher satisfaction. The difference is that most human beings need to be taught to appreciate higher pleasures of life, while lower ones come naturally.

Therefore, does the confusion between pleasure and morality prevail because most humans are not taught the higher pleasures of life. As per Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs Theory”, self- actualization needs are at the top of the pyramid. People primarily focus on meeting physiological, safety and social needs. Most follow lower road to morality even when they are aware. For example, in India in social events, song numbers by heroines (example Chhammak Challo, Sheila Ki Jawani) though absolutely crass, are enacted by 4-10 year old girls publicly in the presence of their parents and various adults. This of course raises the questions – are we teaching kids the wrong things to get pleasures in life?

Closing Thoughts

The battle between pleasure and morality appears more of a case of lack of education in higher orders of pleasure. Maybe something as simple as educational institutions inculcating the desire for self-actualization in students would transform the society. The focus would shift from materialism to morality. As the saying goes, money may pay the medical bill, but one cannot buy good health. Will continue my meanderings on the subject. What do you say?


Justice at Harvard- J.S. Mill Utilitarianism Theory

2 comments on “The Battlefield – Pleasure Versus Morality

  1. My perspective on this is not to see such a divide between the two. I regularly bump into people that think that business is evil and that therefore consumption is part of that problem. It does not have to be so.

    In the ‘worthy’ part of my career, I worked for Wellcome Foundation, a company that was started by two Philanthropists and whose original mission was to cure the world of disease, with a speciality in tropical medicine. The Company, originally set up as a Charity achieved 4 nobel prizes and great commercial success. If you look at the company that they became, something changed, the profit motive seemed somehow not to produce such worthy outcomes.

    So whilst I agree that there is a battle between pleasure and morality, I don’t think it HAS to be like that. We must learn to take better, bolder decisions that serve others more than ourselves. When that happens, pleasure is increased for all.

  2. I think that the question about happyness and morality is a little more complicated. What I’ve seen in my life is that a lot of people is able to “distort” the reality in order to pursuit their own self objectives, and it doesn’t matter if they are “screwing” someone else. And seriously, the worst thing of this is that they are really convinced. I ask you a question: “do you know someone who says he is not a good man”? Me not! So the thing is that they don’t even realize that their beaviour is not acceptable. After years, months or only days of self-convincing I have seen the most honest people to justify any kind of fraud. Nowdays society tells you that if you have money you owns respect, and if owns respect than you are a good man… So as you can see the wall of self convincing is very to break down.

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