The Relativism of Choosing Simple Pleasures over Complex Pleasures

Hold it! As my esteemed colleague Phoenix Wright might say.

There is a fundamental flaw in your argument, my friend. Just because we can identify a difference between simple pleasures (those defined by physical phenomena) and complex pleasures (those defined by cognition and critical reasoning), does not mean that one is necessarily better or more fulfilling than the other.

Stepping down off of Aristotle’s pedestal for a moment, I would like to consider the idea that, not only can your every-man obtain happiness, everybody can obtain happiness.

I’m not talking about a eudemonic sense of subconscious wellbeing. I’m talking about consistent and regular contentment and joy.

The thing is, everybody creates their own definition of what makes them happy based on the relative values of that individual. This relativistic values system means that while you or I might see fulfillment in the completion of a long term project, another might see it in a 6-pack of beer. What I am arguing right now is that neither one of these is any more worthwhile or fulfilling than the other.

As soon as we start to assign subjective values to the worth of various pursuits of our time, we are being inconsiderate of the situation and values of those around us. All happiness is subjective to situation and character. It is borderline contentious to say that any pursuit (setting aside the utilitarian sense) is worth more than any other pursuit outside of our own personal perspective.

It’s all well and good to line pleasures up on a spectrum – perhaps from those that are instinctual to those that are intellectual – but that does not create just cause for distinction of worth. It is possible for many things to be different and equitable at the same time.

On a similar train of thought, I’d like to make the distinction between values and happiness. Values (to a certain extent) are the parameters that define what makes us happy, and what we want to strive for. Just as you cannot assign arbitrary values of worth to happiness, you similarly cannot say that any one value is “higher” or “worth more” than another. To be higher implies superiority. We can arrange values on a scale and define them by region, culture, religion etc. But, we cannot assign worth to these values without imposing our own subjective viewpoint onto others.

“What about Utilitarianism?” cry the peanut gallery! “Egalitarianism!”

To this I say, hold your horses. Even as we begin to look at philosophy that considers the happiness and success of all people in mass such as game theory, GDP focus, majority rule (philosophies that I happen to agree with), we still cannot use these as decisive factors in determining the worth of others actions.

Why not? Well, for precisely the same reason that we can’t objectively assign worth to happiness: whether or not you agree with these philosophies is a reflection of your own personal values and cannot be extrapolated to apply to any other person.

In psychology this concept is referred to as relativism – the idea that “points of view have no absolute truth or validity, having only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception and consideration” [American Heritage Dictionary].

So where does this leave us? Isn’t relativism a slippery slope towards Absurdism?

Well, no not really. Absurdists believe that there is no humanly obtainable value or truth in anything. Much like with Nihilism, this is a moot point. Saying that everything equates to nothing or saying that everything equates to something is the same thing. In the end, the distinction between nothing, and something (1 and 0) is purposeless because the conclusion that life is meaningless doesn’t make life stop existing.

The point I’m trying to make is not that there is no way to define happiness, or no way to guide people to happiness. I don’t believe that. Rather, I am fighting against the contentious notion that any single person is worth more, is doing more, is living a more fulfilling life than any other person. This is plainly untrue. Money, success, intelligence, accomplishment, physical fitness or any other arbitrary value we assign to the worth of someone’s life are horrible indicators, because they are relative to our own personal perspective. Aristotle may have believed himself to be above those around him. I, however, reject that notion.

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