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“The House of Pleasure”

“The House of Pleasure” I have often been baffled by what seems to be a relatively straightforward problem which I call The House of Pleasure. I was wondering if: a) a trained philosopher could shed some light on it; and b) whether anything similar has been discussed in the academic literature. It goes like this. It’s a Saturday night and a guy is walking to a party. On the way, he notices something he hasn’t seen before: a neon sign obnoxiously blinking “The House of Pleasure.” Intrigued, he approaches the doorman. “That’ll be $100, sir.” “What? That’s crazy! What is this place?” “Oh,” the doorman says with a glimmer in his eye, “you’ve never been to The House of Pleasure? Let me explain. After you pay me and walk in, your brain will be scanned to identify everything that you subjectively enjoy: physically, sexually, emotionally, and intellectually. You’ll then spend the next four hours experiencing pure, untainted pleasure based on your personal desires. Whatever you enjoy most about...

This interesting thought experiment and associated questions deserves a substantial response. Alas, for now, I can only suggest that you read Robert Nozick's discussion of happiness and the "pleasure machine" thought experiment, a nice discussion of which was offered in the New York Times by David Sosa here.

This interesting thought experiment and associated questions deserves a substantial response. Alas, for now, I can only suggest that you read Robert Nozick's discussion of happiness and the "pleasure machine" thought experiment, a nice discussion of which was offered in the New York Times by David Sosa here .

I know that my life is extremely short and that all of my worries and anxieties

I know that my life is extremely short and that all of my worries and anxieties are transient. I should just learn to enjoy and appreciate the moment. Yet I simply can't seem to let go of my everyday anxieties. There is always something clogging my mind. Is there some philosophical tradition which helps people to transcend such trivial concerns and find a sense of bliss? Would the religion of Buddhism be a useful tradition to explore?

Yes, Buddhism suggests that we need to detach ourselves from our cravings and anxieties in order to escape from our suffering. The practice of meditation is designed to help with this process. By engaging in the focused breathing or other methods of meditation, you begin to learn to control the mind's tendency to wander and obsess. Instructions for a pretty simple type of meditation can be found here. But like any other practice, it is best learned from an expert and by repetition.

One might also argue that the practice of philosophical thinking in general can help one overcome our transient worries and anxieties. By carefully reflecting on whether these worries are rational and on how one can best address them, one can reinterpret them in a way that should dampen the emotional reaction to them. Here, reading the Stoics might help. I also just read Ecclesiastes (from the Old Testament) for the first time, and enjoyed it. While it has a depressing edge to it, Solomon also argues that the best we can do to live a good life is to love one another, work hard at something we enjoy, find pleasure in this love and work, and make the most of our limited time on earth.

Other panelists might have more suggestions. I hope this helps.

Yes, Buddhism suggests that we need to detach ourselves from our cravings and anxieties in order to escape from our suffering. The practice of meditation is designed to help with this process. By engaging in the focused breathing or other methods of meditation, you begin to learn to control the mind's tendency to wander and obsess. Instructions for a pretty simple type of meditation can be found here . But like any other practice, it is best learned from an expert and by repetition. One might also argue that the practice of philosophical thinking in general can help one overcome our transient worries and anxieties. By carefully reflecting on whether these worries are rational and on how one can best address them, one can reinterpret them in a way that should dampen the emotional reaction to them. Here, reading the Stoics might help. I also just read Ecclesiastes (from the Old Testament) for the first time, and enjoyed it. While it has a depressing edge to it, Solomon also argues that the...

Is happiness really all that important?

Is happiness really all that important? A lot of people think so, but that being happy just for happiness' sake is a waste. If there was a "happiness pill" that could make me happy for the rest of my life, I wouldn't take it. Because if I did, I'd get lazy and wouldn't accomplish anything. It seems like the pill would be cheating. But on the other hand, I'm not so sure I'd want to be the most successful person in the world if it meant I could never be happy. So I have to wonder: is it happiness or the things that make us happy that we should value?

On this topic, I have always been intrigued by Simone de Beauvoir's comments in the introduction to The Second Sex. She says:

But we do not confuse the idea of private interest with that ofhappiness, although that is another common point of view. Are not womenof the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeperhappier than the working-woman? It is not too clear just what the word happyreally means and still less what true values it may mask. There is nopossibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easyto describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them.

In particular those who are condemned to stagnation are oftenpronounced happy on the pretext that happiness consists in being atrest. This notion we reject, for our perspective is that ofexistentialist ethics. Every subject plays his part as suchspecifically through exploits or projects that serve as a mode oftranscendence; he achieves liberty only through a continual reachingout towards other liberties. There is no justification for presentexistence other than its expansion into an indefinitely open future.Every time transcendence falls back into immanence, stagnation, thereis a degradation of existence into the ‘en-sois’– the brutish life of subjection to given conditions – and of libertyinto constraint and contingence. This downfall represents a moral faultif the subject consents to it; if it is inflicted upon him, it spellsfrustration and oppression. In both cases it is an absolute evil. Everyindividual concerned to justify his existence feels that his existenceinvolves an undefined need to transcend himself, to engage in freelychosen projects.

What this suggests to me is that happiness may be at odds with freedom or transcendence (these latter aren't necessarily the same, of course). The idea seems to be that genuine freedom (and transcendence) are difficult and one is not likely to be happy if one pursues them. And yet, they are more valuable than happiness. (And more valuable than the experience of being free or of transcendence.)

Others are likely to say that virtue is more valuable than happiness, and these two are often in conflict. Many philosophers have tried to argue that there is a necessary connection between virtue and happiness, but it is a hard case to make. For example, we often make commitments to others and it would seem that we have a duty to fulfill those commitments, even if doing so would make us worse off -- and even positively unhappy -- in both the short and long term.

I'm inclined to think that happiness, at least according to most interpretations, isn't the most important or valuable thing. Freedom and virtue are more important to me. Moreover, I'm also inclined to think that actively pursuing happiness isn't the best way to achieve it. This is connected to the idea of "flow" Eddy mentions. Happiness comes when you are engaged in meaningful activity that is well-suited to your abilities (it challenges you, but not too much); it's a byproduct of activity, not the goal of activity.

As usual with such a philosophical question, much depends on how you define the key concept, happiness . One conception of happiness identifies it with a type (or types) of feeling(s), such as contentment, joy, excitement, and pleasure. These are the feelings a happiness pill would presumably supply. And some utilitarians pick out this sort of happiness as what should be maximized. Some then object along the lines you suggest: utilitarianism seems to entail that we should want to take a happiness pill (and if things would keep running smoothly, for everyone to take happiness pills)--or for us all to enter a Matrix that would keep us all happy--but there seems to be something wrong with living on such a pill (or entering such a Matrix), so there must be something wrong with utilitarianism. This objection works against egoism as well (the view that all we want is pleasure). Perhaps the intuition here is that only 'authentic' happiness is truly valuable, the sort of happiness that one derives...