Pleasure Is Not The Only Good

Pleasure has become the end-all and be-all of today’s society. This drive has been reinforced over and over again through the mass media. Movies, advertisements and music all encourage a “If it feels good, do it” attitude. But is pleasure truly the only worthy goal of human existence?

My contention is aligned with Socrates’, that pleasure cannot possibly be the only good. By ‘good,’ I mean that something is beneficial and helpful to its pursuer or possessor. Therefore, for pleasure to be good, it must benefit the person who pursues, and eventually, possesses it. If we examine further, however, we find that pleasure cannot be the only good.

First of all, in pursuing short-term pleasures, we must be aware of the long-term effects that it might bring. The pleasure gained through narcotic ‘highs’, alcoholic stupor and smoking is deemed good at that very moment. However, when the body deteriorates, a hangover occurs or lung cancer sets in, will these pleasures still be good? I recall what my psychology professor once told me about a boy she had counseled. He had gotten a girl pregnant and in the session he bewailed, “A moment’s pleasure caused me a lifetime of hell.” Why is it that those who seek pleasure as the only good constantly look back and wonder “What if?”

This leads to the second point. Pleasure in itself cannot be good because it can blind and consume the person. In a moment, pleasure can enrapture all our senses, becoming the one and only trophy to be won regardless the cost. Who is not familiar with the drug-addict’s willingness to steal, even from his own grandmother, if that was what it took to get another hit? Another story paints a clearer picture. It is said that one of the ways arctic wolves are hunted is simply by appealing to their innate need to satisfy their bloodlust. Hunters freeze a block of ice on the blade of a knife that is then left at a certain spot. When the wolf comes along, it begins to lick at the block of frozen blood, which encases the knife’s blade. Soon, it is caught up in its frenzy and continues licking at the blood unaware that the blade has already been exposed. Soon, it dies because the knife had sufficiently wounded the wolf. It could not differentiate between the frozen blood and its own.

Lastly, we arrive at the need to ask ourselves “How much pleasure is enough?” Socrates gave us two examples of what people who pursue pleasure itself are like. They are like sieves and leaking casks that can never be filled and satisfied. People have a strange ability to adapt. That which used to satisfy no longer satisfies. Something more intense is needed because we have already become used to what previously aroused pleasure. For example, it is a pretty much common knowledge that many acts of rape begin with pornography.  At first, soft-pornography was exciting, but after a while, something more intense was necessary to produce pleasure. Eventually, it escalates to a point where it becomes necessary to find fulfillment for this pleasure in intensity so great, that they end up raping someone. Sieves and empty casks are insatiable… the pleasure that feeds lasts only a while before something greater becomes the source of the sought pleasure.

Thus, as a conclusion, I would like to put forth that pleasure itself cannot be the only good. It must be coupled with something other than itself to be good, and that would be wisdom. The discernment to know what, when and how will determine whether or not a certain pleasure is good.

This is a short paper I had to do for class… but it continues to serve as a reminder to me, in our pleasure-addicted world.


Copyright © 6 October 1999, Wong Giok Leigh. All Rights Reserved.

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