Friday, July 24, 2009

PLEASURE VS REASON: The human vs the animal

"Master Bruce, why do we fall?"
-Alfred, Batman Begins

Last week I noted the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, and complained again that we'd just dropped the whole thing. I blamed bureaucracy largely, but a commenter also suggested culture's shift played a part:
Personally, I don't hold the bureaucracy alone at fault. I blame an entire generation that was less interested in actual achievement than in their own private pipe dreams. Their narcissistic self-concern distracted them forever from any "higher" aspiration which didn't involve regressive utopianism or government cheese.
-Jake Was Here
I think he's got a point, and its pretty sad. People have few dreams beyond what they can personally enjoy and enjoy immediately. The dream of reaching into space takes greater imagination and ambition than the next orgasm or the next good time.

KittyOur cat Coal was lying on a chair once, asleep I knelt down beside her and reached out a hand, she woke up, looking at me upside down and mewed once. She wanted to be petted, so I gave her a scritch under the chin for a while. Her response was immediate: eyes closed, purring a contented look. I thought about the babies I've known. When they want attention it tends to be of a different kind. Sure, they want food sometimes but when they just want attention, they're more pleased when you give them something to think about. You play peek-a-boo, or make a funny face, you talk to them. Their eyes light up, they smile and coo and even giggle.

The difference, it seems to me, is one of type and no small significance. The animal is not capable of rational analysis or interaction. It cannot work out facts and ideas, it cannot think about and consider actions and response appropriately. It works on a much more basic level: food, comfort, sleep, etc. Human beings are much more than animals, so much more I believe that despite many biological similarities that it is a mistake to call humans mere "animals." Such a simplistic classification is akin to calling an Armadillo an insect because it has a hard shell and legs.

This basic difference and how it takes shape is significant because it says something about what humans are and ought to be. If you focus your life on comfort, pleasure, ease, and safety, you've reduced yourself to mere bestiality. You're being an animal, looking for the next scritch under the chin so you can purr. This might be a temporarily rewarding life, and it is certainly easier than seeking more, but humanity is meant for more.

Humanity should seek its fulfillment and significance in what it can accomplish, what it can learn, produce, and understand. Humanity's meaning is not found in what makes me happy, but what makes me learn. And what's more, happiness for humanity is best found in reason, not in pleasure.

The child's simple efforts to mimic your funny faces and the fun it takes in peekaboo is a result of its mind being active and striving to know and understand more. The joy in peekaboo is the sudden appearance of a face, recognized and enjoyed. Your cat won't purr playing peekaboo, it might even run away from the sudden movements. Your baby recognizes it as a game, and enjoys the mental stimulation.

Human happiness is a result, not a goal. It is the result of work well done, of understanding, of accomplishment. If you seek happiness in and of its self, you may find it; but you'll always be struck by its transitive nature. Your happiness in a flirtation or a drug will be real, but brief until you try again - and the same thing will rarely bring the same degree of happiness. By contrast, if you seek something meaningful and significant, you'll find happiness and have done something important. If you sacrifice so your children can have more, your children will be a source of happiness and you'll have that goal accomplished as well.

This contrast between self improvement and self enjoyment is stark and important. One is the act of a human being, the other the act of a beast. We live in a society which encourages the beast in us: just do it. Go for it. You deserve it. The more we focus on ourselves and what we can gain in terms of comfort and delight, the more the animal we become and the more society and culture collapses around us. As a result, the very things we rely on for pleasure and happiness are threatened and eventually will be destroyed as well.

In political terms, the right often promotes this with an unbridled embrace of mere greed and ambition. Naked ambition, the drive to better one's self materially, is the stuff of pleasure in the form of goods. Greed is the desire for power (in the form of money) merely to have power and the happiness it results in. This is a failure to be human as well, reducing us into beasts. That effort to achieve and ambition should be driven by virtue and service toward one's fellow man: accomplish and grow and become wealthy, but not merely for wealth. Do it so that you leave something better to others, so that you grow and result in a better world. Being rich isn't bad, but being rich merely to be rich is. There are far greater things in the world than what you can own and control.

By contrast, the left focuses on personal feelings and group identity. The desire for equal comfort and lack of any feelings of oppression or offense is the goal: nobody's feelings get hurt and nobody feels any lack or suffers physical harm. This striving for immediate comfort and avoiding lack of difficulty is bestial as well. It is a desire to avoid discomfort and to always be wrapped in safety. Yet for humanity, the challenges in life and difficulties we find our way past through reason, determination, and effort are what make us grow and mature. Through the hard times we learn reason and strength and become closer as a community. Trying to avoid causing offense and harm to emotions isn't wrong, but it ought not be the goal, and at times offense and emotional distress are necessary and good.

Both right and left in these errors are making one of the most fundamental and common mistakes of the modern man: the fool's presumption that this life, and this world - all that we can sense and scientifically test - are the extent of reality. There is nothing more than what I can touch, thinks modern man. Absurd efforts are made by thinkers to desperately explain away the existence of love and brotherhood as cryptic biological processes. Yet the world is made up of far more than our sciences can test, as any good scientist will immediately agree to. And to reduce humanity to only that which science can measure is to reduce humanity to less than human, for we alone in the world are able to percieve and act on what lies beyond the material.

Go then, and be a human, for humanity embraces virtue, truth, and reason. Be wise, be thoughtful, be merciful and just. Be human.


Texas Shooter said...

Excellent post! Very thought provoking....

Anonymous said...

i lost all interest after your claim that humans are so seperate from animals and your idiotic proof.

Christopher Taylor said...

Nicely refuted, I can see why you hold to your position so strongly, since you aren't really able to express why you do. I'm sure its based on the strictest of reason.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you for your thought provoking words.