Pleasure and Pain: A Dynamic Duo

Caitlin Taylor

Happiness, a term that can also be replaced with pleasure, is something that has been studied endlessly by philosophers and scholars, in hopes that they might understand what exactly happiness is and how one might achieve a state of full pleasure or bliss. Even in the early stages of the world, humans chose pleasure over morals, reminding us that the desire to be happy is in our nature, and is something we will aim for no matter the consequences. Going back to the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve were willing to disobey God in order to “achieve happiness” from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Even in today’s society people are obsessed with finding happiness. Happiness seems to be one of the most important qualities for us to achieve in our life, however before we obtain it, we must grasp a better understanding on what happiness actually is.

John Stuart Mill links the word utility back to happiness in his essay, Utilitarianism, through the Greatest Happiness Principle in which he defines happiness as “the promotion of pleasure and prevention of pain.” Mill argues that one’s goal in life should be to try to achieve pleasure while at the same time avoid pain, because pain is not something one would typically wish to gain, or so Mill assumed. With good reason, Mill fails to consider the idea of the achievement of pleasure through pain as an end goal in life. Why would someone try to bring pain upon themselves? It would make sense for Mill to completely shut down pain as a good end to aim for; however, he is wrong to assume that no one goes searching for pain and he is wrong to assume that some forms of pain are not an acceptable end to try and achieve.

People are addicted to pain. We cannot help it because it is in our nature to feel pain, but secretly, we enjoy it. Some people will go out looking for pain because they want to test their strength and feel they might stumble upon some wisdom along the way. We often look towards people suffering as inspiration in our lives. People such as Helen Keller, Anne Frank and Nelson Mandela all experienced pain and suffering in their lives, and today they are all listed as some of the most influential people to walk the Earth.  As backwards as it seems, people will search for pain in order to find some form of peace in their lives. They defend the addiction by saying that when they feel pain it simply means they are still capable of feeling something, a gift for those who feel their life has lost meaning. However, one of the most common reasons people become so addicted to pain is because they are able to find some form of pleasure from it. If the ultimate goal in life, according to Mill, is to achieve pleasure and avoid pain, what happens to those who find pleasure in forms of pain?

Not all pain is necessarily meant to be painful. If you were to place your hand on a burning stove then you would experience a sharp, physical pain; and although you would say that your hand hurts, the pain you feel is your body’s way of telling you that something is not right with the situation. You experience physical pain in order to teach yourself that you should not try to place your hand on a burning stove, thus allowing you to achieve pleasure, or happiness, each time you avoid touching a hot stove and burning your hand because you are reminded of the pain you experienced in the past. This reminds us that one of the most important aspects of pain is the idea that there is always a lesson behind the pain that eventually will lead us to the pleasure we are constantly seeking.  Mill states later in his writing that utilitarianism, or happiness, can only be achieved by building good character. One of the key factors in the building of a good character is the belief that you are able to learn from the pain in your life. If the ultimate goal in life is to achieve pleasure, or happiness, and happiness can only be achieved through the building of good character then it is unreasonable to say that one should desire to avoid pain. If anything, this should only encourage one to look for the pain in their life so they might learn from it and cultivate a good character and achieve happiness.

Now what is to be said for the martyrs? Martyrs are one of the best examples of the need for pain to achieve happiness. A martyr will sacrifice themselves for others in hopes that they can help others achieve the end goal of happiness while avoiding some form of pain. If you want to look at a Christian perspective, then Jesus is the ultimate example of following the Greatest Happiness Principle. He sacrificed himself on the cross so that the rest of the world may life, allowing us to achieve happiness and avoid the pain of eternal death. A non-Christian example of sacrifice for others would be two cops on duty. If someone points a gun at one of the cops and his partner jumps in the way then the second officer has just sacrificed himself so that his partner may be happy that he avoided death. These martyrs are able to achieve the end goal of happiness because they helped others, even if they were unable to avoid pain along the way, thus once again proving Mill wrong in the idea that according to the Greatest Happiness Principle, the ultimate goal in life should be a life as far as possible from pain.

Though Mill failed to look completely into the idea of pleasure through pain, Mill’s ideas about pleasure in Utilitarianism were not completely off. In his essay, Mill criticizes the belief that aiming to achieve pleasure decreases the value of human life. He argues that human pleasures are more advanced than the pleasures of an animal because humans aim to be satisfied, whereas animals aim to be content. The difference between humans and animals when relating to pleasure is that once a human recognizes that something brings them pleasure, they continue trying to learn more about how to achieve that gratification; on the other hand, when an animal finds something that brings them pleasure they only go for it until they are content, and then repeat that same process over and over because it is their natural instinct. This argument that Mill makes separating humans from animals in relevance to pleasure could also be used to support the idea that pain is needed in order to achieve pleasure. The human brain is an intricate system. We are not just animals who simply aim to be content. We possess the capability of learning from our actions and understanding the meaning behind them, thus allowing us to do something so complex as taking pain and producing pleasure from it.

Here lies the flaw in Mill’s definition of happiness. He claims that the ultimate goal in life is to promote pleasure by preventing pain; however, he falls short in recognizing pleasure produced by pain. Trying to attain pleasure without pain is an unrealistic goal in life, and frankly an unhealthy one as well. The pain that we experience in our lives is meant to push us to become a better, stronger person. Trying to avoid the pain will not help us achieve happiness in the long run; instead we will become sheltered and never be able to feel true pleasure. Mill fails to consider the use of pain in building one’s character, which in the end contributes to the feeling of happiness or pleasure. Mill’s essay, Utilitarianism, made several interesting points referring to the idea of pleasure without pain, and although his ideas may have worked back in the 1800s, it is time to look at a more modern view of pleasure and pain, more specifically the idea that the two should not be forced to be separated but used together in order to achieve the ultimate goal in life, happiness.

Mill, John Stuart. “What Utilitarianism Is.” In Utilitarianism. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 199.



One thought on “Pleasure and Pain: A Dynamic Duo

  1. Very interesting I have never explored the fact that pain is more of a helpful sacrifice rather than a hindrance. I like the comparison to animals about pain; it connects people to animals while also showing how we differ from animals because we are able to learn. One criticism I have is the fact that animals can learn through classical conditioning using a negative reinforcement to punish their actions, but I do understand your point that humans use pain to not only learn through conditioning but are able to form logical thoughts about why they suffer pain. This is a new take on suffering that people are so fear so much, but if we use pain more as a tool it can end up helping us determine what is causing the pain. Good job!

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