Dienstag, 7. Februar 2017

Pleasure and pain as a biological feedback mechanism:

A third concept of liberty
Samuel Fleischacker (1999)

"...(a) My pleasure in succeeding, if I succeed, is likely to encourage me both to take on housecleaning again and to pursue that end in the same or a very similar way. The pleasure here is thus part of what psychologists call a “feedback mechanism”: the pleasure at the end feeds back into the habits of my behavior as a means encouraging me to act in a similar way again; which action, if I once more succeed, results once more in pleasure as an end; that pleasure then becomes a means once more to further action of the same kind. As long as I keep getting rewarded by success, the motivation to behave similarly in future should become greater and greater, such that the pleasure does not merely maintain the habit but strengthen it. The frustrating pain I talked about in each of three ways I might fail will similarly feed back into a motivation not to behave similarly in the future, and indeed a series of successes can be badly stymied by one or two striking failures.
(b) The feedback mechanism can equally well be regarded as a cognitive tool. The pleasures and pains I feel on succeeding and failing in my tasks teach me something. It is not merely natural to abandon the putting away of toys if one’s children continually defeat every attempt one makes in this direction: taking the task as unachievable is a rational response to such failure. Of course, one could learn something more subtle—clean up when the children are in bed, perhaps—and the natural reaction does not always track the most intelligent reaction. The natural reaction to striking failure may well be to give up on a task altogether; a more intelligent one is to do the task differently. But pleasures and pains do generally track something we ought to take note of in our proceedings, some feature of the world with which we are successfully or unsuccessfully negotiating. So this particular kind of pleasure and pain is a cognitive one, something from which we can learn. That is not as true of the “brute” pleasures that come with the satisfaction of bodily needs: the pleasures of ingestion, excretion, rest, and copulation. Not that one cannot learn from the latter as well. Pleasure can indicate that a food is healthy for us, the pain of nausea often indicates that a food is unhealthy, pain in excretion can signal illness, ecstasy or boredom in copulation can signal the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a love partner. But these are blunt and broad mechanisms, perhaps for good biological reasons, and are notoriously unreliable indicators in particular cases. They are also, perhaps again for biological reasons, pleasures and pains that sweep over us mostly without our conscious control. We cannot easily choose to enjoy a particular meal or act of copulation by attending to its objectively advantageous features. Only attention to such objectively advantageous features, by contrast, can give us pleasure in housecleaning—the task itself hardly conduces to bodily delight. Hence the pleasure achieved or missed is more likely to index some real success or failure than a pleasure tripped off by a biological mechanism. Biological pleasures can be so sweeping, moreover, that they leave little room for thought at all. They overcome us at the expense of thinking, and this is indeed part of the relief they bring: satisfying bodily needs, we are relieved from the strain and responsibility of thought.
Finally, there is a category of pleasures that distract us from thinking without satisfying any bodily need, that work directly on brain centers for the activation of positive sensations, or the dulling of negative ones, without going via the completion of either a task-based or a biologically necessary process. Such are the pleasures of alcohol, of narcotics, and, probably, of much TV watching and “light” reading. The mind is directly stimulated to pleasure, or directly dulled to pain, or distracted from all thoughts, including the worrying ones about whether one’s tasks are completed and bodily health in order. Very ill and very unsuccessful people notoriously devote much of their lives to pleasures like these, a fact which I take as empirical evidence both that the pleasures in question require little effort, and that they are satisfying precisely because they allow one to set aside one’s objective situation. ..."

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