Bentham’s calculus

The utilitarian thinker Jeremy Bentham proposed a “hedonic calculus” to synthesize or rationalize the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. His criteria was: 1) intensity, 2) duration, 3) certainty, 4) remoteness, 5) fecundity, and 6) purity. That is, each factor was to be applied to a pleasure in order to determine whether it was a pleasure worth cultivating.

The problem, of course, is that pleasure is not mathematical or even rational. While commutativity exists in algebra, it does not exist in real life. The sum is not the whole of the parts but a circumstance that can be reproduced somewhat but not absolutely. Just as we can argue that for every effect there are causes that can be pursued and identified, it is not the case that we can always or even sometimes reproduce them. Thus we are largely satisfied if we can get close. That is the grand compromise with life that largely undermines a consistently Epicurean solution. In other words, common sense rather than a calculus are sufficient for everyday life.

The historical Epicureans were not debauchees as such but refined aesthetes pursuing the pleasure of conversation, of the gourmand and the art collector, for example. There is an air of decadence, and it could be maintained that it does not represent an ethical or social threat. But that is more likely because the behavior is secondary to the person who has already acquired power and control, and now merely seeks to enjoy the fruit of gains acquired whether ruthlessly or out of cleverness. The dust of worldliness still clings to the dry calculus.

Freud is most closely identified with the “pleasure principle,” which essentially restates the premise of the hedonic calculus. But Freud tempered the principle with the reality principle (which makes the pursuit and exercise of pleasure more dependent on environment, circumstances, and feedback). He further tempered it by the idea that pleasure, after all, is nothing more than the avoidance of pain. This unmasks epicurean aesthetics but also acknowledges that nothing will every really satisfy Bentham’s fantasy.

Stasis may better define the momentum of sentient beings, not in the sense of stagnation or immobility but equilibrium. Freud was in this regard rightly concerned with behavior not philosophy. Equilibrium seems the innate goal of beings because it sets their growth, motility, etc. in harmony with their environment. While this ability to maintain equilibrium seems to be the operating behavior of nature, it is a learned behavior in human beings, or rather a behavior that must be learned the hard way. Everything in modern society and culture advocates mobility and change, power and control — while nature and our minds strive instead for equilibrium. The world is “nasty, brutish, and short” according to Hobbes, but primarily because others always seem to want it that way.

The far ends of the pleasure spectrum abandon the calculus: the infantile and the mystical. Both seek not only equilibrium but union, union with the source or Source of their being. Both abandon the content of logic and reason for experience, leaving the calculus behind. The infantile desire for the equilibrium of the womb, the “oceanic” feeling described by both Freud and Jung, has its counterpart at the other end of the spectrum with the mystic’s union, with samadhi. The place of equilibrium is a circumstance, a construction of our mind and time. Like pleasure, union is a variable, not the sum of the parts. It decays, dissolves, and returns the myystic reluctantly back to that dull state of ordinary sentience. The remains are a memory, a sensation that cannot be reproduced.

But the sense of union cannot be reduced to a calculus because it cannot be measured. Like subatomic particles, the experience of union changes when we train our tools of observation or discourse upon it. Classical literature from the biblical Song of Songs to Rumi have tried the sexual analogy, which appeals to common readers, but that only drags it down to the calculus. The fallacy is in intensifying engagement with the impermanent.

The calculus fails because it is a search for the ephemeral projected into the future, bound forever by desire. By disengagement from the ephemeral, the mind is strengthened, attracted by what it can create of its own mental environment, ineluctable, not dependent on the chase for measures of quantity or quality. In this subjective but authentic environment, the equilibrium we need can be quietly constructed. As Shantideva puts it:

In solitude, the mind and body
Are not troubled by distraction
Therefore, leave this worldly life
And completely abandon mental wandering. (8.2)

And abandon with it the calculus.