Exceptional Hedonism


Photo by Michael Reeve, September 2, 2003. Licensed by author under GNU Free Documentation License

It comes as no surprise to say that one can have too much of a good thing. Stories of excess are never hard to find, though one from New Zealand stood out.   An unconscious man, whose van had been found stopped in the road, was pulled from his van.  The judge convicted him of driving with a blood alcohol level two and a half times over the legal limit.  His sentence included four months detention, nine months probation and forty hours of community service.  By itself the story seems commonplace.  What caught my attention were the conditions in which the offender, Mr. B, was found.  Next to him in the van sat a half empty bottle of gin and a bag of Viagra.  The Viagra was discovered only after two passing motorists found Mr. B. slumped over the wheel, no doubt with a very angry purple erection protruding from his trousers too.   As they extracted him from the vehicle they discovered a brown paper bag filled with pills.  The deeply purple and apocryphal erection would have likely raised more questions.

How exactly did Mr. B end up so compromised in the middle of the New Zealand road.  What extraordinary series of events would lead him there?  Why did he have a bag of Viagra?  Who else lurked in the community equally intoxicated?

What was Mr. B thinking?  Of course, it’s the wrong question.  When we read about debauchery it’s from a rational perspective, often with a cup of coffee or tea in hand.  Imagine sitting at the breakfast table with coffee, toast, and the morning paper.  First you read the front page, then the weather and finally an odd headline catches your eye.  Rational minds seek rational explanations, but in this case of Mr. B only irrational explanations suffice.   Rational analysis did not lead Mr. B to end up 2 ½ times over the legal blood alcohol limit nor did rationality provide him a bag of Viagra.   More likely it was some blind animal urge that led him to a gin and Viagra cocktail.  Perhaps his condition resulted from an unfortunate set of habits; maybe he had been driving around the countryside under the influence of a really stiff drink for years.

That’s when it dawned upon me.  Given that Mr. B had been driving his work van and was found still dressed in his painting overalls it was entirely possible my assumptions were wrong.  I had assumed that his condition resulted from partying; an evening of too many drinks with friends.  Maybe, I thought, Mr. B’s opinion differed on how to have a good time.  Perhaps his view  started with mimicking the end result.  Couldn’t he have had half a bottle of gin and taken the Viagra in hopes of something good coming of it?  Mr. B’s behavior took on a more hopeful hue, a sort of twisted version of “build it and they will come”.

Hedonism comes to my mind when thinking about Mr. B.  It’s a funny word, often said with a tone of derision.  “Oh, watch out for him, he’s a hedonist,” as if it is a moral category into which only the most debauched slide.  Mothers warn their children to watch for errant hedonists.  In the case of Mr. B I’m surprised the judge didn’t order him to wear a shirt emblazoned with the word.   Thomas DeQuincey, author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater wrote, “Gentlemen, I am a Hedonist; and, if you must know why I take opium, that’s the reason why.”  With statements like that it’s easy to see how somebody might misconstrue the meaning of hedonism.

Hedonism derives its place from the work of Jeremy Bentham.  Bentham wrote in 1789, in his An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”.  His observation is the foundation for modern economics, ethics and, well, life.  Somehow Bentham’s pleasure principle got bound up with hedonism and its misbehaving cousin debauchery.   Hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain, serves as the basis of most, if not all, human behavior.   Bentham believed that one could accurately calculate the net pleasure (pleasure minus pain) to be derived from a given act.  If Bentham were alive today I have no doubt he’d build a hedonists app for his phone.

Bentham was a brilliant, if not somewhat odd man.  He coined numerous words we use everyday, like international, minimize and maximize.  He also coined numerous words we don’t use every day like cryptodynamic (relating to the operation of hidden forces), infirmation (the action of weakening or invalidating) and humiliative (having a humiliating quality).

He did his friends the great favor in his will, leaving them the obligation of dissecting his cadaver.  Bentham’s friends were a loyal lot, cutting him into numerous bits for study.  Bentham’s last contribution to the world came from the grave instructing the executor of his will to ensure that his salvaged bones were put into the auto-icon, now a tourist destination in London.  In a phone booth like box – the auto-icon – sits the skeleton of Jeremy Bentham, draped in his original suit and stuffed with straw.  The wax head approximates him well.  The real mummified head looks both like a raisin and as old as the Pharaohs.  Fortunately, the head resides in a locked vault having been stolen once already by some misguided thief.  I say misguided because Bentham’s mummified head is truly hideous.  I guess there’s no accounting for where some try to find their pleasures.

Like the Bentham-head-thief Mr. B’s calculation of his alcohol and Viagra-induced pleasure neglected to take into account the pain that would follow.  This is generally true of most alcohol-induced pleasures.  If not the hangover, then it’s the unexpected and unexplained bedroom partner.   Estimating the amount of pleasure gained from an act is easy, whereas many people seem to have trouble calculating the pain.  This is true for individuals and it seems equally true for countries.  Saddaam Hussein tried to maximize Iraq’s pleasure in taking Kuwait, yet he severely underestimated the consequent pain involved.  More recently the US has been in a humiliative thirty-year binge of get rich quick schemes, leaving small American families living in huge houses with even larger debts.

It’s possible to imagine Mr. B’s trouble in calculating the net pleasure he would gain from quenching thirst with hard liquor.  “My driving improves when I’m relaxing with gin.”  “Gin makes me more attractive, I had better swallow a couple of Viagra.”   Drink enough, take enough drugs and virtually anything seems possible – to you.  To anybody else watching you will simply appear foolish.

Rationalization plagued Mr. B as much as it does those living with American exceptionalism.  For years Americans have believed in their capacity to solve problems.  It used to be called Yankee ingenuity, but I think Alabamans objected to the phrase.  These days Americans don’t need to solve problems; they have exceptionalism, the view that somehow American uniqueness trumps all adversity.  Some cryptodynamic force plays itself out from California, to the New York Island, the redwood forest, and to the Gulf Stream waters protecting America from the physical forces of climate change, debt and gun ownership. When Mr. B discovered he had been found in the middle of the road his self-perception must surely have gone through some infirmation; at some point he must have been ashamed.  I wonder if a similar realization will happen to America as it wakens from its pleasure induced coma?

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