Pleasure is good, ethical and unavoidable

“You should seek the good in itself” or “do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do” is one of the most absurd notions and mantras in philosophy. It is an unavoidable fact of nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  It is not immoral to seek your own good and joy and to avoid that which will bring you pain.  So in seeking reward and avoiding punishment is a natural and wise.  To try to reduce ethics to “the good in it self” is not just idealistic it is simplistic and unrealistic.

In Platonic and Aristotelian thought, one cannot love without motivation and without a sense of reward, and have this still be an ethically acceptable love. Duty ethics, or Kantian ethics without regard to reward is not Biblical, it is not even possible.  Of course hedonism is not only unethical it is foolish,  but at the same time an idealistic view of love as completely unselfish is also foolish.

Can these philosophers really except people to love God or each other without any regard to their own enjoyment?  Or to love the good without any sense of reward?

See my post on the Four Loves for more details on the different kinds of love.

It is human nature to enjoy that which brings pleasure and to abhor that which brings pain. So a true ethical account must take both seriously.

Pragmatically speaking, if a loved one is in the hospital, dying of a horrible sickness, there is nothing to bring delight, or awake the desire for her there.

There is no, what Andres Nygren in his famous book “Agape and Eros” called the, “Eros motif,”  in the lover for the sick person.

Nygren argued that we must have Agape love (sacrificial love with out any self-interest) for us to be ethical.  Kant argued the same way.

It is true that if the lover left her beloved in this hospital and went looking for another lover to bring her delight, it would prove that this so-called love was only superficial and a farce. Sacrificial, unmotivated love of the woman who stands by her husband’s side, even when she stands to lose, is the Agape love that is noble and right. However, it is not enough.

Nygren’ s and Kant’s point break down when we return to the hospital bed and look at the lovers. When the lover is beside her beloved, she loves him not because he is weak and in the hospital, out of pity; rather, she has grown to love him because of something deeper.[1] Through time, she has grown to love him in spite of his ailments and problems. She has committed herself to him. This love is not contingent upon his being in perfect health or beauty, but it is also not because he is in the hospital. She would much rather, in a perfect world, walk in the cool of the day holding him by her side rather than watch him slowly die.   One state is being with him in his suffering, Agape alone; the hospital bed, (or the cross): The other is Agape with Eros; the walk in the cool of the day with the healthy beloved (the resurrection). Love is vast and not confined to a sacrificial box.Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation 13th Annual Gala

The late Christopher Reeve, an American actor who is well known for his role as Superman in four major films, is a sparkling, bittersweet example of the connection between Agape and Eros in reciprocated love. On Memorial Day 1995, Reeve was riding his horse Buck for practice in an upcoming riding event. Buck suddenly stopped, with no apparent reason, and threw Reeve up and over his head. Reeve landed on his head, shattering his first and second vertebrae. Needless to say, Reeve survived and was paralyzed in most of his body. A little while after the accident, the Chicago Sun-Times reports the events in that hospital room as recorded in Reeve’s book Still Me:

Dana [Reeve’s wife] came into the room. She stood beside me, and we made eye contact. I mouthed my first lucid words to her: “Maybe we should let me go.” Dana started crying. She said, “I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what.” Then she added the words that saved my life: “You’re still you, and I love you.” If she had looked away or paused or hesitated even slightly, or if I had felt there was a sense of her being noble, or fulfilling some obligation to me, I don’t know if I could have pulled through…What Dana said made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and commitment. I was able to make a little joke. I mouthed, “This is way beyond marriage vows–in sickness and in health.” And she said, “I know.” I knew then and there that she was going to be with me forever (Italics mine).[3]

Reeve, and most of us, would agree that Agape without the Eros motif is not fully love at all. Notice in the preceding quote that the sacrificial love of his wife would not have been the fullness of love to Reeve, but the willingness to joyfully accompany him in his sufferingreeves still me is what made it love, and allowed him to survive: “If I had felt there was a sense of her being noble, or fulfilling some obligation to me, I don’t know if I could have pulled through.

What he has in mind here is, of course, reciprocity, in pleasure and in duty. Love is a multifaceted diamond which throws its viewers into mystery in trying to pinpoint exactly where and how the light reflects upon its surface. We err when we try to reduce this love to a certain set of principles or equations, as in mathematics.

One of the greatest fathers of the church, St. Augustine, took the two motifs, Eros and Agape, and wove them together in a way that brings understanding and depth to the concept of love that has changed the way many throughout the ages have understood love. Based on his observations of human interaction, he penned;

“Right self-love cannot seek its bonum in anything but God, and it is my own loss if I do not love Him… So if I do not love God, it only shows that I do not rightly love myself. Amor Die and amor sui are so much one thing that they grow and decline with one another.”[5]

God takes delight in giving us delight and we delight in giving him delight. This is the point Jonathan Edwards makes in his writings: “ …God’s respect to the creature’s good, and his respect to himself is not a divided respect; but both are united in one, as the happiness of the creature aimed at, is happiness in union with himself.”[6]

Can we serve God and be motivated to enjoy it as the same time? Must we choose between self-love and love for God? The answer is an emphatic no. In the same way as serving my wife brings me pleasure. The two are not mutually exclusive.

In closing, in John Piper’s proudly life changing book “Desiring God” he  reiterates this theme he calls this “Christian Hedonism”;

The pleasure the Christian seeks is the pleasure that is in God himself. He is the end of our search, not the means to some further end. Our exceeding joy is he, the Lord-not the streets of gold, or the reunion with relatives or any blessing of heaven. Christian Hedonism does not reduce God to a key that unlocks a treasure chest of gold and sliver. Rather it seeks to transform the heart so that ‘the almighty will be your gold and choice silver for you. (Job 22:25)’

desiring_god

It could be argued that in hell there is neither Agape nor Eros, but Heaven is full of both. Both sacrificial, unmotivated service and delightful, passionate, motivated, pure pleasure are the hallmarks of heaven. The lion and the lamb will lie side by side and there will not be a serpent to corrupt, degrade, deify or devastate them.  The scriptures are clear that personal self-gratification is not antithetical to love.

“Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore,”Psalm 16:11

and

“How precious is your constant love, O God! All humanity takes refuge in the shadow of your wings. You feed them with blessings from your own table and let them drink from your rivers of delight.”Psalm 36:7-8

This love is not just theological, it is practical. I love my wife and children, I would sacrifice everything I have for them.  But I also delight in them.  And that makes our love more enjoyable and more livable.

In the final analysis, seek pleasure alone and lose everything,

especially~God~seek God and get both.

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[1] This can be applied to mothers who have severely disabled infants who love them nonetheless. [2](Songs of Songs 4:9-11) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1996. [3] “Lives Shatter in an Instant.” Chicago Sun-Times citing Reeve’s book, Still Me (1998 Cambria Productions): Tuesday May 26, 1998.. 31 [4] Quoted in Dilman, Ilham. Love its Forms, Dimensions and Paradoxes. (Macmillian Press LTD (Ney York, N.Y. 1998) pg. 160[5] Augustine, Sermon XXXIV cap. V.8. and Epist CLXXVII.10. Quoted from Nygren A and E pg. 539[6] Edwards, “End for which God Created the World”, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.1, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1974), p.120.,  Piper, John Desiring God: Mediations of a Christian Hedonist. (Oregon: Multnomah Books, 1996), p. 20.

 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Pauline McCaig

    Hi Khaldoun
    Whilst I can understand and appreciate what you are saying here it seems to me that there are other circumstances where it is not applicable. It could be argued that Christopher Reeve was ‘fortunate’ that at the time of his accident he was already in a relationship which enabled his wife to respond as she did— many are not! So whilst I would agree that Agape love without the Eros motif could be seen as ‘not love at all’ that leaves many whom are ‘not loved’ — some of whom may be frankly unlovable in those terms— in such circumstances is it really ‘foolish’ to attempt to ‘seek the good in itself’ to ‘do the right thing’ and respond to them with agapic love?

  • Hello Pauline,

    Thanks for your post. Yes, of course we should do the right thing, even when we don’t feel like it. I am a big proponent of dying to selfish desires that destroy us and living up to desires that uplift us. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing the right thing, but I do it anyway–not merely because it is the right thing, but because it is the right thing AND it will be better for the people I am dealing with and for me in the long run.

    I completely understand what you are saying and I am hoping this form will be a place we can get into more detail and unpack what unselfish and selfish love looks like, ethically speaking. 🙂

    What I am saying is not that we should not have agape like, unselfish sacrificial love, but that such love, as beautiful as it is, is not enough. It is more complete when delight accompanies it.
    Our desire for pleasing ourself and the world and all that is in it, are not too strong, rather they are too weak.

    CS Lewis wrote:

    “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

    • Pauline McCaig

      “By Jove I think she’s got it!!” — as Professor Higgins exclaimed when Eliza finally absorbed what they were trying to convey!