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The Pleasing and The Good

    How does pleasure relate to happiness? Why do the two seem to be pretty much the same in children? Why is there a link between both, even as we develop conceptually? The answer lies in the nature of pre-conceptual associations.

    The pleasure-pain mechanism is what integrates actions at the perceptual level. It is an automatic biological function, based solely on hormones and synapses. Although it is adaptable, it is also deterministic - a perceptual being has no choice but to adapt its instincts to its environment in a specific way. Because of the evolutionary pressures that shaped the mechanism, its logic is quite simple: pleasure is assigned, however imprecisely, to actions that keep beings alive, and pain to actions that bring them closer to death.

    People are both perceptual and conceptual. As perceptual beings, we have an innate pleasure-pain mechanism, with predetermined responses to specific stimuli. As conceptual beings, we have the ability to associate perceptions, even before we can fully formulate concepts by assigning symbols to associations. Once we fully develop our conceptual faculty, we gain volitional control over our associations, by being able to focus on them at will.

    When we start creating pre-conceptual associations, we do not yet have the knowledge required to formulate concepts like “good” and “evil”, which are the conceptual basis for the emotions of “joy” and “suffering”. We do, however, have an innate, inaccurate link to “life-promoting” and “life-destroying” actions in the form of our pleasure-pain mechanism. A baby doesn’t know that eating is good for him, but he feels pleasure when he eats - and that pleasure is a common denominator for most good, life-promoting actions.

    Pleasure and pain thus become two common denominators for arbitrary pre-conceptual associations that closely resemble “good” and “evil”. Emotions at the pre-conceptual stage are, therefore, analogous to the feelings of pleasure and pain. This is why primitive “education” often involves physical punishment - if we are dealing with arbitrary associations, one can only impose a concept of “evil” by associating certain actions with physical pain.

    As we develop our conceptual faculty, we do not simply superimpose new concepts onto previous associations, but integrate those associations into concepts, by identifying, for example, what pleasurable situations were, in fact, good. The same memories that make up our original pre-conceptual association of “pleasurable-good” get integrated as concrete instances of our concept of “good”. To the extent that we manage to identify those associations, we exert volitional control over them, and our conscious values gain primacy over the emotional chaos of infancy, based on instincts.

    Because of the relationship between pleasure and life-affirming actions, a rational conceptualization of good and evil will always maintain that link to a significant degree. There is a metaphysical relationship between both. The more irrational a philosophy, however, the more that relationship will be reversed, and because irrationality is not based on identification, that reversal can be total - pleasure itself can be seen as the root of all evil. Such is the psycho-epistemology of duty-based ethics.

  -  April 18th, 2020