Friday, September 13, 2013

The Good and the Pleasant

One of the central teachings of the Katha Upanishad is the distinction between Preya (the pleasant) and Shreya (the good).

Plato's Phaedrus contains similar thoughts:
In every one of us there are two ruling and directing principles, whose guidance we follow wherever they may lead; the one being an innate device of pleasure, the other an acquired judgment which aspires after excellence. Now these two principles at one time maintain harmony, while at another they are at feud within us, and now one and now the other obtains mastery.
There are at least two questions involved.  Firstly, is there something meaningful that's being said?  And secondly, as a philosopher, if there is indeed a difference between the two: How can one distinguish between these two, and how can one ascertain if one is following the path of pleasure or of "excellence"?

I believe there is indeed something valuable being said.  Acting on impulse, or react in a knee-jerk manner, or to satisfy an appetite as soon as it arises might be pleasant but we do not admire a person who has these proclivities.  We admire a person who does the opposite: one who has self-restraint, one who is mindful and thinks before acting, and one who does not live merely to fulfill his appetites.  By appetites, I mean the urges for sensual or "shallow" egoistic pleasures: insulting someone, getting others to agree to oneself out of fear or respect, etc.

Darshan Chande, who writes at, has written a few posts on "contentment-happiness" versus "excitement-happiness".  He would, I think, classify "pleasant" acts to lead to excitement-happiness and "good" acts to lead to contentment-happiness.

It has been said, perhaps in some arcane text that I no longer recall, that pleasant acts lead to feeling good in the short term but regret later, while good acts lead to a non-pleasant feeling in the short-term but provide much happiness later, and for a longer term.

As we grow in age, experience and wisdom, we learn to identify which acts have consequences which we will later regret.  And if we are sane and psychologically healthy, we avoid those acts or behavior patterns.

That's one of the keys to distinguish the "good" from the "pleasant".  But there is more.  Sometimes there are choices from which our conscience chooses one way while the pragmatic mind chooses the other.  An accident victim on an Indian highway needing our help.  An official demanding a bribe to address our issue faster.  In these scenarios, there is a faint guilt if we choose to follow our pragmatic side over our conscience.
That guilt is the conscience feeling let down.

If the conscience is let down too many times, it can withdraw into a shell of self-defense.  Just like an infant which is chided once too many and the infant then grows fearful to even utter a word.  Then the capacity to distinguish the "good" from the "pleasant" can no longer be found inside oneself.  It is all either "pleasant" or "unpleasant".

I am not going to talk much about the origins of conscience, but it has a genetic as well as a social component.  A healthy individual in a healthy environment would feel at peace with his/her conscience: neither suffocated by it, nor suffocating it.

Some religions eschew the pleasant altogether in favor of the good.  They consider any pleasure as a symptom of bondage to the "corporeal".  I believe, however, that such religions can be a toxic influence and lead to all kind of neuroses.  Religions which value life on earth and the pleasures it can provide, albeit secondary to a life of goodness, are healthier than those who consider renunciation as the human ideal.

Pure goodness with no pleasure is as inhuman, and pathological, as a life of pure pleasure with no consideration of goodness.


Anonymous said...

Perhaps there can be no universal principle about how to exercise choice...the Middle Way is to exercise a flexible wisdom which activates in accordance with changing situations...the only universal truth is that everybody has to die...and what is our attitude to this reality...unfortunately it is human nature to blind oneself to this reality and escape into vacuism as long as it can last..

Venkat said...

Often, a good solution lies in accepting short-term pain for long-term pleasure, i.e if I work hard NOW in my life, I can lead a comfortable life later; if I study for my exams now I can revel in the post-exam period.
Similarly, during the course of the day: if I finish working on this project now, I can enjoy my pizza later. Once I finish my homework, I can watch a sitcom. The good (aka the unpleasant) is tolerated in the hope of the 'pleasant' future.
Of course, in an ideal scenario, no task should be unpleasant. The project I'm working on should give me as much excitement as watching 'The Godfather'. The opposite too can happen: the project is so boring, that I cannot spend even 30 minutes no matter what the reward.
As with other things in life, may be the secret lies in finding a balance. what do you think, harman?