Viktor Frankl on the  error of the pleasure principle
Religion & Liberty Online

Viktor Frankl on the error of the pleasure principle

Aristotle asked what made the good life?  Was it pleasure, material wealth, honor, or virtue?

He argued that while pleasure, wealth, and honor were a part of a good life and human happiness, they could not constitute it. Pleasure is fleeting, wealth is always always acquired for the sake of something else–a big  house, a nice car, influence –and honor comes from other people and  can be taken away from you. Real human happiness and a good life could only obtained by a life of virtue and excellence.  He didn’t say this was easy.  We often sacrifice virtue for the sake of honor, pleasure, or money.

Notwithstanding Aristotle’s reflections, it is a commonly view that the ultimate goal in life is in fact pleasure. The argument for the life of pleasure is an ancient one, and our materialist context makes it even more attractive.   Pleasure  as the goal of life was popularized in the modern period by thinkers like David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and of course Sigmund Freud who argued that the pleasure principle was the driving force of all our actions.

At first glance the argument for a life of pleasure might make sense. After all, if we are merely material beings with no intrinsic value or difference from other animals; if there is no God and no afterlife, why should we spend time worrying about the good?  Isn’t pleasure enough?  Now mind you  a good number of people who argue for pleasure don’t simply equate pleasure with eating, drinking, and merriment.  Epicurus, of Epicurean fame, argued for the importance of friendship and philosophy.

At the same time, the lure of physical pleasure is strong, and the ability to rationalize our actions perhaps even stronger. The pleasure principle can very very quickly lead to the use of others, to excess, and licentiousness. While there is no doubt that pleasure is clearly a motivation in our lives,  should we make it our goal, and is it really the main motivator as Freud argued?

The Door to Happiness Opens Outward

The great 20th century psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl who wrote the brilliant book Man’s Search for Meaning (which by  the way if you have not read order it today) argues against pleasure principle in his book The Doctor and the Soul. Frankl argues that a life in pursuit of pleasure leads to ethical nihilism.  It also prevents real happiness because happiness is a byproduct. The man who strives for happiness as his goal can never find it  Similar to Dietrich von Hildebrand who argued joy cannot be grasped, but is the “superabundant” fruit of love, Frankl argues that

“only when the emotions work in terms of values can the individual feel pure “joy.” …joy can never be an end it itself…How well Kierkegaard expressed this in his maxim that the door to happiness opens outward.”

Pleasure Undermines Meaning

In The Doctor and the Soul Frankl described how many of his patients, looking for the meaning of their individual lives would end up in “ethical nihilism” because they held that the goal of life was pleasure. Frankl writes”

The patient will flatly assert that that, after all, the whole meaning of life is pleasure.  In the course of his arguments he will cite it as an indisputable finding that all human activity is governed by the striving for happiness, that all psychic processes are determined exclusively by the pleasure principle… Now to our mind, the pleasure principle is an artificial creation of psychology. Pleasure is not the goal of our aspirations,  but the consequence of attaining them. Kant long ago pointed this out… Scheler has remarked that pleasure does not loom up before us as the goal of an ethical act. Rather an ethical act carries pleasure on its back. The theory of the pleasure principle overlooks the intentional quality of all psychic activity. In general men do not want pleasure. They simply want what they want.  Human volition has any number of events, of the most varied sorts, whereas pleasure always takes the same form whether secured by ethical or unethical behavior. Hence it is evident that adopting the pleasure principle would, on the moral plane, lead to a leveling of all potential human aims. It would become impossible to differentiate one action from another since I would have the same purpose in view. A sum of money disbursed on good food or given in alms could be said to have served the same purpose. In either case the money went to remove the un-pleasurable feelings within the spender. Define conduct in these terms and you devaluate every genuine moral impulse in man.

In reality an impulse of sympathy is already moral in itself. Even before it is embodied in act which allegedly has only the negative significance of eliminating unpleasure.  For the same situation which in one person may arouse sympathy, may stimulate a sadistic malicious joy in another who gloats over someone’s misfortune, and in this manner experiences positive pleasure….  In reality, life is little concerned with pleasure or unpleasure. For the spectator in the theater it does not matter so much that he see a comedy or tragedy; what allures  him is the content, the intrinsic value of the play. Certainly no one will maintain that the the unpleasure sensations which are aroused in the spectators who behold tragic events upon the stage  are the real aim of their attendance at the theater. In that case, all theatergoers would have to be classed as disguised masochists…

When we set up pleasure as the whole meaning of life we  insure that in the final analysis life shall inevitably seem meaningless. Pleasure cannot possibly lend meaning to life. For what is pleasure?  A condition. The materialist–and hedonism is generally linked up with materialism–would even say pleasure is nothing but a state of the cells of the brain. And for the sake of inducing such a state, is it worth living, experiencing, suffering, and doing deeds?

Suppose a man condemned to death is asked, a few hours before his execution, to choose the menu for his last meal.   He might then reply: is there any sense in the face of death, in enjoying the pleasures of the palete? Since the organism will be at cadaver two hours later,  does it matter whether it did or did not have one more opportunity to experience that state of the brain cells which is called pleasure?  Yet  all  life is confronted with death, which  should cancel out this element of pleasure Anyone holding this hapless view of life as nothing but a pursuit of pleasure would have to doubt every moment of such a life, if he were to be consistent. He would be in the same frame of mind a certain patient was hospitalized after an attempted suicide.  The patient in question described to me the following experience: in order to carry out his plan for suicide he needed to get to an outlying part of the city. The streetcars were no longer running, and he therefore decided to take a cab.  “Then I thought it over,” he said,  “Wondering whether I ought to spend the few  marks.  Right away I could not help smiling at wanting to save a few marks when I would be dead so soon.”

Life itself teaches most people that “we are not here to enjoy ourselves.” Those who have not yet learned this lesson might be edified by the statistics of a Russian experimental psychologist who showed that the normal man in an average day experiences incomparably more unpleasure sensations than pleasures  sensations. How unsatisfying the pleasure principle is in theory as well in practice is evident from a commonplace experience. If we ask a person why he does not do something that to us seems advisable, and the only “reason” he gives is: “I don’t feel like:  it he would give me no pleasure,” we feel that this reply is distinctly unsatisfactory.  Is apparent that the reply is insufficient because we can never admit pleasure  pleasure as an argument for or against the advisability of any action.


Michael Matheson Miller

Michael Matheson Miller is a Senior Research Fellow at the Acton Institute