The Pleasure Principle

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
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Christians are sometimes accused of holding to the ‘if it’s hurting/difficult/unpleasant then it must be good for you’ philosophy of life in contrast to the attitude that ‘if it’s fun/makes me happy (and hurts no one else) then it is morally OK’. The reality is neither view really sums up the total outlook of anyone; life is always a lot more murky grey than that. However this week I couldn’t help but think that when it comes to some moral choices perhaps it might help to develop this mantra:

‘if you enjoy this you should think twice before doing it.’

This is bordering on the puritanical so let me explain. I have been thinking about Cecil the Lion now more famous in death than in life, killed for the pleasure of one man at huge cost. The photographs that have flooded the internet following the death of this majestic creature raised all sorts of questions for me. Why would anyone want to kill something so beautiful? Is it about exerting power? Is there any challenge in it? Is it a sport?  How can it be pleasurable to bring death to a creature that is full of vibrant life and strength? I am sure psychologists have their theories but whatever they are it must stem from the philosophy that believes ‘if it’s fun/makes me happy (and hurts no one else - lions don’t count ) then it is morally OK’. It is a philosophy that blinded the individuals concerned. They failed to see that this lion was a glorious part of creation which points to the eternal power and divine nature of God. In Job God points to nature: mountain goats, wild donkeys, wild ox, the ostrich, the horse, the eagle and the magnificent Behemoth and Leviathan that give us glimpses of the power of our creator. Faced with a lion what should we see? When William Blake’s meditated on the sinewy strength of the Tiger  in his famous poem he declared:

‘What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?’

It is right for us to manage creation, we are to subdue the earth, to work it and care for it but to destroy it for fun? You might think I am being sentimental but I acknowledge there are times when there are right reasons to hunt but killing for pleasure? This pleasure principle reveals we are viewing the world and God wrongly.

When I was asked to help establish the Northern Women’s Convention I was hesitant. My gut reaction was I was not into ‘women’s conventions’ as I disliked ‘pink and fluffy’ women’s events. The reply I got was ‘that’s just the reason why you should do it’. It is the converse of the pleasure principle. I was not being told ‘if it hurts its good for you’ but that my concerns helped qualify me for the job.

Back to Cecil the lion. There are times when animals need to be culled and the best qualified for the job are those who think twice; those for whom there is no pleasure in it but an acknowledgement of responsibility. There are times when we are exactly the people to do a job even when there is no pleasure in it. There are times when finding the job painful qualifies you for the task - think of the vet putting down a beloved pet or the  doctor who tells a patient a diagnosis they don’t want to hear or the policeman who informs relatives of a sudden death. If any professional relished those parts of their job it would indicate a serious lack of empathy - I think we would want their superiors to step in and say ‘if you enjoy this I don't think you should do it’ .

So in what way can pleasure be an indicator for our moral choices? It might help us examine ourselves - just because I enjoy this doesn’t mean I should do it and alternatively just because I won’t enjoy this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. The pleasure principle may help us stop and think . But what should govern all our actions? Job discovered it when he said:

‘The fear of the Lord - that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding’ Job 28:28

And this week as we  stop and look at a lion we get an indication of the immortal hand that formed it. A creator that powerful is surely one to whom we owe reverence and awe.