Back in 1789, Jeremy Bentham, a British jurist and philosopher, noted that nature placed mankind “under two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.”1 These two forces have a very clear evolutionary purpose: to make us behave in a way which is beneficial for our reproduction.2
This post raises two related questions:
- How effective is this incentive system (for the goal of reproduction) today?
- Should reproduction be our ultimate goal?
1. How effective is this incentive system today?
Considering that the world’s population is quickly approaching seven billion people, the incentive model seems to work quite well. However, on an individual level, nature sometimes evaluates our actions incorrectly.
- In many cases, the incentive system demonstrates a chronic short-sightedness. For example, we don’t want to go to the dentist because it causes pain, but dental care is necessary to avoid much more severe pain and maybe even life-threatening consequences later. The incentive system of pleasure and pain cannot reflect this long-term approach, so our actions must be guided by other means, such as rational thinking.
- Some of nature’s rewards are not in the best interest of reproduction. For example, we are rewarded for eating sugary and fatty foods, driven by the evolutionary scarcity of crucial calories. If nature “knew” that eating at McDonalds makes us fat, shortening our life expectancy as well as making us less attractive to the opposite sex, we would experience severe pain each time we bit into a hamburger.3
In other words, the incentive system of pain and pleasure does not always work as it should (from nature’s perspective) and therefore is imperfect.
2. Should reproduction be our ultimate goal?
Nature gave us the goal of reproduction and built an incentive system around it. However, do we need to accept this inheritance?
Most people who answer “yes” to this question are convinced of the intrinsically good nature (i.e., the belief that because something is natural, it must be good). I am very sceptical of that conclusion, for several reasons.4
If we don’t regard reproduction as the ultimate end-goal in itself, what should take its place? In an earlier post, I argued that happiness should fill this role, despite being only a byproduct or a means-to-an-end-tool from nature’s perspective.
The takeaway from all this is that pleasure and pain should not be regarded as untouchable. Instead, we should keep in mind that:
- Pleasure and pain are an incentive model with clear weaknesses
- We don’t have to agree on the goal implied by the model
- We should deliberately try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain as much as possible
Continuing this line of thinking, a future post will discuss how we can reduce pain or uncomfortable feelings. Until then, I welcome your feedback, as always!
1) Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789.
2) Or, more precisely, for our genes’ reproduction, as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out. Our cousins also carry our genes, at least in part, so we should be interested in their reproduction as well. Read more on this in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.
3) Many similar examples like this exist, and perhaps the most dramatic is that of taking drugs. The direct reward (in terms of happiness) could not be higher, yet the effects on our capability to reproduce (quick death) could not be more disastrous.
4) To avoid any misunderstandings: I like nature very much, in the sense that I love walking in the woods, climbing mountains, enjoying the view, being impressed by the sublime and vast sky, etc. However, I also understand that nature is only the result of how it has developed. I am not religious, and I don’t believe anyone masterminded this Greatest Show on Earth.
If I remember correctly, I started to question the concept of intrinsically good nature (which every kid is taught, either directly or indirectly) when I began to understand the horrible consequences of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and tsunamis, which kill hundreds of thousands of people. These phenomena are nature in its purest form. I recently watched a documentary on TV, showing the remains of a herd of zebras that died painfully after their source of water dried up. This made clear to me again that nature is just how things came about, without the intervention of a higher power and without mercy.