Abstention, Moderation, Maximization January 2018 • 3 minutes

There are three ways to orient yourself towards different kinds of pleasure: abstention, moderation and maximization. I think what each of those mean in this context is somewhat obvious but for the sake of argument: abstention means you refrain from doing something entirely, moderation means you do it but within conventionally defined social limits and maximization means you do it to the most extreme extent possible.

Sometimes people will lean towards one form or another in various ways. We all know someone who tends to go too hard when it comes to good times and generally values having the most extreme / exciting / intense experiences. On the other end, we all know people who tend to avoid any and all forms of pleasing activity for one reason or another. In between are the people who never seem to overdo it but also know how to have fun.

The key to having a good life is actively controlling which activity falls into which category. If you want to abstain but instead you maximize, or what to maximize and instead moderate, you probably won’t even get a fraction of the value you would if things were where they should be. There are also things that probably belong in each category and deviating from that convention would cause significantly more harm than good. The medicine is in the dosage.

So what model could be built to determine which activities belong in which category? The first step would be harm minimization, to eliminate any activity that has net negative value. At that point, you can at least enjoy baseline happiness without too many low points. In practice, this might mean getting rid of drinking, sugar and other indulgences, at least for a time. The final step is to figure out how much of something gives you what you are looking for.

So the process could look something like this: first you maximize and find out what an extreme experience feels like on a particular metric. This could be as simple as having a cheat day and eating a great deal of sugary treats. That becomes the most extreme data point. Then you could see what it feels like to abstain entirely from sugar for the rest of the week. That becomes the other most extreme. The final phase involves reintroduction only if you want it and to a degree that brings the benefits of the cheat day without the problematic symptoms that soon follow.

There are people who believe that all pleasure is inherently evil, and similarly believe that all things that bring pleasure are an intrinsic good. Because pleasure is relative to baseline, it’s impossible for life to have no pleasure. There are just things that are above and below baseline. And all pleasure being intrinsically good is impossible too. It’s said that heroin is so enjoyable the first time you do it, your brain is rewired to chase that first experience. I doubt that hedonists are referring to heroin though when they make the case that all pleasure is an intrinsic good.

It seems like pleasure is simply a misnomer for our goals. Typically it doesn’t further anything long term, it simply makes us feel better in the short term. Perhaps the heuristic should be, if this pleasure reduces burn out, it could further your long term goals. Maybe the goal is intrinsically short term. Maybe I just like to split hairs and bucket things into overly complicated heuristics. All I know is that I get pleasure from writing, so I do it.