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Why Do Things That Are Bad For Us Often Feel So Good?
Five philosophers offer their opinions.
We asked young people what their most burning philosophical questions are. In order to answer them, we went and asked some of today’s leading thinkers.
Q: Why do things that are bad for us often feel so good?
- Mollie, 32
James Tartaglia, Keele University, UK
Feeling is always immediate, but a human life can last 100 years or more. The reason things that are bad for us can feel good is that pleasure doesn’t care about our long-term welfare; it just exists – like water, rocks, and stars. So, for example, I eat the cream cake and immediately feel good, but I know that if I carry on, then I’ll feel sick and get fat, which means that I’ll get bad feelings in the future. To stay happy, you need to find a good balance between pleasure now and pleasure later.
Matt Schneeweiss, The Stoic Jew Podcast
A human being is a hybrid creature comprised of a non-physical truth-seeking intellect housed in a physical body governed by animalistic instincts and emotions. The animalistic part of us is hardwired to seek short-term pleasure and avoid short-term pain, whereas the higher element within us looks out for our long-term well-being. The reason why bad things often feel so good is because our animalistic psyche is entirely preoccupied with immediate pleasure and pain and is blind to the detrimental consequences and potential benefits that await us in the future. Our goal should be to enlighten and train our inner animal, helping it to see that a life governed by our intellects will enable us to live the most enjoyable life possible.
Miriam Kosman, Author
This dynamic started way back when in the Garden of Eden—the tree was clearly “not good for us” since God told us not to eat it. But (Wo)Mankind checked it out and concluded that the tree looked as if it was tasty (and would be appealing on a physical level, was aesthetically pleasing and seemed to be intellectually stimulating…“and she took of its fruit.” If everything that was bad for us looked bad and everything that was good for us looked good, we would have no free choice. Animals, indeed, trust their instincts and generally don’t touch things that are not healthy for them. Humans, on the other hand…
Paul Franks, Yale University
As I’ve said in response to another question, there are several senses of “why,” and it’s clear that this world is arranged so that the answers to questions about why things happen to people are mostly not ethical. The same is true for feelings: they happen to us, they are not chosen, and they are mostly disconnected from ethical considerations. That leaves us with one remaining “why” question: what is the purpose for the sake of which we have good feelings when we do or consume bad things? The best answer we can give, I think, is that this disconnect gives us an opportunity and a responsibility: to work on our feelings and attitudes as best we can and to try to become people who can resist their the feeling of pleasure when confronted with something that is bad.
Grant Maxwell, Author
The ancient conception of the Pharmakon is of a drug that can heal or kill at different doses, serving as both poison and remedy. Shamanic “techniques of ecstasy,” whether wilderness isolation, fasting, dance, or the ingestion of psychoactive plants, are the intentional provoking of a physical and mental crisis in order to produce transformation, which is inseparable from real danger, a death of the ego necessary for rebirth into new modes of relation. There’s no way around the danger necessary for transformation, though I would urge caution when engaging with Dionysian practices, as egoic death can easily be literalized as real death if one is not appropriately prepared for these kinds of activities. Even on a collective scale, as both F.W.J. Schelling and James Hillman suggest, the emergence of a new mode of relation generally emerges out of death: Black Death and Renaissance, French Revolution and Romanticism, World War II and the sixties counterculture, and perhaps now global pandemic and the still barely discernible glimmer of a positive renascence into a novel epochal construction.
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