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A.C. Grayling’s The Choice of Hercules
June 5, 2008, 4:30 pm
Filed under: diary | Tags: , ,


A.C. Grayling’s use of the metaphor of Hercules’ choice between Duty and Pleasure resonated with me. In Greek mythology, Hercules was confronted by Duty, represented by a slender fair lady in robes, and Pleasure, a voluptuous siren, and he had to choose between the two. He chose Duty and the rest was history. Within the context, Duty was equated with Virtue and Pleasure, with Vice.

I find this struggle between Duty and Pleasure a central concern in my life, and a constant source of uncertainty and contemplation.

Life seems to be a constant choice between solemn and perhaps even arduous fulfillment of duty and immediate gratification. I study long and hard now to get good grades which will allow me to feed my family in the future. I sacrifice my social life to do so. Conformity with moral values seem to require postponement or refusal of worldly pleasures.

Or is it? Grayling suggested that pleasure and duty are coterminous; fulfilling obligations simultaneously creates pleasure. It seems to make sense. I cherish a set of moral values which I feel duty-bound to follow. Adhering to these values naturally should lead to a feeling of pleasure.

Also, a strict denial of the very human need (I dare say it is a need, as opposed to a want) to pleasure the flesh is not necessarily immoral. The strict dichotomy between pleasure and duty need not hold. Denial might lead to horrific consequences; a human who completely abstains might morph into a devil. Shakespeare, a liberal and humanist, would probably frown upon any who lives a life of pure abstinence. The puritanical concept of hard work and no play is mocked and attacked consistently in the playwright’s works. Isabella and Angelo in Measure for Measure are prime examples of how a hermetic life of strict abstinence can paradoxically create immoral persons whose distorted conceptions of morality and humankind wreaked havoc upon the lives of others.

Moving back to Grayling’s point. It troubles me greatly. The posited dichotomy between pleasure and duty seem to rest on hypocrisy. The fact that I view the pursuit of moral ideals as the antithesis of pleasure seems to suggest that perhaps deep down inside, I am not truly a genuinely good and moral person. For a moral person will derive much pleasure from moral acts. Saving a drowning child is good, but few will find getting wet and tired appealing. Those who do not find it pleasurable are in fact hypocrites because truly good people will find it pleasurable instead.

Perhaps it depends on the definition of pleasure. Following John Stuart Mill’s idea of pleasure, pleasure can be possibly divided into sensory pleasure appreciable by the senses and a deeper, “mental” pleasure, which is a feeling of mental and spiritual satisfaction. Saving a drowning child might be an unpleasant sensory experience (the cold water, the sweating, the physical exertion), but I derive a greater spiritual pleasure. And that unites duty and pleasure.

This currently seems to be the only way I can manage to maintain the dichotomy between duty and pleasure.


1 Comment so far
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Yup, you’re right in that e answer lies in yr definition of “pleasure”. The psychologist Martin Seligman draws a distinction between “pleasures” and “gratifications”.

The former being simple delights with a strong sensory or emotional component. such as those derived from food, sex, or just a cool breeze, for instance. The latter, however, engage you fully, draw upon your strengths and create this sense of “flow”. These are associated with doing things which involved effort and challenge yrself, and are related to concepts of Duty and Virtue, as you mentioned.

The corollary is that simple pleasures will lose their appeal after repeated usage – for instance listening your favourite food till u get sick of it. Whereas gratifications, or complex pleasures, give you a sense of accomplishment, and spur to continually hone your strengths and rise to new challenges. It is a question of balancing the two, bearing in mind, what is, and what isn’t sustainable in the long run.

Perhaps i might have bored you with my verbosity, but yeah, i hope that helped! =)
(P.S. U cld check out such works as Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman if u wanna find out more.)

Comment by cy

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