Deferred Satisfaction

The mother was getting annoyed that her teenaged son was wasting time watching TV.
“Son, don’t waste your time watching TV. You should be studying,” she advised.
“Why?” quipped the son, as teenagers usually do.
“Well, if you study hard, you will get good grades.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Then, you can get into a good school.”
“Why should I?”
“That way, you can hope to get a good job.”
“Why? What do I want with a good job?”
“Well, you can make a lot of money that way.”
“Why do I want money?”
“If you have enough money, you can sit back and relax. Watch TV whenever you want to.”
“Well, I’m doing it right now!”

What the mother is advocating, of course, is the wise principle of deferred satisfaction. It doesn’t matter if you have to do something slightly unpleasant now, as long as you get rewarded for it later in life. This principle is so much a part of our moral fabric that we take it for granted, never questioning its wisdom. Because of our trust in it, we obediently take bitter medicines when we fall sick, knowing that we will feel better later on. We silently submit ourselves to jabs, root-canals, colonoscopies and other atrocities done to our persons because we have learned to tolerate unpleasantnesses in anticipation of future rewards. We even work like a dog at jobs so loathesome that they really have to pay us a pretty penny to stick it out.

Before I discredit myself, let me make it very clear that I do believe in the wisdom of deferred satisfaction. I just want to take a closer look because my belief, or the belief of seven billion people for that matter, is still no proof of the logical rightness of any principle.

The way we lead our lives these days is based on what they call hedonism. I know that the word has a negative connotation, but that is not the sense in which I am using it here. Hedonism is the principle that any decision we take in life is based on how much pain and pleasure it is going to create. If there is an excess of pleasure over pain, then it is the right decision. Although we are not considering it, the case where the recipients of the pain and pleasure are distinct individuals, nobility or selfishness is involved in the decision. So the aim of a good life is to maximize this excess of pleasure over pain. Viewed in this context, the principle of delayed satisfaction makes sense — it is one good strategy to maximize the excess.

But we have to be careful about how much to delay the satisfaction. Clearly, if we wait for too long, all the satisfaction credit we accumulate will go wasted because we may die before we have a chance to draw upon it. This realization may be behind the mantra “live in the present moment.”

Where hedonism falls short is in the fact that it fails to consider the quality of the pleasure. That is where it gets its bad connotation from. For instance, a ponzi scheme master like Madoff probably made the right decisions because they enjoyed long periods of luxurious opulence at the cost of a relatively short durations of pain in prison.

What is needed, perhaps, is another measure of the rightness of our choices. I think it is in the intrinsic quality of the choice itself. We do something because we know that it is good.

I am, of course, touching upon the vast branch of philosophy they call ethics. It is not possible to summarize it in a couple of blog posts. Nor am I qualified enough to do so. Michael Sandel, on the other hand, is eminently qualified, and you should check out his online course Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? if interested. I just want to share my thought that there is something like the intrinsic quality of a way of life, or of choices and decisions. We all know it because it comes before our intellectual analysis. We do the right thing not so much because it gives us an excess of pleasure over pain, but we know what the right thing is and have an innate need to do it.

That, at least, is the theory. But, of late, I’m beginning to wonder whether the whole right-wrong, good-evil distinction is an elaborate ruse to keep some simple-minded folks in check, while the smarter ones keep enjoying totally hedonistic (using it with all the pejorative connotation now) pleasures of life. Why should I be good while the rest of them seem to be reveling in wall-to-wall fun? Is it my decaying internal quality talking, or am I just getting a bit smarter? I think what is confusing me, and probably you as well, is the small distance between pleasure and happiness. Doing the right thing results in happiness. Eating a good lunch results in pleasure. When Richard Feynman wrote about The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he was probably talking about happiness. When I read that book, what I’m experiencing is probably closer to mere pleasure. Watching TV is probably pleasure. Writing this post, on the other hand, is probably closer to happiness. At least, I hope so.

To come back my little story above, what could the mother say to her TV-watching son to impress upon him the wisdom of deferred satisfaction? Well, just about the only thing I can think of is the argument from hedonism saying that if the son wastes his time now watching TV, there is a very real possibility that he may not be able to afford a TV later on in life. Perhaps intrinsically good parents won’t let their children grow up into a TV-less adulthood. I suspect I would, because I believe in the intrinsic goodness of taking responsibility for one’s actions and consequences. Does that make me a bad parent? Is it the right thing to do? Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?