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Everyday Philosophy: Why do so many choose suffering over comfort?

The Tories appear to be exploiting a weakness in humans, where they will tolerate pain and suffering over comfort.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson interacts with school children during a visit to Westbury-On-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol. Photograph: PA Images.

Energy prices are soaring. Import chains are breaking down. Hospital waiting times are long. Children are already going hungry, and pensioners will have to decide between eating and keeping warm this winter.

Suffering, pain, and loss are all around us, and there are no signs of it letting up.

We know that much of this is a direct result of government policy. Why, then, is Boris Johnson still ahead in opinion polls? This is a deep mystery. Are most of us just masochists?

In his latest book, The Sweet Spot, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom addresses the question of why people choose pain over pleasure and suffering over comfort. His insights are relevant here.

Some philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham, claim that we are by nature psychological hedonists, that we are pleasure-seeking beings that avoid pain wherever possible. Paul Bloom disagrees and so do I. Many of us want more than just a life of blissful mental states caused by anything we happen to find pleasurable.

Bentham thought that if they produced the same amount of pleasure, playing pushpin (a mindless pub game) was of equal value to reading poetry.

He was surely wrong.

Robert Nozick’s ‘experience machine’ thought experiment helps make this clear. Imagine you could be plugged in to a virtual reality machine that gave you a convincing experience of living in the world but without any pain and huge amounts of pleasure. In the machine you could act out your wildest fantasies as if they were really happening and it would all feel wonderful with no downside.

Most of us would plug in for a few hours. But who would willingly plug in for life, particularly as once you were linked up you would no longer realise that this was all an illusion?

Although some would choose a pleasure-rich fake life, they are the exceptions.

A common reaction is that some things are more important than pleasure: having connection with reality, not living our lives as an illusion, finding meaning in the choices we make, and so on. If you value these things more than pleasurable experiences you’re not a hedonist.

That may be true, but why would anyone choose mental or physical pain when we have an alternative? We do this for many reasons, says Bloom. One is that when pain is diminished we get a rush.

This is the contrast theory, the idea that our experience of pain and pleasure always takes place in a context – if what has come just before was only just bearable, then a lower level of pain may seem pleasant in comparison.

This explains the pleasurable relief you feel just after eating a mouthful of vindaloo curry, when you step out of a very hot (or very cold) bath, or when someone stops doing noisy building work next door.

Bloom suggests that we often seek out experiences that give us just enough discomfort to make what follows pleasurable. Perhaps this could explain why people enjoy being pessimists too – when things turn out only half as badly as we’d imagined, we feel quite content.

The contrast theory can’t explain all choices to experience pain, though. Bloom observes that people often choose suffering when it is presented as having meaning.

This contrasts with meaningless pain, when you step on a shard of glass and it pierces your foot, for example.

And he’s not saying that those who choose meaningful suffering are masochists in the BDSM sense. But when a choice to endure physical or mental suffering is presented as a sacrifice with a higher aim then a surprisingly large number of us will be drawn to it.

That’s how weird we are. Bloom cites George Orwell’s review of Mein Kampf:
Whereas socialism, and even capitalism in a more grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time’, Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger, and death’, and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

It’s hard to argue with Orwell here. Struggle, danger, and even risk of death can be attractive if given a point.

Could it be, then, that in pushing the Brexit narrative, the Blitz spirit, and the propaganda suggesting that any suffering we are enduring now are just birth pangs, Johnson and co have tapped into the same psychological weakness that Hitler exploited?

For many of those who chose the Brexit path, the sacrifice of pleasure seems worth it.

For the rest of us, though, who certainly didn’t choose it, this is pointless, unchosen and forced: a kind of torture.

See inside the 21 October: Hot Air? edition

MP Anna Soubry speaks at the People's Vote Rally in Assembly Hall, Westminster. Credit:  Victoria Jones/PA Archive/PA Images

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