(This may just be repetition of https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/18324/9166 in a more extreme form.)
Worse yet, is pleasure even well-defined?
We find a reasonable range of experiences that are simultaneously suffering and pleasure, not just mixed, but experienced as a single inseparable whole:
- People derive pleasure from pain, especially when a paraphilia or a tendency toward deep regression is involved.
- Depression can be a deliciously decadent experience wherein the release of concern for the world echoes infantile omnipotence, while simultaneously being outright painful.
- The autistic experience the 'taco' effect being deeply calmed by being completely thwarted in ways that are claustrophobic and terrifying when they provide only partial constraint. The terror of interference and constraint does not abate, but somehow converges on something calming.
- Other people seek out almost debilitating fear on purpose. Is the resulting mania a good mood or is it emotional torture not to be able to escape such intense excitement? They say the latter, and go back.
- Soldiers in decades-long combat can become addicted to a lifestyle they find physically painful, traumatizing and immoral, and it can be impossible to restrain them after peace is achieved.
The examples all involve atypical psychology but I am not sure this is so much an aspect of their psychology being abnormal, as that it is easily missed by those who are more neurotypical, (like a lot of the detail in the world.)
This whole arc follows the ethical notion we trace from Epicurus, that there is a single best thing, and that serving that interest is our primary goal in all ethics. From him, the notion of pleasure has evolved.
First of all our science makes it questionable whether it is possible to optimize pleasure. If the James-Lange or Cannon-Bard theories of emotion (especially as they come together in as they come together in Lisa Feldman Barret's model) (q.v. all on Wikipedia) are right, we assign the positive or negative valence of an emotion well after we experience it. So, if we would just reassign the valence, given different environmental factors, how is the experience itself absolutely good or bad? But at the same time, how are we supposed to work to increase something that can just be reassigned the exact opposite value due to mere accidents over which we have no control?
Nietzsche suggests there is something more immediate to serve, the ongoing revelations of one's Self.
Consonance and dissonance with one's will at a moment are not necessarily experienced as pleasure or suffering in the way one would expect. It can be deeply satisfying to work oneself into a state of fury or exhaustion that empties you of positive thoughts and even physically hurts when this is in the deeper service of your own will. And once you have recovered, getting what is called for may be so much sweeter for having suffered for it. But the will is definite, and the fact of choice gives us a definite definition of what is actually pleasant, at a deeper level.
Though he did not look at it that way, it addresses the scientific problem. By making subjectivity primary, we can avoid the fact that pleasure is objectively unstable by giving a redefinition of pleasure in terms of choice. We also get to avoid 'serving' some global notion of choice, by making this all a competition and not a collaboration.
But Schopenhauer (as a voice for a Westernization of Buddha, in which suffering is life and life is valuable so suffering is valuable) had already suggested that suffering is in many ways just as productive as pleasure, however you might tweak the definition of the latter. Power as pleasure, in particular seems to fail the historical test of fanatical Christianity. Suffering due to self-abnegation can be seen as the greatest good: independence of the world or service to a transcendental power. In being so revalued and worshipped, how does it not become more relevant than pleasure?
Similar attempts seem equally doomed if we follow one of the other threads in Nietzsche, from the Genealogy of Morals. It suggests that humanity tends to reverse meanings just to resist being defined, to remove leverage to which power has been applied, in order to escape domination. But this has always enabled a different expression of power, almost directly opposed, to arise in the old dominator's place.
Such reversals are easy because negation is tricky. Opposites often lie closer together than they lie far apart. So absolute values like pleasure are often undermined by their own inability to be properly set opposite to their nearest possible contrasts. From a perspective elaborating McLuhan, the manipulation of choice in modern society, and the psychological burden it can easily become, suggests that even the freedom that we imagine is the reason we avoid domination can facilitate a variety of power, with its own set of leverage points.
So we can fall back on the psychotic directive: 'Choose your illusion'. Crowley's devotion to evil or Starhawk's "Dreaming the Dark" capture in religious terms a worldview that owes much to Nietzsche, and that values difficulty and contradiction and extends a greater value to pleasure if it is complete to the degree that it and contains its opposite. But at that point, one has assigned all value you are going to allocate to your primary goal, and are valuing its opposite.
But we are all moderns, at heart. Having seen science, we are unlikely to abandon its foundations. The ecstatic and revealed form that these post-modern criteria take seems open only to the fanatical and antirealistic.
To me, this exhausts the tradition of Epicurus and the search for a single motive upon which to base ethics. There is no proper way to just keep the focus and redefine the goal. We are forced to back down from a single point of reference to something more negotiated.
Even if those negotiations keep pulling us back to a point of consensus which promises to provide another single point of reference, it will always be as unstable as the original chosen point.