I have been in debate for a while now with me friend. I come here looking for feedback and possible outlooks to related sources.

The question we posed a long time ago is interesting one: why do we not kill ourselves?

Without more context, I want to propose the conclusion of my friend Alpha: the reason us humans do anything, is because of the biological reward system in our brains that gives us pleasure and pain. In more concise words: we want to do things because of pleasure.

I take it upon myself, my burden of existing, to prove him wrong, or incomplete. The following is my thought:

All things we do are ultimately because of pleasure. (1, Given)

All things that are pleasurable we want to do. (reversing 1st statement because of logical equivalence)

All things that are painful we do not want to do. (2, Negating the previous line)

All things pleasure and pain are temporary; they have a beginning and end. (3, Given)

Pleasure is temporary. (Restated from 3)

The idea that pleasure being temporary can be painful. (Given)

I feel pain from the idea of pleasure being temporary. (4, Using myself as an instance of the previous line)

I do not want the idea of pleasure being temporary. (Changing line 4 to look like line 2)

The idea that pleasure is temporary comes up every time I feel pleasure. (5, An extreme but possible assumption)

I feel pain every time I feel pleasure. (Rephrasing line 5 to be more dramatic)

I want to feel pleasure and I do not want to feel pleasure. (A contradiction)

I conclude that not all things we do are not ultimately because of pleasure, because that leads to a contradiction.

This is not a formal proof, but I would love to get some feedback. Do you agree with these statements? Am I assuming too much? Any flaws or changes to make it more convincing?

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    This is just a longer, less succinct form of the primary Buddhist/Stoic deduction that pleasure is at best neutral. I know it appeals to many, but to me the basic premises lack basic awareness of easily available data: There are people who like pain, there are pleasures that you don't miss when they are gone, there are lots of things that are simultaneously painful and pleasant, many of these are painful only temporarily and pleasurable long afterward (e.g. skydiving, scary movies, first dates, hard labor), pleasure and pain fall across so many axes that combining them is pointless, etc. – jobermark Nov 15 '16 at 0:11
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    These two propositions: "All things we do are ultimately because of pleasure" and "All things that are pleasurable we want to do" Ask your "friend" - pleasurable according to whom? Pollyanna? Dahmer? Mr. Rogers? Marquis de Sade? You?? Both statements are equally presumptuous but they are not logically equivalent in forward or reverse. – Mr. Kennedy Nov 15 '16 at 0:16

the reason us humans do anything, is because of the biological reward system in our brains that gives us pleasure and pain.

...is a reasonable presumption in the absence of any evidence to the contrary. By biological reward, I presume you mean dopamine, endorphin, oxytocin etc. Experiments manipulating levels of dopamine in rats have demonstrated that their motivation to act can be modified beyond their ability to reason simply by the continued supply of dopamine. Ethical concerns prohibit such experiments on humans, but we have no good reason to presume we are any different.

The problem is in the common confusion that our emotions/brain chemistry just "tell" us to do something. The chemicals concerned can be triggered by different parts of the brain in response to different stimuli and are not mutually exclusive. So in response to, say, a strange cat, you could get a signal telling your cortex that stroking it might produce a boost of oxytocin (remembering that it did last time you stroked a cat), visual signals of the condition of its coat might result in the chemical signals of disgust telling your cortex not to stroke it. It is your cerebral cortex that has to make the decision as the action may cause pleasure or pain or both. Even 6 month old babies viewed under fRMI show this cerebral processing prior to the final determination of a brain state. So the first flaw is statements 1,2 and 3. Everything we do is done because of an estimation by our cortex using our past experience (and occasional genetic pre-dispositions) that the pleasure will outweigh the pain.

This leads to the main flaw at 11, you have presumed that because the temporariness of pleasure is painful, that in any action there will be an equivalence of pleasure and pain. Rather, the cortex will measure the expected pleasure from the action against the expected pain (whether from the subsequent loss of pleasure, or any other pain) and reach a conclusion about whether to follow the action or not.

In addition, we suffer from a bias known as hyperbolic discounting, where the processing of the cortex is pre-disposed to value more immediate rewards. This will (in most cases) favour the pleasure to be gained from an action over the later pain from that pleasure subsiding.

The systems the brain uses to imagine or recall an event are the same as those it uses to experience it (just with an additional layer of data telling you it is not real), so your cortex, when considering an action has good reason to believe that the pleasure can be re-lived, which, together with hyperbolic discounting, makes the statement at 5 ambiguous at best. The brain also selectively recalls events that were pleasurable when it is in a normal state, so an equal quantity of pleasure and pain will be recalled as mainly pleasure.

Finally there is a "pleasure" neurotransmitter concerned entirely with the future, serotonin. This provides a reward when we are in an environment which is perceived as beneficial to us in the future, rewards which we are not currently taking advantage of, but we believe we could. Thus the mere existence of potential future pleasures provides a reward. People with low serotonin, have clinical depression and many do indeed end up taking their own life, so in it's most simple terms the answer to the question "why do we not just kill ourselves?" is serotonin.


We are time regulated beings. If we have a job that brings us self esteem, ie pleasure, we do well. If our time is consumed in work we find unpleasant, we will seek pleasure in some other form. Pleasure is ultimately the goal, but some never find it, "It" always something that looms in the future. It appears to me that pleasure is found in fellowship, being with people that mirror your core beliefs. Hedonistic "pleasure" outside the bounds of morality always results in guilt, and guilt is the opposite of pleasure. To be content, have good friends,goals you are reaching for is better than existing, always lookking to an uncertain future for something that brings joy, excitment, peace and contentment.

  • If you have any references that take similar views they could be used to support your answer and direct the reader to sources you have selected. Regardless, welcome to Philosophy! – Frank Hubeny Mar 19 at 19:49

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