Archive for the ‘pleasure’ Tag

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.


Marriage as Friendship

In Christian theology, marriage is typically thought to have three ends or purposes: begetting children, bestowing grace and providing a remedy for sin, and creating mutuality in interpersonal communion. The first purpose is easy to achieve (though a little more difficult to do well); the second purpose is entirely up to God’s gratuitous action. In this blog post, then, we are going to focus on the last purpose, which does not receive nearly enough philosophical and theological attention. We are going to examine how Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’ theological and philosophical system allows us to think of marriage as friendship.

Aristotle identified three types of friendship. The first is called a friendship of utility. These are relationships based on benefit and what Aristotle calls eros or erotic love. These are relationships that exist because each party gets something out of it. The friendship that exists between soldiers or co-workers or classmates is an example of such a friendship. Aristotle says that these relationships are impermanent, and they form and dissolve frequently based on changing circumstances. A friendship based on utility does not have to be between people who necessarily like each other, but simply has to serve some benefit.

The second type of friendship is a friendship of pleasure. Friendships based on pleasure, unlike those of utility, are between people who like each other and desire the other person’s company, precisely because it is pleasurable (and not necessarily useful). The partner in such a friendship is desired for their own sake because it brings so much pleasure. These are the friendships most of us have–our conversation partners, the people who share our hobbies, the people who delight us when we are in their presence. Among this type of friendship, Aristotle includes lovers who find sexual intercourse mutually pleasurable.

The last type of friendship is a friendship of virtue. If friendships of utility are based on material advantage, and those of pleasure are based on pleasures of the body, the last type of friendship is based on the good and the mutual pursuit of virtue. The tie that binds these relationships is not the good received, but the good that is willed to the other. These are friends who want primarily what is good for their friend, even when the pursuit of this good is not always easy or pleasurable. However, this last type of friendship according to Aristotle is indeed the most useful and the most pleasurable in the long run.

For Aquinas, this last type of friendship is the ideal relationship that rational creatures and designed to cultivate. We have the best chance of flourishing intellectually, morally, and spiritually when we have a social life based on this last type of friendship. In fact, without friends, the virtuous person’s life would be impaired. Without friends, a person would lose enthusiasm for virtuous living, and lose the motivation to act in the right way.

Friendships based on virtue allow a person to expand their capacity for virtuous deeds. Say I struggle with temperance but excel in courage. A virtuous friend who excels in temperance can provide me with the much needed motivation to act temperately in a given challenging situation. In turn, I may help this friend to become more courageous by providing her motivation to have fortitude in a challenging situation. Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that in friendships based on virtue, our friends are united to ourselves in such a way that their actions are in some way also our own. The friend is more than an Other. The friend is rather another Self.

My instinct tells me that most people think of marriage as either the first or the second type of friendship. A marriage of utility is one that might be formed because of financial benefit, or because a woman thinks that her child needs a father, or to help someone get immigration status. These marriages used to be very common, but I suspect they still happen an awful lot, especially between single moms and the “nice guy” who is just so good with her kids.

A marriage of pleasure is probably much, much more common. These are marriages formed between people who like each other, who have mutual interests like wine tasting, a love of Irish literature, or jogging. These are marriages that form because after years of dating, the two people still like each other a lot, the sex is good, and marriage is just the logical next step.

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, a friendship based on pleasure is not a bad thing in itself. The problem with these friendships is that they tend to dissolve when the pleasure dissolves. Say the sex stops being good, or every conversation on Irish literature has been exhausted, or knee surgery and pains of aging make jogging an impossibility. When the pleasure subsides or loses intensity, the friendship dissolves. And this is what happens to an awful lot of marriages.

Even marriages that last may still be these ephemeral pleasure-based friendships. This is why people push the contractual nature of marriage–you make a vow with another person to stay with them until “death do you part.” It is these vows which keeps marriages of pleasures together. When the vows are not taken seriously, the marriage simply dissolves. And this is why we have the divorce rates that we have today–a bunch of people who married because of a friendship of pleasure, and when the pleasure died, so did the marriage.

A better way to think of marriage, one that is more theologically and philosophically sound, is as this last type of friendship. According to Aquinas, there are three “acts” or fruits of this last type of friendship: benevolence, concord, and beneficence.

Benevolence signifies the willing what is good for the other, rather than just willing what is good for oneself. Beneficence signifies the doing good for the other, rather than just doing what is good for oneself. Both of these are important, but the truly distinctive mark of this last type of friendship is what is called concord.

Concord is the union of will which sustains common projects. A relationship has concord when the couple enjoys each other’s company, converses with one another, and agrees with one another’s opinions. But just agreeing with one another is not enough for a relationship to have concord, because even strangers may agree. Concord, according to Aquinas, is principally about choice, when two people agree on what is advantageous, believe in the same things, and make decisions based on these common values. Friends need not agree on everything–one may believe that vegetarianism is a better way of life, while the other may love a more carnivorous lifestyle–but they do need to have similar values. For example, they must agree at least that healthy eating is an important value to them both and they must also make decisions with an eye towards living out that value in their practical decisions.

In other words, the highest form of friendship is characterized by a union of wills. One’s choices should align with one’s friends, and not just occasionally, but habitually. And if the friendship is a true one, these choices should be virtuous ones. Say one person in the couple always wants to drink and party to excess, whereas the other one wants to drink and party in moderation. This is a relationship lacking in concord, and thus, not the sort of friendship we are looking for. This is why Aristotle and Aquinas say that friendships based on virtue need to be between people who are of similar levels of virtue.

So how does this play out in marriage? A virtuous marital relationship is one that forms because two people share similar values, and they act on those values. Pleasure, of course, is part of the equation, but it is not the most important factor. That is, a virtuous marital relationship is not based on the fact that two people enjoy the same things (although they probably do in a lot of cases) but because they believe in the same things.

The important thing to realize is that a relationship with concord is not a static one, not formulaic, and always changing as circumstances change. Aquinas says that the realm of the particular–that is, the realm of concrete action–is infinite in possibility, even though the virtues and values behind such actions remain constant. There are innumerable ways, for example, to be courageous in any given situation.

To go back to our original example of sharing values about healthy eating. The vegetarian and the carnivore may have different ways of living out their values, but they agree on the values behind those lifestyle choices. As they both grow and learn more, the way they continue to make decisions to live out their values will change. They may come to find that processed foods are most detrimental to their health, and they may resolve together to cut back on or avoid all together the processed snacks they love so much. They may find that the temperate enjoyment of fine wine fits in nicely with their resolve to eat healthy, and they may take a wine tasting class or a trip to visit vineyards in order to learn more about their new hobby. They may have conversations and debates about the health value of genetically modified foods, or share health articles like this one from the NYTimes. But what is important to the friendship (and to the marriage) is that they embark on these things together, sharing together their effort to live a healthy life. They learn from one another, they strengthen one another, and they grow closer to one another in the process.

A marriage based on this type of friendship is not fleeting. It’s foundation is much more than just utility, and more also than fleeting pleasures. This is a relationship that grows, develops, and strengthens because the people in it grow, develop, and strengthen one another. This is a relationship that changes without ending because the people in it change, and yet their beliefs and values remain constant. This is a relationship in which there will always be something to talk about and something to do because the people in it are constantly seeking for ways to live out a virtuous life. This is a relationship where two people walk together toward a common goal, helping each other along the way.

On a final note, a marriage will face certain challenges that other friendships of virtue will not face. For example, a married couple may face financial difficulties, reproductive difficulties, or mental illness or depression. And unlike other friendships, married people have to live under the same roof, face the same challenges, and bear all the same burdens. Partially for this reason, Aquinas calls marriage a sacrament, meaning that in the institution of marriage, God offers the grace necessary to endure the difficulties the couple will face on their path to their ultimate goal–union with God.