Earthly pleasures are many and varied, but most have this in common: they aren’t solitary. From dining room to bedroom to the offices where we think and act and make a mark on the world, what pleases us most is what is done with, and for, other people.
Even pursuits that seem to demand isolation aren’t as lonesome as they appear at first glance. Put on your headphones to concentrate on a great new piece of music and you’re shutting out the rest of humanity. But someone told you about that music and you’ll tell someone else, for the enjoyment of the art comes from the enjoyment of bringing it to other people; or from finding someone else who was moved by the same beauty Even reading a book is a shared pleasure. To know that others like the book, to discuss with them the lines they cherish, is what makes a reader.
Or consider that solo wilderness expedition you did to challenge yourself. It was just you in the wilderness, with your tent, sleeping bag and dried food, all representing thousands of hours of others’ attention and effort. And so you were alone. Until, of course, you had the pleasure of talking about it, posting it, tweeting it, and otherwise sharing it and seeing in reactions to it your own experience refracted and amplified by the thoughts and feelings of others.
We are a social species, needing our ties to each other for life as a lion needs its claws or a bird its wings. And so our pleasures are, inevitably, shared. That means our pleasures are, inevitably, tied up with our borders. They reflect our sense of who we are, and what kind of life we are meant for. Which means they reflect our sense of who we are.
This is a lucky thing, in many ways, because living up to one’s sense of who ‘we’ are is a great motivator of good conduct. Wanting to measure up to our image of who we are is an important part of being a person. This is why parents often say ‘we’ don’t do that, and why children listen when they do.
But the ‘we’-ness of pleasure has its dark side. Whenever we define a ‘we’, we draw a boundary: whoever is not part of ‘us’ is part of ‘them’. Often, we notice when we share life’s joys that someone is excluded. Which may be why Jane Austen said that half the world does not understand the other’s pleasures. This instinct for exclusion seems to be part of human nature. As the psychologist Henri Tajfel discovered in a series of clever experiments years ago, people will slightly favour groups of which they are a member, even when the group was just created minutes before. One of Tajfel’s experiments involved showing schoolboys paintings by Klee and Kandinsky and inviting them to sort themselves into those who liked Klee and those who preferred Kandinsky. Later experiments showed people favoured others who had social security numbers with the same digits.
The boundaries that distinguish ‘our’ enjoyment from ‘theirs’ are especially clear in the realm of one of the deepest and most complex of earthly pleasures: philanthropy. “The best drug I ever took,” the entrepreneur Marc Benioff once said of it. “Nothing made me feel better. I highly recommend it.” Yes to be generous and helpful feels good. But get into the specifics and the boundary questions arise. What will be done with the gift? Will it be done efficiently? Did you choose the right people to help, in the right way, at the right time?
The pleasures of giving engage our sense of what a good life is, who we are, what we care about and what we don’t. In deciding how, where and whom to help we decided whom we care about the most — and, therefore, whom we care about less. Real-life ethical action is a set of fine discriminations among the boundaries we see in the world.
This is why we are so much more likely to be moved by the story of one individual who is ‘like me‘ than by statistics about the troubles of millions. As Mother Teresa put it: “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” We need, as the economist Thomas Schelling has pointed out, an “identifiable victim” for our empathy to be triggered. Which is probably why so many appeals for aid insist that the recipient is ‘just like you’.
So while we contemplate the many pleasures life offers, including the pleasure of helping others, it’s worth thinking about those with whom we are not sharing, and what that says about us. Even the simplest pleasures are not, in the end, so simple after all.
David Berreby is the author of Us and Them: The Science of Identity (2008).