The Moral Ambiguity of Bliss

Could there be a link between ecstatic states of consciousness and morality?

Posted Oct 28, 2014

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So what could be so bad about feeling good—I mean really, really good? Unfortunately, like so many other, all-too-complicated things in life, the whole notion of bliss is replete with ethical contradictions and inconsistencies.

Consider that bliss, or feeling “blissed out,” is a flagrantly altered state of consciousness. In general, it’s viewed as temporary; transient. Regularly linked to the extremely heightened mood of euphoria, it’s also commonly perceived as a kind of “intoxication”—a term that clearly can be construed in two radically different ways. Understood positively, this enviably “carried away” state can be achieved through humanitarian service to others: whether it’s to less advantaged, or fortunate, humans; or to helpless animals requiring our assistance.

Moreover, diligently seeking to safeguard the environment on which we all depend also fits this profile of making our needs secondary to the world around us. And research has repeatedly demonstrated that focusing not on our own immediate self-interests but on the wants and needs of others, or on idealistic concerns relating to the betterment of society, facilitates feelings quite as favorable—even joyous or ecstatic—as does behavior best described as self-indulgently hedonistic.

In fact, dedicating yourself to any cause substantially removed from any personal benefit—from being part of a movement striving to bring about world peace, to joining a group endeavoring to make our economic system more equitable—can lead to tremendous feelings of exhilaration. All of which is to say that altruistic pursuits, even though not principally motivated by an egoistical desire to “get high,” can yield enormous psychological rewards, which definitely include feelings of elation.

But what if, on the other hand, the cause you choose to devote your life to is one that most people would actually deem evil. And a current example of this might be becoming a “consecrated” member of the terrorist organization ISIS. Believing, however wrongheadedly, in a religious, social, cultural, or economic ideal—and actively participating in what most others would regard as a “crusade against humanity”—can nonetheless induce in the passionate believer a state of jubilation. Such persons can experience high spirits, a sense of invigoration or exaltation (in a word, “rush”) indistinguishable from what typically might be characterized as a state of bliss.

from bocktherobber.com

Of course, these individuals are almost always outwardly deceived into deluding themselves that what they’re fighting for carries nothing less than God’s authority: that it’s both virtuous and holy. So newly perceiving themselves as embracing such a hallowed role fosters in them a powerfully positive self-evaluation—undeniably contributing to an elevated mood. Still, the illusion-based non-reality of such joyousness would prevent the vast majority of us from ever even aspiring to become so radicalized in our thinking (though we certainly wouldn’t mind being “overtaken” by the ecstatic feelings these zealots might thereby be “blessed” with).

Consider also the curious phrase “the bliss of martyrdom” (especially as it relates, ironically, to slaughtering innocent human beings). Believing yourself to be a “chosen martyr” for a noble cause, and so “glorified” with an ardent sense of purpose, definitely can precipitate feelings of religious or spiritual ecstasy. Yet most of us would see such a “righteous” pursuit as plainly ignoble. And here I’m reminded of an Oscar Wilde quote: “Just because a man has died for it [a cause] doesn’t make it true.” A second famous (and also rather cynical) quote, this one from Jonathan Swift, comes to mind: “Happiness is a perpetual state of being well-deceived.”

We particularly need to re-examine the term “intoxication” as it relates not simply to states of bliss or ecstasy but to substance addiction—or any of the almost limitless process addictions: That is, from compulsive shopping and gambling, to love and sex addiction, to the endless (and routinely ruthless) pursuit of wealth and power. One of my favorite books on the subject centers on the serious repercussions of single-mindedly venturing after such altered states of consciousness. Its title is most suggestive: Craving for Ecstasy: The Consciousness and Chemistry of Escape (by Harvey Milkman & Stanley Sunderwirth, Lexington Bks, 1987). This pioneering work centers on the damage we do in our efforts to avoid stress and the pain of having to confront unresolved issues we’ve yet to develop the resources to successfully cope with.

And, of course, the sheer number of things we can become addicted to is almost endless. For anything that’s used excessively (i.e., throws your life off balance and impairs your—and others’—welfare) deserves to be appreciated as compulsive/addictive. I’ve already alluded to many such activities above, but also consider the non-recreational use not simply of chemicals like nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, but also the compulsive dependency that can come to define your relationship to food, work, exercise, sports, TV-watching, risk-taking, cult-joining, and a variety of otherwise high-minded religious and spiritual pursuits.

Again, anything you engage in with increasing exclusivity in the effort to better deal with the inevitable stresses of life, or to alter/enhance your mood or state of consciousness, ultimately puts you in danger of handing control of your life over to the object(s) of your dependency. And such “intoxication,” regardless of how it began, warrants appreciation more as part of a disease process (a kind of misguided, self-administered therapy) than anything that might be viewed with admiration or respect. In the end, such behavior does little to nothing to increase the overall quality of your life—and certainly not the life of anyone else either.

To conclude, any simple or straightforward “Ethics of Bliss” is hardly viable. The very fact that ecstatic feelings can be engendered through an enormous variety of morally distinguishable pursuits makes it fairly obvious that this accentuated, or amplified, state of well-being lacks any intrinsic connection to that which we’d universally identify as moral. Rather, its ethical assessment remains relative to its results and repercussions.

As Hemingway memorably put it: “Morality is what you feel good after and immorality is what you feel bad after [and note here the crucial word after].” Which, in turn, reminds me of an earlier post of mine entitled: “Feeling Good—Vs. Feeling Good About Ourselves” (Parts 1 & 2). And here, it should be emphasized, I’m referring primarily to the immediate “feel good” experience common to all addictions, rather than to the mean-spirited, sociopathic gratifications derived from exploiting others (Enron, anyone?!). Or to the self-deluded feelings of euphoria linked to being part of a cause—even though most of us would appraise that cause as morally reprehensible.

So, take care to choose your bliss wisely. . . .

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© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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