Masochism vs. Self-defeat

byPsychohistorian10y20th Apr 200910 comments


Follow up to: Is masochism necessary?Stuck in the middle with Bruce

Masochism has two very different meanings: enjoyment of pain, and pursuit (not enjoyment) of suffering.

As a rather blunt example of this distinction, consider a sexual masochist. If his girlfriend ties him up and beats him, he'll experience pain, but he certainly won't suffer; he'll probably enjoy himself immensely. Put someone with vanilla sexual tastes in his place, and he would experience both pain and suffering.

Bruce-like behaviour is best understood as pursuit of suffering. People undermine themselves or set themselves up to lose. They may do it so that they have a comfortable excuse, or because they are used to failing and afraid of being happy, or for many other reasons. Most of us do this to some degree, however slight, and it's something we want to avoid.1 Pursuit of suffering, quite simply, gets in the way of winning, and, much like akratic behaviour, it is something that we should try desperately to find and destroy, because we should be happier without it.

This is very, very different from enjoyment of pain. If you like getting beaten up, or spicy foods, or running marathons, this has no effect on whether you win; these become a kind of winning. The fact that these activities cause suffering in some people is wholly irrelevant. For those who enjoy them, they create happiness, and obtaining them is, in a sense, a form of winning. Because of this, there's no reason to try to catch ourselves engaging in them or to worry about engaging in them less. It does not seem like people would be happier if they lost these prefereces.2

Indeed, given that they require some level of initial exposure, and (in the sexual case) have strong social taboos against them, it seems quite likely that masochistic behaviour isn't engaged in enough, though I admit I may be going too far.

Edit: As a point of clarification, "Bruce-like" behaviour may be overbroad. Some people set themselves up to lose because, for whatever reason, they genuinely like losing. That isn't pursuit of suffering, because there's no suffering. However, we do sometimes undermine ourselves when we want to win. The precise cause of this is, for my purposes, immaterial. This is what I'm referring to by "pursuit of suffering," and my entire point is that it is quite distinct from enjoyment or pursuit of pain, and that this difference is worth noticing.

A proof of the utilitarian benefit of sadism is left to the reader, or as the topic for a follow-up post if people like this one.

1 - If we actually enjoy failure, such that presented with the simple choice of win/lose, we repeatedly chose lose, that's a separate subject and would fall under another description, like "enjoyment of failure." This is something that one might be happier without, but that's really another issue for another post.

2- This is not to say that some people shouldn't engage in them less. There are people who engage in self-destructive behaviour. Some use sex as a means of escape. Some anorexics exercise compulsively. But the fact that these can be unhealthy in specific circumstances is of no relevance to the greater population that enjoys them responsibly.