I have a friend who quit smoking. After he had successfully quit, he would jokingly tell other people to “never start smoking, because it’s the greatest thing in the world.”
I remember him expressing to me his desire to experience that harsh burn in his throat one more time. I can tell it was agonizing for him to quit, and I’m proud that he succeeded.
But when I think about my friend's experience, I can’t help wondering -- how is it even possible for an organism to crave its own destruction so intensely? How can a creature knowingly choose to wound itself? And, perhaps even more troubling, to find such enjoyment in their own demise?
Humans like to get a taste of death before it gets a taste of us, but it’s not at all clear how such an orientation could even arise in a population of organisms.
It’s tempting to frame ignorance as the culprit for self-destructive behavior. If only so-and-so had known better, they’d have chosen differently.
If only there had been more warnings on the pack, on the bottle, in the terms of service… If only someone had clearly presented them with a persuasive rational argument that such and such behavior was against their self-interest.
Arm-chair psychological theorizing suggests that, armed with reason and data, human beings should be able to see past their baser desires, make more optimal calculations, and choose the good. Ideally, reason should be able to cut through the fog of emotion to steer us aright in this storm we call life.
The pop psychologist follows Plato's line of thought that we don't do what's good because we're mistaken about what's actually good for us. From the Logistic Positivists to the Buddha himself, these “ignorance theories of suffering” have proliferated throughout philosophical history.
Ignorance theories say that human beings choose suffering because their lack of some missing crucial insight causes their decisions to be consistently sub-rational.
The field of behavioral economics has been complicating this story for decades.
I first ran across the work of Kahneman and Taversky (as well as their articulate admirer N. N. Taleb) while I was doing software implementation for an early stage startup.
My young and freshly trained philosophy undergrad self was confused by the resistance I was experiencing from truck drivers and asphalt foremen to adopting the data analytics and planning software our company had developed.
Why couldn’t they see that it was designed to help them produce better outcomes in their work through smarter planning and making more informed decisions?
I began to discover that human beings make sub-rational decisions in predictable ways. In fact, these sub-optimal decision-making patterns could be demonstrated through scientific experimentation, quantified with statistics, and even provide the basis for successful business models.
I couldn't shake the feeling that something other than sheer ignorance was operating here. It seemed almost like we were biologically wired to perpetuate maladaptive behaviors, and even worse, to develop stubborn attachments to them.
I found myself asking questions like — Why do victims go back to their abusers? Why do we pierce our bodies? Why do we drink alcohol? Why do we love people who will never love us back? Why do we jump out of planes? Why do we fast? Why do we run marathons? Why do we develop eating disorders? Why do we burn plants and breathe them into our lungs?
The scope of human activity is replete with behaviors which don’t make sense from within a knowledge/ignorance paradigm of decision making. These phenomena seem like outliers in our data set, and we struggle to fit them into the conceptual model of an organism optimizing for survival by fleeing pain and pursuing pleasure.
Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle
Sigmund Freud was grappling with this same problem when he wrote his 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
Freud’s essay is an extended speculation on this human capacity for compulsive self-destructive behavior. I call it a speculation because it’s really nothing more than that, and even Freud admits it.
He wrote the text as an attempt to process some phenomena just like the ones I listed above -- human behaviors which resist explanation from within prevailing psychological paradigms built on the pursuit of pleasure and cessation of pain.
Why, he asks, did war veterans revisit in their dreams the most traumatic moments of their lives?
Freud had invested immense effort into his theory that dreams were a form of wish fulfillment. While the wish being fulfilled in a dream certainly required an analyst’s help to articulate through interpretation, Freud's fundamental commitment was nonetheless that the fulfillment of an unconscious desire was being staged in our dreams.
Freud was perplexed that he couldn’t make sense of the wish being fulfilled in the soldier’s inexorable return to their life’s most terrifying scenes. Something else must be happening, he postulated.
Freud couldn’t square his observations of traumatized war veterans with the hegemony of what he had termed “the pleasure principle” operating in the conscious system.
Freud’s metapsychological inquiry relied on a model of mental processes as either increasing or diminishing tension (energy) within the psychic system. Much like the principle of entropy in the natural sciences, Freud's pleasure principle was a description of consciousness’ tendency to move from higher states of tension to lower states of tension.
He says, “the mental apparatus endeavors to keep the quantity of excitation present in it as low as possible or at least to keep it constant.”
If the pleasure principle governed consciousness as Freud thought, why then would the sleeping consciousness intentionally excite itself with traumatic memories, effectively re-wounding itself in the process?
Throughout his essay, Freud references a number of psychic phenomena that he had observed which brought into question his belief in the hegemony of the pleasure principle. This list included the aforementioned veterans suffering from PTSD (then called "shell shock"), but he was also puzzled by the repetition compulsions he regularly observed his patients exhibiting both within and in relation to the clinical context.
In an effort to articulate an explanatory mechanism "beyond" the pleasure principle, Freud gropes after a countervailing force within consciousness which seems to drive the organism back to where it came from — inorganic matter.
He waxes poetic, "the aim of all life is death," characterizing the phenomenon of life as simply a circuitous path to death. The organism lives only in so far as it wages war on the compulsion within its body to return to the earlier state of inanimate matter from which it emerged.
Life is a strange and painful detour from dust to dust.
Freud's speculations concerning a beyond to the pleasure principle remain provisional, and many of his students and colleagues did not find them persuasive or accept them as valid contributions to the body of psychoanalytic theory.
However, Freud's theorizing about a "death drive" was nonetheless a response to a range of phenomena which seem to continue to pose a challenge to the hegemony of the pleasure principle.
"Death drive" does not name a thing so much as it marks out a field of questioning in which we may wonder afresh at the oddness of the human experience. Even if we don't like Freud's attempt at an answer, it certainly doesn't mean that the questions he was asking have lost their bite today.
Instead of repeating old answers, we will try to ask the question again — ask it anew for ourselves.
This piece comprises the first in a longer series interrogating the question of the emergence of self-destructive behaviors in humans, and especially the role that fantasy, desire, and the ego play in the ability of humans to act self-destructively.