Set of doctrines shared between philosophical psychology and ethics.
Ethical hedonism says either that pleasure alone (or ‘happiness’, which is usually not distinguished from pleasure by hedonists) is ultimately good, or that every action should aim to maximize pleasure; in neither case need the pleasure be the agent’s (a point that is often forgotten, as is the distinction between psychological and ethical hedonism).
Qualitative hedonism – associated especially with John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) in his Utilitarianism (1861) – says that pleasures differ in quality as well as quantity, and that ‘higher’ ones should be preferred. This doctrine thus gravely complicates the task of aiming to produce the ‘greatest’ pleasure.
J C B Gosling, Pleasure and Desire (1969);
J S Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), ch. 2 (reprinted in J Plamenatz, The English Utilitarians (1949), 137
The term hedonism derives from the Greek hēdonismos (ἡδονισμός, ‘delight’; from ἡδονή, hēdonē, ‘pleasure’), which is a cognate from Proto-Indo-European swéh₂dus through Ancient Greek hēdús (ἡδύς, ‘sweet’) + suffix -ismos (-ισμός, ‘ism’).
Opposite to hedonism, there is hedonophobia, which is an extremely strong aversion to hedonism. According to medical author William C. Shiel Jr., hedonophobia is “an abnormal, excessive, and persistent fear of pleasure.” The condition of being unable to experience pleasure is anhedonia.
In the original Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written soon after the invention of writing, Siduri gave the following advice: “Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night.… These things alone are the concern of men.” This may represent the first recorded advocacy of a hedonistic philosophy.
Scenes of a harper entertaining guests at a feast were common in Ancient-Egyptian tombs, and sometimes contained hedonistic elements, calling guests to submit to pleasure because they cannot be sure that they will be rewarded for good with a blissful afterlife. The following is a song attributed to the reign of one of the pharaohs around the time of the 12th dynasty, and the text was used in the 18th and 19th dynasties.
Let thy desire flourish,
In order to let thy heart forget the beatifications for thee.
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee,
Being anointed with genuine marvels of the gods’ property.
Set an increase to thy good things;
Let not thy heart flag.
Follow thy desire and thy good.
Fulfill thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart,
Until there come for thee that day of mourning.
Classical Greek philosophy
Democritus seems to be the earliest philosopher on record to have categorically embraced a hedonistic philosophy; he called the supreme goal of life “contentment” or “cheerfulness,” claiming that “joy and sorrow are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful.
The Cyrenaics were an ultra-hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BC, supposedly by Aristippus of Cyrene, although many of the principles of the school are believed to have been formalized by his grandson of the same name, Aristippus the Younger. The school was so called after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus, and was one of the earliest Socratic schools.
The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain, but positively enjoyable momentary sensations. Of these, physical ones are stronger than those of anticipation or memory. They did, however, recognize the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be gained from altruism.
Theodorus the Atheist, a disciple of younger Aristippus, was a latter exponent of hedonism, while becoming well known for expounding atheism. The school died out within a century, and was replaced by Epicureanism.
The Cyrenaics were known for their skeptical theory of knowledge, reducing logic to a basic doctrine concerning the criterion of truth. They thought that we can know with certainty our immediate sense-experiences (for instance, that one is having a sweet sensation), but can know nothing about the nature of the objects that cause these sensations (for instance, that the honey is sweet). They also denied that we can have knowledge of what the experiences of other people are like. All knowledge is immediate sensation. These sensations are motions which are purely subjective, and are painful, indifferent or pleasant, according as they are violent, tranquil or gentle. Further, they are entirely individual and can in no way be described as constituting absolute objective knowledge. Feeling, therefore, is the only possible criterion of knowledge and of conduct. Our ways of being affected are alone knowable, thus the sole aim for everyone should be pleasure.
Cyrenaicism deduces a single, universal aim for all people: pleasure. Furthermore, all feeling is momentary and homogeneous; past and future pleasure have no real existence for us, and that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind. Socrates had spoken of the higher pleasures of the intellect; the Cyrenaics denied the validity of this distinction and said that bodily pleasures, being more simple and more intense, were preferable. Momentary pleasure, preferably of a physical kind, is the only good for humans. However some actions which give immediate pleasure can create more than their equivalent of pain. The wise person should be in control of pleasures rather than be enslaved to them, otherwise pain will result, and this requires judgement to evaluate the different pleasures of life. Regard should be paid to law and custom, because even though these things have no intrinsic value on their own, violating them will lead to unpleasant penalties being imposed by others. Likewise, friendship and justice are useful because of the pleasure they provide. Thus the Cyrenaics believed in the hedonistic value of social obligation and altruistic behaviour.
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341 – c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus and Leucippus. His materialism led him to a general stance against superstition or the idea of divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable “pleasure” in the form of a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from “hedonism” as it is commonly understood.
In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived but had a unique version of the Golden Rule.
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing “neither to harm nor be harmed”), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes and Ercolano). The poet Lucretius is its most known Roman proponent. By the end of the Roman Empire, having undergone Christian attack and repression, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.
Yangism has been described as a form of psychological and ethical egoism. The Yangist philosophers believed in the importance of maintaining self-interest through “keeping one’s nature intact, protecting one’s uniqueness, and not letting the body be tied by other things”. Disagreeing with the Confucian virtues of li (‘propriety’), ren (‘humaneness’), and yi (‘righteousness’), and the Legalist virtue of fa (law), the Yangists saw wei wo (為我, ‘[everything] for myself’) as the only virtue necessary for self-cultivation. Individual pleasure is considered desirable, like in hedonism, but not at the expense of the health of the individual. The Yangists saw individual well-being as the prime purpose of life, and considered anything that hindered that well-being immoral and unnecessary.
The main focus of the Yangists was on the concept of xing (性), or human nature, a term later incorporated by Mencius into Confucianism. The xing, according to sinologist A. C. Graham, is a person’s “proper course of development” in life. Individuals can only rationally care for their own xing, and should not naively have to support the xing of other people, even if it means opposing the emperor. In this sense, Yangism is a “direct attack” on Confucianism, by implying that the power of the emperor, defended in Confucianism, is baseless and destructive, and that state intervention is morally flawed.
The Confucian philosopher Mencius depicts Yangism as the direct opposite of Mohism, which promotes the idea of universal love and impartial caring. In contrast, the Yangists acted only “for themselves,” rejecting the altruism of Mohism. He criticized the Yangists as selfish, ignoring the duty of serving the public and caring only for personal concerns. Mencius saw Confucianism as the “Middle Way” between Mohism and Yangism.
The concept of hedonism is also found in nāstika (‘atheist’, as in heterodox) schools of Hinduism, for instance the Charvaka school. However, Hedonism is criticized by āstika (‘theist’, as in orthodox) schools of thought on the basis that it is inherently egoistic and therefore detrimental to spiritual liberation.
However, a less egoistic form of hedonism was promoted by the 8th Century Indian philosopher and Buddhist scholar, Śāntideva, who wrote: “[w]hen happiness is dear to me and others equally, what is so special about me that I strive after happiness only for myself?”. He exorted others to “stop all the present and future pain and suffering of all sentient beings, and to bring about all present and future pleasure and happiness.”
Judaism believes that the world was created to serve God, and in order to do so properly, God in turn gives mankind the opportunity to experience pleasure in the process of serving Him (Talmud Kidushin 82:b). God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—Eden being the Hebrew word for ‘pleasure’. In recent years, Rabbi Noah Weinberg articulated five different levels of pleasure, of which connecting with God is the highest possible pleasure. The Book of Ecclesiastes (2:24) in the Old Testament proclaims: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God…”
Ethical hedonism as part of Christian theology has also been a concept in some evangelical circles, particularly in those of the Reformed tradition. The term Christian Hedonism was first coined by Reformed-Baptist theologian John Piper in his 1986 book Desiring God:
My shortest summary of it is: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Or: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever. Does Christian Hedonism make a god out of pleasure? No. It says that we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in.
Piper states his term may describe the theology of Jonathan Edwards, who in his 1746 Treatise Concerning Religious Affections referred to “a future enjoyment of Him [God] in heaven.” Already in the 17th century, the atomist Pierre Gassendi had adapted Epicureanism to the Christian doctrine.
Those who choose the worldly life and its pleasures will be given proper recompense for their deeds in this life and will not suffer any loss. Such people will receive nothing in the next life except Hell fire. Their deeds will be made devoid of all virtue and their efforts will be in vain.— Quran 11:15-16, (Muhammad Sarwar translation)
In Islam, one of the main duties of a Muslim is to conquer his nafs (his ego, self, passions, desires) and to be free from it. Certain joys of life are permissible provided they do not lead to excess or evildoing that may bring harm. It is understood that everyone takes their passion as their idol, Islam calls these tawaghit (idols) and taghut (worship of other than Allah) so there has to be a means of controlling these nafs.
Utilitarianism addresses problems with moral motivation neglected by Kantianism by giving a central role to happiness. It is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall good of the society. It is thus one form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its resulting outcome. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be the 18th and 19th-century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Conjoining hedonism—as a view as to what is good for people—to utilitarianism has the result that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest total amount of happiness (measured via hedonic calculus). Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill’s versions of hedonism differ.
There are two somewhat basic schools of thought on hedonism.
One school, grouped around Bentham, defends a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood. Essentially, he believed the value of pleasure to be its intensity multiplied by its duration—so it was not just the number of pleasures, but their intensity and how long they lasted that must be taken into account.
Other proponents, like Mill, argue a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there can be different levels of pleasure—higher quality pleasure is better than lower quality pleasure. Mill also argues that simpler beings (he often refers to pigs) have an easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they do not see other aspects of life, they can simply indulge in their lower pleasures. The more elaborate beings tend to spend more thought on other matters and hence lessen the time for simple pleasure. It is therefore more difficult for them to indulge in such “simple pleasures” in the same manner.
An extreme form of hedonism that views moral and sexual restraint as either unnecessary or harmful. Famous proponents are Marquis de Sade and John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester.
Contemporary proponents of hedonism include Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö, Fred Feldman, and Spanish ethic philosopher Esperanza Guisán (published a “Hedonist manifesto” in 1990). Dan Haybron has distinguished between psychological, ethical, welfare and axiological hedonism.
A dedicated contemporary hedonist philosopher and writer on the history of hedonistic thought is the French Michel Onfray, who has written two books directly on the subject, L’invention du plaisir: fragments cyréaniques and La puissance d’exister : Manifeste hédoniste. He defines hedonism “as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else.” Onfray’s philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain’s and the body’s capacities to their fullest extent—while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions.”
Onfray’s works “have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sex and sensuality, bioethics, wine, and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy,” of which three have been published. For Onfray:
In opposition to the ascetic ideal advocated by the dominant school of thought, hedonism suggests identifying the highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other. Obtaining this balance – my pleasure at the same time as the pleasure of others – presumes that we approach the subject from different angles – political, ethical, aesthetic, erotic, bioethical, pedagogical, historiographical….
For this, he has “written books on each of these facets of the same world view.” His philosophy aims for “micro-revolutions”, or “revolutions of the individual and small groups of like-minded people who live by his hedonistic, libertarian values.”
7 thoughts on “Hedonism”
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