Hedonism (Greek: hēdonē (ᾑδονή from Ancient Greek) "pleasure" +–ism) is a philosophical position that takes the pursuit of pleasure as the primary motivating element of life, based upon a view that "pleasure is good." The concept of pleasure is, however, understood and approached in a variety of ways, and hedonism is classified accordingly.
The three basic types of philosophical hedonism are psychological hedonism, which holds that the tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain is an essential attribute of human nature; evaluative or ethical hedonism, which sets up certain ethical or moral ends as desirable because attaining them will result in happiness; and reflective, or normative hedonism, which seeks to define value in terms of pleasure. The ancient Greek philosophers Democritus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.E.) and their followers developed ethical theories centered on the “good life” (the ideal life, the life most worth living, eudaimonia, happiness) and the role of pleasure of achieving it. During the Middle Ages, hedonism was rejected as incompatible with Christian ideals, but Renaissance philosophers revived it on the grounds that God intended man to be happy. Nineteenth-century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham established the ethical theory of Utilitarianism with a hedonistic orientation, holding that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.
There are many philosophical forms of hedonism, but they can be distinguished into three basic types: psychological hedonism; evaluative, or ethical hedonism; and reflective, or rationalizing hedonism. Psychological hedonism holds that it is an essential aspect of human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain; human beings cannot act in any other way. A human being will always act in a way that, to his understanding, will produce what he perceives as the greatest pleasure, or protect him from undesirable pain. Psychological hedonism is either based on observation of human behavior, or necessitated by a definition of “desire.” Psychological hedonism is often a form of egoism, preoccupied with pleasure of the individual subject, but it can also be concerned with the pleasure of society or humanity as a whole. Altruistic versions of psychological hedonism involve deep-seated convictions, cultural or religious beliefs which motivate a person to act for the benefit of family or society, or the expectation of an afterlife. Problems of psychological hedonism include the definitions of desire and pleasure. Is desire tied to the satisfaction of physical sensations or does it extend to mental and rational conceptions of pleasure? Are all positive experiences, even minor and mundane ones, psychological motivations?
Evaluative hedonism is an attempt to set up certain ends or goals as desirable, and to persuade others that these goals ought to be pursued, and that achieving them will result in pleasure. Evaluative hedonism is sometimes used to support or justify an existing system of moral values. Many altruistic and utilitarian moral systems are of this type, because they encourage the individual to sacrifice or restrict immediate sensual gratification in favor of a more rational gratification, such as the satisfaction of serving others, or the maintenance of an egalitarian society where every individual receives certain benefits. Evaluative hedonism raises the problem of deciding exactly what ends are desirable, and why.
Reflective, normative, or rationalizing hedonism, seeks to define value in terms of pleasure. Even the most complex human pursuits are attributed to the desire to maximize pleasure, and it is that desire which makes them rational. Objections to determining value based on pleasure include the fact that there is no common state or property found in all experiences of pleasure, which could be used to establish an objective measurement. Not all experiences of pleasure could be considered valuable, particularly if they arise from criminal activity or weakness of character, or cause harm to others. Another objection is that there are many other types of valuable experiences besides the immediate experience of pleasure, such as being a good parent, creating a work of art or choosing to act with integrity, which, though they could be said to produce some kind of altruistic pleasure, are very difficult to categorize and quantify. Normative hedonism determines value solely according to the pleasure experienced, without regard for the future pleasure or pain resulting from a particular action.
Among the ancient Greek philosophers, discussion of ethical theory often centered on the “good life” (the ideal life, the life most worth living, eudaimonia, happiness) and the role of pleasure of achieving it. Various expressions of the concept that “pleasure is the good” were developed by philosophers such as Democritus, Aristippus, Plato, Aristotle and Epicurus and their followers, and vigorously disagreed with by their opponents. Aristippus (fifth century B.C.E.) and the Cyrenaic school maintained that the greatest good was the pleasure of the moment and advocated a life of sensual pleasure, on the grounds that all living creatures pursue pleasure and avoid pain. This position reflected a skepticism that only the sensations of the moment could be known, and that concern with the past or the future only caused uncertainty and anxiety and should be avoided.
Ancient Greeks looked to the natural world and agreed that every organism was motivated to act for its own good, but differed as to whether that “good” was pleasure. Democritus (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.E.) is reported to have held that the supreme good was a pleasant state of tranquility of mind (euthumia), and that particular pleasures or pains should be chosen according to how they contributed to that tranquility. In the Protagoras, Socrates (470 -399 B.C.E.) presented a version of Democritean hedonism which included a method for calculating relative pleasures and pains. Socrates argued that an agent’s own good was not immediate pleasure, and that it was necessary to differentiate between pleasures that promoted good, and harmful pleasures. In his later dialogues, Plato (c. 428 -347 B.C.E.) agreed that while the good life was pleasant, the goodness consisted in rationality and the pleasantness was an adjunct.
Aristotle challenged the definition of pleasure as a process of remedying a natural deficiency in the organism (satisfying hunger, thirst, desire), declaring instead that pleasure occurs when a natural potentiality for thought or perception is realized in perfect conditions. Every kind of actualization has its own pleasure; the pleasure of thought, the pleasure of art, the bodily pleasures. Eudaimonia (the ideal state of existence) consists of the optimal realization of man’s capacity for thought and rational choice; it would naturally be characterized by the greatest degree of pleasure.
Epicurus (341 – 270 B.C.E.) and his school distinguished two types of pleasure: the pleasure that supplying the deficiency of an organism (such as hunger or desire) and the pleasure experienced when the organism is in a stable state, free from all pain or disturbance. He gave supremacy to the latter type, and emphasized the reduction of desire over the immediate acquisition of pleasure. Epicurus claimed that the highest pleasure consists of a simple, moderate life spent with friends and in philosophical discussion, and discouraged overindulgence of any kind because it would ultimately lead to some kind of pain or instability.
We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good. (Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus")
Christian philosophers of the Middle Ages denounced Epicurean hedonism as inconsistent with the Christian aims of avoiding sin, obeying the will of God, cultivating virtues such as charity and faith, and seeking a reward in the afterlife for sacrifice and suffering on earth. During the Renaissance, philosophers such as Erasmus (1465 – 1536) revived hedonism on the grounds that it was God’s wish for human beings to be happy and experience pleasure. In describing the ideal society of his Utopia (1516), Thomas More said that "the chief part of a person's happiness consists of pleasure." More argued that God created man to be happy, and uses the desire for pleasure to motivate moral behavior. More made a distinction between pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind, and urged the pursuit of natural pleasures rather than those produced by artificial luxuries.
During the eighteenth century, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) and David Hume (1711-1776) systematically examined the role of pleasure and happiness in morality and society; their theories were precursors to utilitarianism.
The nineteenth-century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham established fundamental principles of hedonism through their ethical theory of Utilitarianism. Utilitarian value stands as a precursor to hedonistic values in that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. All actions are to be judged on the basis of how much pleasure they produce in relation to the amount of pain that results from them. Since utilitarianism was dealing with public policy, it was necessary to develop a “hedonistic calculus” to assign a ratio of pleasure to pain for any given action or policy. Though consistent in their pursuit of the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people, Bentham and Mill differed in the methods by which they measured happiness.
Jeremy Bentham and his followers argued a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be understood by multiplying its intensity by its duration. Not only the number of pleasures, but their intensity and duration had to be taken into account. Bentham’s quantitative theory identified six “dimensions” of value in a pleasure or pain: intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propinquity or remoteness, fecundity, and purity (Bentham 1789, ch. 4).
John Stuart Mill argued for a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there are different levels of pleasure, and that pleasure of a higher quality has more value than pleasure of a lower quality. Mill suggested that simpler beings (he often referenced pigs) have easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they are not aware of other aspects of life, they can simply indulge themselves without thinking. More elaborate beings think more about other matters and hence lessen the time they spend on the enjoyment of simple pleasures. Critics of the qualitative approach found several problems with it. They pointed out that 'pleasures' do not necessarily share common traits, other than the fact that they can be seen as "pleasurable." The definition of 'pleasant' is subjective and differs among individuals, so the 'qualities' of pleasures are difficult to study objectively and in terms of universal absolutes. Another objection is that “quality” is not an intrinsic attribute of pleasure; the “quality” of pleasure is judged either its quantity and intensity or by some non-hedonistic value (such as altruism or the capacity to elevate the mind).
“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.” (Bentham 1789)
Christian Hedonism is a term coined in 1986 for a theological movement originally conceived by a pastor, Dr. John Piper, in his book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. The tenets of this philosophy are that humans were created by (the Christian) God with the priority purpose of lavishly enjoying God through knowing, worshiping, and serving Him. This philosophy recommends pursuing one's own happiness in God as the ultimate in human pleasure. Similar to the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure is regarded as something long-term and found not in indulgence but in a life devoted to God. Serious questions have been raised within the Christian community as to whether Christian Hedonism displaces "love God" with "enjoy God" as the greatest and foremost commandment.
A typical apologetic for Christian Hedonism is that if you are to love something truly, then you must truly enjoy it. It could be summed up in this statement: "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him."
More recently, the term Christian Hedonism has been used by the French philosopher Michel Onfray to qualify the various heretic movements from Middle-Age to Montaigne.
In common usage, the word hedonism is often associated with self-indulgence and having a very loose or liberal view of the morality of sex. Most forms of hedonism actually concentrate on spiritual or intellectual goals, or the pursuit of general well-being.
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