Hedonism and Politics

When setting up this blog one of my aims was to connect hedonist ethics to political matters. I did not want this blog to be about philosophy only. But can one really draw definite political conclusions from hedonism? To be sure, this is an empirical matter. What is deemed good policy today may, at least in principle, be deemed bad policy tomorrow. It depends on our assessments of what actually maximizes pleasure.

Classical hedonists like Bentham were rather liberal – in the old laissez-faire sense – but they did not rule out a substantial role for government if the utilitarian principle seemed to warrant it. That is why at least some have claimed that if Bentham were alive today he would probably have been a supporter of the welfare state. Marxists have historically been hostile to utilitarianism, probably because the early utilitarians – as mentioned above – were rather “bourgeois” in their political outlook. In spite of modern hedonism’s disentanglement from bourgeois politics, marxists and socialists today seem to regard hedonism with indifference (my impression is that they are generally not that interested in traditional “analytic” moral philosophy).

Nowadays, the laissez-faire – or libertarian – camp has largely moved to deontological ethics (often “natural” rights) as their foundation. The utilitarians that still defend laissez-faire (or even anarcho-capitalism) are by and large preference-utilitarians (not hedonist utilitarians). I, at least, have not seen any modern libertarians who defend their position on hedonist grounds. Some conservatives, on the other hand, seem to have some sort of crude (or implicit) hedonism or welfarism as justification for their ideology.

When it comes to my own ideas in politics, I have presented a few thoughts in a document of “guidelines” (see the tab “Political Guidelines”). Except for a first point on democracy (which I believe everyone should endorse), I believe three points are especially salient for hedonists: (1) economic redistribution, (2) reforms and public planning to enhance quality of life, and (3) support of individual development (in contrast to “tribal” identity-seeking, and the like). Some people will probably call this agenda rather “leftist”. That I do not mind. And if this is indeed a leftist agenda, I believe the hedonist justification for it is better and more coherent than, for instance, a socialist justification.

To be honest, many political leftists, “progressives”, “liberals”, and so on, seem to lack any clear philosophical justification for their positions. This might lead me to suggest that they should adopt hedonism. But that would be suggesting that they should become hedonists for the wrong reasons. Politics should be the application of an ethical theory and not the other way around. My advice to all ethically confused ideologues would be to first disregard their ideology and then try to find their moral foundations. And if that leads them in the direction of another ideology – when the moral theory is ready to be applied – then they should change ideology. But I suspect that this advice wont be followed by many, since most politically active people are already so emotionally (and often socially or economically) committed to their ideology.


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