The Philosophy of Hedonism

If you have heard the word “hedonism”, you have probably heard it in connection to descriptions of people who live only for the pleasures of the day, those who blindly seek food, sex and entertainment without taking any responsibility for their actions. This is indeed a common definition of hedonism. But in philosophy there is another established definition. In moral philosophy, hedonism is the view that you should always act to maximize pleasure (and minimize pain) for those who are affected by your actions.

How is this different from the “popular” definition of hedonism? Firstly, the popular definition usually refers to egoistic behavior. Philosophical hedonism is not egoistic. You cannot simply do what is most pleasurable for yourself all the time. Secondly, the popular definition refers to a small set of physical pleasures. Philosophical hedonism considers all kinds of pleasures (and pain), mental and physical. Thirdly, the popular definition disregards pain in the long run – enjoy yourself today, for tomorrow we might all be dead. Philosophical hedonism regards pleasures and pains in the context of a normal life. It might be fun to take drugs when you are young, but it might ruin the rest of your life (and there are probably more useful things you can do with your money – both for yourself and for others – than to squander them on drugs or other very fleeting pleasures).

Those of you who know a bit about philosophy probably know that hedonism is a form of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism comes in two main forms: the hedonistic form that considers the maximization of pleasure, and preference utilitarianism that considers the maximization of desire satisfaction. Preference utilitarianism is somewhat popular among economists, because it considers only what people claim they want in life (not what actually gives them the mental states of pleasure and pain), often interpreted as what they are willing to pay for.

Personally, I believe that hedonism is the least objectionable of all the moral doctrines I have studied. The most common alternatives (besides preference utilitarianism) are probably virtue ethics and deontological theories. I mostly encounter the latter in the form of libertarianism, i.e., the principle that all initiation of force is immoral (which, of course, entails that all coerced redistribution of wealth in society is immoral). Nowadays, libertarians seem to be the most philosophically conscious people on the political arena (at least when we are talking about non-religious codes of ethics). People on the so-called left seem to be less interested in philosophical justifications of their positions (speaking generally, of course).

Hedonistic utilitarianism was once more popular than it is today. One of the most famous thinkers in the tradition is Jeremy Bentham, who, in the 19th century, influenced many politically active persons (for instance, John Stuart Mill). Until the 1970s some form of utilitarianism seems to have been the main choice among moral and political philosophers. Since then, many textbooks have declared utilitarianism (and especially hedonism) as virtually dead. The problem is, however, that the moral doctrines that are declared to be living have at least as many internal problems as hedonism.

My ambition is to spread the idea of hedonism among the general public. The idea that pleasure is the only thing that is ultimately good in itself, and that pain is the only thing that is ultimately bad in itself, is an idea that should have some intuitive appeal among some people (and if you reject this intuition there is not much I can do). And it is a fruitful perspective to apply to questions of personal morality and politics.

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