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"The New Wine" Library of Congress LC-D4-90488Hedonistic Theories  

Abstract:  The refinement of hedonism as an ethical theory involves several surprising and important distinctions.  Several counter-examples to hedonism are discussed.

I.  Hedonistic theories are one possible answer to the question of "What is intrinsic goodness?"

  1. Hedonism: (def.) the philosophical doctrine that (1) all pleasure is intrinsically good, and (2) nothing but pleasure is intrinsically good.

  2. Similar theories might involve enjoyment, satisfaction, happiness, as concepts substituted for pleasure. A major problem of hedonism is getting clear as of what pleasure and pain consist.  Are pleasures events, properties, states, or some other kind of entity? 

  3. Psychological Hedonism: (a descriptive theory) all people do in fact pursue pleasure. This theory holds that this is not the way people ought to be; this is the way people actually are—they naturally seek pleasure. Hence, the theory is an inductive generalization from experience by social scientists.

  4. Ethical Hedonism (a prescriptive theory) whether or not people pursue pleasure, they should or ought to do so. A right action is productive of pleasure; a wrong action is productive of pain.

II.  The hedonistic position can be substantially refined.

  1. To say "all pleasure is intrinsically good" is not to say "all pleasure is good, simply." Something intrinsically good might be instrumentally bad.

    1. Pain is often good as a means: it is a signal that something is wrong and a change is necessary.  (E.g., A 16 month-old does not remove her finger from a closing door if no pain is felt. Pain in this instance would be good as a means.)

    2. Some pleasures are a means to something more painful and so would not be good: e.g., making fun of other people, getting drunk, taking drugs, and so forth.

  2. Pleasure is not the only thing desirable—many other things are desirable as means and ends (just not intrinsically desirable).  E.g., liberty, peace, money, and education are desirable, but on this view only pleasure is desirable as the ultimate end.

  3. Note especially the distinction between pleasure and the sources of pleasure.

    1. Obviously people get pleasure in different waysE.g., some persons detest superficial conversation and read existential psychoanalysis; some persons detest reading and love causal personal interaction.

    2. Blurring the distinction between pleasure and the sources of pleasure is often the basis of the mistaken attraction to relativism; the sources of pleasure can be different for different persons. 

      Some persons have mistakenly taken this distinction to mean that "Therefore, you can't generalize about what actions should be done because they would differ for different people; hence, ethics is relative."

    3. Nevertheless, the pleasure can be the same even though the sources of pleasure are different. The pleasure from the winning of a battle could be the same as the pleasure from the winning of a football game. 

      Think about how this statement is logically related to C.L. Kleinke's observation in his book  Self-Perception that "What distinguishes emotions such as anger, fear, love, elation, anxiety, and disgust is not what is going on inside the body but rather what is happening in the outside environment." (C.L. Kleinke, Self-Perception (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1978), 2.)

    4. Nevertheless, the hedonist believes moral goodness is an instrumental good—it is not necessarily an intrinsic good.

      1. Moral goodness is doing the right thing, but this might not lead to happiness. Consider the Nazi doctors performing abortions in prisoner of war camps. Consider also the problems raised by the teleological suspension of the ethical.

      2. Moral goodness, according to hedonism, can be an instrumental good, but it doesn't follow that it will always lead to pleasure. (E.g., honest upright Great Aunt Sarah who lives alone by a rigid code does not necessarily live a life of pleasure.)

III. The hedonist doesn't seek pleasure constantly—a constant indulgence of appetites makes people miserable in the long run.

  1. The Hedonistic Paradox: "Pleasure to be got must be forgot." As Aristotle taught, pleasure is the side-product of activity. I.e., some of the most miserable people are those who desire to get out of the situation they are in, in order to have pleasure somehow "happen" to them.

  2. One secret to pleasure seems to be to lose yourself in activity. So likewise in work or sports, by being engaged continuously, pleasure is not directly sought. Things and activity are sought. 

    When hungry, seek food; when poor, seek money; when restless, seek physical activity. We don't seek pleasure in these situations. As John Stuart Mill stated, "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness … Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way."

IV. John Hospers proposes three counter-examples to hedonism.

  1. Suppose two people get an equal amount of pleasure from two different activities: (1) throwing dishes and (2) playing the piano.

    1. Aren't these activities of different worth?

    2. The hedonist's answer: Yes, their worth is the same intrinsically, but they are instrumentally different.

  2. Consider Mark Twain's story, "The Mysterious Stranger": surely the happiness of insanity is not an intrinsic good. (Additionally, the effects of taking drugs are not an intrinsic good.)

    1. Surely, this state of affairs, that pleasure is intrinsically good, cannot be right.

    2. The hedonist's answer: Yes, it is a deplorable state instrumentally, but intrinsically, the insane person is better than his previous state. The drug addict, when on drugs, is better than he was in his previous state (or he would not be inclined to take the drugs). Note the vicious circularity of argument.

  3. Consider a counterexample: suppose a murderer gets a big thrill out of killing people.

    1. Surely, the undeserved "pleasure" of the murderer is bad.

    2. The hedonist's answer: This illustrates the same confusion as shown in the first two examples. The consequences are bad, i.e., the consequences are only instrumentally bad, but the pleasure is intrinsically good.

    3. Again, note the viciously circular argument. All possible counterexamples are ruled out.


    Recommended Sources

    Hedonism: A discussion of hedonism from the Stanford Encyclopedia with some emphasis relating to egoism and utilitarianism by Andrew Moore.

    Hedonism: An outline of some basic concepts hedonistic philosophy with brief mention of Epicurus, Bentham, Mill, and Freud from the Wikipedia

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