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?"
- Hedonism: (def.) the philosophical doctrine that (1) all pleasure is intrinsically good, and (2) nothing but
pleasure is intrinsically good.
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?
- 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
naturally seek pleasure. Hence, the theory is an inductive
generalization from experience by social scientists.
- 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.
- To say "all pleasure is intrinsically good" is not to say "all pleasure is good,
Something intrinsically good might be instrumentally. bad.
- 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.)
- Some pleasures are a means to something more painful and so would not be
fun of other people, getting drunk, taking drugs, and so forth.
- 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.
- Note especially the distinction between pleasure and the sources of
- Obviously people get pleasure in different ways. E.g., some persons detest superficial
conversation and read existential psychoanalysis; some persons detest reading and love causal personal
- 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
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
- 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
- Nevertheless, the hedonist believes moral goodness is an instrumental good—it is not necessarily an intrinsic good.
- 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
problems raised by the teleological suspension of the ethical.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Suppose two people get an equal amount of pleasure from two different activities:
(1) throwing dishes and (2) playing the piano.
- Aren't these activities of different worth?
- The hedonist's answer: Yes, their worth is the same intrinsically, but
they are instrumentally different.
- Consider Mark Twain's story, "The Mysterious Stranger": surely the happiness of insanity
is not an intrinsic good. (Additionally, the effects of taking drugs is not an
- Surely, this state of affairs, that pleasure is intrinsically
good, cannot be right.
- 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.
- Consider a counterexample: suppose a murderer gets a big thrill out of killing
- Surely, the undeserved "pleasure" of the murdered is bad.
- 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.
- Again, note the viciously
circular argument. All possible counterexamples are ruled out.
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.