All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


Hedonism (Greek, δονή, "pleasure") is a term that refers to either of two distinct but related views, one a thesis in normative ethics, the other a generalization about human psychology.

Ethical Hedonism

The first view, called "ethical hedonism," affirms that only pleasure is intrinsically desirable and that only displeasure (or pain) is intrinsically undesirable. More fully stated, it is the thesis that only pleasant states of mind are desirable in themselves; that only unpleasant states of mind are undesirable in themselves; and that one state of affairs is more desirable in itself than another state of affairs if and only if it contains more (in some sense) pleasant states of mind than the other (the quantity of value in a state of affairs being measured by the quantity of pleasure in it).

This thesis has been defended by a distinguished line of philosophers from the early Greeks to the present, including Aristippus, Epicurus, John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Other philosophers have thought that happiness is the only thing that is intrinsically desirable; and if saying that a man is happy at a given time is the same as saying that he is experiencing pleasure at the time, then their names could be added to this roster. Many philosophers, however, have thought that happiness is different from pleasure, and there has been disagreement and confusion about what "happy" and "pleasant" mean.

The hedonist thesis was a part of traditional utilitarianism, as represented, for instance, by Bentham and Mill, with their "greatest happiness principle." These writers combined the generic principle of utilitarianismnamely, that an act is morally right if performing it would produce, or could reasonably be expected by the agent to produce, at least as much intrinsic goodness in the world as any other act the agent could perform at the timewith the thesis of hedonism about what is intrinsically good. Traditional utilitarianism is thus a species of utilitarianism that is defined as asserting just the "generic thesis"; other kinds of utilitarianism (for example, that of G. E. Moore) reject hedonism. Unlike utilitarianism, ethical hedonism is not at all a proposal about which acts are morally right; it is only an affirmation about which states of affairs are intrinsically good or desirable.

What is meant by saying that a state of affairs is intrinsically desirable, as opposed to simply desirable, is that it is desirable, good, worthwhile, worthy of choice, when taken by itself, viewed abstractly, and in particular considered without reference to consequences. Many things (for example, a visit to the dentist) are worthwhile in view of their consequences, which nobody would say are intrinsically desirable. The hedonist does not deny that other things are desirable; he denies only that they are intrinsically worthwhile. He agrees that something can be desirable instrumentallyas a means to an endeven when it is not intrinsically desirable. (A thing can, of course, be both intrinsically and instrumentally desirable: pleasant experiences can be good in themselves and also instrumentally good, if, for example, they are relaxing and enable one to work better on the following day.) He does add, however, that something is instrumentally desirable only to the extent that it is a means to later pleasure, since a thing can be instrumentally desirable only if it is a means to attaining the intrinsically desirable.

When consequences are taken into account, the hedonist's view about what states of affairs are desirable is apt to differ very little from the view of the nonhedonist. In fact, if one reads various writers' accounts of the "good life," one finds that they are pretty much alike, whether the author professes to be a hedonist or a nonhedonist. Thus, Epicurus, for instance, advocated a simple life devoted to philosophical reflection, with a diet of bread, cheese, and milk, and with its tranquility unendangered by surging bodily passions. And J. S. Mill affirmed that having a good character is "part" of a person's happiness, so that according to him, character is intrinsically good after all by virtue of the fact that it is a part of happiness. Some hedonists, however, have advocated a more distinctive ideal for living: the Greek Aristippus thought that physical enjoyments are the richest source of pleasure and should be fully cultivated.

The meaning of the hedonist's thesis, of course, depends on what is meant by "pleasure." It is true that the associations of the word pleasure are such that if an English-speaking person says he favors a "life of pleasure," he is naturally taken to be advocating a life dedicated to the sensory enjoymentswine, women, and song. Hedonists have not intended the term to carry this implication, however, and the strict meaning of the term does not. It is perfectly correct for a student to say, "I got a great deal of pleasure out of writing that paper." To say that an experience is pleasant (for example, "a pleasant evening"), is, in a strict sense, simply to say that one enjoyed it, or that one enjoyed himself during it. Thus, hedonism is done least injustice if it is taken as simply saying that an intrinsically desirable state of affairs is always a state of consciousness in which the person is enjoying himself in one way or another. Since reflection, reading, and creation are activities that people often enjoy, the hedonist means to include these activities, or states of mind, in the category of "pleasures," just as much as the so-called passive enjoyments, such as eating, drinking, and sex.

Hedonists have often disagreed about the proper analysis of "pleasure" or "enjoyment." Epicurus, for instance, said that pleasure is simply the absence of painful want or longing. Moreover, since the early 1900s, psychologists have also disagreed substantially on this point, some holding that pleasure is a special kind of sensation, others that it is a quality of certain kinds of feeling, and so forth. In recent years a considerable body of philosophical literature has accumulated on the subject of the analysis of "pleasant." While a generally accepted conclusion has not yet been reached, it is plausible to say that a person is enjoying himself (that is, his state of mind is pleasant) if and only if at the time he likes his experience or activity for itself, in the sense that, aside from moral considerations or considerations of consequences or of the possibility that something he likes even better could be substituted, he does not wish to change it and in fact would wish to avoid changing it if such a change impended. If this interpretation is accepted, the thesis of hedonism becomes the affirmation that a state of affairs is intrinsically desirable if and only if it is, or contains, an activity or experience which, at the time, the person likes for itself; and one state of affairs is more desirable intrinsically than another if it is, or contains, an experience or activity which, at the time, is liked better for itself. States of affairs which the hedonist thesis apparently rules as being only instrumentally rather than intrinsically desirable, from the point of view of a particular person, are such things as fame after his death and states of knowledge and character (since the latter are not experiences or activities at all, but capacities or dispositions).

Psychological Hedonism

Many (but not all) ethical hedonists have supported their ethical affirmation of hedonism by an appeal to a psychological doctrine known as "psychological hedonism." This theory historically has taken rather different forms; the significance of each for ethical hedonism must be assessed separately. The element common to them is the assertion that actions or desires are determined by pleasures or displeasures, whether prospective, actual, or past. The importance of the theory, however, transcends its relation to ethical hedonism: certain psychologists today are inclined to accept some form of it as a correct account of human motivation.

goal is pleasure

The first and historically most important form of the theory of psychological hedonism may be called the "goal is pleasure" theory, according to which a person is motivated to produce one state of affairs in preference to another if and only if he thinks it will be more pleasant, or less unpleasant, for himself. This thesis, of course, is not intended to be a generalization about simple reflex or habitual behavior. The "belief" in question need not be explicit in the sense of having been verbally formulated before action; it may be an unformulated assumption. The theory is not simply about purposive action; it is also a theory about desire: a person is asserted to want one thing more than another if and only if he thinks its occurrence will be more pleasant for him.

The relation of this form of psychological hedonism to ethical hedonism may be explained by the following argument, often used by ethical hedonists. It is assumed as a major premise that something is intrinsically desirable if and only if it is something that people desire for itself. The minor premise is the "goal is pleasure" theorynamely, that people want only pleasure for itself. It is therefore concluded that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically desirable. The third-century writer Diogenes Laërtius said of Epicurus that "as proof that pleasure is the end he adduces the fact that living things, so soon as they are born, are well content with pleasure and are at enmity with pain, by the prompting of nature and apart from reason."

Contemporary ethical hedonists seldom appeal to the "goal is pleasure" theory to support their views, partly because the theory seems incompatible with obvious facts. For instance, political figures seem to take a strong interest in securing favorable notice in books on history that will appear after their death. This motivation obviously does not depend on the belief that the future event will be pleasant for them personally. Again, individuals often appear to risk personal loss for some moral principle or in order not to forsake a friend (this is illustrated by Dean Acheson's famous remark, "I will never turn my back on Alger Hiss"). Adherents of the "goal is pleasure" theory tend to explain such facts by saying that the individual would be unhappy in the futureand knows he would beif he failed to live by his principle or forsook his friend; hence, the action is motivated by a calculation of personal pleasure after all. What the theory must hold, though, is that a belief to this effect, at least vaguely espoused by the agent, is a necessary condition of the motivation; and this seems implausible. Adherents of the theory may be confusing two things: the agent's belief that a certain future situation will be relatively more pleasant for him, and the agent's thought of that future situation being attractive or repugnant now. A person may say, "I am unhappy with the idea of dropping my friendship with X, in whose integrity I believe." This statement may be true and also an important clue to understanding his behavior. But this is very different from saying, "I'll continue my friendship with Mr. X because I think I'll be less happy if I don't," a kind of statement that would ordinarily be taken as proof that the person did not care about his friend. Adherents of the theory may always argue that the reasoning required by their theory takes place unconsciously, but the postulation of this is ad hoc, the only reason for it being that it saves the theory from conflict with observation.

motivation by pleasant thoughts

As suggested above, adherents of the "goal is pleasure" form of psychological hedonism sometimes confuse it with a different thesis which we may call the "motivation by pleasant thoughts" theory. This theory is the assertion that a person will choose to do A rather than B or will prefer A to B (whether an action or a situation), if and only if the thought of A (with its expected consequences) is more attractive, or less repugnant, than the thought of B (with its expected consequences). This theory is not obviously false: indeed, as a proposal about preference it could be an analytic proposition that sets forth one test we use to decide whether a person prefers one thing to another. As a proposal about action it is clearly a synthetic proposition. As such, it may not be able to explain the fact (if it is a fact) that sometimes the thought of doing A is not more attractive or less repugnant than the thought of doing B, but the agent simply decides to do A (perhaps he is required to make up his mind between the two).

Even if this form of psychological hedonism is true, however, it gives no support to ethical hedonism, since it sets no restrictions on the kind of goal which may be attractive or repulsive to a person. If support of ethical hedonism requires a demonstration that people desire only pleasure, then the present theory does not provide such support. For assuming that desiring a thing means finding the idea of it pleasant or attractive, it does not follow that only the idea of pleasure itself is attractive. Hence, it does not follow that only pleasure is desired, and it is therefore no part of the "motivation by pleasant thoughts" theory to assert that only pleasure is desired.

conditioning by pleasant experiences

The third form of psychological hedonism, the "conditioning by pleasant experiences" theory, is a theory about the causal conditions of a person's wants or values. Roughly, it asserts that at least one's fundamental values can be correlated with past enjoyments or rewards, that these enjoyments are at least part of the causal explanation of the values, and that a person's values can be controlled by manipulating his enjoyments. If a person values ice cream, it is because in the past he has enjoyed ice cream (and not been made sick by it). The truth of this theory is hardly open to question insofar as it merely affirms that past enjoyments have some influence on likes and values; but its truth can be widely questioned if the theory is claimed to give a complete account of likes and values, which, according to experimental evidence, seem to be influenced by numerous factors. Acceptance of the theory, however, does not commit one to assert that persons desire only pleasure. The theory is consistent with saying that people want and value things such as posthumous fame or being a generous or courageous person. All the theory claims is that whatever values one has have been acquired because of past enjoyments or punishments of one sort or anotherperhaps the enjoyment of parental praise or the punishment of parental reproaches.

Further Arguments in Support of Ethical Hedonism

Acceptable psychological theory, as we have seen, does not indicate that people desire only pleasure or things they think will be pleasant for them, or that people prefer A to B if and only if they think A will be more pleasant to them than B. Ethical hedonism, therefore, cannot appeal to psychological theory in support of its thesis.

Ethical hedonists sometimes rely on one or more of three other lines of argument in support of their view. The first line of reasoning is simply that ethical hedonism is an analytic truth that is true by definition. Locke, for instance, defined "good" as that "which is apt to cause or increase pleasure," and Benedict Spinoza defined it as "every kind of pleasure, and all that conduces thereto." The flaw in this contention, however, is that many people have at least thought either that some things other than pleasure are intrinsically good or that some kinds of pleasure are intrinsically bad. In the face of this, it is not easily claimed that "intrinsically good" simply means pleasant.

The second line of reasoning, which is more substantial, starts from the premise that it is usually agreed that at least some forms of pleasure are intrinsically good and proceeds by contesting the claim that anything else is intrinsically good. If the claims on behalf of other things are successfully refuted, it is concluded that ethical hedonism is left holding the field. The assessment of this line of reasoning is obviously a complex matter, since it presupposes conclusions about how to adjudicate ethical disputes. There is space here only to mention some examples frequently debated by hedonists and their opponents.

Critics of hedonism often urge that some kinds of pleasure are intrinsically badfor example, malicious pleasure in the suffering of another person. And, they say, some unpleasant experiences are intrinsically goodfor example, the punishment of one who has been cruel to another. Furthermore, it may be claimed that various things in addition to pleasure are intrinsically good: knowledge, certain traits of character, kindly or courageous deeds, life itself (at least the survival of mind with memory) even if it is not positively pleasant, being the object of respect or love on the part of other persons, being remembered after death, achievement, whether intellectual or aesthetic. Anyone who accepts any of these points cannot, strictly speaking, be an ethical hedonist.

A third, more practical, line of reasoning by hedonists has been the contention that their view makes possible scientific and objective evaluations of social planning which other views do not. For instance, if the question arises whether a certain tariff should be raised, the hedonist may say that his theory enables us (in principle at least) to decide objectively whether the tariff will do good, for we have only to decide whether a greater net sum of pleasures will be produced with or without the tariff.

This conception has come in for a great deal of criticism in recent decades, some of it unfair. One criticism, which appears repeatedly in the writings of economists, makes the point that we can know nothing about the mental states of other persons, since there is no way of observing them directly; hence, the whole idea that theoretically an individual could determine the effects of a tariff on the happiness of anyone but himself is absurd. This criticism probably goes too far, but questions concerning other minds cannot be evaluated here. A more forcible objection is the following. If "is pleasant" is analyzed as meaning "is an experience liked at the time by the person, for itself," then presumably A 's experience can be said to be pleasanter than B 's, if A likes his experience more intensely. In theory, then, we might show that a tariff on bicycles would do more harm than good, if we could match every pleasant experience it would produce with an experience at least equally pleasant (one liked at least equally as intensely) and of at least equal duration, which the tariff prevents, and if in addition it costs us pleasures that are not matched with those it produces, or if some of the pleasures it costs us are more intense than the matching pleasures it produces, and the reverse is not the case. So far a decision could be reached, in principle at least. But it is possible that things might be too complex to permit such a simple matching. It might be that we would be forced to compare a more intense but brief pleasure with a less intense pleasure of greater duration; and it is not clear what would be meant by saying that one such experience "contains more pleasure" than the other. Thus, it is not clear that in principle the comparison could be made, except in special favorable situations. In this respect, however, the hedonist seems correct on one point: there is no other theory of the intrinsically desirable which makes such evaluations more scientific or more objective.

See also Aristippus of Cyrene; Bentham, Jeremy; Consequentialism; Diogenes Laertius; Epicurus; Happiness; Hobbes, Thomas; Hume, David; Locke, John; Mill, John Stuart; Moore, George Edward; Pleasure; Sidgwick, Henry; Utilitarianism; Value and Valuation.


psychological hedonism

Duncker, K. "Pleasure, Emotion, and Striving." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 1 (1940): 391430.

Troland, L. T. Fundamentals of Human Motivation. New York: Van Nostrand, 1928. Ch. 16.

Young, P. T. "The Role of Hedonic Processes in the Organization of Behavior." Psychological Review 59 (1952): 249262.

ethical hedonism

Bentham, Jeremy. Principles of Morals and Legislation. Many editions.

Diogenes Laërtius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. London: Heinemann, 1925. Bk. II (Aristippus) and X (Epicurus).

Ewing, A. C. Ethics. London: English Universities Press, 1953. Ch. 3.

Mill, J. S. Utilitarianism. Many editions.

Moore, G. E. Ethics. Oxford, 1949. Chs. 12.

Sharp, F. C. Ethics. New York: Century, 1928. Ch. 19.

Sidgwick, Henry. Methods of Ethics. London, 1922. Bk. III, Ch. 14.

measurement of pleasures

Alchian, A. A. "The Meaning of Utility Measurement." American Economic Review 43 (1953): 2650.

Bentham, Jeremy. Principles of Morals and Legislation. Ch. 4. Many editions.

Cohen, Morris, and Ernest Nagel. An Introduction to Logic and Scientific Method, 293298. New York, 1936.

McNaughton, R. "A Metrical Conception of Happiness." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 14 (1954): 172183.

Richard B. Brandt (1967)

views updated

hedonism is derived from the Greek hedone, meaning ‘sweetness’, ‘joy’, or ‘delight’, and refers to theories about the nature and function of pleasure. Originally, hedone was the sort of sweetness that could be appreciated by taste or smell; then hearing was involved; finally, it was applied metaphorically to any pleasant sensation or emotion. The word's history reminds us that much pleasure is rooted in physical needs and desires.

‘Psychological hedonism’ attempts to explain human conduct, claiming that people are motivated solely by the desire for the maximum degree of pleasure, and invariably act on the stronger of conflicting desires. This need not mean that everyone automatically seizes the most immediately attractive opportunity: the principle of deferred gratification often comes into play, when people sacrifice a present pleasure in hope of greater pleasure to come. Nevertheless, this theory requires a very broad view of pleasure. Imagine, for example, a group of commuters shivering at a bus stop on a cold winter morning. Presumably they have all left their warm beds at the compulsion of some overmastering motive: duty, ambition, or fear of poverty. Yet if you told them they lived for pleasure alone, they might well invite you to redefine your terms. ‘Ethical hedonism’ covers the doctrines that pleasure is the only ultimate good, and that everyone should live with that end in view, though they need not seek pleasure for themselves: thus ‘ethical egoism’ reconciles pleasure-seeking with altruism. Most discussions of pleasure cover both psychology and ethics. A closely-related subject is the examination of what pleasure actually is. This often involves philosophical attempts to decide whether pleasure can be distinguished from happiness, and, if so, to assess their relative merits.

The ancient Greek legacy

Hedonism's history is bedevilled by two false and damaging assumptions: that it advocates only bodily pleasures, and that they are invariably sinful and degrading. In fact, most philosophers seem to share this distrust of the body and advocate rational hedonism, regarding spiritual and intellectual joys as more lasting, and less likely to produce painful or inconvenient consequences. A rare exception is Aristippus (435–356 bc), a body-centred, radical hedonist who identified good and evil with pleasure and pain. He was frequently depicted as the embodiment of shameless, irresponsible sensuality. Epicurus (341–270 bc) also defined life's goal as happiness, but found it in tranquillity, arising from wisdom and virtue, rather than in active sensual enjoyment. He and his followers were often accused of bestial devotion to bodily gratification and indifference to all other concerns; this probably arose from a wish to discredit his materialism, rejection of superstition, and denial that individual identity survived after death. Today, an ‘epicure’ is a gourmet, rather than a monster of indiscriminate depravity: this sense of the word was already developing in the description of the Franklin in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400). He was ‘Epicurus’ owne sone', believing that perfect happiness lay in pure delight, whose house was always full of food and drink, abundant in quantity and superb in quality — woe betide his cook if the sauces were insufficiently piquant! However, a more sinister image of Epicurean theory and practice was also in circulation: for example, in Shakespeare's King Lear, Goneril complains that her father's unruly knights have reduced her court to something like a riotous inn:‘epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac'd palace.’
She certainly has no wish to imply that catering standards have risen under their influence. Epicurus' dubious reputation reflected the Christian tendency to regard earthly pleasures as the evil lures of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

As rational hedonists, Plato (c.428–c.348 bc) and Aristotle (384–22 bc) were less subject to misrepresentation. Plato's Phaedo depicts Socrates arguing that the true philosopher should study to separate his soul from his body by cultivating wisdom and weaning himself from physical pleasures. At death, it will join the gods in a happy state of immortal wisdom. The souls of those who have addicted themselves to sensual delights hover disconsolately about the tombs of their host bodies until they become reincarnated in animals: hardly encouragement to physical fulfilment! Although in later dialogues, like the Philebus, Plato allows pleasure a role in the good life, he stresses the importance of intellectual joys, and makes pleasure itself subordinate to other qualities, such as reason. The most obviously corporeal delights are dismissed as false pleasures, adulterated by the pains of privation and appetite. Similarly, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics recommends the pursuit of ‘eudaimonia’, ‘happiness’, but advocates temperance in physical pleasures (especially those involving taste and touch) and places the greatest value on abstract contemplation.

Utopian synthesis

Rational hedonism acquired a new lease of life when classical learning, combining with Christian theology, engendered Renaissance humanism. Thomas More's Utopia (1516), first translated into English by Raphe Robinson, describes an ideal commonwealth whose philosophers believe that ‘all our actions, and in them the vertues themselfes be referred at the last to pleasure, as their ende and felicitie.’ Nevertheless, they rank pleasures in an order which gives low priority to the body:
‘They imbrace chieflie the pleasures of the mind. For the delite of eating and drinking, and whatsoever hath any like pleasauntnes, they determyne to be pleasures muche to be desired, but no other wayes than for healthes sake.’Any man who pursues bodily satisfaction for its own sake
‘must nedes graunt, that then he shal be in most felicitie, if he live that life, which is led in continuall hunger, thurste, itchinge, eatinge, drynkynge, scratchynge, and rubbing. The which life how not only foule, and unhonest, but also how miserable, and wretched it is, who perceveth not? These doubtles be the basest pleasures of al, as unpure and unperfect. For they never come, but accompanied with their contrarie griefes.’In the sixteenth century, ‘honest’ meant ‘respectable’ and ‘honourable’ as well as ‘virtuous’, so Robinson's prose condemns bodily pleasures as vulgar and socially degrading. The moral connotations of ‘base’ and ‘unpure’ suggest that physical pleasures are not only unsatisfactory, but wicked and shameful. The best way to reconcile hedonism with virtue is to demonstrate that only virtuous thoughts and actions provide pleasant sensations. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case with most people, even in Utopia. More's philosophers tackle this difficulty by rejecting subjective experience in favour of intellectual and ethical standards as a means to establish the intensity, value, and reality of pleasures. They condemn as false such alleged enjoyments as pride in dress or ancestry, covetousness, gambling, and hunting. At first they make sensation the criterion of enjoyment: ‘why sholdest thou not take even as much pleasure in beholdynge a counterfeite stone, whiche thine eye cannot discerne from a righte stone?’ Subsequently, however, they concede that sensory gratification may arise from some false pleasures, but that does not prove their authenticity, for ‘perverse and lewde custome is the cause hereof’.

Utopians maximize the benefits of deferred gratification. Life led according to nature, right reason, and virtue will inevitably foster the physical health which is necessary for all other pleasures. Generosity to others is trebly advantageous:
‘For it is recompensed with the retourne of benefytes, and the conscience of the good dede with remembraunce of the thankefull love and benevolence of them to whom thou hast done it, doth bringe more pleasure to thy mynde, then that whiche thou hast withholden from thy selfe could have brought to thy bodye. Finallye (which to a godly disposed and a religious mind is easy to be persuaded) God recompenseth the gifte of a short and smal pleasure with great and everlasting joye.’This influential text airs many aspects of pleasure theory which were debated for ensuing centuries.

Pleasure and the enlightenment

Hedonistic theories proliferated spectacularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Some were frankly materialistic, like the analysis of psychology, politics, and morality in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651). He believes the fundamental law of nature is ‘to seek peace, and follow it’; the ‘Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living’, and ‘a Hope by their Industry to maintain them’. His views, often condemned as atheistic, inspired philosophes like Claude–Adrien Helvétius (1715–71), Paul–Henri d'Holbach (1723–89), and Julien de la Mettrie (1709–51). As material prosperity increased, it became easier — and more necessary — to devise theories which demonstrated that human happiness was consistent with the order of the universe. The political economist Adam Smith (1723–70), champion of the unregulated laissez-faire economy, believed that the more its people were left to their own devices, the more prosperous and efficient a nation would become. British natural theologists, including John Ray (1628–1704) and Robert Boyle (1626–91), united science with religion in an attempt to show that happiness was part of God's plan. Drawing their evidence from observations on the world about them, they argued that God, having designed such a well-run, comfortable universe, must intend men to be happy, in this world and the next. This optimism was extended to psychology and morality by those who claimed that virtue and benevolence were not only profitable, but sources of pleasant sensations. The Revd Joseph Butler, in Fifteen Sermons (1726), Sermon Nine, expounds the paradox of hedonism: people intent on their own pleasures gain less gratification than those who care for others' interests. Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671–1713), and Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) argued for the existence of a ‘moral sense’; David Hume (1711–76) declared it the sole criterion of ethical value. The full hedonistic implications lurking in Utopian accounts of virtue's benefits could be spelled out in embarrassing detail. Some philosophers cynically suspected that all actions were essentially self-gratifying. Did altruism really exist? Bernard Mandeville's Essay on Charity (1723) says, ‘thousands give money to beggars from the same motives as they pay their corn-cutter, to walk easy.’ Shaftesbury advocated the cultivation of virtue for its own sake, believing the introduction of any ulterior motive, like hope of heaven or fear of hell, rendered it ‘illiberal and unworthy of any honour or commendation’. Christian apologists retorted that only the prospect of eternal pains and pleasures could ensure good behaviour among the population at large. A properly regulated hedonism must find moral approval from a viewpoint which regarded pleasure not only as a direct and indirect reward of virtue, but as proof of God's benevolence, if not his existence.

Even animals could benefit from divine goodness. The Revd William Paley, Archdeacon of Carlisle (1743–1805), in Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), claims that God enables every sentient being to experience an appropriate degree of bliss:
‘When we are in perfect health and spirits, we feel in ourselves a happiness independent of any particular outward gratification whatever, and of which we can give no account. This is an enjoyment which the deity has annexed to life; and probably constitutes, in a great measure, the happiness of infants and brutes, as oysters, periwinkles, and the like; for which I have sometimes been at a loss to find out amusement.’

With God omitted from the calculations, the prospect of animal pleasure could still enhance a system of universal harmony: in The Origin of Species (1859), Chapter 3, Charles Darwin attempts to soften the harshness of natural selection by arguing that, for the successful, a sense of well-being is the order of the day:
‘When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.’


Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) shifted the emphasis from individual happiness to the good of society, announcing that all legislation should be designed to achieve ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ His hedonistic utilitarianism combines psychological and ethical approaches:

‘nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to determine what we ought to do as well as what we shall do.’He was concerned with quantity rather than quality, defining ‘utility’ as
‘that property in any object whereby it tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered.’

In Utilitarianism (1861), Chapter 2, Bentham's disciple, John Stuart Mill, introduces a hierarchy of pleasures to defend the system against the traditional anti-Epicurean complaint that a life with no higher end than pleasure was ‘worthy only of swine’. Mill points out that
‘the Epicureans have always avowed, that it is not they, but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation suposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.’

He claims that the ‘higher’, or intellectual, pleasures, are better in quality than ‘lower’, physical, enjoyments. He declares, with a touch of arrogance,
‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question.’

Utilitarianism is perpetually controversial. What happens when the individual's interests conflict with those of the rest of society? ‘Ideal utilitarians’ question the validity of identifying the good with pleasure. Problems also arise from the difficulty of calculating consequences. Should we be ‘act utilitarians’, always trying to do whatever will produce the greatest good on any occasion? Or should we become ‘rule utilitarians’, conforming to whatever behaviour would normally turn out best? Whatever the uncertainties about individual duties and gratifications, there can be no doubt that hedonist utilitarianism has extensive applications for society in general. With the rise of democracy and consumerism, pleasure must be acknowledged as a formidable economic and political force. Pleasure is not merely the preoccupation of frivolous moral weaklings; the founders of the world's most powerful nation held it self-evident that man had an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness.

The science of pleasure

Important twentieth-century developments included psychological investigation of hedonic reactions (feelings of liking or disliking) to various stimuli, and neurological research linking responses associated with pleasure to specific areas and chemical reactions in the brain. Recent advances in pharmacology and technology have given new urgency to old problems. With the appropriate use of drugs and electrodes, attempts to assess the value of a life spent in constant pleasure, regardless of other considerations, might cease to be a matter of philosophical speculation.

Carolyn D. Williams


Annas, J. (1993). The morality of happiness. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.
Campbell, C. (1990). The Romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism. Blackwell, Oxford.
Glover, J. (ed) (1990). Utilitarianism and its critics. Macmillan, New York: Collins Macmillan, London.
Porter, R. and Roberts, M. M. (ed.) (1996). Pleasure in the eighteenth century. Macmillan, Basingstoke.

See also pleasure; pleasure, biological basis.
views updated


Hedonism, a word derived from the Greek δονή, meaning pleasure, is a name used to refer to at least two different ethical positions. Ethical hedonism is the view that the only thing that is good and ought to be desired is pleasure; we can desire other things but are mistaken when we do so. Among its supporters have been epicurus, locke, hobbes, hume, bentham, and Sidgwick. Psychological hedonism is the view that we can desire nothing but pleasure; that other things, like learning or virtue, can be sought only as means to pleasure; and that ethical theory consists in showing men how to seek those pleasures that are most intense or lasting. Strictly speaking, this latter view is incompatible with ethical hedonism, for if we can desire nothing but pleasure, it is surely pointless to recommend pleasure as the only thing that ought to be desired; nevertheless, some ethicists, such as Epicurus and Bentham, have been both ethical and psychological hedonists. It is also useful to distinguish the individualistic (or egoistic) from the universalistic (or utilitarian) form of hedonism: the first says that one ought to aim at pleasure only for himself; the second says that he ought to aim at pleasure for all.

Historical Survey. The Cyrenaic school of hedonistic philosophy was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, according to whom the sole good to be desired for its own sake is the enjoyment of the particular pleasure of the moment, and the only moral goal of action is present gratification (see cyrenaics). Primary attention ought to be given to the pleasures of the body since these are the more intense; and one should seize the pleasures of the moment since life is uncertain and one may miss the pleasures put off until tomorrow. Aristippus found a metaphysical basis for this doctrine in the relativism of Protagoras of Abdera: we can know nothing of things outside us except their impression on ourselves; so the "smooth motion" of sense which we call pleasure is the only knowable good (see sophists).

Epicurus agreed with the Cyrenaics that only pleasure is good, and only pain is bad and always bad; the highest wisdom is to learn how to make the wisest choice of pleasures. But, he taught, the highest point of pleasure is to be attained by the mere removal of pain or disturbance, and so the highest form of bodily pleasure is freedom from fear and anxiety; and because of the role of memory and anticipation, mental pleasure is far more valuable than bodily pleasure. It is clear that Epicurus was not an "Epicurean," one given to voluptuous living; for him, one who is wise in his choice of pleasures chooses a virtuous and withdrawn life of study (see epicureanism).

With the fairly definitive refutation by Bishop Joseph butler (Fifteen Sermons, 1726) of egoistic versions of hedonism, interest tended to center on the defense of universalistic hedonism, or utilitarianism, an ethical theory best known in the form given it by Jeremy Bentham. According to Bentham, actions are to be approved or disapproved according to their tendency to increase the pleasure of all parties concerned by the action; if the whole community is affected, the pleasure of all must be considered. This calls for measuring pleasures and pains, and for comparing those of one person with those of another; and Bentham proposed a "felicific calculus" which, he claimed, would make such measurements and comparisons possible.

Though only a few, apart from Kant, would want to deny that some pleasures are intrinsically valuable, the hedonist tends to claim that not only some, or most, but absolutely all pleasant experiences are intrinsically valuable; and further, that only pleasures are intrinsically valuable; and further that what is "morally good" is identical with, or instrumental to, pleasant experience.

Critique. An important source of confusion among hedonists of an empirical cast of mind is their talk of pleasure and pain as occupying opposite ends of the very same scale. Just as the prospect of physical pain makes one avoid some objects, so pleasures are construed as feelings, the prospect of which makes him seek other objects. Yet the counterpart of pleasure in the sense of a pleasurable state of consciousness, the sense that is of interest in ethics, is not pain but displeasure; while both pleasure and pain, in the sense of certain bodily sensations (e.g., ticklings, stingings), are the cause, sometimes, of pleasure in the first sense, and sometimes of displeasure. To attempt an adequate explanation of human likes and dislikes, wants and aversions, by a model of human nature that has pleasure and pain as polar opposites, both of which are capable of precise quantitative variation, is surely a mistake.

One of the major objections that has been raised to hedonism is that it could tend to approve malice, the pleasurable contemplation of another's undeserved misfortune, as intrinsically good; whereas such pleasure is obviously intrinsically bad in direct proportion to its pleasantness.

Further, even if pleasure were somehow involved in our experience of all good things, it would not follow that pleasantness and moral goodness were the same things, any more than it would follow that when one sharpens a pencil the shavings and the sharpened pencil are the same thing. No experience is an experience merely of pleasure, just as nothing is colored without having size and shape; and so even if it be shown that pleasure is a necessary condition of intrinsically valuable experience, this is not to show that it is a sufficient condition. Finally, the hedonist whose whole striving is for pleasure will himself run up against the hedonist paradox: happiness to be got must best be forgot.

See Also: ethics, history of; egoism.

Bibliography: j. watson, Hedonistic Theories from Aristippus to Spencer (New York 1895). w. j. oates, ed., The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers (New York 1940). r. d. hicks, Stoic and Epicurean (New York 1910). a. j. festugiÈre, Epicurus and His Gods, tr. c. w. chilton (Oxford 1955). h. sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (7th ed. 1907; reissued, Chicago 1962). r. m. blake, "Why Not Hedonism? A Protest," The International Journal of Ethics 37 (1926) 118. g. ryle, Dilemmas (The Tarner Lectures, 1953; Cambridge, Eng. 1954) 5467.

[r. l. cunningham]

views updated

he·don·ism / ˈhēdnˌizəm/ • n. the pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence. ∎  the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life. DERIVATIVES: he·don·ist n. he·don·is·tic / ˌhēdnˈistik/ adj. he·don·is·ti·cal·ly / ˌhēdnˈistik(ə)lē/ adv.

views updated

hedonism (hē´dənĬz´əm) [Gr.,=pleasure], the doctrine that holds that pleasure is the highest good. Ancient hedonism expressed itself in two ways: the cruder form was that proposed by Aristippus and the early Cyrenaics, who believed that pleasure was achieved by the complete gratification of all one's sensual desires; on the other hand, Epicurus and his school, though accepting the primacy of pleasure, tended to equate it with the absence of pain and taught that it could best be attained through the rational control of one's desires. Ancient hedonism was egoistic; modern British hedonism, expressed first in 19th-century utilitarianism, is universalistic in that it is conceived in a social sense— "the greatest happiness for the greatest number."

See J. C. Gosling, Pleasure and Desire (1969).

views updated

hedonism Pursuit of pleasure, or any of several philosophical or ethical doctrines associated with it. Aristippus (c.435–c.356 bc) taught that pleasure was the highest good. Epicurus advocated discrimination in the seeking of pleasure. John Locke believed that the idea of ‘good’ can be defined in terms of pleasure. Bentham and J. S. Mill adapted a psychological view of hedonism in formulating Utilitarianism.

views updated

hedonism XIX. f. Gr. hēdonē pleasure + -ISM.
So hedonist XIX.