–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Hedonism

by | Jun 13, 2024

[Modern] Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good and that all other goods are either constitutive of pleasure or servants to it. It should not be underestimated. For one thing, Hedonism has ancient roots, going as far back as the Cyrenaic and Epicurean schools of ancient Greece. For another, it is highly intuitive and benefits from the fact that it puts on a pedestal something that every normal person likes.

One cannot discuss Hedonism in modern ethics without mentioning modern biology, according to which the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are among the most fundamental human imperatives, beyond survival and reproduction. As Jeremy Bentham described it in the opening sentences of his 1781 book, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation: “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.”

When looked at through the lens of political thought, hedonism represents a kind of realism with respect to human affairs, in contrast with the idealism implicit in pre-modern notions of human semi-divinity of the sort propagated by the Abrahamic religions and classical Greek philosophy and the caste-based political systems that followed from it. What the best government looks like is very different when one is talking about sophisticated, hedonically motivated mammals, as opposed to embodied semi-gods.

It is worth noting that Machiavelli and Hobbes (and to a lesser extent, John Locke) drew egoistic conclusions from the hedonic premise: they reckoned that a creature driven by the desire for pleasure will also be selfish and cannot be trusted to respect the desires of others, in the absence of external controls. This inference from Hedonism to Egoism is not one that following generations of hedonists – and especially the Utilitarians – would make. On their view, a person has a duty to promote his neighbor’s happiness as well as his own, and John Stuart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian philosophers, believed that this duty has an “inner sanction”; that we are motivated to maximize everyone’s happiness and not just our own, because we feel pleasure when we do so and pain when we do not, an emotional arrangement that Mill calls “the essence of conscience.”

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The 17th century revolution in physics was followed by generations of thinkers, intent upon accounting for human nature and behavior in mechanistic terms, something that would only accelerate with the subsequent revolution in biology of the 19th century. These developments were revolutionary, because they overturned the Aristotelian framework of essences and purposes from which all explanation – scientific or otherwise – took place, from late antiquity through the Middle Ages. It also established a dichotomy that would plague philosophy thereafter: between “naturalists” who found themselves hard-pressed to retain robust, longstanding conceptions of human volition and responsibility, now that human beings had been brought into the “scientific image,” and dualists of one kind or another, who were unable to make sense of the relationship between human thought and will and our embodiment. It wouldn’t be until Wilfrid Sellars’ exploration of the relationship between the scientific and manifest images (in his landmark 1962 paper, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”) that a potential way out appeared – one that I have explored at length in my Prolegomena for a Pluralist Metaphysics – but the subtlety of Sellars’ analysis, combined with prevailing and profound disagreement among philosophers as to how it should be interpreted, has prevented it from being the widely accepted solution it might have been.  

Though hedonism may have satisfied the modern desire for realism, scientific credibility, and progress, it also has been widely perceived as robbing human beings of their dignity. In its claim that human and animal behaviors have essentially the same etiology, hedonism has invited criticism that it provides an unflattering picture of humanity. Of course, this tension was inherent in the very aims articulated by the doctrine’s promoters: the desire for greater realism with respect to human nature and behavior suggests that one wants to deflate what one thinks is a fictional and inflated sense of human dignity.

Now, I can imagine any number of contemporary philosophers dismissing this concern as irrelevant. “Truth and falsity are what count,” I can hear them say, “and the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a theory tells us nothing about whether it is true or false.” But this simplistic separation of the true and the false, the attractive and the unattractive is hard to swallow when extended to a moral philosophy, the sole value of which lies in its adoption and whose guiding impulse is aspirational.

Mill was a practical man and was very concerned that his theory seemed to – as he put it in Utilitarianism – “excite in many minds…inveterate dislike” and to lead people to conclude that Utilitarianism is “a doctrine worthy only of swine.” His response depended upon a clever mining of the ancient Epicurean tradition. Mill acknowledged that both human beings and animals are ultimately motivated by the desire for pleasure, but there are enormous differences in the types of pleasure that they seek. Indeed, there are varieties of pleasure that are sought by human beings, exclusively and are of a higher order than the pleasures that are the product of “mere sensation” and which constitutes the whole of the happiness of animals. I am speaking, here, of the pleasures associated with the intellect and with intellectual activity, as well as those belonging to what I will call the “higher sentiments,” those states of mind that are born of the collaboration of the affective sensibility and the contemplative mind. “[T]here is no Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation,” Mill wrote. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” Animals lust, but human beings love; animals satiate their hunger and thirst, but human beings enjoy the delights of gastronomy; animals roll in the grass and mud, but human beings read poetry and listen to violin concertos; and so on and so forth.

So much for realism, you might think. After all, to say that human beings will choose the higher pleasures over the lower ones, “once made conscious of them,” doesn’t really ring true, especially when one reflects upon one’s daily intercourse with the common mass of humanity or on contemporary popular culture, entertainment, and food. But Mill has a response to this: Every human being has the capacity for enjoying the fruits of intellection and the higher sentiments, but like anything that requires cultivation it can be neglected or worse, actively undermined by a debased and debasing culture. “Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed,” Mill observed, “not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.”

So, while Mill admitted that many if not most people do not prefer higher pleasures over lower ones, he thought that they would, were it not for certain obstacles to the cultivation and pursuit of nobler feelings and good taste. As with all counterfactuals, this is a guess and one that we might legitimately be quite skeptical about. Nonetheless, Mill’s account provides an important reminder that the quality of our cultural diet is as grave a matter as that of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. 

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Critics are correct in thinking that one of Hedonism’s main faults is in the diminished human being that follows from it, but they are wrong as to the nature of that diminishment. Hedonism does not diminish us because it promotes pleasure or even because it elevates it to the status of an intrinsic good. G.K. Chesterton wrote of the materialist account of nature that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk,” and I would argue that if the hedonist’s human being is the real, complete human being, then it isn’t much of one. When we embrace hedonism, it is humanity rather than the cosmos that shrinks. More precisely, it recedes from the world and into the recesses of the individual mind. It does not diminish us by reducing the nobility of our pursuits, but by transforming their objects: from achievements in the world to the mere experience of such achievements, whatever that experience’s source.

Modern hedonism is only secondarily about pleasure. At its core, it is an experientialist philosophy, by which I mean that it treats the value of a thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it. What is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing, but the experience one has in doing so. What is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity, but the experience that one has in engaging in it and that others have in being the object of it. What is valuable about rising to the top of one’s profession is not that one has done so, but the experience that having done so effects in oneself and in others. It so happens that the hedonist believes that it is pleasurable experience that makes these things valuable, but this characteristic of the doctrine is conceptually separable from the experientialism itself.  

As Robert Nozick observed in his “experience machine” thought-experiment (in his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia), such a view renders it impossible to explain why actually doing a thing is preferable to simulating doing it. If simulating playing tennis, in a Star Trek style holodeck, gives rise to as pleasurable an experience as really playing tennis, why think the latter is a more valuable activity than the former?  

Imagine a machine that could give you any experience… When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel “from the inside.” You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. If your imagination is impoverished, you can use the library of suggestions extracted from biographies and enhanced by novelists and psychologists. You can live your fondest dreams “from the inside.”

The question of whether to plug in to this experience machine is a question of value… The question is not whether plugging in is preferable to extremely dire alternatives — lives of torture, for instance — but whether plugging in would constitute the very best life, or tie for being best, because all that matters about a life is how it feels from the inside.

I think that most of us think that it matters that we actually do things, not just have the experience of doing them, pleasurable as the experience might be. We care about whether we actually are good tennis players, charitable givers, and successful professionals, and that’s because we think that flourishing, in the eudaimonic sense, is valuable. But, to flourish is actually to succeed in one’s endeavors, not just to feel that one has done so, and in the experience machine one can only feel that one has succeeded, as one is not actually engaged in the activity in question.

The point is not that hedonism renders flourishing impossible, but that it cannot explain why it matters. To embrace Hedonism is to adopt an attitude that is ambivalent about real activity and real success and which, when held consistently and is taken to its logical conclusion, pines for the day in which we can replace more and more of our real lives with simulated ones, where pleasurable experience can be better insured. It is a view that takes the endpoint of all activity as lying in our own heads. If philosophers in the past were unconcerned about this consequence of the theory, it could only have been because they couldn’t have imagined that one eventually would be able to live entirely in one’s own head, by way of virtual and holographic technologies.

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