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What is Hedonism?

Updated on December 26, 2010

Hedonism is the philosophical view that pleasure is the ultimate good for man. It is also a psychological theory that pleasure motivates human actions.

It is not an insult to be used at me by my father.

Philosophical Hedonism

According to philosophical, or ethical, hedonism, the only thing desirable for itself is a pleasant state of mind, and the only thing undesirable in itself is an unpleasant state of mind. This view has been held by a long list of distinguished philosophers, including Epicurus, Locke, Hobbes, Hume, Bentham, and Mill.

The hedonist position is apt to seem more radical than it is, for two reasons. First, the term "pleasure" tends to suggest only sensual enjoyments. But hedonists have intended it to be taken broadly, to include intellectual as well as physical enjoyments; Epicurus, for example, thought the ideal life was one of tranquil philosophical reflection.

Second, hedonism may seem radical because it is forgotten that the hedonist agrees that many things besides pleasure, such as knowledge and virtue, are desirable in that they tend to produce pleasure. In fact, taking consequences into account, hedonists are apt to differ very little from nonhedonists about what is desirable.

Hedonism has usually been supported by two kinds of reasoning. The first is that obviously, to a rational man, unpleasant experiences are undesirable and pleasant ones are desirable. Critics counter that, equally obviously, some pleasures, such as malicious enjoyment of another's suffering, are undesirable and some displeasures, such as punishment for crime, are desirable; hence, they say, hedonism is false. Hedonists reply that this objection rests on a confusion between what is desirable in itself and what is desirable in its consequences.

The second line of argument for hedonism begins with the premise that something is desirable in itself only if a rational person desires it for itself. But, it continues, human beings desire only pleasure for itself. Hence, only pleasure is desirable in itself.

Psychological Hedonism

Psychological hedonism is a set of theories of motivation, all of which hold basically that both action and desire are determined in some important way by pleasure. The historically most important form of the theory holds that people want something or do something only because they think it will be pleasant. This kind of theory is usually employed to support ethical hedonism. Contemporary psychology tends to ignore such theories because contemporary psychology is largely concerned with subhuman behavior, in which it would be extravagant to employ the concept of thinking that something is pleasant.

Unless the traditional hedonist theory is interpreted so broadly that it becomes virtually empty, it is inconsistent with obvious facts: for example, that statesmen want to be remembered after their deaths, or that people live up to their moral principles, are loyal to friends, and foster their children's happiness. Such individuals do not identify these goals with personal enjoyment, and they persevere toward them even when they think such behavior is incompatible with maximizing their own enjoyment.

A rather different type of hedonist theory, which commands more support among psychologists, is that wants and values are a result of past pleasures and pains. More explicitly, certain kinds of activity, such as eating when hungry, are inherently enjoyable, and when an activity has been enjoyable, it comes to be wanted. Next, it is asserted, any experience comes to be enjoyable when it has been regularly associated with an already enjoyable experience; for example, since a mother feeds her child, the child learns to enjoy her presence. What is derivatively enjoyed in this way then comes to be wanted. It is held that all desires can be so explained; even such a seemingly less hedonistic want as ambition for power is supposed to be anchored in the fundamental enjoyments. It is possible that this type of psychological hedonism, or one like it, strongly supports philosophical hedonism, but the matter has not been carefully examined.

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