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The Balance between Hedonism and Stoicism

Updated on January 17, 2016
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What is this?

In a college course, I read Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and an article by Steven Morris about Hedonism which was directed at another article against hedonism. These are my thoughts on both, from a speech used in that class.

Definition of Hedonism

The pursuit of pleasure; sensual self-indulgence.synonyms: self-indulgence, pleasure-seeking, self-gratification, lotus-eating, sybaritism;

The ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Stoicism

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An Analysis of Morris' Defense of Hedonism

I was pondering stoicism, and it occurred to me that like all things, it must have an opposite. After much searching, and a variety of answers, I found the perfect opposite of stoicism as it pertained to and was defined by our class. Hedonism. Stephen Morris, in his article titled "In defense of the Hedonistic Account of Happiness" argues against the view of happiness presented by his colleague, Dan Haybron, in favor of hedonism. To be clear, all paraphrasing of Haybron's words and representations of his ideas that are in this review are taken from Morris' own paraphrasing. Haybron is not a stoic but has similar ideas about the nature of happiness, such as the belief that happiness is equal to life satisfaction or goodness, and the idea that your central affective state, or mood, determines your happiness, while everything external is peripheral, and does not affect happiness, or in our terms, we are indifferent to. But the main source of the disagreement is what hedonism is and its shortcomings.

Morris says that Haybron defines ‘hedonism’ as" the view that equates happiness with the experience of pleasure." Haybron finds the principal problems with hedonism to be that it is "psychologically superficial" and that the idea of hedonistic pleasures and pains is "too inclusive." By psychologically superficial what I think he means is that he thinks that hedonism should take mood, and chemical and thought process predispositions for happiness or unhappiness more into account. By too inclusive he means that he has a problem with the idea that everything from a tasty cracker, to use Morris' example, to a daughter's wedding is included as pleasure and that everything from a papercut to a close relative's death to be a pain. In essence, Haybron doesn't believe that the experience is as important as the meaning we take from it and he doesn't think that little things affect our true happiness hardly at all.

I have another small disagreement with Haybron and Morris and the stoics and that is the nature of time's effects on happiness. This may be simple misunderstanding but they all seem to believe that if a man is generally happy over his life then you can take any moment and he will be mostly happy during it and vice versa. The stoics didn't believe exactly this, it was more like if a man is happy and virtuous then the length of his life does nothing to add to or take from his happiness which neutralizes time in much the same way. I consider myself a happy person but if you took the low moments of my life and averaged them with the high in a simple mathematical equation I believe I would register as a sad person yet I am so happy with my life. Or put the other way, if you pointed at a random dot on the timeline of my life you would see me happy, therefore you could assume I was on average very happy. Yet if you pointed at the wrong point, you would find me unspeakably melancholy, therefore I cannot agree with any of them on the indifferent nature of time. In fact, in a lot of ways I believe that time defines happiness.

Regardless of our disagreements, Morris and I are attracted to hedonistic philosophy for at least one of the same major reasons. Hedonism recognizes the value of shallow pleasure. Morris writes about the way we react differently to larger situations based on our mood which is based on smaller stimuli which would be categorized by Haybron as peripheral or indifferent but Morris cites studies that showed that being a shallow kind of happy made a person more prone to doing good things for others and having a more positive perspective on the bigger things that happened, meaning that a tasty cracker could make you more inclined to talk to your neighbor and be nice or be better equipped to deal with tragedy. If the stoics believe we should be the best person we can, wouldn't engaging in hedonistic or indifferent activities that are proven to make us behave as better people be supported by the philosophy?

Although the point of Morris' article was to provide rebuttal for an argument against hedonism he did provide some engaging new ideas and strong evidence for hedonism as a valid philosophy or at least, pieces of hedonistic philosophy to build to a more compassionate yet honest new philosophy and like any good philosopher, he successfully raised a thousand new questions by attempting to answer one.

Morris's Claims

On Haybron's idea that life satisfaction and goodness are equivalent to happiness, Morris cites a series of studies conducted on African Americans from 1980 to 1992, which showed that while reported life-satisfaction went up during this period, reports of happiness actually declined. Assuming that part of the definition of happiness should include the common persons definition, Haybron is proven wrong about his theory of life satisfaction creating happiness. Morris does however agree that life satisfaction is very important to happiness, he just argues that the two words are not interchangeable as the stoics would make them out to be and as Haybron makes them out to be. Morris instead believes that a balance should be reached between hedonistic, or simple, happiness and life satisfaction, or moral type happiness.

To illustrate the problem with Haybron's and the Stoics' idea that disposition is more important than external events in relation to happiness, Morris presents two hypothetical situations, one of a man who is very depressed and predisposed to be constantly sad, but only has the rare wonderful things that make him happy happen to him, so he is happy. Another man is mentally programmed for extreme contentment and happiness but only miserable awful things happen to him, so he is unhappy. Now according to Haybron, the first man must be unhappy and the second must be happy. A stoic would see both as though they should be happy, the first with more obstacles to it but as none of these situations feel true to me, I can't help but disagree with all of them. At the same time, I partially agree with all of them. They seem to be on the right track but they are dichotomizing happy and unhappy when really it is a spectrum. In my mind, the first man who is depressed will remain not as happy as the second, but will feel happier in relation to his life before the wonderful things happened. The second man will feel still happier than the first but will think himself sadder because all he knew before was pure happiness. Unless they were each born with the same kind of things happening to them as are happening now, in which case I think they would be equally neutral, having known nothing else with which to campare their present state, to them they would not feel good or bad, simply the same

What do You Think

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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

      Stoics, as also in Hindu philosophys, get to enjoy stuff but don't over indulge. Hedonism implies over indulgence.