Hedonism is the philosophy of pleasure. It means doing whatever brings you the greatest amount of pleasure, regardless of any other effects.
At first glance, hedonism seems pretty simple; just do whatever you like! Eat whatever you want, treat people rudely, lie around in bed all day! But things are not so simple. Philosophers speak of the paradox of hedonism, which refers to the way pleasure seems to go sour after a while.
If you’ve ever eaten too much candy at one time, you know how this works. You may enjoy the candy at the time, but soon after you get a terrible stomachache, and in the long run, your teeth will rot away.
As it turns out, behaving “hedonistically” is likely bring you more pain than pleasure, eventually! To get out of the paradox of hedonism, philosophers have suggested all sorts of methods for maximizing happiness in the long term. These methods are sometimes contrasted with pure hedonism, which is pursuing pleasure from moment to moment without regard for the future.
II. Famous Quotes About Hedonism
“It is a mistake…to suppose that the public wants the environment protected or their lives saved and that they will be grateful to any idealist who will fight for such ends. What the public wants is their own individual comfort.” (Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves)
The great sci-fi author Isaac Asimov put this line into the mouth of one of his characters. It’s not exactly an argument for hedonism; it argues that hedonism is all that motivates most people. Most people, the character says, are motivated by their own pleasure and can’t be persuaded to sacrifice that pleasure for any higher goals. This is psychological hedonism (see section 7).
“Many of us pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that we hurry past it.” (Søren Kierkegaard)
The Christian Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made some remarkable arguments for faith at a time (the late 1800s) when this was a very unfashionable way for a philosopher to think! But Kierkegaard’s version of Christianity was influenced by many other philosophies and religions, particularly Buddhism (though scholars disagree on how much it influenced him, and how much the similarity is a coincidence). In this quote, he makes a fairly Buddhist statement; that true pleasure does not come from hedonism, but from peace of mind.
III. Hedonism vs. Asceticism
Asceticism is sort-of the opposite of hedonism. Where hedonism is all about pursuing pleasure, asceticism is all about doing without pleasure. To an ascetic, indulging in pleasure is a kind of weakness and distraction that would prevent them living up to their spiritual values and attaining their spiritual goals—usually being selfless, without desires, reaching the highest levels of meditation, and serving others purely. They avoid these pitfalls on their spiritual path by denying themselves even the ordinary pleasures of the body, such as fine food, clothing, and sometimes even shelter. Instead, they live on as little and simple food as possible, dress in whatever clothes they happen to own (usually rags), and live simple lives of rugged discipline.
Asceticism is found in nearly all religious traditions, where monks, pilgrims, or sadhus discipline themselves to live without unnecessary physical comforts. It should be said, though, that those who pursue the ascetic path often claim that it eventually brings them a kind of bliss that can never be experienced by those who indulge in physical pleasures. One of the most famous and interesting novels about spirituality, one that most young people enjoy, Siddharta by Herman Hesse tells the story of a Hindu boy, modeled after the Buddha, who spends part of his life as an ascetic, and part as a hedonist, and eventually reaches a kind of enlightenment.
IV. Hedonism vs. Altruism
An altruist is someone who puts everyone else’s happiness and well-being above their own. Altruism is the ultimate form of generosity and kindness. A woman who gives away her last dollar to a homeless shelter is an example of an extreme altruist. However, you can still call yourself an altruist without hurting yourself; you simply have to do things for other people with no expectation of reward for yourself.
Altruism is often contrasted with hedonism, for obvious reasons. Many people believe that hedonism is the opposite of altruism. However, altruism and hedonism are only different to the extent that my happiness is different from your happiness. Many philosophical and religious traditions have argued that they are not — that the greatest joy in life comes from bringing joy to others, and that my well-being ultimately depends on your well-being. If this is true, then the ultimate hedonist would also be the ultimate altruist! This idea is central to many religions, particularly Buddhism.
V. The History and Importance of Hedonism
During the Greek and Roman periods, hedonism was popular but controversial; many Greeks worshipped a god called Dionysus, the god of wine and pleasure. His festivals were crazy hedonistic parties with plenty of drinking, overeating, and reckless behavior. The traditional religious authorities permitted and in some cases encouraged this sort of hedonism. It even played a role in philosophy: one of Plato’s most famous works is all about a wild drunken party where all the best philosophers gather to discuss the pleasures of love.
Philosophy in the later Roman Empire was dominated by Stoicism, a philosophy with a complex relationship to hedonism. The Stoics are usually thought of as opposite to hedonists. They argued for rigorous discipline and control of the emotions; they were somewhat ascetics. But they also believed in training their minds to get pleasure out of behaving in a healthy and moral way. This strongly resembles Buddhism and many historians believe that Stoicism was influenced by the Greek contact with Buddhists in what is now Pakistan, where Buddhism ruled at that time.
Christianity changed attitudes towards hedonism, since Christians have, historically, been extremely critical of pleasure-seeking. Christians believe that Adam and Eve lived pleasurable lives in Eden, but because of their Original Sin, we all must suffer; and therefore, it is blasphemous to seek pleasure at the expense of our responsibility to God.
Christian asceticism dominated philosophy for much of European history (The Dark Ages), but less and less so following the Enlightenment. Around the early 1800s, several philosophers in Britain invented Utilitarianism, which recommends creating the greatest possible amount of happiness for the largest possible number of people. The important idea here is that happiness, not God’s Will, should determine what people do.
Today, some say more than ever before, there is a lot of conflict between those who believe strongly in one religion or another, or none at all, and hedonism has a lot to do with it. Clearly, our modern lives are more hedonistic in general than ever before; it wasn’t even possible for most people in the world to pursue pleasure as most do now, until the past few decades! Those who speak for various religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism argue that our modern lives are much too pleasure-oriented: we shop for expensive clothes, eat pricey food, and spend our time in nightclubs and watching TV, neglecting our spiritual life. Depending on the religion they argue either that hedonism is sinful or simply that it’s bad for us.
It’s very important to keep in mind here that pleasure and happiness are not the same. Buddhists, and others, point out that in spite of all our shopping, eating, and drinking, we are not happy! Suicide rates are rising all over the world, and problems like depression and alcoholism are rampant. They argue that we will be happier if we live simpler, less materialistic, lives.
VI. Hedonism in Popular Culture
On Futurama, there’s a character called Hedonism-bot. The character is always reclining on a couch, being fed grapes or having warm chocolate drizzled over his solid-gold body. The show also has Bender, an incredibly hedonistic robot who loves cigars, liquor, cruel pranks, and all kinds of unseemly behavior. The show’s writers took the familiar image of robots (boring, predictable, selfless automatons) and turned it on its head by portraying robots as hedonists.
In the Sims 2 games, you create characters with aspirations such as wealth, family, or knowledge. One of the options is pleasure; these characters just want to play around, dance, and have fun! They’re the perfect hedonists. Unfortunately, just like the rest of us, they usually have to go to work in order to make enough money to pay for their pleasurable habits.
Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King are major hedonists when we first meet them. They roam around the jungle eating, sleeping, singing, and having a good time. During his time hanging out with Timon and Pumbaa, Simba forgets about his home and his responsibilities, and gives himself up entirely to the hedonism.
British philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that everyone is a hedonist, whether they believe it or not. Bentham argued that all humans basically do whatever they think will give them pleasure.
When you choose a jelly donut, it’s because you think it will make you happy. But when you choose a salad instead, that’s also because you think it will make you happy.
According to Bentham, the difference isn’t about “choosing pleasure” vs. “choosing health,” but rather about deciding which of the two things will bring you more pleasure. This is called “psychological hedonism.” However, critics might argue that this example confuses happiness with pleasure.
The main criticism of psychological hedonism is that its definition of “pleasure” is too broad. Sure, critics will say, we can define pleasure in such a way that all decisions are made for pleasure. But then the concept of “pleasure” becomes so broad that it’s basically meaningless. By “pleasure” we usually mean something more superficial than happiness, so philosophers should use this definition also. Bentham’s critics argue that his theory is more based on semantics (the meaning of words) than psychology.