Bothered by Hedonism

Photo by nicksushkevich (flickr.com)

One of my friends on plurk sent out this quote:

Let your desire for pleasure and your desire for feeling good be your only guiding light.

So far, I’m the only one who has reacted negatively to the message, and I suppose I’m not surprised. I take a lot of things seriously, and I’m not exactly a wild and crazy free spirit. Hedonism has always prompted an inner dissonance for me, and I’m trying to get to the bottom of why. I wonder if I’m an outlier in the secular community. Perhaps I’m missing the mark.

What is Hedonism?

Hedonism is an ethical system that stems from this truth: people are motivated primarily by the production of pleasure and happiness and the avoidance of pain. It argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. I agree that we humans do in fact desire our own happiness so strongly that it can outweigh most other impulses or values.

What bothers me? Selfishness and a lack of compassion. Hedonism strikes me as ultimately self-serving and love-less. When a person embraces his or her passions and vices to the detriment of another’s wellbeing or the social good, then I lose respect for that individual. Hell, I even lose respect for myself when I seek my own happiness and comfort over that of another person. I admire those who seek the greater good and the contentment and peace of the group over their own pleasure; I wish I could say I acted this way more often.

Living a hedonistic lifestyle may not be the best choice for imbalanced individuals. Should a pedophile seek pleasure and happiness even though sexual satisfaction is at the expense of a child and against the law? what about addictions? Isn’t moderation or the agony of quitting better even if it is painful or difficult? Perhaps I’m thinking of sily examples, but the people I’ve met who have said they embrace hedonism have often been those who are rebelling against limits and healthy living in moderation. Perhaps they don’t understand it in its ideal form—whatever that may be. Hey, I’m no expert!

What should we value? Should the seeking of pleasure and lack of discomfort trump an altruistic or sacrificial decision?

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April 13, 2010  |  personal, society

17 Comments


  1. We have to be careful not to confuse popular and technical usage here.

    In ethics, hedonism would be considered an axiology, or a theory of the good. It would not be a complete ethical theory, which would require consideration of whose good and what do do with it. What you describe combines a hedonistic theory of the good with egoism, the belief that maximizing one’s own good is how one ought to act morally.

    But this is not the only way hedonism can be used. Until the 20th century, utilitarians such as Bentham and Mill were also hedonists — but they believed that it was everyone’s pleasure that mattered, not only their own. Hence the utilitarian slogan, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Modern utilitarians tend to believe preference satisfaction, rather than pleasure, is a more appropriate metric, but the gist remains.

    One could also, in a reversal of your final question, be a hedonistic altruist, and believe that only everyone else’s pleasure matters to the exclusion of one’s own!

    In general, though, I think any skeptical affinity for popular-usage hedonism is similar to the (now thankfully receding) skeptical affinity for “libertarian” market fundamentalism: once you start dumping dogmas it seems a plausible place to turn first.
    .-= Zombie Jesus’s last blog ..Skeptical Veganism =-.

  2. GG – I don’t know much about hedonism, but from your description, it sounds like plain old selfishness.

    You may have hit on something here. Based on @Biblealsosays review of that awful book “The Making of an Atheist” it seems like some of the thumpers out there confuse hedonism and atheism. However, I am a guy who hates labels of any type. Nobody fits neatly into anybody else’s concept of what the label means. It also seems that a lot of people mix the idea of lifestyle and belief or lack of belief being the same thing (e.g., you are an athiest, ergo you live a bad or immoral life).

    Hmmmm, I may be wandering. Sorry, may not have helped much.

    • It also bothers me that atheists are paired with the “immoral”by default. But this is usually done by those who think following god makes one more moral because god is the one who gives these morals. Once morality is finally understood within an evolutionary and sociological context, I think those people will step away from the “atheist = immoral” assumption.

  3. I think hedonism can be used as an excuse by some to do whatever they please and damn the consequences and who they hurt.

    However, those who actually believe and follow it see it “as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else.” I have no issues with that. I think if your actions do not harm anyone else, why shouldn’t you do whatever you like?
    .-= Riayn’s last blog ..Why can’t the Pope do what is right? =-.

  4. Regardless of the definition of Hedonism you use, you are talking about what was expressed by the plurker: “Let your desire for pleasure and your desire for feeling good be your only guiding light.”

    Guiding light? Are there serious? Does anyone need guidance in order to put themselves first? Am I alone in that it’s usually my first impulse before things like “better judgment” come into play?

    I agree with your feelings, GG, though we probably arrive at them differently. Christian apologists argue that without a belief in God, people will gradually lose any moral compass because there is no fixed point on which a moral foundation can be built. If you and other well-intentioned atheists can prove them wrong, more power to you.

  5. Sorry for the typos in the previous comment. A little beer can be a dangerous thing.

  6. Very thoughtful post – I enjoyed it and the comments.

    I must admit that while I was still a Christian, I saw many leave the faith claiming atheism was now their path but their actions were purely and fully hedonistic. And a very selfish form of hedonism at that. It took me awhile to realize that the two did not always go hand in hand. I still have a discomfort with the concepts of hedonism and am also exploring the whys and wherefors lol.

  7. It’s my opinion that there’s a time for a little bit of hedonism in all of us. Every now and then we should devote a portion of our life entirely to the pursuit of pleasure. But I don’t think we should be fully hedonistic – we need to invest in community and family in order to create a strong society, and as thinking people we should be fully aware of this.

  8. What you describe here is “naive hedonism”, which I’ll agree is not a desirable philosophy due to its myopia – it fails to take into account the social behaviors of humans. A person who lives selfishly per naive hedonism isn’t likely to have many friends, and honestly that’s not a very happy existence to me.

    And that’s one key distinction made by more enlightened forms of hedonism – there’s a distinct difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure may bring about happiness, but being hooked up to an infinite pleasure generator would probably get boring after a while. Happiness is contingent on more complex grounds: friendship, accomplishment, etc.

    I’m a big fan of Epicurus, whose name has been slandered throughout the centuries to mean lavishness (“Epicurean delight”) that is totally contradictory to his philosophy. I’d say his philosophy falls into the more enlightened hedonism category:

    “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but some pleasures are only obtainable at the cost of excessive troubles.”

    “The just man is the freest of anyone from anxiety; but the unjust man is perpetually haunted by it.”

    “Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”

    More here: http://epicurus.info/

    • the thing that hurts me, is that hedonist are in fact very happy people…. for some reason people are drawn to that kind of personality (people my age 19) i have a very high moral code and at this point in my life im in a state of anomie on the verge of nihilism.Hedonistic guys, girls always seem to be attracted to them as if there some kinda magnet even thought they don’t care about them and there most likely going to be used just for a pleasureable moment and thats it… the hedonist doesn’t want any kind of attachment and maybe thats what the girls wants also they just want to have as much fun as possible commitments may deter that (anomie speaking smh)… and it hurts that i try my best i offer love, nearly total devotion, anything they ask for consider it owned, have a car, my own apartment( those are pretty rare 4 people my age) try my very best but yet still im still single never even had 1 girlfriend it i don’t think its cause of my looks…. point of the story hedonist are very happy people

  9. What you describe here is “naive hedonism”, which I’ll agree is not a desirable philosophy due to its myopia – it fails to take into account the social behaviors of humans. A person who lives selfishly per naive hedonism isn’t likely to have many friends, and honestly that’s not a very happy existence to me.

    And that’s one key distinction made by more enlightened forms of hedonism – there’s a distinct difference between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure may bring about happiness, but being hooked up to an infinite pleasure generator would probably get boring after a while. Happiness is contingent on more complex grounds: friendship, accomplishment, etc.

    I’m a big fan of Epicurus, whose name has been slandered throughout the centuries to mean lavishness (“Epicurean delight”) that is totally contradictory to his philosophy. I’d say his philosophy falls into the more enlightened hedonism category:

    “No pleasure is a bad thing in itself, but some pleasures are only obtainable at the cost of excessive troubles.”

    “The just man is the freest of anyone from anxiety; but the unjust man is perpetually haunted by it.”

    “Of all things that wisdom provides for living one’s entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.”

    More here: http://epicurus.info/

  10. A girl on match.com described herslef as HEDONISTIC. I wasnt sure what that word meant. After reading your post I think I’ll opt not to wink at that girl. I dont want to be with a selfish person.

  11. There’s no problem with hedonism if at least one of the things that pleases you is pleasing others.

  12. I see someone has already made mention of Epicurus, I was going to say something along the same lines as Amy, or Erich, whoever.

    Also was interested in ZombieJesus’ comments on what Hedonism actually means when used in the technical sense. Thanks!

  13. “What bothers me? Selfishness and a lack of compassion.”
    Those bother me too. But since suicide is the only truly selfish act, and compassion is only an illusion brought about by social conditioning (see: ‘The Genealogy of Morals’ by Nietzsche and ‘Vicarious’ by Tool – the latter sort of provides an evolutionary/psychological explanation for schadenfreude), I doubt that behind any preaching against hedonism there is much practice of the same.

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