Jeffrey Thayne

Nathan has been writing an excellent series on two very different paradigms of human intent; he has contrasted a fundamentally egoistic and self-interested theory of human behavior with a fundamentally relational, other-oriented theory of human behavior. Today, I would like to discuss a related topic: the long-standing and often misunderstood concept called hedonism.

The dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”1 As we can see, pleasure is used in a very broad sense here; it refers to the “satisfaction of desires.” I assume that the word desires in this context closely resembles Abraham Maslow’s concept of needs. The driving force in our life, from a hedonistic perspective, is the satisfaction of these desires. Brent Slife explains in more detail:

The term “hedonism” often has a negative connotation. Nevertheless, this … assumption of naturalism dominates formal disciplinary conceptions of … human nature, and human relationships. Hedonism is the assumption that all living things seek pleasure and avoid pain, with plants turning toward the sun and animals moving toward whatever is “pleasurable,” broadly defined. In fact, hedonism is thought to be necessary to evolution and the survival of a species—with species risking evolutionary extinction when they consistently move toward pain and suffering. Higher animals, too, are viewed as hedonistic, though in more complex and sophisticated ways. Hedonism implies a certain ethic and purpose for higher animals—that well-being, happiness, or self-benefit is the sole or chief good in life.2

Ed Gantt describes some of the history of the idea:

The roots of our Western intellectual tradition begin with the Greeks—and thus the roots of hedonism do also. The individual most often affiliated with the hedonistic position is Epicurus, who contended “that all men, at all times, pursue only their own pleasure” because “pleasure is the first good and natural.”

… Ironically, even Socrates, who consistently sought to counter this sophistic equation of physical pleasure with the ultimate good, still maintained at the core of his teachings the notion that conduct is governed by a concern for matters of personal pleasure. Socratic doctrine held that acts that produce pleasure are always to be judged in light of their ultimate rather than immediate benefit. Because the unreflective pursuit of pleasure may lead one only to future misery, the relative worth of a given course of action should be determined by whether or not it provides long-term ultimate benefit (that is, pleasure) to the person. Thus, as Guthrie has noted, in the Socratic or Platonic system, “acts which in themselves give pleasure can be referred to the question of ultimate benefit as to a higher standard, while still maintaining the attitude of pure self-interest.”

In the end, then, for the ancient Greeks, though they disagreed continually and vehemently about the proper means of its achievement, the ultimate goal of life was always the pursuit and maximization of pleasure for oneself. Even Aristotle, who questioned the thinking of his predecessors and contemporaries in many profoundly insightful ways, nonetheless held that our most committed and concerned friendships were in reality just the outgrowth of a more fundamental love of self.3

Simply put, the philosophy of hedonism is the belief that no creature does any action unless it believes, consciously or “unconsciously,” that the act will produce some kind of benefit for itself; and if neither the creature nor its unconscious believes so, then the creature’s genetics incline the creature towards the act, because a long evolutionary history has demonstrated that doing so increases reproductive success. In other words, even if the creature itself is not aware of any ensuing benefits of its actions, there is an evolutionary force at work directing the creature towards actions that benefit the species.

It is easy to see how, when this perspective is adopted unquestioningly, it is impossible to account for any human action in a genuinely altruistic way. This perspective forces us into a pervasive cynicism with regards to human behavior. When accounting for human action, social scientists regularly dismiss altruistic possibilities in favor of self-interested ones.

Gantt explains how this perspective affects our understanding of human rationality:

One profound consequence of the modern advancement of the doctrine of hedonism is that hedonism has, in many ways, come to be identified with rational thinking. Henry Sidgwick, for example, felt that it was

hardly going too far to say that common sense assumes that “interested” actions, tending to promote the agent’s happiness, are prima facie [at first sight] reasonable: and that the onus probandi [burden of proof] lies with those who maintain that disinterested conduct, as such, is reasonable.

Ayn Rand argued that the rational person “sees his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly. … [This] means that he does not regard any moment as cut off from the context of the rest of his life, and that he allows no conflicts or contradictions between his short-range and long-range interests” Thus, to be rational is to seek after one’s own interests in a manner as careful, consistent, and efficient as possible.

To fall short in the realization of this ideal—or, even worse, to reject it outright—is by definition to be irrational. … Given this sort of intellectual presumtion, it should not come as too great a surprise that one of the most explicitly hedonistic of all our modern theories of human action, and one of the most widely endorsed in both the humanities and the social sciences, is known as Rational Choice Theory.3

Sigmund Freud articulated this idea well; he believed that most fundamental to human nature was a drive seek pleasure (the id). Because that drive, when unharnessed, might often result in pain (something to be avoided), a form of rationality (the ego) arises to channel that pleasure seeking drive in a way that would maximize its fulfillment. Rationality, according to Freud, is the means to direct our pleasure-seeking tendencies to their intended goal with the least costs (in pain) possible. In other words, reason forms in response to the need to seek pleasure in more effective ways. While Freud’s idea that all pleasure is sexual has been largely rejected, the idea that pleasure seeking is fundamental has not, and the equation of rational thought and self-interested behavior is widely endorsed.

I reject the philosophy of hedonism, because this philosophy makes genuinely selfless behavior impossible (or, at least irrational). I do not mean that people do not most often act in self-interested ways … only that they do not necessarily do so, and that the highest good in life is not the sophisticated pursuit of self-interested goals. What is the alternative to this point of view? It certainly isn’t a masochistic worldview in which it is human nature to seek pain and avoid pleasure (actually, masochists are those who find pleasure in pain, and therefore this really isn’t a masochistic worldview, since a truly masochistic worldview would be a perverted form of hedonism). Rather, an alternative would be that human beings have real opportunities to act altruistically. Slife explains:

As long as the ultimate concern or motive of the person (whether consciously or unconsciously) is some benefit to the self, then it is hedonistic. In this regard, the alternative is obvious, though seemingly improbable from the perspective of a naturalistic social scientist. The alternative is a capacity to be ultimately concerned for the other.

Altruism, in this sense, is not helping others with an ultimate motive to benefit one’s self (however long or short the term of the benefit). Altruism is making the other the ultimate end—making decisions with a “neighbor’s” needs as the ultimate criteria for the decisions. This capacity for altruism does not assume that all concerns and motives would necessarily be for the sake of the other, but it does assume that all concerns and motives could be for the sake of the other. That is, this alternative to hedonism does not have to mean a constant motive of altruism, though constant altruism would be the ideal from the perspective of some altruists. This alternative would merely mean the possibility of the ideal becoming real.”2

In other words, the alternative is not that we are inherently selfless, but rather that we have the capacity to be selfless. This capacity is denied us from a hedonistic worldview, for even our most selfless actions would require a self-interested explanation to account for them. I believe that an alternative to hedonism must respect human agency and maintain the possibility that individuals may choose to act out of genuine concern for another’s welfare, with no thought to their own.

1. The Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words, “hedonism.”
2. Brent D. Slife, “Theoretical Challenges to Therapy Practice and Research: The Constraint of Naturalism,” The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavioral Change.
3. Ed Gantt, “Hedonism, Suffering, and Redemption: The Challenge of a Christian Psychotherapy.” In Jackson, A. P. and Fischer, L. (Eds.), Turning Freud Upside Down (Provo, UT: BYU Press)