By Esther Kim //
Hedonism bears a unjustly negative reputation in modern society, and many dismiss it as the philosophy of debauchery, thanks to infamous portrayals by Lord Henry and Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, as well as plenty of late 20th century rock and roll legends, all of whom pursued sex, drugs, and alcohol as forms of immediate pleasure and gratification (1). Such is the image that Hedonism often brings to mind, and it is that sort of depravity and extreme Hedonistic egoism that tends to be morally juxtaposed with Asceticism, since Asceticism is the practice of abstinence from sensual pleasures and general indulgence. But this most infamous aspect of Hedonism comes generally from a specific branch of philosophy called Folk Hedonism, which the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes as an amalgamation of “Motivational Hedonism (2), Hedonistic Egoism (3), and a reckless lack of foresight” (4). As such, it is necessary to at least temporarily remove this connotation of folk Hedonism from one’s mind before one can begin anew for a fresh rediscovery of a different kind of hedonism we will be addressing in this essay.
“Hedonism” originates from the Greek word ἡδονή (hēdonē) meaning “pleasure,” and its overarching philosophy is that pleasure and pain are the only significant elements of certain human phenomena. For example, motivational or psychological hedonism states that people are only motivated by pleasure or pain; ethical or value hedonism claims that “all and only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and all and only pain is intrinsically not valuable” (IEP); prudential hedonism stipulates that pleasure is what is good for someone and pain (or suffering) is what is bad for someone in terms of their well-being. These three branches of hedonism combined is what I refer to as Holistic Hedonism, a mix of the most practical and appealing aspects of hedonism.
This specific type of hedonism, as opposed to folk hedonism, takes into consideration the long term pleasures for one’s well-being. For instance, whereas a folk hedonist might say that it would be moral for them to indulge in sex, drugs, or alcohol every day since those give them pleasure in the moment, a holistic hedonist would be inclined to disagree and rather prefer to participate in them only occasionally, because excessive indulgence of those activities are detrimental to their health, and a failing health would bring lasting pain instead of pleasure in the long run. This prudence is the key to living a happy and satisfying life with maximum pleasure, since overindulgence in any activity leads to a decreased amount of pleasure once one passes the point of diminishing return. Thus, one must not unjustly associate hedonism with excessive indulgence, but rather simply the utilitarian pursuit of pleasure in one’s life for their own well being.
Now, pleasure, like hedonism, has a negative connotation in society, and it is important to address and deconstruct this bias for our discussion of hedonism. Many people, especially ascetics, decry pleasure as a fleeting satisfaction or enjoyment (often citing base or destructive pleasures such as sex, drugs, etc) that is constantly chased after by people lacking in self-discipline and foresight. Such individuals thus tend to praise ascetics for their self-discipline in abstaining from the pleasures of life, thereby granting self-discipline and austerity a greater degree of value than pleasure itself–an outlook derived from the notion that pleasure is not the most valuable aspect of human life. This however, is a questionable view–why is something that intrinsically drives all humans not considered valuable?
Everything one does is ultimately for their own eventual pleasure, even if it might not seem like an overtly hedonistic action in the moment; if one restrains from spending money spontaneously and saves it instead, they will accrue a larger sum of money at the end of a period and be able to use that money in other ways that they wish, ultimately bringing them pleasure through that end process. Though they did not indulge in the first available pleasure, they patiently waited for a different opportunity for pleasure; either way, the action was still driven by the desire for pleasure. If one decides to help another at their own expense, whether it is donating ten dollars to a local charity or giving up their seat on a bus for an elderly passenger, they do so because ultimately, they feel good about themselves for helping others, and that in itself is a pleasure that they experience. It is only because we feel a certain pleasure and gratification from helping others that we do so, and as cynical as it may sound, its truth becomes evident when one considers the opposite; who would voluntarily do something that gives them absolutely no pleasure, and only pain?
If one decides to abstain from fast food and follow a strict vegan diet for the sake of their health, they might experience pain (or lack of pleasure) throughout the process, and the ultimate result will end in them having either completed the diet successfully or given up on it halfway through. Either way, both scenarios are driven by a desire for pleasure, albeit different kinds. Completing the gruelling diet gives the individual a sense of accomplishment that gives them pleasure in that proud personal achievement, whereas foregoing the diet gives them the freedom to eat their favorite foods, giving them a different kind of gratifying pleasure, but both pleasure nonetheless.
As for asceticism, one could claim that ascetics too are driven by the pursuit of pleasure, only that their definition of pleasure is simply different from others’ definition of pleasure. Ascetics typically abstain from indulgence and general pleasures often in the pursuit of a greater enlightenment or fulfillment in life, but if that enlightenment or state of thoughtfulness is something they truly desire, would not its attainment bring them pleasure as well? Because the attainment of enlightenment ultimately brings ascetics pleasure, it cannot be argued that ascetics stave off pleasure as a whole; ascetics choose to live their austere life because to them, such a way of life brings them a certain pleasure and satisfaction they revere. For who could argue that anyone would choose to live a life that gives them absolutely no pleasure and no satisfaction, but instead pain and suffering? Most of the pain and suffering we choose to endure, we endure for the future expectation or hope of some sort of pleasure (or gratification) that overrides the temporary pain, or makes the pain worthwhile thanks to an eventual net amount of pleasure. For ascetics, they may sacrifice momentary pleasures (riches, lavish food, sex) for the greater satisfaction and mellow pleasure that they derive from the conscious realization of their self-discipline.
In addition, humans as biological beings evolved to respond to pleasure from “natural rewards” such as food and sex (5). Since eating, having sex, and forming symbiotic interpersonal relationships was necessary to increase survival, these behaviors had to be detected as pleasurable by the brain so as to reinforce and repeat the behavior. Conversely, we evolved to remember and avoid painful stimuli so as to increase our survival likelihood. The natural brain reward system therefore runs on the positive feedback loop driven by pleasure and a negative feedback loop driven by pain, lending substantial support to the claim that both pleasure and pain are valuable, intrinsic motivators for us not just philosophically, but biologically. In that sense, arguing that we are not driven by pleasure or that pleasure is not an intrinsically valuable thing in itself would be going against the very biology of who we are.
There is nothing inherently wrong or immoral about pursuing pleasure; perhaps instead of dismissing the idea or pursuit of pleasure as base or vain, one should first reexamine the reasons why we as a society tend to demonize pleasure in itself, and sever the association between hedonism and a reckless overindulgence of specific basal pleasures. As it stands, everyone is ultimately driven by pleasure or at least the desire of pleasure and happiness, and the only variation lies in each individual’s discernment and personal evaluation of the different pleasures in their life that they can choose to seek. Hence, the practice of holistic hedonism–a pursuit of the optimal pleasures (6) for one’s holistic well-being, determined using a combination of utilitarian and prudential evaluation–is a more practical and sustainable philosophy of life than abject asceticism.
- Lord Henry did not indulge in hedonistic activities himself, but was a vocal proponent
- Commonly referred to as psychological hedonism, the theory that people are driven by both conscious and unconscious desires for pleasure and for the avoidance of pain
- A hedonistic branch of egoism, the theory that it is moral to do whatever makes someone happiest (a net pleasure over pain)
- IEP, Hedonism. https://iep.utm.edu/hedonism/
- Kelley, Ann E, and Kent C Berridge. “The neuroscience of natural rewards: relevance to addictive drugs.” The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience vol. 22,9 (2002): 3306-11. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.22-09-03306.2002
- A hedonism evaluating the different qualities of pleasure is most commonly referred to as Mill’s form of hedonism. John Stuart Mill was a proponent of hedonistic utilitarianism, and he believed that some pleasures were higher than other pleasures, that one should consider not only the quantity of pleasure but the quality in itself. For example, Mill believed that pleasure from intellectual enlightenment (pleasures of the mind) would be of more quality than pleasure from good food, sex, etc (pleasures of the body).