Hedonism is the philosophy that pleasure is of ultimate importance, the most important pursuit. The name derives from the Greek word for "delight" (ἡδονισμός hēdonismos from ἡδονή hēdonē "pleasure", a cognate of English sweet + suffix ισμός ismos "ism").
The basic idea behind hedonistic thought is that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person. This is often used as a justification for evaluating actions in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain (i.e. suffering) they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize this total pleasure (pleasure minus pain). The nineteenth-century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham defended the ethical theory of utilitarianism, according to which we should perform whichever action is best for everyone. Conjoining hedonism, as a view as to what is good for people, to utilitarianism has the result that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest amount of happiness for everyone. Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill’s versions of hedonism differ. There are two somewhat basic schools of thought on hedonism:
- One school, grouped around Jeremy Bentham, defends a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood. Essentially, he believed the value of a pleasure to be its intensity multiplied by its duration - so it was not just the number of pleasures, but their intensity and how long they lasted that must be taken into account.
- Other proponents, like John Stuart Mill argue a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there can be different levels of pleasure - higher quality pleasure is better than lower quality pleasure. Mill also argues that simpler beings (he often references pigs) have an easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they do not see other aspects of life, they can simply indulge in their pleasures. The more elaborate beings tend to spend more thought on other matters and hence lessen the time for simple pleasure. It is therefore more difficult for them to indulge in such "simple pleasures" in the same manner.
Critics of the quantitative approach[who?] assert that, generally, "pleasures" do not necessarily share common traits besides the fact that they can be seen as "pleasurable." Critics of the qualitative approach[who?] argue that whether one pleasure is higher than another depends on factors other than how pleasurable it is. For example, the pleasure of sadism is a more base pleasure because it is morally unpalatable, and not because it is lacking in pleasure.
While some maintain that there is no standard for what constitutes pleasurable activities (for example, those with an interest in sadomasochism), most contemporary hedonists believe that pleasure and pain are easily distinguished and pursue the former.
In the medical sciences, the inability to derive pleasure from experiences that are typically considered pleasurable is referred to as anhedonia.
Modern day hedonists strive firstly, as their predecessors, for pleasure. But also, hedonists feel that people should be equal, and that the way to achieve that is through allowing much more personal freedom.
Democritus seems to be the earliest philosopher on record to have categorically embraced a hedonistic philosophy; he called the supreme goal of life "contentment" or "cheerfulness", claiming that "joy and sorrow are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful" (DK 68 B 188).
Cyrenaicism (4th and 3rd centuries B.C.), founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, was one of the earliest Socratic schools, and emphasized one side only of the Socratic teaching. Taking Socrates' assertion that happiness is one of the ends of moral action, Aristippus maintained that pleasure was the supreme good. He found bodily gratifications, which he considered more intense, preferable to mental pleasures. They also denied that we should defer immediate gratification for the sake of long-term gain. In these respects they differ from the Epicureans.
Epicureanism is considered by some to be a form of ancient hedonism. Epicurus identified pleasure with tranquillity and emphasized the reduction of desire over the immediate acquisition of pleasure. In this way, Epicureanism escapes the preceding objection: while pleasure and the highest good are equated, Epicurus claimed that the highest pleasure consists of a simple, moderate life spent with friends and in philosophical discussion. He stressed that it was not good to do something that made one feel good if, by experiencing it, one would belittle later experiences and make them no longer feel good. For example, too much sex might later decrease interest in sex, which may cause one to be dissatisfied with one's sexual partner leading to unhappiness.
Hedonism can be conjoined with psychological egoism - the theory that humans are motivated only by their self interest - to make psychological hedonism: a purely descriptive claim which states that agents naturally seek pleasure. Hedonism can also be combined with ethical egoism - the claim that individuals should seek their own good - to make ethical hedonism the claim that we should act so as to produce our own pleasure.
However, hedonism is not necessarily related to egoism. The utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill is sometimes classified as a type of hedonism, as it judges the morality of actions by their consequent contributions to the greater good and happiness of all. This is altruistic hedonism. Whereas some hedonistic doctrines propose doing whatever makes an individual happiest (over the long run), Mill promotes actions which make everyone happy. Compare individualism and collectivism.
It is true that Epicurus recommends for us to pursue our own pleasure, but he never suggests we should live a selfish life which impedes others from getting to that same objective.
Some of Sigmund Freud's theories of human motivation have been called psychological hedonism; his "life instinct" is essentially the observation that people will pursue pleasure. However, he introduces extra complexities with various other mechanisms, such as the "death instinct". The death instinct, Thanatos, can be equated to the desire for silence and peace, for calm and darkness, which causes them another form of happiness. It is also a death instinct, thus it can also be the desire for death. The fact that he leaves out the instinct to survive as a primary motivator, and that his hypotheses are notoriously invalidated by objective testing, casts doubt on this theory.
Ayn Rand, one of the biggest modern proponents of Egoism, rejected hedonism in a literal sense as a comprehensive ethical system:
- To take "whatever makes one happy" as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one's emotional whims. Emotions are not tools of cognition. . . . This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism--in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. "Happiness" can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man's proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that "the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure" is to declare that "the proper value is whatever you happen to value"--which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild.