Updated: Mar 5
“The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself.”- Oscar Wilde
In this article, we will discuss what hedonism is, some common types of philosophy, its history in brief, and where you can find it in the real world. From this, we will distill down some key takeaways you can learn from. At the end of the piece, there are also additional resources if you want to learn more about the philosophy.
Table of Contents:
What is Hedonism?
Generally speaking, hedonism is a system of philosophies and moral theories that center around the idea of pleasure and pain being paramount. In other words, it believes all decision-making, purpose, and value come from pursuing pleasure and avoiding suffering.
While this belief system is often looked down upon commonly as the pursuit of short-term pleasures, this is not entirely accurate. Pleasure is described in varying ways and in the case of epicureanism, a hedonism-based philosophy, it posits doing short-term pleasurable activities can do more harm than good. So, much of this depends heavily on the hedonist system you are talking about. To better understand this, we will more precisely break down the types that make up the hedonist philosophy.
Types of Hedonism
Here we will detail the different common types of Hedonist beliefs:
Psychological/Motivational Hedonism: This basic part of hedonism makes the plan that all human decision-making comes from the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. As such, our beliefs about what causes pleasure and pain affect our decision-making and can be false. So, the primary purpose of our lives in this sense is to better align our beliefs so that the best life can be achieved.
Ethical/Normative Hedonism: This type of hedonism claims that the concept of increasing pleasure and avoidance of pain should be the guidepost for morality. Thus, it is primarily a consequentialist belief and only focuses on the results of decisions in relation to these two core experiences. Ethical or normative hedonism can be split into an egoist perspective (focusing only on yourself) and a utilitarian perspective (best consequence for the greatest number).
Axiological/Value Hedonism: Value or axiological hedonism believes that the only thing that has intrinsic value is pleasure. This type of hedonism believes pleasure is the only thing that is good for achieving for its own sake, rather than for some outside goal or influence. It can be split into quantitative (goodness of pleasure determined by factors like duration and intensity) and qualitative (quality of pleasures value differs between the body and mind) schools of thought.
Aesthetic Hedonism: This hedonist belief judges art’s value and beauty based on the amount of pleasure that it produces in the viewer. Pleasure is viewed in many different senses in this regard and can be viewed in an intellectually pleasurable sense (appeals to understanding and imagination) or more instinctual ones (positive emotional feelings). However, the connection between beauty and pleasure is heavily debated and some feel they are one and the same or are entirely different experiences.
Christian Hedonism: This belief connected to the Christian belief system claims that the ultimate purpose in life is to be the most satisfied with God. It also claims that God’s ultimate goal is one and the same as our pursuit of happiness. Christian hedonism is not practiced by most Christians and is mostly a new development in the late 1900s believed by some evangelicals.
The Paradox of Hedonism
The paradox of hedonism is the idea that pursuing self-pleasuring activities limits obtaining pleasure, thus making its overall goal impossible. This argument is often used to debunk hedonist philosophical beliefs and was first said by Joeseph butler back in 1726. However, this only tends to break down egoist forms of the belief system while other related forms such as utilitarianism do not follow this logic.
Hedonism vs. Nihilism
Hedonism at its core like most philosophies believes there is intrinsic value, and in this instance in pleasure and pain. Nihilism completely denies the idea of this type of value existing in any way. So fundamentally, they are completely incompatible belief systems.
A Brief History of Hedonism
The history of hedonism spans the entire globe and many different forms of philosophy have developed over the years toward its more modern iterations. Below we will detail the basic history of the ancient Greek, Indian, and more modern versions of hedonist belief
Ancient Greek Hedonism
Hedonism was founded by Aristippus of Cyrene. He taught that pleasure is the ultimate universal good. For him, pleasure referred to more than sensual gratification and also includes mental pleasures, domestic love, friendship, and moral contentment. His followers, however, reduced the system to a plea for self-indulgence.
The Cyrenaic was succeeded by the School of Epicurus, who emphasized the superiority of social and intellectual pleasures over those of the senses. He also conferred more dignity on the hedonistic doctrine by combining it with the atomic theory of matter. Epicurus taught that pain and self-restraint have a hedonistic value; for pain is sometimes a necessary means to health and enjoyment; while self-restraint and prudent asceticism are indispensable if we would secure for ourselves the maximum of pleasure.
With the decay of old Roman ideals and the rise of imperialism, Epicurean philosophy flourished in Rome. It accelerated the destruction of pagan religious beliefs, and, at the same time, was among the forces that resisted Christianity.
Around the time of the Buddha, from (6th-5th BCE, the Cārvākas arose in India as a school of hedonism entirely separate from the Greeks. The Cārvākas rejected almost all of the standard Hindu means of knowledge, were staunch materialists, and considered pleasure to be the goal of life. For many schools of Indian philosophy, the self or soul persists through many lifetimes, and how subsequent lives manifest is contingent on one’s actions, and liberation from this cycle of rebirth is attained through enlightenment which requires the denial of one’s desires. The Cārvākas, however, are uninterested in breaking the cycle of rebirth and instead focus on being rooted in the here and now.
Revivial of Hedonism
The revival of hedonistic principles in our own times may be traced to a line of English philosophers, Hobbes, Hartley, Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, the two Austins, and, more recently, Alexander Bain, who are popularly known as Utilitarians. Herbert Spencer adopted into his evolutionary theory of ethics the principle that the discriminating norm of right and wrong is pleasure and pain, though he substituted the progress of life for the hedonistic end.
Hedonism: Key Takeaways
While hedonism only covers one part of the human experience and distills down purpose into pleasure and pain, there are still some things to learn from the philosophy. Below are some key ideas to understand and apply to your own life:
True value is more than pleasure in the moment: Most will disagree that pursuing short-term pleasures is in general bad, but not really define what is truly purposeful and valuable. In some cases, you must take on burdens that are not pleasurable in the moment, but give you payoffs in the future like saving money, practicing a skill, or forming and continually following a good habit. However, this does not mean ignoring short-term good actions like holding the door for someone or spending time with friends. In other words, the true value in decision-making lies on the spectrum and you must take into account as many factors as possible to determine a rationally good action.
What is good and bad is often not a simple calculation: Just defining good and bad as what produces the greatest and least pleasure misses the point. While killing is generally considered wrong, every principle holds exceptions to this in extenuating circumstances. So what are we to do? The best we can do is converse with as many people as possible to come to a consensus, think rationally about the good and bad of actions through core principles, and adapt as well as clarify how we define this duality in different contexts.
Hedonism: Additional Resources
In the sections below we will provide resources about Hedonism if you would like to further your knowledge of the philosophy: