Hedonism (Wikipedia):

Hedonism is a school of thought which argues that pleasure is the only intrinsic good. 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 net pleasure (pleasure minus pain).

Altruism (Wikipedia):

Pure altruism is giving up a value (a reward or benefit) with no expectation of any compensation or benefits, either direct, or indirect (for instance from recognition of the giving).

Consider this:

X who dies to save Y's life is a hedonist because knowing that Y will live brings X more pleasure in the remaining time of his life than living a life without Y. This is even more clear if Y is in the same position as X, if Y is thinking the same thing as X.

  • Are X and Y true hedonists? Are they also altruists?
  • Do altruists really get nothing in return for their actions?
  • Is there such a thing as "not being a hedonist"?
  • Is altruism also a form of hedonism?

We could say that the only difference between people regarding hedonism is how much of a rational hedonist someone is. What I mean is that someone might not do something because he/she beliefs that doing it will bring him/her greater pain while in reality doing it will bring him/her greater pleasure.

5 Answers 5


I reject your premise: X doesn't die to save Y's life because X gets pleasure from doing so (how could a dead agent experience any kind of pleasure?). X dies to save Y for some other reason, believing in some other good: duty, doing the right thing...

I think you are confusing pleasure with what might be called "utility". Economists model rational agents as utility maximisers and there is a sense in which you cannot fail to maximise utility, because whatever actions you perform can be rationalised by ascribing you some particular attidtude towards the goods in question. For example, people gamble even when their expected monetary gain from the gamble is negative (so not betting would maximise monetary gain). How is this rational? 'Well,' says the "revealed preference" economist, 'the gambler must get some utility from the act of gambling itself such that that outweighs the potential loss...'

To bring this back to "not being a hedonist": things other than pleasure can motivate us. To people sign up to the army because the get pleasure from the horrors of war? Of course not. They enlist because they are motivated by their sense of duty, for instance. Now, to say that they get pleasure from doing their duty is to distort the meaning of "pleasure" beyond recognition.

  • I had a wrong understanding of what pleasure is, e.g. I thought a feeling of duty and honor is also pleasure. Thanks for explaining!
    – usr
    Jun 20, 2011 at 14:04
  • @usr actually, your understanding of pleasure is correct. Feeling pride in one's actions is not utility, it's pleasure. The fun of gambling is pleasure, not utility. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3216058
    – philosodad
    Jul 17, 2012 at 18:35
  • @usr - I believe you're right here. I don't want to downvote Seamus, as I think his answer is useful (and represents one side of this discussion) - I just feel that it's inaccurate. The other answer to this (IMO) offers an accurate explanation.
    – Ryno
    Nov 15, 2012 at 15:10
  • Downvoted for counting the afterlife as implausible when that is clearly not the case. May 22, 2018 at 14:07
  • @elliotsvensson, for someone who does not believe in it, it's the case.
    – rus9384
    May 22, 2018 at 14:09

X and Y are hedonists. They are not altruists. Though X gave up the value of their life they gained the value of knowing that Y would live. Even if this value may only be experienced for a short period of time before their death, X traded a lesser value for a greater value. Only X may determine the values for X.

Altruists, by definition, don't get anything from their actions. In fact, they must also lose something (give up a value) in order for an action to be altruistic.

There is such a thing as not being a hedonist. I'd argue that hedonism, especially the notion of "rational hedonism" that you describe in your closing, are necessary biological traits of all organisms. However, there is a proposed personality disorder called "self-defeating personality disorder". I agree with your statements on rational hedonism.

Altruism is not a form of hedonism. Acts commonly mislabeled as altruistic are, most often, examples of hedonism. By definition the altruist must give up value and receive none in return. Even feeling good about a sacrifice, as X experiences in your example, is a value that the proposed altruist would receive. This disqualifies X's actions from being classified as altruistic.

The terms you've chosen carry strong connotations. Hedonism, and even "pleasure", are commonly associated with immediate gratification as opposed to the long-term best interests of the individual.

Altruism is generally held as a positive and so often people will overlook the benefits they receive in order to consider themselves altruists. Ironically this self-satisfaction is the very value that disqualifies the act from being altruistic.

Pleasure, removing the connotations, is defined as "the broad class of mental states that humans and other animals experience as positive, enjoyable, or worth seeking" Wikipedia.

A gambler may derive pleasure from playing the game, enjoying the company at the table, possibly winning money, or many other things associated with the gambling experience. These are the values the gambler stands to gain from gambling. If the gambler determines that these are of greater value than simply possessing the money he is likely to lose (the value he must trade), he is a hedonist.

A soldier may take pride in serving their country or "doing their duty". Surely feeling pride is "positive, enjoyable, [and] worth seeking". Experiencing the horror of war is not the value a soldier gains but the price the soldier pays. If the soldier deems the pride they feel in service is more pleasurable than the "horrors of war" they must experience to feel that pride, the soldier is a hedonist.

  • Thanks @user2692 - this is exactly what I came to say - I've often puzzled this myself.
    – Ryno
    Nov 15, 2012 at 15:08
  • Interesting; it strikes me as perhaps a bit odd describing a soldier as a hedonist, even if they do take pride in service; they risk not just experiencing "horror," but are actually risking life and limb for something greater than themselves. Is this not textbook altruism?
    – Joseph Weissman
    Nov 15, 2012 at 15:31
  • @JosephWeissman, no doubt the term "hedonist" is a bit awkward here. That's why I spent some time going into the connotations of the terms. Would popular culture call it altruism, probably. But it doesn't fit the definition. You said "for something greater than themselves". If that is the actor's determination then they have received a value they deemed more valuable "than themselves" and clearly fall into hedonism.
    – user2692
    Nov 15, 2012 at 21:18
  • "Altruists, by definition, don't get anything from their actions." - they get satisfaction, obviously. But that's why I don't divide people in egoists and altruists. These notions are obsolete.
    – rus9384
    May 21, 2018 at 16:32
  • Can you give an example of an altruistic act?
    – tejasvi88
    Jan 8, 2023 at 10:48

Not everything is done as a means to an end: some things are good in their own right---an end in itself.

While we live there are those who can reject dualism with each breath we take. The oxygen was formed from astronomical supernovas many years ago, which is carried to our brains by blood from iron from those long-dead stars. Eternity now is to say we are all part of the same thing, the universe.

Dualism is the division from that which holds one to believe that they are unique, even though a person still depends on outside forces to live. One can live long enough to see that the world is not black and white, but more like a kaleidoscope where things just change places over and over.

Such a view would mean the altruist person is anhedonic; the good he or she does is not done for pleasure; the good is an end in itself.


The most talked-about self sacrifice in religion is the death of Jesus. The anonymous Biblical letter "to the Hebrews" offers this explanation of the motivation of Jesus:

(note that "the cross" refers to the agonizing form of capital punishment by which the Romans killed Jesus)

...let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:1b-2 (NASB), bold emphasis mine

Jesus was also motivated by something he wished for himself, "the joy set before Him," when he submitted his body to death. While nobody would say that Jesus was not altruistic according to the Biblical account, clearly Jesus stood to gain as well.


In the case that person X dies to save person Y, I am sorry: the "why" can not be explained. I hold that there is such a thing as the irrational, which includes religion. If this were not the case, why would anyone have faith?

Hedonism could be considered a religion itself: to believe that you can put things into words. I hold that we can have precepts that rule over any concepts a person thinks of. Just think: in a split second when one asks, often there is no time to think (in terms of reasoning things out) but you just act. It might just be using the right side of the brain, or perhaps we are born that way to act; in any case, there is nothing anyone can do about it.

I hold that endangering yourself to the point of death---whether in suicide or in protecting another person---is never a rational act.

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