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This has been bothering me for a while.

I do not believe that the ethical theory of hedonism represents the world in which we live truthfully, neither does it appeal to my common sense.

However, sometimes I find myself not being able to resist hedonism, as it has tremendous explanatory power like no other ethical theory. For example, how do we explain the value of knowledge? According to the hedonist, knowledge is good insofar as it makes us feel good, it gives us pleasure and happiness and that is a good reason we should pursue it. But let's say we don't want to appeal to hedonism because we believe that things other than pleasure also have value, how do we explain the goodness of knowledge, art, love, etc.? There doesn't seem to be any convincing explanation as to why we should pursue these things other than the fact that they make us feel good. Of course we can just say, "knowledge is good, simply because it is good", but does that really make any sense?

I'll delve into this a bit: For some odd reason (which I do not fully understand yet), most people (myself included) accept the intuition that "pleasure is good" as self-evident, i.e., that it requires no further explanation. They simply have the intuition that pleasure is good, and it is accepted prima facie.

However, when it comes to other things, like knowledge, art, love, etc., people will not accept its goodness as self-evident. They will probe further into the matter and ask, "what makes them good?". And here is where I get stuck, for which other properties can they possibly possess (other than the property of happiness and pleasure that they have) that will justify their worthiness or goodness?

It seems like the only alternative to hedonism is to give these aforementioned things some kind of mystical property that will justify their goodness and worthiness? But is this really the kind of theory that non-hedonist ethicists must resort to (On the other hand, goodness itself is a non-natural property according to intuitionist G. E. Moore)? Is there an alternative way to explain this, one that appeals to common sense and the plain folk (i.e. people that have not been exposed to the philosophy of ethics)?

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  • Good question. That pleasure is 'good' is never really questioned for some reason. Because the big debate is, what IS pleasure? The ancients all espoused a different route to ataraxy. Some knowledge is harmful in the long run. Some bodily pleasures also. "Everything in moderation", is the Epicurean way for example, which is not 'hedonism' as we know it today. I don't have an answer to 'why is pleasure supposed to be good', I hope someone else does.
    – Richard
    Mar 19, 2019 at 22:37
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    Many people do not accept "pleasure" as self-sufficient good either, and some reject it as "shallow" or "cheap". But you are right, what makes things "good" and "valuable" is that they move us to strive for them. A mundane explanation for this moving is that it is rooted in emotional responses conditioned by evolution and/or culture. Emotivism is supported by recent empirical studies, but it is broader than hedonism (for some it can even manifest as masochism).
    – Conifold
    Mar 19, 2019 at 23:52
  • The empathy, used as the basis of the golden rule > The Golden Rule is the principle of treating others as one's self > would wish to be treated. It is a maxim that is found in many > religions and cultures. > > - One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself (positive or directive form). > - One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated (negative or prohibitive form). > - What you wish upon others, you wish upon yourself (empathic or responsive form). > > The idea dates at least to the early Confucian times (551–479 BC) > according to Ru
    – Metaquizz
    Mar 20, 2019 at 0:13
  • Does this help a bit blog.languager.org/2010/05/… ? Mar 20, 2019 at 5:13
  • Rather than value only that which brings sensual pleasure, the naturally righteous are pleased only by such things that are good. Goodness comes from God, so anything from God or of God -- is good. It's from God if it is from the natural, primal universe.
    – Bread
    Mar 21, 2019 at 9:22

8 Answers 8

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One fairly common way to divorce goodness from pleasure is utility.

Essentially, humans do things, and some things, like knowledge, help us do those things more efficiently. The knowledge of how to build a house helps us survive, and thus is good, and further the knowledge of how to use tools makes it possible to build better houses, build more houses, and build houses quicker, all of which are good (insofar as they make survival more efficient). Similarly, art allows us to communicate complex ideas and emotions better, and love allows us to get along in communities or families and work together better.

This view also negates a lot of problems hedonism can create, such as that different people find pleasure in very different things. A serial killer, for example, may find pleasure in his or her craft, but most would agree that said craft is not good.

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  • Thomas thanks for your input. I like your answer. But this makes me probe into this further. You say art helps us communicate emotions better. Now can we really speak about emotions without the aspect of pleasure? What are emotions without pleasure? These are extremely complex notions. Survival as well is rooted in the belief that life is good, but then again we need to pinpoint the goodness in life, is it the ability to feel pleasure, acquire knowledge or the ability to produce, flourish and create? I would appreciate if you can elaborate a bit on these points.
    – Bach
    Mar 20, 2019 at 15:55
  • I would like to mention what G H Hardy said in his book 'A Mathematician's Apology' -where he prides on having done work of no obvious utility to humanity, but a kind of work which is still great, for it differs from the works of great men of math (and art) only in degree, not in kind. He finds satisfaction in believing that his work cannot be used by anyone.
    – Ajax
    Aug 7, 2019 at 18:25
  • @Bach Life may not be all good, but it sure beats the alternative.
    – Scott Rowe
    Jun 25 at 0:00
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Spinoza in the Proposition IX, part 3 of Ethics proposes that we do not desire things because we judge them to be good, but, on the contrary, that we judge them to be good because we are conscious of desiring them.

This answers your question about why pleasure is held to be self evidently good. Pleasure is in fact a crude and primitive way for us to judge that a thing is good for us. The important word here, that links to your first question, is "crude". Pleasure, from a biological viewpoint, is after all a mere signal in your brain triggered by events, that is sometimes misleading.

Eat only fatty sugar food will certainly make one happy, but they will soon be out of shape and suffer from their past diet choice. In the same way, any doctor can tell you how overdosing on heroin will fill you up with bliss, and then kill you. Here, the most pleasurable path will mislead you into more hardship than it was worth in the first place.

Thus knowledge can be found to be good, not because of the immediate pleasure it provides but because it helps finding the proper balance between pleasurable behavior and its possible consequences. For example knowledge of biology helps one to have a proper diet and avoid doing drugs. The same could be said of social ethics like the golden rule from Metaquizz' answer: why is it deemed good ? Because of the balance it brings to society, which let me enjoy more sustainable pleasure in the company of others than the immediate satisfaction of having my way on any subject but having them turn on me as a defensive reaction.

But then again, this is merely trading immediate pleasure for more durable, sustainable pleasure. Therefore it seems to me like one can't escape hedonism for defining goodness (albeit reasoned hedonism).

Edit in response to OP comment: It is important to keep in mind that for Spinoza goodness is relative. What is good for you might not be to someone or something else. Therefore desire and pleasure can only hint at you the relative goodness of things for you and under a given relation. For exemple oxygen is arguably good for anyone to breeze, but it was certainly no good, under a different relationship, for the Apollo 1 crew. The concept of absolute goodness is rejected by Spinoza, and therefore not covered by this answer.

Pleasure is not good in and of itself, but it is one way for us to know that something is good to us. Las, it is pretty imperfect because it is a biological device evolved to be tuned for cro-magnon lifestyle and not ours. Therefore it should be disciplined by knowledge and reason.

Knowledge and reason can bring us joy by the mere effect that knowing things, understanding what happens in a given situation and feeling more knowledgeable than our peers are pleasing experiences. But they are also different in that they allows one to organize one's life, and manage one's pleasure to make it durable and minimize hardship.

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    If I understood you correctly, you are saying that what is desirable is good. So pleasure is good simply because it is desirable. Similarly, knowledge and art are good simply because we desire them. This may indeed be an alternative to hedonism. People may desire knowledge simply because they want to understand the world better and be more intellectual, not only for the pleasure it brings. However, identifying the good with what is desirable has its own problems, a matter which I will not delve into here.
    – Bach
    Mar 20, 2019 at 15:40
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Ramana, one of the preeminent advaita vedanta teachers of the 20th century started his tiny booklet Who am I? with this first paragraph which quite succinctly summarises his teachings.
[The formatting and emphasis is mine the words mostly his
▣ represents axiom ▶ represents theorem]


▣ All living beings desire to be happy always
▣ [All beings desire to be] without misery
▣ In the case of everyone there is supreme love for oneself
▣ Happiness alone is the cause for love
▣ Real happiness which is one's inherent nature is only that which is experienced in deep sleep where there is no disturbing mind

Therefore in order to gain happiness one should know one's self

For that jnana-vichara of the form Who am I? is the principal means

[Jnana-vichara is typically translated as path of knowledge; a more accurate rendering would capture the recursion: knowing the knower or even knowing the knowing (process) ]

My Gloss

Ramana integrates (in effect) two key philosophers of the western tradition:

Schopenhauer

▣ The striving (will) to be happy is universal and is the driver of all sorrow.

Socrates

Know Thyself.

Ramana is basically suggesting that the "goodness" of the Socratic maxim is not primary but is derived from the Schopenhauer axiom.

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Hedonism as a philosophy suffers from a common confusion: people often mistake the metric for the thing being measured. While pleasure can be a goal in itself, leading to a kind of dissipated pleasure-seeking existence, the deeper philosophical position is that pleasure is a metric of some other accomplishment. I generally think of this as 'conformance to an ideal', though a more modern interpretation might involve the creation of cognitive order. If we get a good score on a video game we feel as though we have mastered a task — met a performance ideal — and that gives a rush of pleasure. The pleasure isn't the goal; the pleasure is the measure by which we know we've met a goal.

Knowledge, art, love, physical prowess, honor, etc. are 'Good' because they create a sense of mental order and wholeness where such did not exist. Pleasure is a release of energy when that order is achieved.

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  • Ted thanks for your thoughts. Very true, hedonism is indeed confusing the metric with the goal, that's why it never appealed to me, its sort of a shallow way of looking at the world we live in. You mention some complex ideas here: wholeness and mental order, if you would elaborate a bit more on them I may accept this answer as satisfactory.
    – Bach
    Jun 26 at 2:09
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The OP writes: "I do not believe that the ethical theory of hedonism represents the world in which we live truthfully, neither does it appeal to my common sense."

What represents the world more deeply is the drive for mastery, striving for control of one's environment (as every life form does), solving the puzzles of life. And beyond Freud's pleasure principle and death drive, the drive of the drive, as sketched out below, concluding that the ethical theory of getting life in order represents the world in which we live truthfully.

First quoting from Heidegger's Off the Beaten Track, he writes that Nietzsche sees value as that which is life-promoting, stimulated by the work of art that is life.

Pages 170 & 171

In a note (1887/88) Nietzsche states what he understands by value (The Will to Power, no. 715): "The viewpoint of 'value' is the viewpoint of the conditions for preservation-increase in regard to the complex structures, relatively enduring, of life in the midst of becoming."

... By the very way he writes this — in omitting the "and" and substituting a hyphen for it — Nietzsche intends to make it clear that values as viewpoints are, in their essence and therefore constantly, simultaneously conditions of preservation and increase.

Page 180

The creation of the possibilities for the will, possibilities which enable the will to power to free itself for itself in the first place, is for Nietzsche the essence of art. In accordance with the metaphysical concept of art, Nietzsche does not, under the rubric "art," think exclusively or even primarily of the aesthetic realm of artists. Art is the essence of the willing that opens perspectives and takes possession of them. "The artwork, where it appears without an artist, e.g., as body, as organization (Prussian officer corps, Jesuit order). To what extent the artist is only a preliminary stage. The world as an artwork that gives birth to itself" (The Will to Power, no. 851, from 1888).

The essence of art, grasped on the basis of the will to power, is the fact that art excites the will to power toward the will in the first place and spurs it to willing above and beyond itself. Because Nietzsche, in a faded echo of the ζωή (zoe:life) and φύσις (phusis:nature) of the early Greek thinkers, often refers to the "will to power" (understood as the reality of what is real) as "life," he is able to say that art is "the great stimulant of life" (The Will to Power, no. 851, from 1888).

Picking up on the drive for mastery, Derrida teases out a sense of satisfaction beyond the pleasure principle, in The Postcard, page 325.

... after this paragraph (Beyond II ¶7) Freud does not simply renounce the PP (pleasure principle). He tries twice more, after the final resigned suspension of it in this chapter. 1. He tries to see in the active assumption of a passive situation (since the child is unable to affect his mother's displacement) a satisfaction (and therefore a pleasure), but a satisfaction of a "drive for mastery" (Bemächtigungstrieb), which Freud curiously suggests would be "independent" of whether the memory was pleasurable or not. Thus would be announced a certain beyond of the PP.

This positive motivation is combined with the more troubling 'death-instincts' (in Beyond VI ¶19), to arrive at the meta 'drive of the drive', on page 405.

Beyond the pleasure principle — power. That is, posts (positions of power). But even so, we will not say, despite the transcendental function to which we have just alluded, beyond the death drive — power — or posts. For it is equally the case that everything described under the heading of the death drive or the repetition compulsion, although proceeding from a drive for power, and borrowing all its descriptive traits from this drive, no less overflows power. This is simultaneously the reason and the failure, the origin and the limit of power. There is power only if there is a principle or a principle of the principle. The transcendental or meta-conceptual function belongs to the order of power. Thus there is only différance of power. Whence the posts. Beyond all conceptual oppositions, Bemächtigung indeed situates one of the exchangers between the drive to dominate as the drive of the drive, and the "will to power."

Further elucidated by Francesco Vitale in Biodeconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Life Sciences, page 162.

Even if it is always urgent and pervasive, the drive for power never accomplishes itself as such or as an absolute power; it has always to negotiate its hegemony with other forces in the field ... Perhaps the self, too — the constitution of the self — could be wrestled away from the drive for power in view of another binding (individual or collective, as it would be either living or elaborated by the living).

Awareness of this basic disposition and mechanism enables one to play to one's strengths. To pursue goals for satisfaction rather than pleasure, and apply the phenomenal tenacity of problem solving (positive aspects of the repetition compulsion) to solving real-world problems.

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There is an easy answer to the question asked. Its good to accept those who seek comfort in pain, the anti-pleasure. It's bad to condemn them.

To be more specific, its not the pleasure in pain, which some people undeniably experience, or any pleasure, for that matter, that should be used as the basis for good or bad, but the very judging and division between good or bad acts or thoughts. The only objective moral values should be drawn from looking how much our actions interfere with the natural state of the world.

This clearly has nothing to do with hedonism and pleasures being restricted or impaired.

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  • How do you know that isn't also hedonism?
    – haxor789
    Jun 24 at 10:02
  • Comfort in pain sounds pretty hedonistic to me as well. You seem to presume that there can be nothing pleasurable in pain, that this would be a contradictio in adjecto? I guess masochists would beg to differ
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jun 24 at 10:05
  • @haxor789 It's not the pain per se that's good or bad to enjoy or to dislike. It's the judging of it thats the bad thing.
    – Pathfinder
    Jun 24 at 22:00
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Some things simply create better order. This is one of the primary aesthetics of GOD: the reversal of the natural tendency of the universe and the reason for the Sabbath (for otherwise why would god need anyone to worship him?).

So, yes, order -- which is measurable -- can be used to justify ethics.

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for which other properties can they possibly possess (other than the property of happiness and pleasure that they have) that will justify their worthiness or goodness?

It seems like the only alternative to hedonism is to give these aforementioned things some kind of mystical property that will justify their goodness and worthiness... that appeals to common sense and the plain folk (i.e. people that have not been exposed to the philosophy of ethics)?

Sorry, short answer (I cannot comment). Maybe you could try 'truth': what on earth is "mystical" about that? Uncomfortable or painful truths (and not all such pains are masochistic) are, we may agree, worth knowing. How it is that art can be meaningfully true, with plain utterances of fact e.g., depends on who you ask.

That's not to say that 'truth' and 'happiness' exhaust the set of meaningful and worthy goods. But it may let the genie out of the bottle.


Laughter is a good one. It brings little pleasure, but is a good thing. Perhaps it's just another pleasure, of self satisfaction, but I usually feel that if I didn't laugh I would feel more self satisfied, smug.

You could argue that other people enjoy our laughter. Though, if you still think laughter is good, you'd have to then give up the implicit claim that psychological egoism (only my pleasure motivates me) is a complete description of the good - and so involve - in your justification of pleasure - either 'universal morality' (e.g. utilitarianism) or 'relativism' (e.g. a coherent - there can be more than "one good" [Moore] - ethical egoism).

Psychological egoism (and arguing for ethics to someone who thinks it is mystical is difficult) does not account for everything that we can justify is valuable. I personally think that on the grounds that it cannot cope with there being different good things for different people - that, without a means to say only some of these pleasures matter, competing claims become contradictory - but take your pick as to why.

But even if we're talking 'the greatest number' or 'just me' we need to be sensitive to more than just "pleasure": not all pleasure is in practice equally weighted.

In a utilitarian context, causing pleasure etc. is not always good, because it may end up adding to the misery of others, directly or indirectly. For ethical egoists, joy is not always good for the same reason: it may not be "prudential".


tl;dr if you think pleasure is the only motivator, then it seems you still need an ethics to make sense of that, which means you can at best mean that no pleasures are neither better nor worse across the whole life / group / etc..

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