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)?

  • 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 at 0:13
  • Does this help a bit blog.languager.org/2010/05/… ? Mar 20 '19 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 '19 at 9:22

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.

  • 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 '19 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 '19 at 18:25

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 '19 at 15:40

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:


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


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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