Philosophical Hedonism

Philosophical Hedonism

Philosophical Hedonism holds that human actions should be motivated by the pursuit of pleasure.

How should we live? We pursue education so that we can get a career, so we can make money, so we can buy things, so we can … what? Presumably, we do not want a career or money just to have a career or money, but in order to be happy. The idea that the morally good or “right” motivation for acting is the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is called hedonism.

Hedonism can be traced to the sixth-century BCE Indian philosophy Carvaka, but its most influential form was in the ancient Greek teachings of Aristippus of Cyrene (c. 435–356 BCE) and Epicurus (341–270 BCE). Epicurus said in a letter to Meneoceus, “[We] do everything for the sake of being free of pain and mental distress.”

Regarding pleasure as the only valuable pursuit, hedonism sets itself apart from other widely accepted moral views, such as that a person has moral duties to do certain things regardless of whether they make them happy (deontology) and that a person has obligations to do whatever God commands, irrespective of the impact on their own welfare (divine command theory).

However, philosophical hedonism should be distinguished from the mere pursuit of pleasure. While some accuse hedonists of advocating a life of debauchery, philosophical hedonists reject this characterization. Epicurus argued that while every pleasure is good, “it does not follow that every pleasure is a choice worthy without qualification.” He extolled traditional virtues of self-sufficiency, prudence, and even a healthy diet, since they too contribute to a lifetime of happiness. Though hedonism was rejected by many influential moral philosophers (such as Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant), it continues to play an influential role in contemporary moral and political thought.

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