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Hedonism (Greek: ἡδονισμός hēdonismos from ἡδονή hēdonē "pleasure" + suffix ισμός ismos "ism") is a philosophy and a set of attitudes that focuses on increasing pleasure. Note that while the terms were originally employed literally, this is no longer the case. There seems to be no common ground on what actually constitutes pleasurable or painful activities.

Basic concepts

The first basic idea behind hedonistic thought is that all actions can be measured on the basis of how much pleasure and how little pain they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize this total (pleasure minus pain). The nineteenth-century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham established the fundamental principles of hedonism through their ethical theory of Utilitarianism. Utilitarian value stands as a precursor to hedonistic values in that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill’s hedonistic values are faintly divergent in relation to their exposition of the principle of utility. There are two basic schools of thought on hedonism:

  • One school, grouped around Jeremy Bentham, argues a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood. Essentially, he believed the value of a pleasure to be its intensity multiplied by its duration - so it was not just the number of pleasures, but their intensity and how long they lasted that must be taken into account.
  • Other proponents, like John Stuart Mill argue a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there can be different levels of pleasure - higher quality pleasure is better than lower quality pleasure. Mill also argues that simpler beings (he often references pigs) have an easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they do not see other aspects of life, they can simply indulge in their pleasures. The more elaborate beings tend to spend more thought on other matters and hence lessen the time for simple pleasure. It is therefore more difficult for them to indulge in such 'simple pleasures' in the same manner.

Critics of the qualitative approach, however, argue that there are several problems with it. They assert that generally, 'pleasures' do not necessarily share common traits, besides the fact that they can be seen as "pleasurable". Because what is 'pleasant' is a subjective thing, differing between individuals, such critics claim that 'qualities' of pleasures are difficult to study objectively and in terms of universal absolutes. Critics of the qualitative approach cite the fact that the standards of what ought to be "pleasurable" vary between individuals, of which sexual sadism is an example, in support of their claim that pleasures cannot be distinguished with respect to their 'qualities'.


Cyrenaicism (4th and 3rd centuries B.C.), founded by Aristippus of Cyrene, was one of the earliest Socratic schools, and emphasized one side only of the Socratic teaching. Taking Socrates' assertion that happiness is one of the ends of moral action, Aristippus maintained that pleasure was the supreme good. He found bodily gratifications, which he considered more intense, preferable to mental pleasures. They also denied that we should defer immediate gratification for the sake of long-term gain. In these respects they differ from the Epicureans.

Epicureanism is considered by some to be a form of ancient hedonism. Epicurus identified pleasure with tranquillity and emphasized the reduction of desire over the immediate acquisition of pleasure. In this way, Epicureanism escapes the preceding objection: while pleasure and the highest good are equated, Epicurus claimed that the highest pleasure consists of a simple, moderate life spent with friends and in philosophical discussion. He stressed that it was not good to do something that made one feel good if, by experiencing it, one would belittle later experiences and make them no longer feel good. For example, too much sex might later decrease interest in sex, which may cause one to be dissatisfied with one's sexual partner leading to unhappiness.

Hedonism and Egoism

Hedonism can be conjoined with either psychological or ethical egoism to make psychological hedonism: a purely descriptive claim which states that agents naturally seek pleasure, or ethical hedonism, the claim that we should act so as to produce our own pleasure.

One constant objection is that where one finds pleasure, another may find pain, leading to a contradiction in what the moral act is. This is only a contradiction for moral absolutists. From a moral relativist's point of view, there is no contradiction.

However, hedonism is not necessarily related to egoism. The Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill is sometimes classified as a type of hedonism, as it judges the morality of actions by their consequent contributions to the greater good and happiness of all. Note that this is altruistic hedonism. Whereas some hedonistic doctrines propose doing whatever makes an individual happiest (over the long run), Mill promotes actions which make everyone happy. Compare individualism and collectivism.

It is true that Epicurus recommends for us to pursue our own pleasure, but he never suggests we should live a selfish life which impedes others from getting to that same objective.

Some of Sigmund Freud's theories of human motivation have been called psychological hedonism; his "life instinct" is essentially the observation that people will pursue pleasure. However, he introduces extra complexities with various other mechanisms, such as the "death instinct". The death instinct, Thanatos, can be equated to the desire for silence and peace, for calm and darkness, which causes men another form of happiness. It is also a death instinct, thus it can also be the desire for death. The fact that he leaves out the instinct to survive as a primary motivator, and that his hypotheses are notoriously invalidated by objective testing, casts doubt on this theory.

Christian Hedonism is a term coined in 1986 for a theological movement originally conceived by a pastor, Dr. John Piper, in his book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. The tenets of this philosophy are that humans were created by (the Christian) God with the priority purpose of lavishly enjoying God through knowing, worshipping, and serving Him. This philosophy recommends pursuing one's own happiness in God as the ultimate in human pleasure. Similar to the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure is regarded as something long-term and found not in indulgence but in a life devoted to God. Serious questions have been raised within the Christian community as to whether Christian Hedonism displaces "love God" with "enjoy God" as the greatest and foremost commandment.

A typical apologetic for Christian Hedonism follows: Assuming one accepts that the primary definition of love is "an emotion of affection," then if one were to love something truly he must also truly enjoy it. In hedonism, obtaining pleasure is a higher goal than any other, including the pursuit of love. God, being a hedonist, loves Himself above all else and therefore enjoys His own presence above all other pleasurable pursuits. He calls men to also pursue all their pleasure only in God, as God also finds this experientially pleasant. Thus, Christian Hedonism is exemplified in relation to Jesus Christ, who justifies God in enjoying a rebellious creation by providing the sacrifice of Himself as the payment allowing God to be pleased with us, and for us to enjoy Him, forever. It could be summed up in this statement: "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied [pleased] in Him".

Quite a few people equate hedonism with sexuality and having a very loose or liberal view of the morality of sex. As noted above, many (perhaps most) forms of hedonism actually concentrate on spiritual, intellectual, or otherwise non-sexual forms of pleasure. The pursuit of sexual pleasure can certainly be a form of hedonism, but it is not the mainstream one. However, this has become the mainstream use of the word.

More recently, the term Christian Hedonism has been used by the French philosopher Michel Onfray to qualify the various heretic movements from Middle-Age to Montaigne.

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