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The name given to the group of ethical systems that hold, with various modifications, that feelings of pleasure or happiness are the highest and final aim of conduct; that, consequently those actions which increase the sum of pleasure are thereby constituted right, and, conversely, what increases pain is wrong.
The father of Hedonism was Aristippus of Cyrene. He taught that pleasure is the universal and ultimate object of endeavour. By pleasure he meant not merely sensual gratification but also the higher forms of enjoyment, mental pleasures, domestic love, friendship, and moral contentment. His followers, however, reduced the system to a plea for self-indulgence (see CYRENAIC SCHOOL OF PHILOSOPHY).
To the Cyrenaic succeeded the School of Epicurus, who emphasized the superiority of social and intellectual pleasures over those of the senses. He also conferred more dignity an the hedonistic doctrine by combining it with the atomic theory of matter; and this synthesis finds its finished expression in the materialistic determinism of the Roman poet Lucretius. Epicurus taught that pain and self-restraint have a hedonistic value; for pain is sometimes a necessary means to health and enjoyment; while self-restraint and prudent asceticism are indispensable if we would secure for ourselves the maximum of pleasure (see EPICUREANISM). With the decay of old Roman ideals and the rise of imperialism the Epicurean philosophy flourished in Rome. It accelerated the destruction of pagan religious beliefs, and, at the same time, was among the forces that resisted Christianity.
The revival of hedonistic principles in our own times may be traced to a line of English philosophers, Hobbes, Hartley, Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill, the two Austins, and, more recently, Alexander Bain, who are popularly known as Utilitarians. Herbert Spencer adopted into his evolutionary theory of ethics the principle that the discriminating norm of right and wrong is pleasure and pain, though he substituted the progress of life for the hedonistic end.
Contemporary Hedonists are sometimes classed into egoistic and altruistic. The classification, however, is not quite satisfactory when applied to writers; for many Hedonists combine the egoistic with the altruistic principle. The distinction, however, may conveniently be accepted with regard to the principles that underlie the various forms of the doctrine. The statement that happiness is the end of conduct at once raises the question: whose happiness? To this egoism answers: the happiness of the agent; while altruistic Hedonism replies: the happiness of all concerned, or, to use a phrase that is classic in the literature of this school, "the greatest happiness of the greatest number". Perhaps the only thoroughgoing egoistic Hedonist is Thomas Hobbes, though in many places Bentham too, proclaims himself the uncompromising apostle of selfishness (see EGOISM), while elsewhere he, like J.S. Mill, expands into altruism. The intrinsic difficulties in the task of constructing any decent code of morals on the egoistic principle, together with the destructive criticism which any such attempts encountered, led Hedonists to substitute the happiness of all concerned for the happiness of the individual. The transit from the one to the other is attempted through a psychological analysis which would show that, through the operation of the law of association of ideas, we come to love for their own sakes objects which in the first instance we loved from a selfish motive. This is true to a certain extent, but the cases in which it may occur fall far short of the range which the principle would have to cover in order to justify the theory. Besides, by adopting the happiness of others as the end, the Hedonist loses the only semblance of a proof which he had to offer in support of his first contention, that happiness is the end, viz. that every man does desire happiness and can desire nothing else; it is only too plain that not everybody desires the happiness of everybody else. Another modification was introduced to meet the criticism that, if pleasure is the standard of right and wrong, sensual indulgence is just as good as the noblest form of self-sacrifice. The Hedonists, or at least some of them, replied that not merely the quantity of pleasure but also the quality is to be taken into account. There are higher and lower pleasures; and the higher are more desirable than the lower; therefore conduct which aims at the higher is the better. But if pleasures are thus to be divided into higher and lower, irrespective of quantity, the hedonistic standard is, by the very fact, displaced, and some other ultimate scale of moral valuation is appealed to or implied. The subjective norm, pleasurable feeling, is made to retire in favour of some unnamed objective norm which dictates what the agent ought to pursue. This is the suicide of Hedonism. Other advocates of the system have, contrary to its initial principle, introduced a primary altruistic impulse co-ordinate with and controlling the egoistic as a spring of action.
The fundamental errors of Hedonism and the chief unanswerable objections to the theory may be briefly summed up as follows:
(1) It rests on a false psychological analysis; tendency, appetite, end, and good are fixed in nature antecedent to pleasurable feeling. Pleasure depends on the obtaining of some good which is prior to, and causative of, the pleasure resulting from its acquisition. The happiness or pleasure attending good conduct is a consequence, not a constituent, of the moral quality of the action.
(2) It falsely supposes that pleasure is the only motive of action. This view it supports by the fallacy that the pleasurable and the desirable are interchangeable terms.
(3) Even if it were granted that pleasure and pain constitute the standard of right and wrong, this standard would be utterly impracticable. Pleasures are not commensurable with one another, nor with pains; besides no human mind can calculate the quantity of pleasure and pain that will result from a given action. This task is impossible even when only the pleasure of the agent is to be taken into account. When the pleasure and pain of "all concerned" are to be measured the proposal becomes nothing short of an absurdity.
(4) Egoistic Hedonism reduces all benevolence, self-sacrifice, and love of the right to mere selfishness. It is impossible for altruistic Hedonism to evade the same consummation except at the cost of consistency.
(5) No general code of morality could be established on the basis of pleasure. Pleasure is essentially subjective feeling, and only the individual is the competent judge of how much pleasure or pain a course of action affords him. What is more pleasurable for one may be less so for another. Hence, on hedonistic grounds, it is evident that there could be no permanently and universally valid dividing line between right and wrong.
(6) Hedonism has no ground for moral obligation, no sanction for duty. If I must pursue my own happiness, and if conduct which leads to happiness is good, the worst reproach that can be addressed to me, however base my conduct may be, is that I have made an imprudent choice.
Hedonists have appropriated the term happiness as an equivalent to the totality of pleasurable or agreeable feeling. The same word is employed as the English rendering of the Latin beatitudo and the Greek eudaimonía, which stand for a concept quite different from the hedonistic one. The Aristotelean idea is more correctly rendered in English by the term well-being. It means the state of perfection in which man is constituted when he exercises his highest faculty, in its highest function, on its highest good. Because they fail to give due attention to this distinction, some writers include eudæmonism among hedonistic systems. Hedonism sometimes claims the credit of much beneficent effort in social reform in England which has been promoted by professed Utilitarians; and everywhere movements popularly designated as altruism are pointed out as monuments to the practical value of the hedonistic principle "the greatest good of the greatest number". But it must be observed that this principle may have another genesis and another part to play in ethics than those assigned to it by Hedonism. Besides, as Green has pointed out, the Utilitarians illogically annexed it, and the fruits it bore in their political activity are to be credited to it in its democratic, rather than in its hedonistic, character.
James J. Fox.