by Daniel A. Kaufman
Civilization has…no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get.
—Mustapha Mond (1)
Hedonism is the view that pleasure is the sole intrinsic good and that all other goods are either constitutive of pleasure or servants to it. A weaker version of the doctrine states that pleasure is the overriding motivation behind our behavior. Neither should be underestimated. For one thing, it has an ancient pedigree, tracing its lineage, in the West, at least as far back as the Cyrenaic and Epicurean schools of ancient Greece. For another, it is a highly intuitive philosophy, one that benefits, in no small measure, from the fact that it puts on a pedestal something that every normal person likes. But what has made hedonism an especially potent doctrine in modern times is that it has enjoyed the imprimatur of two acclaimed disciplines: (a) modern political science, for which hedonism represents “realism” (read: “lack of naivety”) with respect to human affairs, and (b) modern biology, according to which the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the two most fundamental human imperatives, beyond survival and procreation. From both perspectives, the hedonic view of human nature represents intellectual progress; a great leap forward from the fiction of human semi-divinity, propagated by classical Greek philosophy and the Abrahamic religions.
Although Thomas Hobbes is probably the most famous representative of the “realist” school of political philosophy (he wrote, in Leviathan, that “Pleasure…or delight is the appearance, or sense, of good” (2) and “of the voluntary acts of every man the object is some good to himself” (3)), Niccolò Machiavelli had already made the point, a century earlier, that if a prince is to govern successfully, he must not be misled by the fantasy that human beings are naturally selfless or otherwise inclined to accommodate the desires of others, but must acknowledge, instead, that avarice is endemic to the human character:
[S]ince my intention is to write something useful…, it seemed more suitable to me to search after the effectual truth of the matter rather than its imagined one, for there is such a gap between how one lives and how one ought to live that anyone who abandons what is done for what ought to be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation… (4)
It is worth noting that both Machiavelli and Hobbes (and to a lesser extent, John Locke) drew egoistic conclusions from the hedonic premise: they reckoned that a creature driven by the desire for pleasure would likely also be selfish and could not be trusted to respect the desires of others, in the absence of external controls. This inference from hedonism to egoism is not one that the next generation of hedonists, the Utilitarians, would make. On their view, a person has a duty to promote his neighbor’s happiness as well as his own, and John Stuart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian philosophers, believed that this duty has an “inner sanction”; that we are motivated to maximize everyone’s happiness and not just our own, because we feel pleasure when we do so and pain when we do not, an emotional arrangement, which Mill calls “the essence of conscience.” (5) One might question whether this form of non-egoistic hedonism is “realistic,” in the more ordinary sense of the word, but in the sense that we have been discussing, here, it is, because it remains a significant deflation of the pre-modern image of man as a semi-divine being.
With respect to the impact of modern science, the mechanical revolution in physics spawned a generation of thinkers, intent upon accounting for human nature and behavior solely in terms of the principles of material and efficient causality, a legacy that remains today, in the form of what we call the “social sciences.” This was revolutionary, precisely because it overturned the Aristotelian notions of essence and purpose that provided the framework for scientific explanation, from late antiquity through the Middle Ages, and which had insured that the accounts of human and animal behavior would differ substantially, since human beings and animals were deemed to have fundamentally different essences and therefore, different ends. The new scientific framework, in contrast, guaranteed that the respective scientific accounts of human beings and animals would be essentially the same, because (i) it was thoroughly reductive in its logic and (ii) it characterized the universe as being governed by general laws. In this sense, the agents of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment can be fairly described as holding a crude version of the Unity of the Sciences thesis and are thus appropriately characterized (as Alasdair MacIntyre has quipped) as “infant Hempelians.” (6)
It is in the service of these kinds of Unity of the Sciences notions that Hobbes, in the map of the sciences that appears early in Leviathan, classifies the study of human nature as a branch of physics (7), and David Hume, in his Treatise of Human Nature, praises philosophers like John Locke and Francis Hutcheson for putting the “science of man on a new footing”; that is, on the “solid foundation [of] experience and observation.” (8) Like Hobbes before him, Hume believed that human behavior could only be understood as the effect of emotive causes; specifically, feelings of pleasure and pain. “Tis obvious,” Hume wrote, “that when we have the prospect of pain or pleasure from any object, we feel a consequent emotion of aversion or propensity, and are carry’d to avoid or embrace what will give us this uneasiness or satisfaction.” (9) Reason and intelligence, meanwhile, are causally inert; they move nothing. “Reason is…the slave of the passions,” Hume wrote, “and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (10)
The effect of the subsequent revolution in biology on this new “science of man” was primarily one of refinement. Already committed to incorporating the study of human beings into the larger scientific study of nature, philosophers and the newly pedigreed social scientists responded to the revolution in biology of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (11) by further dismantling the conceptual barriers that had obtained between man and beast. After all, when viewed through the lens of biology, a human being just is a beast, and for this reason, it was believed that human behavior must derive from and be explicable in terms of the same fundamental and mutually reinforcing impulses that govern the rest of the animal kingdom and which, at the higher levels of development, take the form of conscious and unconscious desires to survive, pass on one’s genes, and to experience pleasure and avoid pain.
It is not an accident that Utilitarianism, the most influential of the modern, hedonic philosophies, and the theory of evolution by natural selection, the supreme accomplishment of modern biology, emerged at almost exactly the same time. The modern taste for a “realistic” human portrait, as opposed to an idealized one, the idea of a science of man, belonging to the larger science of nature, and a somewhat uncritical belief in “progress” had taken hold of the intelligencia, and nowhere do we find a clearer articulation of these priorities than in the writings of the Utilitarians: of Bentham, whom Mill described as “the great questioner of things established,” (12) and who began his utilitarian manifesto, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, with the observation that “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure;” (13) and of Mill, himself, who was impressed by the “compact authority created over the minds of the uninformed” by natural science and who lamented the comparatively impoverished condition of those areas of inquiry “which are conversant with the moral nature and social condition of man,” in which “every dabbler…thinks his position as good as another’s.” (14) And though Mill’s version of the Utilitarian doctrine differed, significantly, from Bentham’s, it rested on essentially the same ground — on the belief that “human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness,” where ‘happiness’ just is “pleasure and the absence of pain” (15) — as well as on a broad appeal to common sense. “No reason can be given why the general happiness is desirable,” Mill wrote, “except that each person, so far as he believes it to be attainable, desires his own happiness. This, however, being a fact, we have not only all the proof which the case admits of, but all which it is possible to require.” (16)
Though hedonism may have satisfied the modern desire for realism, scientific credibility, and progress, it also has been widely perceived as robbing human beings of their dignity. In its claim that human and animal behaviors have essentially the same etiology, hedonism has invited the criticism that it provides an unflattering picture of humanity. Of course, this tension was inherent in the very aims articulated by the doctrine’s promoters: the hedonist’s desire for greater realism with respect to human nature and behavior suggests that he wants to debunk or otherwise deflate what he thinks is an excessive, inflated sense of human dignity.
Now, I can imagine any number of contemporary philosophers dismissing this concern as irrelevant. “Truth and falsity are what count,” I can hear them say, “and the attractiveness or unattractiveness of a theory tells us nothing about whether it is true or false.” But this simplistic separation of the true and the false, the attractive and the unattractive, and the persuasive and the unpersuasive is childishly Platonic. If theorizing and argument are not, at some point, about convincing people and affecting their conduct, then they are barren, academic exercises, and for this reason alone, the Platonic conception of inquiry is unconvincing, irrespective of the subject-matter to which it is applied. It is especially hard to swallow, however, when extended to a moral philosophy, the sole value of which, after all, lies in its adoption and whose guiding impulse is aspirational. What good is it to demonstrate that one’s values are true, if no one is willing to adopt them? Presentation counts, here, as much as it does in serving a meal, and one might wonder, analogously, what comfort there is in being convinced that one’s cooking is of four-star quality, when no one is willing to eat it, because it looks so unappealing? Meals are not merely to be made but eaten, and moral philosophies are to be employed, not merely articulated or for that matter, “proven.”
Notwithstanding the attitudes of contemporary philosophers on the subject of persuasiveness and truth, Mill, who was a practical man, was quite concerned that his theory seemed to “excite in many minds…inveterate dislike” and to lead so many people to conclude that Utilitarianism is “a doctrine worthy only of swine.” (17) His response to this charge relies upon a clever mining of the ancient Epicurean tradition. Mill acknowledges that both human beings and animals are ultimately motivated by the desire for pleasure, but there are enormous differences in the types of pleasure that they seek. Indeed, there are varieties of pleasure which are sought by human beings, exclusively, and which are of a higher order than the pleasure that is the product of mere sensation, which constitutes the whole of the happiness of animals. I am speaking, here, of the pleasures associated with the intellect and with intellectual activity, as well as those belonging to what I will call the “higher sentiments,” those states of mind that are born of the collaboration of the affective sensibility and the contemplative mind. “[T]here is no Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation,” Mill wrote. “Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites and, when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.” (18) Animals lust, but human beings love; animals satiate their hunger and thirst, but human beings enjoy the delights of gastronomy; animals roll in the grass and mud, but human beings read poetry and listen to violin concertos; and so on and so forth.
So much for realism, you might think, once again. After all, to say that human beings will always choose the higher pleasures over the lower ones, “once made conscious of them,” doesn’t really ring true, especially when one reflects upon one’s daily intercourse with the common mass of humanity or on contemporary popular culture and entertainment. But Mill has a response to this point: every human being has the capacity for enjoying the fruits of intellection and the higher sentiments, but like anything that requires cultivation, intellect, good taste, and the higher sentiments can be neglected or worse, actively undermined, by a debased and debasing culture. “Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed,” Mill observes, “not only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favorable to keeping that higher capacity in exercise.” (19)
So, while Mill admits that as a matter of fact, many if not most people do not prefer higher pleasures over lower ones, he thinks that they would do so, were it not for certain obstacles to the cultivation and pursuit of nobler feelings and good taste. As with all counterfactuals, this is at best a guess and one that we might legitimately be quite skeptical about. Nonetheless, Mill’s account provides an important reminder that the quality of our cultural diet is as grave a matter as that of the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.
Critics are correct in thinking that one of hedonism’s main faults is in the diminished human being that follows from it, but they are wrong as to the nature of that diminishment. Hedonism does not diminish us, because it promotes pleasure or even because it elevates it to the status of an intrinsic good. G.K. Chesterton wrote of the materialist account of nature that “if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk,” and I would argue, analogously, that if the hedonist’s human being is the real human being, then it is not much of one. (20) When we embrace hedonism, it is humanity, rather than the cosmos, that shrinks. More precisely, it recedes, from the world, back into the recesses of the individual mind.
Modern hedonism is only secondarily about pleasure. At its core, it is an experientialist philosophy, by which I mean that it treats the value of any thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it. What is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing itself, but the experience one has in doing so. What is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity itself, but the experience that one has in engaging in it and that others have in being the object of it. What is valuable about rising to the top of one’s profession is not that one has done so, but the experience that having done so effects in oneself and others. It so happens that the hedonist believes that it is pleasurable experience that makes these things valuable, but this characteristic of the doctrine is at least, conceptually, separable from the experientialism itself.
As Robert Nozick observed in his famous “experience machine” thought-experiment, such a view renders it impossible to explain why actually doing a thing is preferable to simulating doing it. If simulating playing tennis, in a Star Trek style holodeck, gives rise to as pleasurable an experience as really playing tennis, in what sense can the hedonist claim that the latter is a more valuable activity than the former? (21)
Imagine a machine that could give you any experience… When connected to this experience machine, you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things, how they feel “from the inside.” You can program your experiences for tomorrow, or this week, or this year, or even for the rest of your life. If your imagination is impoverished, you can use the library of suggestions extracted from biographies and enhanced by novelists and psychologists. You can live your fondest dreams “from the inside.”
The question of whether to plug in to this experience machine is a question of value… The question is not whether plugging in is preferable to extremely dire alternatives — lives of torture, for instance — but whether plugging in would constitute the very best life, or tie for being best, because all that matters about a life is how it feels from the inside. (22)
I think that most of us believe that it matters that we actually do things, not just have the experience of doing them, pleasurable as the experience might be. We care about whether we actually are good tennis players, charitable givers, and successful professionals, and that’s because we think that virtue and flourishing, in the classical Greek senses of the words, are valuable. To flourish is actually to succeed in one’s endeavors, not simply to feel that one has done so, and in the experience machine – in any simulation – one can only feel that one has succeeded, as one is not actually engaged in the activity in question.
The point is not that hedonism renders virtue and flourishing impossible, but that it cannot explain why they matter. To embrace Hedonism, then, is to adopt an attitude that is, at the least, ambivalent about real activity and real success and which, when held consistently and taken to its logical conclusion, pines for the day in which we can replace more and more of our real lives with simulated ones, in which pleasurable experience can be better insured. It is a view that takes the endpoint of all activity as lying in our own heads. If philosophers in the past were unconcerned about this logical consequence of the theory, it could only have been because they couldn’t have imagined that one eventually would be able to live entirely in one’s own head, by way of virtual and holographic technologies. That or they really don’t think that there is anything deplorable about a person who cares not about actual accomplishments, but only their pleasurable effects.
(1) Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932) (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), pp. 220 & 237. [Emphasis in the original]
(2) Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651), ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), p. 29 (vi.11). [Emphasis in the original.]
(3) Ibid., p. 82 (xiv.8). [Emphasis in the original.]
(4) Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1532), reprinted in Peter Bondanella and Mark Musa, eds. and trans., The Portable Machiavelli (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 127 (Ch. XV).
(5) John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1861), ed. George Sher (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co.,1979) pp. 27-29.
(6) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Second Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 92.
(7) Hobbes, Leviathan, p. 48 (ix.3).
(8) David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, P.H. Nidditch and L.A. Selby-Bigge, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), pp. xvi & xvii (Introduction).
(9) Ibid., p. 414 (Book II, part 3, section iii).
(10) Ibid., p. 415 (Book II, part 3, section iii).
(11) Charles Darwin maintained that the basic tenets of the theory of evolution could be traced as far back as 1795 and the work of Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire, if not farther. See his The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, 6th Edition (London: John Murray, 1872), p. xiv.
(12) John Stuart Mill, On Bentham and Coleridge (1833/1840).
(13) Jeremy Bentham, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 11.
(14) John Stuart Mill, “The Spirit of the Age” (1831), reprinted in Alan Ryan, ed., Mill: Texts and Commentaries (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997), pp. 10-11.
(15) Mill, Utilitarianism, pp. 7; 37-38.
(16) Ibid., p. 34.
(17) Ibid., p. 7.
(18) Ibid., p. 8.
(19) Ibid., p. 10.
(20) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (1908) (Ignatius Press, 1995), p. 28.
(22) Robert Nozick, “The Experience Machine,” from Anarchy, State and Utopia (Basic Books, 1974), p. 4.