16 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Tackling Hedonism Head-On

Note: Worthy of Attention was a column that I used to write in the online blog Panangelium.

Though there are many things in this world that are worthy of attention, only one issue may be discussed first in this column. And rather than using this initial pulpit to discuss politics, or the environment, or the subjugation of non-human animals, I wish to bring up the one issue that most directly affects all of my readers, regardless of their cultural background. It is the single thread that binds all peoples and transcends boundaries of time, place, and happenstance. In the view of many, it is the most important issue that we may ever discuss, and as such, I feel justified in dedicating my first substantial article to the idea. This topic, debated even back during the pre-socratics, is on human happiness.

Human happiness, as it is intuitively understood, is the individual state that all humans aspire to, regardless of their views on life. Plato argued that individual human happiness comes only with leading the good life, which he described as being part of a well-functioning (i.e., happy) society. Aquinas argued that this good life came about only through being pat of the most perfect well-functioning society: the kingdom of god. Rand argued that the good life comes only from living 'separately' from society, focusing on the individual as the largest unit capable of human happiness. Aristotle said the good life has nothing to do with it; the only way to truly be happy is to philosophize with friends. But in all these vastly differing opinions, one constant remains: achieving human happiness is always considered as one of the most lofty of goals.

The most likely reason for placing such emphasis on hedonism is that it is the only measureable moral entity that we may observe. Some, like Kant, have seemingly argued against human happiness as the most important of issues; but a more sophisticated view of human happiness soon reveals that even categorical imperatives that apply even when against the desires of the individual go against them are in actuality hypothetical imperatives in disguise: if you agree to follow my normative views, then you will do such and such, even if you do not desire to do so. In effect, the categorical imperatives that I believe in are in reality the same as the hedonistic values that I follow most closely. All morality, in fact, can be understood as nothing more than hedonism, albeit sometimes a sophisticated form of hedonism that takes into account more than just one's present state of happiness.

I've used a lot of loaded philosophical terms so far, but even though I need them in order to be completely specific with my words, please understand that it is certainly not neccessary to consult a dictionary of philosophy in order to know what I am talking about. Essentially, human happiness is a concept that we may all talk about, and, indeed, that we all should discuss.

What is human happiness? Clearly, it is what pleases us. But the word 'pleasing' is not exact enough to capture the true meaning of human happiness. True happiness arises from many different sources; not just the pleasures of the flesh, but also of the mind. Aristotle counted receiving respect from one's peers and even personal attractiveness in the eyes of others as qualities that contribute to human happiness. Maybe not all of us achieve happiness in the same way; personally, I do not think I could truly be happy without sexual gratification, for example. But others might disagree. Some might be perfectly happy as social outcasts, or even in being complete morons. But regardless of how we each achieve happiness, the achieving of it is certainly one of the foremost issues that we may each have to deal with.

In the past few years, I've undergone a complete reversal in my personality and outlook on life. Activism has slowly grown to become an important part of my life, and spreading my own emotive views on normative judgments has become something of a personal quest. It is, in effect, my method of achieving human happines. Nevertheless, I have retained my strict philosophical viewpoint in dealing with such issues, and as such have been forced to reconcile with the fact that there is no particular reason why my personal brand of morality should apply to any other.

Retaining a responsible philosophical attitude while trying to get others to agree with my own moral beliefs is hard on my psyche, and ultimately damaging to my own happiness. But I cannot pretend that I know best when others could just as easily know better. Ultimately, my happiness would only be undermined if I were to ignore the philosophical examination that I by now am so used to participating in.

In the end, we're all hedonists. We have to be; there is no other moral-like property that we can observe.  I personally believe that humans can never be happy unless nonhuman animals are justly treated. As much as I may wish this to be a categorical imperative, in the end, it is merely how I feel. And I must recognize the same for others.

How another feels life should be (the culmination of which would be their own personal happiness high point) is no better nor worse than my own, at least as far as can be observed. Whether it is Bush further entangling the federal government, big business, and the Christian right; or Plato sacrificing the wants and desires of the philosopher king for the good of the republic; or even the small business owner taking advantage of each employee, client, and supplier because the capitalistic system allows him no better alternative to succeed, the moral views (and thus the personal human happiness) of every being is no more nor less likely to be better nor worse of any other.

Human happiness is a laudable subject. But there is no way of determining which person's views on human happpiness we should follow, not even our own. But the one thing we do know is that in the end, it all is nothing more than hedonism. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, try to do what would be best for you. In the end, that is all we can do.

Until next week, where I will discuss the role of punishment in society, I bid you all adieu. Be well.


  1. The problem with this is that "happiness" is not defined at all.

    I could say that everything I do and every reaction I have I wanted to occur, since it did occur; and thus everything that I do pleases me, and my life is inherently hedonistic. This is a sophistic argument (that nonetheless has some validity, I believe), but one must surely recognize that if we please ourselves in one way, we could very well displease ourselves in another. There are several examples, one being that someone might have the opportunity to have sex, which would please them physically, but the circumstances and the partner would not please the high-level mind.

    While these points sidestep your main conceptual idea of trying to be generally "happy", does it really mean anything to say that we are all hedonistic? Or, so long as it is true, does that hold the same meaning as saying we all exist?

    1. Your point is well taken; by defining hedonism in the way that I did, the term lost most of its meaning.

      But your counter-example of conflicting desires is not one that I think has full validity. I say this because if you want two conflicting things, and you choose one over the other, then you are still doing what you want. Allow me a short argument to explain.

      Say you have two conflicting desires, A and B. You assign a weight to each of them; your desire of A is 10 units, whereas your desire of B is only 5 units. While it is true that if you did both, you would enjoy 15 units of gratification, this is not possible in reality due to the confliction of A and B. Thus the only possible options that we may consider are either doing A or doing B. Doing A would result in a net gain of 5 (that is, 10-5) units of gratification; while doing B would result in a net gain of -5 (that is, 5-10) units of gratification. (This is assuming not doing A counts as a loss of 10, and not doing B counts as a loss of 5.)

      Since the only possible worlds to consider have gains of 5 and -5 respectively, then in the end, what one _truly_ desires is the gain of 5: doing A rather than B. The third nonexistent option of doing both does not exist, and therefore does not count as a real 'desire'.

    2. But in your example, you have not defined the method for determining "desire" points. How do you get points on the same scale for animalstic and high-level mind desires (the most blatant reconciliation that would have to occur in the construction of such a points system; there of course would be many others)? And how do you reconcile that we could be happy about a present state of affairs now, but would not be happy if presented with the same state of affairs in the future?

      Of course, it is different for each person. My point is that if you have an accurate definition of hedonism, is it not just being in existance? I admit that you have presented things that are worth looking at, such as our sources of enjoyment/satisfaction and how they conflict. However I don't think that looking at things in a new way of trying to do actions that make you happy is any sort of "key" to a great life.

  2. Dorek WilsonApril 01, 2012

    I think you are off track when you say we are all hedonists. Certainly it is valid to say that all humans have -desire-, and what I mean by this is the desires that humans have which cause them to pursue -something- other than survival instincts (eating, sleeping, reproducing). You will agree that all humans desire happiness (putting aside any question on what different people consider what a good means to happiness is); this desire is human nature.

    I believe it is mistake to classify this desire as hedonism, as well as saying, therefore, we are all hedonists. Here comes my point.

    No one will argue that pleasures bring happiness. What I argue is that pleasures bring a certain type of happiness, and this happiness is not sufficient to fulfill human -desire-, it merely makes people feel good. The important thing to note is that when a person partakes in a pleasure, such as eating good food, playing a video game, etc., these pleasures impart a temporary 'good-feeling', rather than what I would call 'true happiness.' You have to agree that after a game of super smash brothers, you return to your room and you are no better off than before you played the game. You may have gained some skill, of course, but we know that tools only have a value when they are being used. The reason we play super smash brothers is to indulge in the good-feeling that comes from entertainment. This is only temporary happiness. Does it not seem that a person who pursues only measures of temporary happiness will, at some point, regret his actions, even regret his life?

    So, if human -desire- can't be fulfilled only through pleasure, then there must be other means of achieving your desire. I am referring to 'eternal happiness,' or one that lasts, even beyond any actions taken on the part of people. When a person composes a work of music, this person may or may not particularly enjoy working long hours trying to create a work of art. The process might be fun, but can you not say that the piece brings the person happiness continually, even long after the composing is completed? A diplomat who establishes a treaty that brings food and peace to a wartorn-region, even if he does nothing else for the rest of his life, might surely die a happy man.

    The final thing that we all know humans desire is love. Of course, this topic is enormous, but I believe it is the final other thing that a human may give or possess that would define that person's life as a happy one, even absent the other two means that attempt to fulfill one's desire to be happy.