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In defence of hedonism

Unthinkable: Far from being party people, true hedonists are sensible individuals

A pool party: Not to be confused with hedonism. Photograph: Getty Images

The notion of hedonism conjures up images of alcohol-fuelled pool parties rather than bookish old blokes holding theoretical discussions. But this much-maligned philosophy has its roots in ancient Greece and has been defended famously by Enlightenment thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

By making pleasure an end in itself, hedonism was sure to have its ethical opponents. However, traditional objections to the philosophy are ill-founded, argues Trinity College Dublin lecturer Ben Bramble.

Pleasure is good for us, not because we want it but, just because of how it feels

At the outset, he says, it is important to understand that hedonism is a theory of well-being not a charter for selfishness. “Simply put, hedonism says that your well-being is fully determined by your pleasures and pains; any two people identical in their pleasures and pains would be identical in their levels of well-being.

“The major competitor to hedonism,” he explains, “is desire-fulfilment theory. Desire-fulfilment theory says that what is good for you is fundamentally, not good feelings but, having the sort of life you want.

“To see the difference between these theories, ask yourself: Is pleasure good for you because you want it? Or do you want it because you are in some sense responding to the fact that it is good for you? I think it is the latter. Pleasure is good for us, not because we want it, but just because of how it feels. A pleasurable life would be good for us whether we wanted it or not.”

Hedonism does not have many public advocates these days. What prompted you to mount a defence of it?
Ben Bramble: “I am defending hedonism mainly just because I think it is true.

“Like other philosophers, I am interested in getting at truth for its own sake. But I also think that arriving at the right theory of well-being is extremely useful for certain practical matters. How can we know how to live well if we do not know what is good for us all in the first place?”

JS Mill famously said it is “better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”. Do you agree?
“A popular criticism of hedonism is that it seems to entail that the life of a pig could be higher in well-being than the life of a normal human, providing that the pig has many intense pleasures of, say, slopping around in the mud, lying in the sun, eating its fill, etc.

“Mill argued that hedonism does not entail this. In particular, he argued that there are pleasures that human beings can feel that add more to well-being than any amount of the only pleasures pigs can feel.

“What are these ‘higher’ pleasures? They include pleasures of love, learning, aesthetic appreciation, and so on. I agree with Mill.

“Now, you might wonder, how can a hedonist consistently hold this view? Mustn’t she say that the best life is simply the one with the most pleasure? The answer, I believe – and here I depart from Mill – has to do with diversity. Diversity of pleasure matters in and of itself. And there is much greater diversity available, I believe, in the ‘higher’ pleasures than in mere bodily ones. Bodily pleasures, most of the time, are ‘just more of the same’.

“The point here, it is important to emphasise, is not that bodily pleasures necessarily get boring or stop being pleasurable - though they often do. It is that purely repeated pleasures - pleasures that bring nothing new to our lives in terms of their quality - are, in and of themselves, a waste of time. This is not to say that bodily pleasures are unimportant.

“Even purely repeated bodily pleasures can help us carry on in life, and so can act as a kind of ‘oil for our joints’. The point is rather that with only such pleasures, we would be missing out on the richest and most varied pleasures available - and, I would add, some of the most pleasurable.”

Acceptance of a refined form of hedonism may be reasonable but is it the best way of approaching ethical matters?
“Hedonism, as I’ve said, is just a theory of well-being. By itself, then, it has nothing to say about how we should live. Importantly, it does not say we should live so as to maximise our own self-interest-that (false) theory is called egoism.

“I think we should combine hedonism with utilitarianism, the theory on which we should live so as to maximise the well-being of all sentient creatures, including non-human animals. Combining these views, we get the appealing conclusion that we should live so as to help all creatures feel good and avoid feeling bad.

“Why is this appealing? Every other theory of how we should live is committed to saying that there are at least some occasions when we should choose something that doesn’t maximally improve the feelings of sentient beings ie occasions when we should forgo making some particular individual feel better in favour of doing something that makes nobody feel better. That strikes me as highly counterintuitive.”

Does your theory of hedonism have broader implications for how we should treat animals?
“As I mentioned earlier, I think hedonists should distinguish between mere bodily pleasures and ‘higher’ pleasures of love, learning, aesthetic appreciation, etc. Bodily pleasures have their place, but higher pleasures have special value.

“For this reason, pigs and most other non-human animals, who cannot experience these higher pleasures to the same degree humans can, are cut off from living especially fortunate lives. This is a great shame for pigs, etc.

“That said, there are many pleasures, and pains, that non-human animals can feel. This means that they can have lives that can go better or worse for them. So, it is absolutely vital that we take their interests into account.

“I think that the way we treat animals today – most clearly, in the meat industry – is so bad that it is hard to fathom. Meat tastes good, yes. But this benefit to us is infinitesimal when compared to the incredible suffering we inflict on animals to get it. Future generations, I suspect, will look back at us with profound dismay.”

ASK A SAGE:

Question: Why is so much public debate unmannerly?

Mary Wollstonecraft replies: “Virtue can only flourish amongst equals.”