If the pursuit of pleasure is the central motivation for your life then, well, you are a hedonist.
This is not just plain pleasure when you are done with whatever you call work but you are the type that seeks pleasure and avoids pain as much as possible even when you are at work.
This implies that hedonism is the driving force of your very existence.
What Is Hedonism?
Hedonism is a philosophy that has branched into various theories that seek to explain how the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain is man’s driving force of existence.
In this case, pleasure is considered as good and should be pursued at all costs and that pain is bad and should be avoided through all means possible.
Pretty much, whatever humans do in a bid to improve the quality of their lives is calculated to reduce or minimize pain and maximize pleasure at the same time.
This is the essence of having a successful or happy life, where life stressors that cause us pain are eliminated while those conveniences that please us are embraced.
Origin of Hedonism
As a philosophy, hedonism has been a subject of interest to scholars for a very long time.
Hedonism was a subject of interest among Asian Greek philosophers. For example, philosophers such as Aristippus argued that the greatest good in life was the pursuit of pleasure and believed that a good life is one in which sensual pleasure is abundant because all living beings seek to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.
Other philosophers such as Aristotle, Epicurus, Democritus, and Plato also argued that pleasure is good and that the ideal life worth living is characterized by the struggle to achieve pleasure.
They based this argument on the fact that a careful study of every living organism indicates that the actions are motivated towards achieving their good.
Their idea of pleasure and pain as related to living organisms was later given the common term epicurean hedonism.
In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, Christian philosophers discounted epicurean hedonism since they argued that it was likely focused on realizing sinful pleasure, which conflicted with the will of God.
They, therefore, came up with Christian hedonism which advocated for the cultivation of virtues such as faith, chastity, and charity, which they argued, aimed at glorifying God and in turn, benefiting worshippers with the ultimate pleasure of reaping from their good deeds.
The Christian philosophers denied that the pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake, was not the ultimate quest in life, particularly when that pleasure conflicted with the sole duty given to man which was to worship God.
Later on, in the 19th century, philosophers such as Jeremy Grantham and John Stuart Mill laid out the fundamental principles of hedonism in their ethical theory of utilitarianism.
They argued that the values of utilitarianism prescribed the basis of the values of hedonism.
Therefore, all actions should be aimed at attaining the greatest level of happiness for the possible greatest number of people. This means that every action should be judged based on the amount of pleasure that they produce in comparison to the amount of pain that results from the actions.
Over time, hedonism has adopted meaning that is a little drawn away from the initial understanding of the concept.
Currently, hedonism is, in most cases, associated with Self Indulgence or having a very liberal attitude toward morality about sex.
Types of Hedonism
There are myriad forms of hedonism, but here are the most common types:
I. Psychological Hedonism
Also referred to as Motivational Hedonism, psychological hedonism argues that the only purpose of desire and pursuit is pleasure and avoiding pain. This is, therefore, the most essential aspect of human nature and people cannot act in any other way.
Humans seek to achieve what they consider to be the greatest pleasure and/or protect themselves from any undesirable pain.
II. Value Hedonism
Value hedonism (Rationalizing or Reflective) aims at defining value based on the pleasure acquired.
In this case, value hedonism considers that even the most complex human endeavors are associated with the desire for maximizing pleasure, and based on that desire, the endeavors become rational.
III. Ethical Hedonism
Ethical hedonism (Normative or Evaluative Hedonism) often manifests in the form of setting up particular desirable goals and persuading others that those goals are worth pursuing because their attainment will result in pleasure.
Ethical hedonism is often the basis or justification of the existing moral value systems. These systems encourage individuals to restrain themselves or sacrifice immediate gratification to achieve rational gratification later on.
Ethical hedonism is further divided into two categories:
A. Hedonistic Egoism:
This is the theory that one should do whatever makes them happiest—that’s whatever provides them the most net pleasure after pain is removed.
The most unpopular feature of this type of hedonism is that you never have to ascribe to any value whatsoever to the consequences of anyone other than yourself.
B. Hedonistic Utilitarianism
This is the theory that the right action should produce the greatest net happiness for everyone involved.
Since the happiness of everyone is involved, hedonistic utilitarianism is often considered to be fair than hedonistic egoism.
Still, it is viewed as objectionable by some people because it doesn’t assign any intrinsic value to justice, truth, friendship, and other goods that are believed to irreducibly valuable.
A perfect example would be a situation where executing an innocent friend would be okay (according to hedonistic utilitarianism) if it promotes the greatest happiness overall.
IV. Christian Hedonism
This is a belief or perception about the meaning of life as being based on the fact that God glorifies Himself through individuals and that individuals attain their highest level of satisfaction through worshipping God.
Christian hedonism is based on the belief that God placed desires in us that make it legitimate for us to pursue happiness and pleasure. However, we seek pleasure not for pleasure’s sake but with God in mind.
It highlights the fact that God himself can be enjoyed. It also shows that God is glorified best when we value him and rejoice in him.
Christian hedonism is opposed to Immanuel Kant’s concept of morality (called deontology) which says that something is right only out of duty, not from the reward you expect from doing it.
V. Folk Hedonism
Finally, you are also likely to come across folk hedonism, which is often an incorrect view of hedonism (common among non-philosophers) that hedonists are people who seek out pleasure and happiness for themselves without caring about their future well-being or the well-being of others.
According to this school of thought, hedonists are people who never miss the opportunities to indulge in pleasures of drugs, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, etc—even if such indulgences lead to health problems, sadness, regrets or relationship issues for themselves and others.
So, folk hedonism can be considered to be a mix of motivational hedonism, hedonistic egoism and general lack of foresight.
Here are some of the perfect examples of hedonism today and in history:
1. 1960s Hippie Subculture
From the 1960s to the 1970s, the hippie subculture swept America and even spread abroad. These featured carnivals, bicycle riding, drugs, and parades by youths.
They were mostly middle-class, educated white youth. They created their philosophy and wore their hair long and hanging down.
Fed up and disillusioned by the routine of life and looking for a new meaning, they were rebelling against mainstream society.
This can be viewed as pain avoidance. Though they pursued a non-materialistic life (they chose frugality and simplicity), they indulged in rock and roll music, recreational drugs, and casual sex which made them hedonistic. LSD or psychedelic drugs were their drugs of choice.
2. Super hedonist, Elizabeth Holmes
Elizabeth Holmes displays the classic features of a hedonistic in which she seeks her pleasure with no regard for the consequences for others.
She founded the health technology company, Theranos, then courting prominent people like Bill Clinton, she raised billions of dollars from thrilled investors to develop and supply a wonder gadget she had invented: a tiny device that could use a single drop of blood to test all kind of diseases in one go.
It turned out to be a fake but for more than a decade, Holmes was living the billionaire lifestyle on the top of the Forbes list. She was eventually convicted of fraud.
3. Witch of Wall Street
Henrietta Hetty, also known as the Witch of Wall Street, was a 19th-century American woman who was adept at trading on Wall Street.
She became very wealthy. However, despite being a millionairess, she had an odd obsession for hoarding money and being possessive of it.
She seemed to derive maximum pleasure from money itself and was content to live a destitute life.
Her hedonism seemed to have been based on making money and accumulating it without spending any.
She traveled alone on long distances to recover small debts despite the danger of being alone as a woman.
Her own son’s leg was amputated because she refused to take him to the clinic for fear of parting with her money.
She herself suffered a hernia on her stomach which she preferred to press down with a stick than getting operated on.
She always wore the same old black dress until it was worn out for replacement.
Henrietta’s pleasure was in the possession of money with its absence symbolizing pain.
4. Hedonism At The Helm Of Power
Hedonism has often proved fatal for the career and even lives of many politicians and statesmen.
Alexander the Great, the Greek leader, infamously partied and drank himself to death only 3 days after scoring a stunning victory of conquering the world in Persia.
In the biblical account of Babylonia, the king who was holding a party also met his demise when he was presented with supernatural handwriting with mysterious words on the wall.
The written words were said to read that “he had been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Shortly after, a foreign army invaded and the king was slain.
5. The Roaring 20’s Hedonism
Events that followed World War 1 conspired to create an atmosphere that drove many Americans into compulsive consumption and hedonism.
Prosperity was accelerating from the economic boom as America recovered from war and incomes improved.
Also, the Prohibition Act had been passed, a law forbidding Americans from consuming alcohol.
This caused demand for illegal alcohol to shoot up. Crime soared with gang leader Al Capone gaining notoriety.
The events were known as the roaring 20s which were abruptly stopped when the stock market crashed in 1929 during the Great Depression.
6. Las Vegas, the Sin City
“Greed is good,” the words of Gecko, best sum up the attitude of this city, perfectly embodying the hedonistic element.
Also known as Sin City, Las Vegas is America’s hedonistic capital.
Adult attractions including strip clubs and gambling, allow patrons to engage in hedonistic lives.
The city never sleeps, being active around the clock. Tourists pour in endlessly making it the choice destination for true hedonists seeking to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.
7. Andrew Jackson’s Drunken Inauguration
Andrew Jackson’s presidential inauguration was unlike most of what you have heard of.
Instead of being stately, it became a clumsy affair.
This was after Andrew Jackson hosted an open reception at the White House to allow the public to greet him.
He was a celebrity president, so people fought to catch a glimpse of him.
There was a melee as glassware fell and broke. Then Jackson tried to calm them down by serving them whiskey. This caused a rampage that forced the president to flee.
This was a hedonistic misadventure that the crowd probably would not regret having to go through all over again.
8. Hedonism Bot from Futurama
This is an amusing series of episodes featuring HedonismBot.
HedonismBot is portrayed as a hedonistic bot in this movie. He is solely after self-pleasure which is mostly sexual including extreme sex adventures like electric shocking, spanking, BSDM, polyamory, nipple clamping, fellatio, lubing, orgy pits, anal, role-playing, etc.
Boasting only a short attention span, his other favorite other than sex is being covered in chocolate icing and eating a bowl of fruit which is almost perpetually with him.
His behavior compares to that of a wealthy decadent Roman noble set in ancient Rome.
9. Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street
The Wolf of Wall Street is an American biographical crime film in which Leonardo DiCaprio acts as Jordan Belfort, a real-life person.
Belfort is a quintessential hedonist. He is a New York stockbroker whose firm commits rampant fraud and corruption on Wall Street. This leads to Belfort’s downfall.
Belfort was finally convicted of running scams and manipulating the stock market.
The heartless, greedy display shows the deeply hedonistic character of the Wall Street operator, leaving many hapless investment victims deprived of their money.
Benefits of Hedonism
As previously hinted above, man will always seek ways to make life less painful and therefore convenient.
Life today is not as manual or mechanical as it used to be even five decades ago. This is because in the quest to reduce the pain that is associated with accomplishing tasks or achieving goals, various innovations have been created.
The innovations, particularly technological ones, have transformed life immeasurably and improved the quality of life.
For example, in the quest to avoid pain, better palliative drugs and therapies have been invented for all manner of diseases.
Technology has also reduced the pain of having to travel long distances to receive services from banks and supermarkets, which had particularly helped the elderly.
The quest to avoid pain is going to shape many other innovations that we will see in the future.
The concept of maximizing pleasure has also been adopted in the quest to realize positive health outcomes.
A good example is the provision or prescription of activities that result in pleasure has been at the core of therapy to help mental health patients to reduce their stress levels and depression.
Providing or prescribing activities such as aerobics, for instance, not only boosts physical health but also improves the mental functioning of a person. This is based on the realization that when a person experiences pleasure, the sympathetic nervous system is relaxed, dulling their fight or flight sensations.
The pleasurable aspect of healthy foods can also encourage people to focus on a healthy diet and ultimately protect themselves from lifestyle diseases that they may be susceptible to.
Similarly, hedonism is also used to advance relationships between people in organizations through group activities such as team building, which provides people with the opportunity to laugh and break any tensions between them and foster harmony and synergy.
Current Objections against Hedonism
Since hedonism is largely perceived as a negative concept or term, various objections have been raised against it.
One of the objections is that pleasure is not necessarily the key source of intrinsic value in life. This means that other things are unpleasable or involve pain in acquiring, which makes life worth living, including:
- Living a moral life that does not pursue promiscuity
- Building and maintaining relationships such as friendships and marriage
- Attaining perfection in certain life domains such as careers that demand abstinence in pleasure-seeking behavior.
The other objection is that all pleasure is not valuable in life. This argument is largely attributed to the observation that most addictions to negative things such as drugs and substance abuse, sexual immorality, and criminal behavior are associated with the quest to attain pleasure in life. Therefore, there is a limit to which pleasure is necessary for living beings.
In other words, pleasure is worthwhile only to the extent that it aims to enhance the quality of life itself—any other pursuit of pleasure is, therefore, irrelevant and should be discouraged at all costs.
The other objection towards hedonism is premised on the fact that pleasure is quite subjective. Whatever is pleasurable to one person may not be pleasurable to the other person. For example, a person may find drinking alcohol pleasurable, yet alcohol is disgusting, and drinking it is a cause of pain to another person due to their previous experiences of alcohol consumption.
So, the subjective nature of pleasure denounces the possibility of generalizing pleasure as the ultimate pursuit in life.
However, these present objections against hedonism by no means imply that the concept has not benefited our understanding of life.
Hedonism is a concept that is quite interesting in terms of understanding why people do what they do.
Hedonism also helps us to understand how far we have come as the human race and the salient motivations behind it.
While seeking pleasure seems to be the very motivation behind our painful struggles, not all pleasure is worth seeking.
This is particularly so in the case where pleasure has destructive outcomes.