Challenging the Pleasure Principle

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Jeffrey Thayne

Nathan has been writing an excellent series on two very different paradigms of human intent; he has contrasted a fundamentally egoistic and self-interested theory of human behavior with a fundamentally relational, other-oriented theory of human behavior. Today, I would like to discuss a related topic: the long-standing and often misunderstood concept called hedonism.

The dictionary defines hedonism as “the ethical theory that pleasure (in the sense of the satisfaction of desires) is the highest good and proper aim of human life.”1 As we can see, pleasure is used in a very broad sense here; it refers to the “satisfaction of desires.” I assume that the word desires in this context closely resembles Abraham Maslow’s concept of needs. The driving force in our life, from a hedonistic perspective, is the satisfaction of these desires. Brent Slife explains in more detail:

The term “hedonism” often has a negative connotation. Nevertheless, this … assumption of naturalism dominates formal disciplinary conceptions of … human nature, and human relationships. Hedonism is the assumption that all living things seek pleasure and avoid pain, with plants turning toward the sun and animals moving toward whatever is “pleasurable,” broadly defined. In fact, hedonism is thought to be necessary to evolution and the survival of a species—with species risking evolutionary extinction when they consistently move toward pain and suffering. Higher animals, too, are viewed as hedonistic, though in more complex and sophisticated ways. Hedonism implies a certain ethic and purpose for higher animals—that well-being, happiness, or self-benefit is the sole or chief good in life.2

Ed Gantt describes some of the history of the idea:

The roots of our Western intellectual tradition begin with the Greeks—and thus the roots of hedonism do also. The individual most often affiliated with the hedonistic position is Epicurus, who contended “that all men, at all times, pursue only their own pleasure” because “pleasure is the first good and natural.”

… Ironically, even Socrates, who consistently sought to counter this sophistic equation of physical pleasure with the ultimate good, still maintained at the core of his teachings the notion that conduct is governed by a concern for matters of personal pleasure. Socratic doctrine held that acts that produce pleasure are always to be judged in light of their ultimate rather than immediate benefit. Because the unreflective pursuit of pleasure may lead one only to future misery, the relative worth of a given course of action should be determined by whether or not it provides long-term ultimate benefit (that is, pleasure) to the person. Thus, as Guthrie has noted, in the Socratic or Platonic system, “acts which in themselves give pleasure can be referred to the question of ultimate benefit as to a higher standard, while still maintaining the attitude of pure self-interest.”

In the end, then, for the ancient Greeks, though they disagreed continually and vehemently about the proper means of its achievement, the ultimate goal of life was always the pursuit and maximization of pleasure for oneself. Even Aristotle, who questioned the thinking of his predecessors and contemporaries in many profoundly insightful ways, nonetheless held that our most committed and concerned friendships were in reality just the outgrowth of a more fundamental love of self.3

Simply put, the philosophy of hedonism is the belief that no creature does any action unless it believes, consciously or “unconsciously,” that the act will produce some kind of benefit for itself; and if neither the creature nor its unconscious believes so, then the creature’s genetics incline the creature towards the act, because a long evolutionary history has demonstrated that doing so increases reproductive success. In other words, even if the creature itself is not aware of any ensuing benefits of its actions, there is an evolutionary force at work directing the creature towards actions that benefit the species.

It is easy to see how, when this perspective is adopted unquestioningly, it is impossible to account for any human action in a genuinely altruistic way. This perspective forces us into a pervasive cynicism with regards to human behavior. When accounting for human action, social scientists regularly dismiss altruistic possibilities in favor of self-interested ones.

Gantt explains how this perspective affects our understanding of human rationality:

One profound consequence of the modern advancement of the doctrine of hedonism is that hedonism has, in many ways, come to be identified with rational thinking. Henry Sidgwick, for example, felt that it was

hardly going too far to say that common sense assumes that “interested” actions, tending to promote the agent’s happiness, are prima facie [at first sight] reasonable: and that the onus probandi [burden of proof] lies with those who maintain that disinterested conduct, as such, is reasonable.

Ayn Rand argued that the rational person “sees his interests in terms of a lifetime and selects his goals accordingly. … [This] means that he does not regard any moment as cut off from the context of the rest of his life, and that he allows no conflicts or contradictions between his short-range and long-range interests” Thus, to be rational is to seek after one’s own interests in a manner as careful, consistent, and efficient as possible.

To fall short in the realization of this ideal—or, even worse, to reject it outright—is by definition to be irrational. … Given this sort of intellectual presumtion, it should not come as too great a surprise that one of the most explicitly hedonistic of all our modern theories of human action, and one of the most widely endorsed in both the humanities and the social sciences, is known as Rational Choice Theory.3

Sigmund Freud articulated this idea well; he believed that most fundamental to human nature was a drive seek pleasure (the id). Because that drive, when unharnessed, might often result in pain (something to be avoided), a form of rationality (the ego) arises to channel that pleasure seeking drive in a way that would maximize its fulfillment. Rationality, according to Freud, is the means to direct our pleasure-seeking tendencies to their intended goal with the least costs (in pain) possible. In other words, reason forms in response to the need to seek pleasure in more effective ways. While Freud’s idea that all pleasure is sexual has been largely rejected, the idea that pleasure seeking is fundamental has not, and the equation of rational thought and self-interested behavior is widely endorsed.

I reject the philosophy of hedonism, because this philosophy makes genuinely selfless behavior impossible (or, at least irrational). I do not mean that people do not most often act in self-interested ways … only that they do not necessarily do so, and that the highest good in life is not the sophisticated pursuit of self-interested goals. What is the alternative to this point of view? It certainly isn’t a masochistic worldview in which it is human nature to seek pain and avoid pleasure (actually, masochists are those who find pleasure in pain, and therefore this really isn’t a masochistic worldview, since a truly masochistic worldview would be a perverted form of hedonism). Rather, an alternative would be that human beings have real opportunities to act altruistically. Slife explains:

As long as the ultimate concern or motive of the person (whether consciously or unconsciously) is some benefit to the self, then it is hedonistic. In this regard, the alternative is obvious, though seemingly improbable from the perspective of a naturalistic social scientist. The alternative is a capacity to be ultimately concerned for the other.

Altruism, in this sense, is not helping others with an ultimate motive to benefit one’s self (however long or short the term of the benefit). Altruism is making the other the ultimate end—making decisions with a “neighbor’s” needs as the ultimate criteria for the decisions. This capacity for altruism does not assume that all concerns and motives would necessarily be for the sake of the other, but it does assume that all concerns and motives could be for the sake of the other. That is, this alternative to hedonism does not have to mean a constant motive of altruism, though constant altruism would be the ideal from the perspective of some altruists. This alternative would merely mean the possibility of the ideal becoming real.”2

In other words, the alternative is not that we are inherently selfless, but rather that we have the capacity to be selfless. This capacity is denied us from a hedonistic worldview, for even our most selfless actions would require a self-interested explanation to account for them. I believe that an alternative to hedonism must respect human agency and maintain the possibility that individuals may choose to act out of genuine concern for another’s welfare, with no thought to their own.

1. The Oxford Dictionary of Difficult Words, “hedonism.”
2. Brent D. Slife, “Theoretical Challenges to Therapy Practice and Research: The Constraint of Naturalism,” The Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavioral Change.
3. Ed Gantt, “Hedonism, Suffering, and Redemption: The Challenge of a Christian Psychotherapy.” In Jackson, A. P. and Fischer, L. (Eds.), Turning Freud Upside Down (Provo, UT: BYU Press)


  1. Personally, I rejected hedonism because it wasn’t satisfying. 🙂

    Okay, sorry about that. It’s a silly joke.

    More seriously, I think rejecting hedonism is a tough thing for many folks because we often don’t appreciate that the concept involves more than a particular ethical theory, but rather is used as a form of ultimate explanation. In that capacity (i.e., as psychological egoism), it is malleable enough to explain any human acts — even altruistic ones. It is similar, in this way, to the doctrine of determinism, in that one can explain any act in terms of its presumed causal antecedents. However, as William James pointed out over a century ago, there is nothing in nature or in any event itself that demands deterministic explanation. We, as rational beings seeking to make some sense of the world are the ones who tend to demand such explanations. We like them, nature doesn’t force them on us (i.e., there is no empirical proof for determinism — as Hume pointed out: causality is not the sort of thing that falls on the retina of the eye).

    Same goes for hedonism: we like to make sense of (i.e., explain) people’s actions and hedonism allows us to do so, and it does so in such a seemingly straight-forward fashion (in many cases) that ties directly to how we experience ourselves so frequently that hedonism can take on an air of fundamentality and inescapability. What other possible reason could there be for doing anything than that we seek pleasure (either consciously or unconsciously) in so doing?

    Even you’re suggestion, Jeff, that “we have the capacity to be selfless” can be routed back into hedonism. For example, one could argue that we have this capacity for altruism because throughout our long evolutionary history having such a capacity has proven to be valuable for survival. The trick to overcoming hedonism (or, perhaps in this case, more accurately, psychological egoism) is to make clear how agency isn’t simply a matter of being capable of making choices, but is rather (as Williams has long argued) a matter of living truthfully.

    What I am driving at here — admittedly in a sloppy and disjointed fashion — is that agency as the capacity for choice isn’t a sufficiently radical understanding of agency to overcome the perniciously persuasive power of hedonistic explanation. Granted, we must be capable of choosing in order to be otherwise than self-concerned. However, one could grant agency of the “capacity to choose” sort and still maintain that all our choices are a matter of choosing from amongst various potential pleasures and pains, or choosing from among various courses of action likely to result in pleasure or pain. In such a scenario, being concerned for the welfare of another is possible, just not ultimately so — in that, my concern for another is actually an expression of my concern for self. Nonetheless, the psychological egoist might well argue that agency as choice remains, and so does the possibility of (some sort of) altruism.

    The only way to save the possibility of genuine altruism is to understand agency as more than a matter of deliberative choice or being able to choose from amongst alternatives. In order to perform genuinely altruistic acts we must be capable of engaging and experiencing others in such a way that they are not reducible to being means to our own ends. In other words, I must be the sort of being who is able to genuinely experience the welfare of another as commandingly more relevant and important than my own, not just the sort of being who is capable of recognizing that others have needs like me and that I can likely satisfy my own needs by choosing to engage in (seemingly) altruistic action.

    This comment has gone on long enough, so I’ll end here and leave the details of agency as living truthfully to Williams.

    Ed Gantt, Ph.D.

  2. Clark,

    Thanks for the clarification! I do see what you mean. I think hedonism makes selfless behavior impossible as selfless behavior… the behavior may still be the same, but from a hedonistic perspective, we haven’t accounted for it until we’ve accounted for it in self-interested terms. Or, if we honestly believe the behavior had selfless motivations, it was for that reason irrational.

    So perhaps you are right in that “defined away” may be a better way to express what hedonism does.

  3. The “defined away” also clarifies it for Freshmen. Hedonism is something Freshmen are forever confused about.

    BTW – you can define hedonism in more Levinasian terms. Ethics is the call of responsibility. As I react to the call that is the demand. But while there is always the other there must also be the self to respond, to be called to. The response thus must be made in terms of the self.

    The way to avoid this is to deconstruct the Other – Self divide.

  4. I reject the philosophy of hedonism, because this philosophy makes genuinely selfless behavior impossible (or, at least irrational)

    Although this is merely a semantic problem and not a real one. They merely defined away selfless behavior. However what we’d call selfless behavior is still there.

    This to me is why I reject it. Not because it changes much about how we behave but because it’s the “everything is a nail when you’re a hammer” principle. That is, pleasure and self-interest are defined so broadly that they cease to be helpful as a category.

  5. I’m not sure what you mean by deconstructing the Other – Self divide.

    What I appreciate about Levinas is that, from what I understand, the self has no real existence except in response to the Other. The call of obligation from the Other is a call to be for the Other; thus, while I can resist that call and totalize the Other (make the Other into a means to an end), my very existence as a self is a response to a call to be for the Other. I don’t think that we experience the same same moral call to be for the self, since the self only exists in response to the calls of the Other, either to fulfill the obligation or to neglect it.

    I wonder if this is what Dr. Gantt is looking for when he says:

    In other words, I must be the sort of being who is able to genuinely experience the welfare of another as commandingly more relevant and important than my own, not just the sort of being who is capable of recognizing that others have needs like me.

  6. Yes, certainly that the Levinasian perspective. It’s also why I think the claim of a difference between ontology and ethics is problematic.

    Ricouer touched on this in Ones Self as Another as I recall.

    Interestingly there’s a similar move in Heidegger in the analysis of Dasein and resoluteness.

  7. I agree, I think. This is why I like Levinas. I don’t know of any modernist philosophy (such as naturalism) that really accounts for the experience of moral or ethical obligation. How do you get any ethical obligations from a fundamentally mechanistic reality? If we are just meat machines, or the product of millions of years of random mutations and natural selection, on what basis can anyone claim to have experienced a genuine moral obligation to serve another?

    In some of his writings, Dr. Gantt has argued persuasively that hedonism is just about the only ethical system that can claim legitimacy by appeal to modernist philosophy (such as naturalism). A naturalist may certainly claim another ethical system, but he’d be hard-pressed to justify it based upon a naturalistic ontology.

    Would you agree, then, that the Levinasian perspective provides a possible alternative to the modernist and hedonistic perspective?

  8. Here’s a question: what’s to keep someone from explaining the plan of salvation in a hedonistic way?

    “I serve others because I like the warm feeling I get from the Spirit.”
    “I give of my time “altruistically” because my spirit grows and I feel fulfilled and right with God.”
    “Even though he could have gone straight on to his exaltation, Christ suffered mortality and the atonement and saved us because it brought him joy to see us be exalted, too.”

    Is there any altruistic choice that is not inherently rewarding? Or does altruism mean making the choice in ignorance of the reward? Only the discovering the “pleasure payback” after the fact.

    I don’t believe any of the three statements above, but they’re hard to respond to; they appeal to the intellect, so I can see why faithful members conclude them because I’ve concluded those things at various points in my past. I believe there is an alternative to hedonism. I sometimes define charity as “doing something out of love, for which you get nothing in return.” But it opens the question, then why would a person do it?

    … Hmmm, I think I’m fulfilling the point in the post, that a deterministic attitude is what leads me to have to explain everything. Maybe I don’t have to articulate a reason. Maybe action unmotivated is the purest, truest way to make choices, and is synonymous with choosing out of love. Doing it just because its who I am. Choice without motive, but choice nonetheless. Wow. Now I’m deep-thoughting myself into a trance. … Excuse me while I drift off …

  9. Nathan,

    Fun train of thought… unfortunately I have to derail it. I serve others because they need help. I give of my time because I love God. Christ suffered because He loved us.

    The actions aren’t motiveless; they just have other-oriented motives. In an altruistic paradigm, we can be-for-the-Other.

    It is the hedonistic paradigm, you see, that says that the only motives are self-interested ones. Thus, it would be from a hedonistic paradigm that one would say that an altruistic act had no motive.

    Unless I wanted to get philosophically picky and throw out the definition of the word “motive” as the “thing that moves us.” We think of motives as causal factors, sometimes in a deterministic way. Rather, perhaps instead we can talk about way of being… am I responding to the call to be-for-the-other, or resisting it?

  10. Well I’m more Derridean than Levinasian (although the two are close) That is I don’t think one can escape violence the way Levinas believes.

  11. Hmm. . . interesting question after considering all of this (and the link from Connor’s parallel post):

    We often “help” others by fulfilling a physical need, or a need for love or companionship. In this case are we really “helping” others, or merely fulfilling their hedonistic, objectivist need for physical satisfaction, pleasure and nourishment? (This seems appropriate, as I couldn’t help but notice that Connor quoted Ayn Rand.)

    Suppose we figure that we are merely helping others to help others still by staying alive and meeting their basic needs. In this case we’ve merely moved the problem one step over, to the recipients of the future good actions of those we have helped.

    If “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25 to us Mormons), how do we separate the religious duty and desire to serve with the belief that any action motivated by joy is hedonistic and thereby spiritually empty?

    Merriam-Webster doesn’t get us out of this. Among the definitions of “joy” relevant to our discussion:

    “1 a: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires

    2: a state of happiness or felicity :

    3: a source or cause of delight”

    Examples 2 and 3 seem to move us beyond hedonism, but in order to believe that we (and our spiritual brothers and sisters) exist for joy, we would have to redefine happiness and delight as things that we, personally, are not motivated by. It seems disingenuous to suggest that we should be working toward something other than that which our scripture suggests is our reason for existing.

    The motivation-oriented explanation that, by helping others, we receive joy, seems incompatible with LDS theology that true selflessness can only be found through service. I agree that this is so.

    However, I believe that a solution exists to this problem that involves neither psueodspiritual acceptance of hedonism nor a complete abandonment of the individual search for joy and happiness. I think that most of us agree that true “joy”, properly experienced in a spiritual context, in not a feeling, emotion or state of being that can be gained in any quantity through purely self-interested action.

    It’s more of a character attribute, and much of this life is based around our ability to learn to find “true” joy (defined as that quality gained only through selfless service rather than short-term excitement or mere satisfaction). Thus, OUR joy is a goal to work towards, partly because we know that by doing so we are helping to fulfill the purpose of our creation, and that by doing service we help others to see the path toward “true” happiness and joy rather than merely fulfilling their temporal needs.

    Thus, as we learn to help others selflessly, we do several important things:

    1) We experience true joy as we gain character and empathy through service and selflessness, positive attributes which help us to find more joy in the selfless service of others.

    2) We indirectly help others to receive joy themselves by sharing in the warm experience of service (if only as recipients) and thus help them further onto the path toward happiness. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that I assume that the recipients of temporal blessings are “farther” from the path than the person who happens to be serving them at the moment. Let’s just agree that it’s a mutually-beneficial experience for anybody who internalizes it and finds joy in it.)

    Awright – enough monologuing and needless verbosity.

  12. On the second reading, I love the paradox of my stream-of-consciousness musings earlier. My little thesis statement, stated far more succinctly:

    “As we selflessly serve others, we gain joy – something that can only be truly acquired through selfless service – and through the shared experience of service propagate the divine pattern of service and joy. Thus the “true” service is spiritual in nature (though it may involve temporal things), and thus helps both ourselves and the recipients of our service to work toward true joy, a state of being that cannot be occupied by the ungodly.”

  13. Clumpy,

    I LOVE the possibility, as you say, of defining Joy as more of a character attribute. I think we too often interpret 2 Nephi 2:25 (“men are, that they might have joy”) in economic terms, treating “joy” as a commodity, and the purpose of life is to get more of it. However, let’s pretend for a moment that Joy is a way of being, a particular kind of life-style; then the verse in 2 Nephi would be interpreted in a similar way we might interpret it if it said, “men are that they might have integrity” or something like that. That resolves the issue, because it is very difficult to treat integrity as a “commodity” when it is really a life-style, a way-of-being-in-the-world. Perhaps we could re-conceptualize joy this way. Joy is the way we experience the world when we are fulfilling the moral obligations we have towards those around us, when we are “being for the other.”

    Then we don’t have to think of the purpose of life as some sort of self-interested pursuit of this commodity we call Joy. Rather, the purpose of life is to live a particular way, and way we experience the world when we live this way is called Joy.

  14. Sorry Nathan. Read Derrida’s “Violence and Metaphysics” which is his extended critique of Levinas. Derrideans tend to see it as a pretty devastating critique that Levinas made use of and modified his philosophy because of. Levinasians tend to think Derrida got it all wrong and Levinas didn’t react significantly at all.

  15. I’m (techincally I guess) a Levinasian and I see Derrida’s critique in “Violence and Metaphysics” as incisive and persuasive on many points (but not really “devastating”) and it is obvious that Levinas reacted in a significant way (Otherwise the Being is a very different book than Totality and Infinity) and, no, Derrida didn’t get it all wrong, but he did get a number of things wrong (of course, with Derrida it becomes somewhat problematic determining what “right” or “wrong” mean). Finally, I’d also have to say that the influence runs both ways. Derrida’s more recent writings have increasingly emphasized a Levinasian ethic as being at the heart of deconstruction.

  16. Ed, I don’t think it was just his recent writings. I think Levinas was key for Derrida from a very early period. Many have noted that “being” for Derrida is much more like prime matter whereas for Heidegger it is “the One.” i.e. being in terms of what is unveiled versus being in terms of the unveiling. This is also partially why Derrida talks about a double move so often. There are two possible analysis in any phenomena (and thus in any philosopher): the Heideggarian move and the Levinasian move. Yet even while being so influenced by Heidegger and Levinas he critiques both of them in small but important ways.

  17. Clark,

    I would agree with you that Levinas has been key for Derrida from very early on. My point was that I feel like Derrida’s recent work has been even more explicit in emphasizing the ethical dimension of deconstruction.

  18. Yes, although I think his approach is somewhat different. I tend to read the latter Derrida as looking at universals and how they ‘appear’ in his thought. While his latter works are perhaps his easiest to read they are also in my view his least successful in many ways. That is he is reaching for explicit ethical application and I don’t think he quite makes it. But then I think that’s a problem with philosophical ethics in general.

  19. Here is an excerpt from an essay written by Harvey Fletcher, a respected Latter-day Saint scientist:

    This is a perfect example of applying an economic metaphor to gospel principles. He treats Joy as a commodity, and claims the purpose of life is to get more of it. The pursuit of Joy, however, incurs a cost in pain and sorrow. The assumption is clear: pain and sorrow are the opposites of Joy, and the purpose of life is the maximize the profit in Joy by minimizing the costs in sorrow. All other activities are either a hindrance or a means to this end. It seems to me as though this metaphor makes us into a kind of Celestial capitalist, where we are righteous because it pays off for us in the end.

    What if, as I said in an earlier comment (inspired by our delightful commenter, Clumpy), Joy was more of a character attribute than a commodity? What if it is the way we experience the world as we fulfill our obligations and live for the other? Is it possible that Joy and sorrow are not mutually exclusive, but that true sorrow may be a component or mode of Joy? Is it possible that God—arguably the Being who experiences the most Joy of all—experiences sorrow in the midst of that Joy? Passages from the Pearl of Great Price indicate that God experiences genuine and deep sorrow for the pains and sins of the world.

    In other words, what if Joy has less to do with how good or bad one feels, and more to do with how good or bad one is? Is it possible for someone to experience Joy in the midst of the worst trials and the deepest sorrows because Joy is the state of being righteous (regardless of the pleasantness of the circumstances, etc.)?

  20. I’m not sure we can say it is either a “commodity” or a character. I think even someone like Jesus would prefer to be hanging out with his family than being bull whipped and flailed half alive. Given that it seems that there’s a complex interplay between the two. Indeed I’d go so far as to say that it’s probably the border between the two.

  21. Altruism can be redefined according to whatever can eventually be found to be true about it.

    How does that preserve altruism? I could have misread the article, but it seems to me like saying, “Atheism doesn’t negate the existence of God. It just redefines ‘God’ as an idea in people’s heads. So you can be an atheist and still believe that God exists.”

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