The Paradox of Hedonism

Written on July 26, 2009. Written by .

Human motivation is governed by two genetically-programmed features: the pleasure/pain mechanism and the illusion of ego-persistence.  The pleasure/pain mechanism is here to be understood in the broad sense of the “pleasantness”, positive or negative, of present experience. The illusion of ego-persistence is the programmed assumption that we have to be concerned about the future experiences of our body, despite the fact that there is no objective evidence that we are the same person we were yesterday. [Zen and Ego Persistence] These factors conspire to produce a natural morality known as rational hedonism. Hedonism means that the morality is based on the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, while the qualifier “rational” means that one’s course of action should be decided based on forecasting that takes into account future pleasure and pain.

To say that this is the natural morality of humans does not necessarily mean that all humans operate according to this morality. It is possible for the hedonizing process to be skewed by what Richard Dawkins would call a memetic infection, which is a belief that plants itself in a person’s mind and spreads among a population like a gene undergoing natural selection. Such a memetic infection might convince a person that certain courses of action are absolutely unacceptable. Then when a situation arises where they would have wanted to take the course of action if it weren’t for the infection, they won’t even take the opportunity to consider it. Thus the person can no longer act properly hedonistic. There is also the separate issue of distorted hedonism, where a memetic infection such as religion can cause a person to believe their ego-persistence will continue past the point of death. In this case, the person is still acting hedonistically, but using a distorted frame of reference.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines two terms with regard to hedonism, “Motivational hedonism is the claim that only pleasure or pain motivates us. … Normative hedonism is the claim that all and only pleasure has worth or value, and all and only pain has disvalue.” Both of these claims have been disputed, but it seems clear to me that both are true, as long as the concern for future pleasure and pain is among the implicit assumptions.

As mentioned above, I believe the confusion over motivational hedonism derives from the existence of mental blocks due to memetic infections. If these are accounted for, then it becomes clear that people don’t always act according to their motivations, and thus the apparently missing motivations are seen to be unnecessary.

As for normative hedonism, I think the confusion arises due to what is known as the Paradox of Hedonism. The paradox is based on the observation that the direct pursuit of pleasure is ineffective. Usually when we want something, the best approach is to get down to business and go get it. But when it comes to pleasure, this never seems to work as well as hoped. We think that we will be really happy after we accomplish some big goal, but when it happens we quickly adjust and have to start worrying about the next big goal. The paradox isn’t difficult to resolve, the answer is that we are all just really bad at predicting future happiness. We aren’t designed to be happy creatures. Our genes need to keep us somewhat discontent so we will continue striving to propagate them, both directly and through indirect means.

When we plan, strive, and grasp for more, we sometimes can improve our circumstances and increase our subjective life quality, but there is a strong bias in our psychology that counters this potentiality. The planning, striving, and grasping subconsciously create expectations and attachments that often constitute a larger liability for happiness than the opportunity for gain warrants. On the other hand, attachments can add richness to life. You might really enjoy making money and if you have an occupation where money comes easily, this could be a beneficial attachment. So it is a very personalized issue to decide what attachments are acceptable and to what extent those attachments should be allowed to grow.

However, there is one attachment that is universally bad: the attachment to subjective life quality. The only way an attachment can be good is if it causes you to gain pleasure when things go your way and the negative side doesn’t offset this gain entirely. But think about what happens when if you are attached to subjective life quality. When things go poorly, you feel even worse because your thoughts shift to your attachment and how you are failing at it. And when things go well, you are already experiencing pleasure, so if your thoughts shift to your attachment, you are passing up the benefit of the present experience.

This helps explain the paradox of hedonism. If you think to much about seeking pleasure, you become psychologically attached to the results (your subjective life quality), and as shown this can never be a beneficial attachment. Of course, our goal then should be to somehow beat the system and circumvent the paradox of hedonism. This mission has been attempted by probably every religion known to man, but they have all utilized some form of psychological distortion to gain their effect. This is not necessary, it is possible to circumvent the paradox of hedonism without the use of psychological distortion. One can be aware of the reasons why they are seemingly not hedonizing — because they are using an advanced hedonistic technique.

There are three famous hedonistic philosophies that can be used as guidance in avoiding the paradox of hedonism: Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Buddhism. Each of these comes with some mystical baggage, but there is still much to be learned from their ideas. The chart below shows their respective views on what is of fundamental value, what is instrumentally valuable (helps you attain fundamental valuable, but not valuable by itself), and what type attachments are advocated.

Epicureanism Stoicism Buddhism
Fundamental Pleasure/Pain Virtue Pain
Instrumental Virtue & Circumstance Circumstance Virtue
Attachments Simple Only None None

Much of the literature on these subjects is now in the public domain and can be accessed for free through the internet.

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7 Comments so far
  1. K October 16, 2009 4:50 am

    Hedonism in and of itself is fundamentally flawed. It’s living for oneself — living a selfish existence. Each decision is made based on what will and will not cause pleasure or pain for the individual.

    Contrarily, certain religions, such as Christianity, are a prime example of selflessness: Living for others regardless of the pain or pleasure it causes.

    How can hedonism evoke virtue (which, in essence, is entirely selfless) when you claim that “motivational” and “normative” hedonism are both true?

  2. cspice October 18, 2009 6:42 pm

    K, there are some implicit points to your argument which I would like to make explicit. It seems that you suggest virtue is good, and more fundamentally good than hedonism. I must then ask: why is virtue more fundamental than hedonism?

    Furthermore you say that virtue is entirely selfless. To this I again must ask: why is virtue entirely selfless?

  3. K October 18, 2009 6:51 pm

    Virtue is more fundamentally good than hedonism because it is Virtue’s nature to be Good (and with that, also selfless).

    And you ask why is Virtue entirely selfless: Selflessness is in Virtue’s very definition. It is Virtue’s nature to be selfless otherwise it would no longer be virtue.

    In contrast, hedonism seeks all the good in life, but only the good for oneself.

    Perhaps we should both gain common ground on the definition of Virtue before we continue in this vain, otherwise there’s no point in continuing.

    You’re cute, by the way. =P

  4. cspice October 20, 2009 6:14 pm

    K, It seems that you define virtue to be the fundamental good and define virtue to be selfless. The only way I can challenge this is by challenging the validity of these definitions. The problem I see stems from the fact that definitions should never make a statement about reality, they should merely provide labels for concepts and ideas. In this case, the combination of your two definitions makes the statement that “the fundamental good requires selflessness”, which is an assertion that should be grounded in reasoning rather than definition.

    Well then, release your identity =)

  5. K October 23, 2009 1:52 am


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  7. Hedonist September 4, 2010 4:38 pm

    K October,

    Ethical hedonism is simply the idea that pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically valuable and stress is the only thing that is intrinsically disvaluable. There are egotistical hedonists (concerned primarily with their own pleasure) and altruistic hedonists (concerned with everybody’s pleasure).

    To empathize with someone is to identify with their emotional state of mind. If all moral decisions were based on empathy alone, one would naturally adopt altruistic hedonism as a world view since the emotional well-being of others (rather than knowledge, preference, autonomy etc.) would be their only concern.

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