Hedonism

The late American cartoonist Charles M. Schulz was once quoted saying, “Happiness is a warm puppy.”  While Mr. Schulz was able to give happiness a pretty simple definition, it wasn’t far off from another definition given by ancient philosophers centuries ago.  A good life is generally one that is filled with intrinsically good things.  Autonomy, love, and puppies are a few examples of these types of things.  A Hedonist would make the argument for another type of value.  According to Hedonists, a life is good to the extent that it is filled with pleasure and void of pain.  In other words, a life with lots of happiness and little pain is the best kind of life.  While happiness has value in its self, there are many ways to attain it.  The methods we use to attain happiness are called instrumental goods.  Hedonism allows instrumental goods to be chosen subjectively depending on ones own personal preferences.  This allows the individual to use any method or tool available to them to gain happiness.  If the aim is to achieve happiness, a strict hedonist would accept it.  On the point of sadness, hedonist don’t like it.  The entire philosophy behind hedonism is to prompt folks to live a happy life and do everything to avoid sadness.  Misery, pain, sadness, and possibly in the case of Mr.Schulz, cats, all hamper a good life and are therefore all things to avoid.

The best argument that supports hedonism is a subjective one.  No two bad lives are the same, and no two good lives are the same either.  What are the people with good lives doing differently than the ones with normal or bad lives?  The difference is not necessarily an action being committed, but rather the composition of ones life.  The folks with good lives have more pleasure and happiness in them, while the bad lives contain more misery and pain.  When asked how to achieve the good life there is no simple answer.  Humans are all different and varying and are therefore varied in their preferences and biases. Hedonism fits the varied nature of humans by allowing flexibility in the search for happiness.  In a more literal fashion, you are the leading expert on your own happiness.  Hedonism’s greatest strength comes from the fact that it doesn’t prescribe a cookie cutter happiness for everyone to fit into.  Individuals are able to be just that, individual. The best activity for a human being is the one that will bring them the greatest amount of happiness.  If art, or money, or philosophy brings you happiness then you should do those things.  Due to the nature of happy sources being widely varied, it allows many variations on how to live the good life.

The greatest critique of hedonism comes from the same argument.  If my happiness is determined by me alone and no one else, who is to say that kicking cats is an immoral thing to do if I get warm bubbly feelings about it?  I define my own pleasures and am entitled under a hedonist point of view to do those things that make me happy.  The issue comes in when the ASPCA plays those terrible commercials telling me what brings me happiness is wrong.  The government doesn’t let me treat cats in the way I wish and even fine or imprison me for such actions.  I have lost my autonomy to act in the way I deem best for me.  I value my autonomy about as much as my happiness.  Hedonism holds that happiness is the only intrinsic thing of value, but critics demonstrate that our freedom and autonomy are of equal value.  If there are other things of intrinsic worth, then hedonism has some major flaws.

In my own personal view, I believe hedonism to be mostly correct.  As I strive to live the good life, I often define the direction of my life in simple terms.  My life is good if I am happy or have lots of pleasure.  My life is bad if I have little happiness and have pain or misery.  Those are the basic facts about how hedonism effects my life.  As a Latter-Day Saint I can especially appreciate the self governance that hedonism gives me to live my life.  Due to what I would deem the deteriorating morals of today’s society, I can chose to find my happiness in ways that are not main stream.  I can be happy without alcohol, drugs, pornography, and pre-marital sex.  Hedonism allows me to follow my own path rather than the road the world is taking.  The argument is made that freedom is in of itself a thing of value, and that hedonism must be false because of this.  I would counter with a statement by John Stuart Mill that explains, “…all desirable things are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion of pleasure and the prevention of pain.”  Freedom has no value in itself without attaching to happiness.  I have freedom, but my life is no better because of it.  When I attach freedom to happiness and make it an instrument to attaining pleasure, then I have something of worth.  That and most other things we come across in life, are means to either attaining happiness, or misery.  Places with less freedom than I experience are still able to attain a good life by other means.  I hold to the notion that while no philosophy is without its own fair share of paradoxes and dilemmas, hedonism is the best philosophy to explain how to achieve a good life.

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