In the world of ancient moral philosophy, there were two very different schools of hedonism. They agreed on the fundamental principle of hedonism, namely, that feelings of pleasure are the only intrinsically good things in the world and feelings of pain the only intrinsically bad things.
All other things that we call good (wealth, health, freedom, good looks, power, fame, etc.) are good in an instrumental way only; that is, they are good insofar as they lead to pleasure. And all other things that we call bad (poverty, illness, slavery, vice, ugliness, weakness, obscurity, etc.) are bad in an instrumental way only; that is, they are bad insofar as they lead to pain.
It follows from this that moral goodness, then, is not truly good; it is good only to the degree it leads to pleasure. And moral badness is not truly bad; it is bad only to the degree that it leads to pain.
But the two schools disagreed on what counted as pleasure and pain.
One school (the Cyrenaics) held that bodily pleasures (e.g., the pleasures of food, drink, and sex) are better than mental pleasures (e.g., the pleasures of studying geometry or reading The Iliad) because they are, at least for the moment, more pleasant.
The other school (the Epicureans) reversed this, holding that mental pleasures are better than bodily pleasures because they are less mixed with pain and are (or at least can be) more long-lasting. The Epicurean would concede that a good meal and a few cups of wine are more immediately pleasurable than a good book; but the pleasures of wine and a good meal are brief and are often followed by indigestion or a hangover, whereas the pleasure that comes from reading Homer is long lasting and gives us neither indigestion nor a hangover.
Another difference between the two schools was that the Cyrenaics recognized three possible mental states, pleasure, pain, and a neutral state of neither pleasure nor pain; whereas the Epicureans recognized only two mental states, pleasure and pain.
As for the neutral state, the Epicureans counted that as pleasure; everything, then, that was not painful was counted as pleasure. And the greatest of all pleasures was peace of mind, which, unlike the pleasures of food and drink and sex, could last for years on end with no painful side effects.
If you were a Cyrenaic you might, if you were lucky, accumulate a great number of short-term pleasures during your life; but it would be difficult for you to live a life that was pleasant in an overall way, for the average person experiences an immense number of pains, both big and small, in the course of a lifetime.
One Cyrenaic professor in Alexandria, seeing that for the average person bodily pains outnumber bodily pleasures, concluded that most people would be better off if they had never been born, and those who have been unlucky enough to get born would be better off dead. (When a rash of suicides resulted from his teaching, the authorities in Alexandria fired him. The poor man didn’t have tenure.)
The Epicurean way of life was not so much a pleasure-seeking life as a pain-avoiding life. In time, it became the predominant form of philosophical hedonism, as philosophers recognized that a life of wine, women (or boys: this was the ancient world, remember), and song was impractical in the long run; while it was quite possible, though perhaps not easy, to live a life that was predominantly free of worry, fear, and anxiety.
Well, I think something like that ancient transition from a positive hedonism that pursues pleasure to a negative hedonism that avoids pain has happened, or is currently happening, in the modern world. The early form of modern hedonism was utilitarianism, which sought the “greatest happiness of the greatest number.” The contemporary form of hedonism is moral liberalism, which holds that we may do as we wish, provided we do no harm to others.
It turns out, unfortunately for people unlucky enough to live under the rule of utilitarian social planners, that these planners (even planners of some talent like Lenin and Mao) are not awfully good at making arrangements for the happiness of hundreds of millions of people. In fact, quite the opposite. And so a certain skepticism has developed as to the possibility of social planners (that is, government officials) re-arranging society so that the average person can lead a happy life.
I don’t say that belief in this possibility has totally disappeared. Far from it. In our midst in the United States there are still people (they call themselves progressives: they might better be called latter-day Leninists) who believe it is possible that a good and wise government (that is, a government staffed with people like themselves) can make people happy.
But there are other modern hedonists (the negative kind) who, doubting the possibility of planning social happiness, have concluded that the best we can do is diminish suffering, which can be done in two ways: first, by not causing it; second, by relieving it when we run across it.
This attitude bears a superficial resemblance to Christian morality – with the unfortunate result that unwary Christians often make the great mistake of thinking that this quite secular (even atheistic) attitude is identical with Christian ethics. Thus, we often find sincere Catholics endorsing homosexuality and abortion, since refusing to endorse them leads to pain for many homosexual persons and pregnant young women.
This kind of hedonism, this anti-pain kind, leads to what is (I think) the predominant theory of morality in America today, the theory that says, “We are free to do whatever we wish provided we cause no evident pain to others.” The trouble with this theory is not a small one: sooner or later, it will cause the moral disintegration of American society.
And this disintegration, we can see, is already well advanced.
*Image: The Pursuit of Pleasure by Joseph Noel Paton, 1848 [Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT]
You may also enjoy:
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Pleasures
Michael Pakaluk’s The Pursuit of Happiness