The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Hedonism

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HEDONISM is the name applied to any system of ethics which regards pleasure or happiness as the chief good; as the good, that is, which makes all other goods desirable and to which they are all means. Not only money, health and the like are valuable merely as sources of happiness, but virtue itself has no better claim to independent worth. In fact, for most hedonists, virtue is the name given to that kind of action which long experience has shown to conduce to happiness. The most important of the many subdivisions of the theory is that which distinguishes psychological from ethical hedonism. According to the first, pleasure is the inevitable content of every choice. Even in those instances of self-sacrifice which seem the most radical contradiction of such a view, the exception is apparent rather than real. For the martyr, death is preferable to denial. If it were not pleasant to him, be would not and could not choose it. Ethical hedonism, on the other hand, makes the choice of pleasure a duty rather than a fact. The two have sometimes been regarded as incompatible, on the ground that what necessarily regulates choice cannot be exalted into an ideal; but the frequent inclusion of both in the same system may have a partial justification in the necessity for the rejection of certain pleasures and the acceptance of certain pains, if the greatest possible happiness is to be attained in the end.

A second division of the forms of hedonism is that between individual and universal, and is based upon the number of persons whose happiness constitutes the good. Individualistic hedonism regards the happiness of the man concerned as his own chief good, while that of other people is either a matter of indifference to him, or else is of importance merely because it forms one of the elements of his own happiness. Evidently psychological hedonism is necessarily individualistic, although its combinations with ethical hedonism have often made it present an appearance of universality not strictly compatible with its original assumptions. Although there are plenty of modern instances of individual hedonism, these do not differ in essentials from the classical forms presented by the Cyrenaicism of Aristippus (cr. 435-356 B.C.) and the Epicureanism that sprang from it (Epicurus 342 or 341-270 B.C.). Both Aristippus and Epicurus taught that individual enjoyment was the supreme good, but they differed in their conception of the nature of enjoyment and of the means by which it was to be obtained. Aristippus advocated seizing the pleasure of the moment, untroubled by regret for the past or dread of the future. Epicurus, while he also preached against fear and regret, maintained that the object of desire was a happy life rather than a succession of pleasant moments, an organized whole, not a mere sum. Another distinction between the conception of the two is found in the nature of the pleasurable state as described by each. For Aristippus its chief characteristic was excitement; for Epicurus, tranquillity; a difference that undoubtedly was largely responsible for the different means advocated by them. The later modifications of both theories show the well-known tendency of hedonism toward pessimism.

Universal hedonism was first brought markedly into notice by the Utilitarians, who found the supreme good, not in each man's own happiness but in happiness in general, usually expressed by the formula “the greatest good of the greatest number.” The moral worth of an action must be judged by the amount of happiness it will tend to bring about in the long run; and the consideration of all the different elements of intensity, length of time, certainty, possible complicating pain, and so forth, known as the hedonistic calculus, is associated with the name of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). John . Stuart Mill (1806-73), to whose clear and persuasive mode of statement the theory owes much of its popularity, added to it the distinction between quality and quantity in pleasure. With the exception of Mill, both ancient and modern hedonists have almost invariably regarded pleasures as differing from one another in quantity alone; he, on the contrary, maintained that their differences were primarily qualitative, and that quality must be considered in the conception of the chief good. An action is to be judged, not only from the amount, but from the kind of happiness it causes. Mill's view has met with much adverse criticism, based upon the contention that with qualitative differences in pleasure a non-hedonistic criterion has been introduced, which is inconsistent with the initial assumption of hedonism. The adoption of hedonism by the evolutionists, especially by Spencer, has given it a scientific basis, to which its present currency is partly due. Although the end in such systems is preservation, either of the individual or of the species, or of both, yet the actions best adapted to that end are accompanied by pleasure, and the animal to whom useful actions are painful, does not perform them and is in course of time eliminated. Actions found desirable in the history of the race come to have a feeling of obligation attached to them; and although at present end and means may to the individual consciousness seem incompatible, yet as man becomes better adapted to his environment, all virtuous, that is, useful, actions will bring pleasure directly as well as indirectly.

As a theory of ultimate value hedonism can, of course, be neither proved nor disproved. Its chief advantages are: (1) It provides a simple and self-consistent account of moral action. (2) It makes possible a closer union between ethics and natural science than that allowed by any other theory, and is able to make use of the constantly growing store of knowledge in biology, anthropology and ethnology. The most important objections brought against it are: (1) It confuses origin with value. (2) In regarding the moral end as constituted by feeling alone, it is psychologically inadequate, and psychologically false in so far as it views pleasure as the exclusive object of choice. See also Ethics; Utilitarianism.

Bibliography. — Wallace, W., ‘Epicureanism’; Mill, John Stuart, ‘Utilitarianism’; Spencer, Herbert, ‘The Principles of Ethics’; Sedgwick, Henry, ‘Methods of Ethics’; Palmer, J. C., ‘A Plea for Hedonism’ (Wooster 1903); Sedgwick, ‘The Methods of Ethics’ (6th ed., London 1901); Watson, ‘Hedonistic Theories from Aristippus to Spencer’ (Glasgow 1895); Zerbst, Max, ‘Die Philosophie der Freude’ (Leipzig 1904).

Grace Neal Dolson,
Professor of Philosophy, Wells College.