On Hedonism

December 20, 2014

"The bigger the bill, the harder you ball
Well I'm throwing mine, cause my money long
The quicker you here, the faster you go
That's why where I come from the only thing we know is

Work hard, play hard"

-- Wiz Khalifa ("Work Hard, Play Hard") [1]

What does Hedonism mean to you? Perhaps the first things that come to mind will be sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. Or indeed, money, hoes and dro. This is surely a hedonistic way of living life. But is this, in fact, everything that hedonism can mean, and is hedonism an immature and irresponsible way to live life - suited best to rockstars and other self-destructive types?

I say no. Hedonism is a simple idea, and not at all limited to base and unworthy pleasures. It specifies one rule: the more pleasure, the better.[2] What constitutes pleasure is up to you to decide. It is not specified that pleasure now is more valuable than pleasure later, nor is it necessarily specified that one type of pleasure is better than another. One thing that it does say is that the moral qualities of a pleasure cannot be invoked to justify it being better than another [3]. Either it eventually produces more pleasure or it doesn't.

The associations of a pleasure - with intellectualism, with culture, or indeed with depravity, are irrelevant. This is important, as we are often able to fool ourselves into thinking we like things for external reasons - such as to signal loyalty to a group, or to signal our own (self-perceived) qualities. In Freudian (psycho-analytical) terms, these are the actions of the super-ego. But, as we live in different times to Freud, we do not experience the same types of social judgements and self-censorship.

We live in a post-modern world and that means that we no longer have the taboos and judgements of previous times. The values we are judged against are less specific and less numerous but no less demanding [4]. The primary directives we have now are to 'enjoy' and to 'be permissive'. Notions of duty are much less important; to get a good job, to find a nice partner, etc, are no longer specified as inherent goals but only as instrumental goals. More important is to enjoy yourself - to travel, to do everything in Time Out [5], to have many friends and perhaps many partners [6].

None of these values are necessarily problematic by themselves. But it is how we react to them that is an issue. This permissiveness weighs on us as an obligation [7]. We are required to do these all things to make sure we are having a good time; we do not just do them because we want to do so but rather because this is what we must do to be living a 'good life'. And this leads back to the subject I initially wanted to address, which is how we go about judging the relevance of different types of pleasure in hedonism.

The first thing we must acknowledge is that different people have different natures and therefore the value of a particular pleasure will have a different worth depending on the person. A physical object - a piece of cake, say - will always be experienced differently by different people. Each will see it with his own eyes, bring his own associations and will taste it differently (even if each is equally hungry). So we see there cannot be a perfect set of pleasures which are the 'highest' set, which everyone should try to engage in and eschew the rest. And by the same token, the sets of pleasures which are the most extreme, the most exotic, the most varied [8] too cannot be the 'best' set of pleasures.

This is something I have really struggled with. There is this notion, a naive notion in fact, that a cake is more tasty than a carrot. So, it is only because cake is so unhealthy that people don't eat it all the time. But, this categorization of food is profoundly damaging. Because a carrot can also be enjoyable, given the right circumstances. I don't like even to say that one is more enjoyable than the other, because they are quite different types of pleasure. What I can say is that, for myself at least, there are many times when I would prefer to eat a carrot than a piece of cake. I don't choose to eat them because they're healthy, but because they taste good!

We can extend this and apply this same principle much much more widely. There exists this notion that some things are 'fun' and some things are 'good'. So if, for example, you will visit an art museum, people will assume that you do not do so as a hedonist but as a 'cultured person'. In other words you are a person that wishes to develop himself in some way - perhaps intellectually, culturally, or however else. And I say no! This is a more subtle sort of experience than a nightclub for sure - but this doesn't undermine it as an experience to be valued purely as a hedonist.

This pleasure simply belongs to a different mode of hedonism - where the visual stimulation from the artworks is gratifying, as is the feeling of insight and stimulation of ideas that it engenders. Even if the ideas don't persist for long, and even if they never have any chance of going anywhere, it is irrelevant. It is quite possible just to enjoy the experience as a hedonist and there needs to be no larger purpose than that.


  1. If you enjoy the motif of introducing an essay with a Hip Hop quote, then you absolutely should read Ben Horowitz's writing.
  2. This sometimes includes the proviso to respect the rights of others to do the same (see below).
  3. The relationship between self and other is a little more complicated in hedonism. We must position ourselves between two poles: as a selfish agent we should only provide pleasure to other in order that we can experience pleasure (and not harm) ourselves. The ethical (but not always achievable) position is that we should treat our pleasure as equal in importance to that of every other person. These are not so far away as they seem as bad actions give "bad karma" - mental stress and (generally) more likelihood of future suffering. However, there does exist here some measure of traditional morality that we can live up to or not.
  4. Because - although cultural values have changed, basic psychology has not changed. The super-ego/self-censoring function is as significant to the brain as it ever was.
  5. For the unknowing, Time Out is a free magazine that tells you about all the new restaurants, art, events and nightlife.
  6. But, still (perhaps) not too many partners. The point that is being made is that it is better to have too many than too few.
  7. This borrows some themes of the philosopher Slavoj Zizkek. For a starting point: one, two
  8. It is not at all clear to me that this adjective is even well-defined in this context.