Welfare as the Maximum of Pleasure

23 Nov

At the opposite extreme from intellectualism is the ethical theory called hedonism, a word derived from the Greek term hedone, which means pleasure. Hedonism maintains that pleasure alone is ultimately good and unpleasure alone is ultimately evil; and since pleasure and unpleasure are feelings, it maintains that feelings are the sole locus of ultimate value.


In the Occident, hedonism has flourished from the time of Democritus (circa 460-362 B.C.) until the present day.  In the early part of the fourth century B.C. Arisippus of Cyrene, a pupil of Socrates, founded a school of hedonism which maintained that the pleasure of the moment is alone worthy of consideration. Epicurus, who went to Athens in 306 B.C., established a much more famous school of hedonism, which flourished for nine centuries.  Unlike Aristippus, whose motto was, “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” Epicurus believed that pleasure and the avoidance of pain could best be attained by a simple austere life, in which more emphasis is put upon the avoidance of evil that the attainment of good.  Typical of his viewpoint are these words from one of his letters


By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul.  It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of revelry, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest tumults take possession of the soul.*


In the Middle ages, hedonism suffered an eclipse, but it reappeared with the revival of classical learning in the Renaissance.  In England, where it enjoyed its greatest vogue, it was represented in various degrees and in diverse manners by a great succession of philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick.  It is less widely held today than it was in the nineteenth century, but is has been represented in this century by many thinkers, including such American philosophers as Durant Drake,F. C. Sharp, William Savery, and Curt John Ducasse.  It is still being vigorously advocated by men of great ability, and it still requires a hearing.

Among the modern proponents of hedonism, one of the most important and typical was Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), founder of the important philosophical movement called Utilitarianism and the equally important political movement called Radicalism.  The keynote to his philosophy is struck in the opening sentences of his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation:


Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine wht we shall do. Ont he one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other hand the chain of causes and effects are fastened to their throne.**

On the occasion of every act he exercises, every human being is led to pursue that line of conduct which, according to his view of the case, taken by him at the moment, will be in the highest degree contributory to his greatest happiness.***

* Letters to Menoecceus, Hicks’ translation, in Gordon H. Clark and T. V. Smith, Readings in Ethics, Crofts, New York, 1935, p. 91.

** An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Hafner, New York, 1948, p.1.

*** The Works of Jeremy Bentham, VOL. IX, W.  Tait. Edinburgh, 1943, p. 4.


Ethics and Society: An Appraisal of Social Ideals


Melvin Rader (Greenwood Press Publishers, New York 1968 Copyright 1950 By Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc) p. 176-178



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