Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure and happiness are the primary or most important intrinsic goods and the proper aim of human life. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain), but when having finally gained that pleasure, either through intrinsic or extrinsic goods, happiness remains stationary.

Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them. It is also the idea that every person's pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good.

Hedonism is a sub-philosophy of utilitarianism, which says to act in a way that maximizes utility. Hedonists equate pleasure with utility and believe that pleasure is the master of all humankind, and acts as the ultimate life goal. Hedonists believe that there are only two motivators of human action, pleasure and pain, and that decisions should only be made that further our pleasurable experiences and minimize or completely eliminate our painful ones.

Etymology and lexicon

The name derives from the Greek word for "delight" (ἡδονισμός hēdonismos from ἡδονή hēdonē "pleasure", cognate with English sweet + suffix -ισμός -ismos "ism"). An extremely strong aversion to hedonism is hedonophobia.

History of development

Sumerian civilization

In the original Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written soon after the invention of writing, Siduri gave the following advice "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night [...] These things alone are the concern of men", which may represent the first recorded advocacy of a hedonistic philosophy.

Ancient Egypt

Scenes of a harper entertaining guests at a feast was common in ancient Egyptian tombs (see Harper's Songs), and sometimes contained hedonistic elements, calling guests to submit to pleasure because they cannot be sure that they will be rewarded for good with a blissful afterlife. The following is a song attributed to the reign of one of the Pharoahs around the time of the 12th dynasty, and the text was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties.

Let thy desire flourish,
In order to let thy heart forget the beatifications for thee.
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee,
Being anointed with genuine marvels of the gods' property.
Set an increase to thy good things;
Let not thy heart flag.
Follow thy desire and thy good.
Fulfill thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart,
Until there come for thee that day of mourning.

Classic schools of antiquity

Democritus seems to be the earliest philosopher on record to have categorically embraced a hedonistic philosophy; he called the supreme goal of life "contentment" or "cheerfulness", claiming that "joy and sorrow are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful" (DK 68 B 188).

The Cyrenaic school

The Cyrenaics were an ultra-hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BC, supposedly by Aristippus of Cyrene, although many of the principles of the school are believed to have been formalized by his grandson of the same name, Aristippus the Younger. The school was so called after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus. It was one of the earliest Socratic schools. The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain, but positively enjoyable sensations. Of these, momentary pleasures, especially physical ones, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory. They did, however, recognize the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be gained from altruism. Theodorus the Atheist was a latter exponent of hedonism who was a disciple of younger Aristippus, while becoming well known for expounding atheism. The school died out within a century, and was replaced by Epicureanism.

The Cyrenaics were known for their skeptical theory of knowledge. They reduced logic to a basic doctrine concerning the criterion of truth. They thought that we can know with certainty our immediate sense-experiences (for instance, that I am having a sweet sensation now) but can know nothing about the nature of the objects that cause these sensations (for instance, that the honey is sweet). They also denied that we can have knowledge of what the experiences of other people are like. All knowledge is immediate sensation. These sensations are motions which are purely subjective, and are painful, indifferent or pleasant, according as they are violent, tranquil or gentle. Further they are entirely individual, and can in no way be described as constituting absolute objective knowledge. Feeling, therefore, is the only possible criterion of knowledge and of conduct. Our ways of being affected are alone knowable. Thus the sole aim for everyone should be pleasure.

Cyrenaicism deduces a single, universal aim for all people which is pleasure. Furthermore, all feeling is momentary and homogeneous. It follows that past and future pleasure have no real existence for us, and that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind. Socrates had spoken of the higher pleasures of the intellect; the Cyrenaics denied the validity of this distinction and said that bodily pleasures, being more simple and more intense, were preferable. Momentary pleasure, preferably of a physical kind, is the only good for humans. However some actions which give immediate pleasure can create more than their equivalent of pain. The wise person should be in control of pleasures rather than be enslaved to them, otherwise pain will result, and this requires judgement to evaluate the different pleasures of life. Regard should be paid to law and custom, because even though these things have no intrinsic value on their own, violating them will lead to unpleasant penalties being imposed by others. Likewise, friendship and justice are useful because of the pleasure they provide. Thus the Cyrenaics believed in the hedonistic value of social obligation and altruistic behaviour.


Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341–c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus and Leucippus. His materialism led him to a general stance against superstition or the idea of divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable "pleasure" in the form of a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.

In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived but had a unique version of the Golden Rule.

It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing "neither to harm nor be harmed"), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.

Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes and Ercolano). The poet Lucretius is its most known Roman proponent. By the end of the Roman Empire, having undergone Christian attack and repression, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.

Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.


Mohism was a Chinese philosophical school of thought founded by Mo Ti or "Mozi" in the 5th century BC. It paralleled the utilitarianism later developed by English thinkers. It brought importance to the idea of universal love and extending love and kindness to all of mankind. As Confucianism became the preferred philosophy of later Chinese dynasties, starting from the Emperor Wu of Han, Mohism and other non-Confucian philosophical schools of thought were suppressed.


Judaism believes that mankind was created for pleasure, as God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—Eden being the Hebrew word for "pleasure." In recent years, Rabbi Noah Weinberg articulated five different levels of pleasure; connecting with God is the highest possible pleasure.

Christian hedonism


Concept of hedonism is also found in the Hindu scriptures.


Utilitarianism addresses problems with moral motivation neglected by Kantianism by giving a central role to happiness. It is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall good of the society. It is thus one form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its resulting outcome. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be the 18th and 19th-century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Conjoining hedonism—as a view as to what is good for people—to utilitarianism has the result that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest total amount of happiness (see Hedonic calculus). Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill's versions of hedonism differ. There are two somewhat basic schools of thought on hedonism:

  • One school, grouped around Bentham, defends a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood. Essentially, he believed the value of pleasure to be its intensity multiplied by its duration - so it was not just the number of pleasures, but their intensity and how long they lasted that must be taken into account.
  • Other proponents, like Mill, argue a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there can be different levels of pleasure - higher quality pleasure is better than lower quality pleasure. Mill also argues that simpler beings (he often refers to pigs) have an easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they do not see other aspects of life, they can simply indulge in their lower pleasures. The more elaborate beings tend to spend more thought on other matters and hence lessen the time for simple pleasure. It is therefore more difficult for them to indulge in such "simple pleasures" in the same manner.

Contemporary approaches

Contemporary proponents of hedonism include Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö, Fred Feldman. and Spanish ethic philosopher Esperanza Guisán (published a "Hedonist manifesto" in 1990).

Michel Onfray

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Michel Onfray, contemporary hedonist philosopher

A dedicated contemporary hedonist philosopher and writer on the history of hedonistic thought is the French Michel Onfray. He has written two books directly on the subject (L'invention du plaisir : fragments cyréaniques and La puissance d'exister : Manifeste hédoniste). He defines hedonism "as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else." Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent -- while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions."

Onfray's works "have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sex and sensuality, bioethics, wine, and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy," of which three have been published. For him "In opposition to the ascetic ideal advocated by the dominant school of thought, hedonism suggests identifying the highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other. Obtaining this balance – my pleasure at the same time as the pleasure of others – presumes that we approach the subject from different angles – political, ethical, aesthetic, erotic, bioethical, pedagogical, historiographical…."

For this he has "written books on each of these facets of the same world view." His philosophy aims for "micro-revolutions", or "revolutions of the individual and small groups of like-minded people who live by his hedonistic, libertarian values."


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David Pearce, transhumanist philosopher

The Abolitionist Society is a transhumanist group calling for the abolition of suffering in all sentient life through the use of advanced biotechnology. Their core philosophy is negative utilitarianism. David Pearce is a theorist of this perspective and he believes and promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as "paradise engineering". A transhumanist and a vegan, Pearce believes that we (or our future posthuman descendants) have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animals within human society but also to alleviate the suffering of animals in the wild.

In a talk David Pearce gave at the Future of Humanity Institute and at the Charity International 'Happiness Conference' he said "Sadly, what won't abolish suffering, or at least not on its own, is socio-economic reform, or exponential economic growth, or technological progress in the usual sense, or any of the traditional panaceas for solving the world's ills. Improving the external environment is admirable and important; but such improvement can't recalibrate our hedonic treadmill above a genetically constrained ceiling. Twin studies confirm there is a [partially] heritable set-point of well-being - or ill-being - around which we all tend to fluctuate over the course of a lifetime. This set-point varies between individuals. [It's possible to lower an individual's hedonic set-point by inflicting prolonged uncontrolled stress; but even this re-set is not as easy as it sounds: suicide-rates typically go down in wartime; and six months after a quadriplegia-inducing accident, studies suggest that we are typically neither more nor less unhappy than we were before the catastrophic event.] Unfortunately, attempts to build an ideal society can't overcome this biological ceiling, whether utopias of the left or right, free-market or socialist, religious or secular, futuristic high-tech or simply cultivating one's garden. Even if everything that traditional futurists have asked for is delivered - eternal youth, unlimited material wealth, morphological freedom, superintelligence, immersive VR, molecular nanotechnology, etc - there is no evidence that our subjective quality of life would on average significantly surpass the quality of life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors - or a New Guinea tribesman today - in the absence of reward pathway enrichment. This claim is difficult to prove in the absence of sophisticated neuroscanning; but objective indices of psychological distress e.g. suicide rates, bear it out. Unenhanced humans will still be prey to the spectrum of Darwinian emotions, ranging from terrible suffering to petty disappointments and frustrations - sadness, anxiety, jealousy, existential angst. Their biology is part of "what it means to be human". Subjectively unpleasant states of consciousness exist because they were genetically adaptive. Each of our core emotions had a distinct signalling role in our evolutionary past: they tended to promote behaviours that enhanced the inclusive fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment."

Hedonism as a scientific basis for long-term future forecasting

Russian physicist and philosopher Victor Argonov argues that hedonism is not only a philosophical but also a verifiable scientific hypothesis. In 2014 he suggested "postulates of pleasure principle" confirmation of which would lead to a new scientific discipline, hedodynamics. Hedodynamics would be able to forecast the distant future development of human civilization and even the probable structure and psychology of other rational beings within the universe. In order to build such a theory, science must discover the neural correlate of pleasure - neurophysiological parameter unambiguously corresponding to the feeling of pleasure (hedonic tone).

According to Argonov, posthumans will be able to reprogram their motivations in an arbitrary manner (to get pleasure from any programmed activity). And if pleasure principle postulates are true, then general direction of civilization development is obvious: maximization of integral happiness in posthuman life (product of life span and average happiness). Posthumans will avoid constant pleasure stimilation, because it is incompatible with rational behavior required to prolong life. However, in average, they can become much happier than modern humans.

Many other aspects of posthuman society can be predicted by hedodynamics if neural correlate of pleasure will be discovered. For example, optimal number of individuals, their optimal body size (whether it matters for happiness or not) and the degree of aggression.


Critics of hedonism have objected to its exclusive concentration on pleasure as valuable.

In particular, G. E. Moore offered a thought experiment in criticism of pleasure as the sole bearer of value: he imagined two worlds—one of exceeding beauty and the other a heap of filth. Neither of these worlds will be experienced by anyone. The question, then, is if it is better for the beautiful world to exist than the heap of filth. In this Moore implied that states of affairs have value beyond conscious pleasure, which he said spoke against the validity of hedonism.

See also

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