PHIL 151: Human Nature, TA Clint Jones
February 25, 2002
Part I: Introduction
Have you ever stopped and marveled at the sheer extent of human knowledge? Just think about it for a moment. Over the millennia, mankind has developed highly complex systems of reasoning that have laid countless mysteries plain before the intellect. Science has harnessed the power of the atom, reworked the fabric of life, and even given birth to artificial intelligence. Philosophy has probed the deeper workings of the universe, answering those questions which, by virtue of their profundity, lie beyond the reach of science. One might justly postulate that, between science and philosophy, all knowledge can be garnished.
Unfortunately, such does not appear to be the case. Despite the vast store of knowledge at our disposal, it seems quite ironic that mankind has yet to answer the most immediate of questions: Why do we do the things we do? This question, while somewhat over-simplified, forms the basis for a very broad and uncertain area of inquiry, namely, the study of human nature. Common sense tells us that human nature would be a simple thing to explain. After all, aren’t we endowed with the answer to such a question simply by being human? As any philosopher or scientist worth a grain of salt will tell you, common sense couldn’t be more wrong.
This paper is of nowhere near the scope necessary to do proper justice to the plethora of theories surrounding human nature. Indeed, no written work of any reasonable size could even come close to accomplishing such a feat. Instead, I will focus on what is perhaps the simplest of theories regarding human nature, that of hedonism. Both scientific and philosophical findings will be presented, after which we will, with any luck, reach a logical conclusion. So, without further ado…
Part II: Definition
A short definition of hedonism is a relatively simple matter. The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus defines it as, “belief in pleasure as the highest good and the proper aim of humans” (Abate 361). On cursory inspection, this seems sufficient. A hedonist is a person who seeks pleasure because he believes it is the only goal worth pursuing. However, for the purposes of this paper, a great deal more explanation is required.
What, exactly, does hedonism fully entail? This is the only sort of definition that will be satisfactory. One might begin by examining Cicero, who investigates pleasure as, “the final and ultimate good,” which is, “the end to which everything is the means, but it is not itself the means to anything” (CP 1). Herein we can find the foremost principle of hedonism: Pleasure is the ultimate motive of every action. In performed anything (or abstaining from activity, which is an action unto itself), hedonism holds that one only does so in the pursuit of pleasure.
This seems to be quite a philosophical leap. Obviously it is still not sufficient. Two areas in particular remain to be clarified. Firstly, what exactly does the hedonist mean by the word “pleasure”? Most human beings would take the meaning for granted, since it is something we all experience. However, as you’ll soon see, the ambiguity of pleasure is a weakness used to criticize hedonism, and thus useful to clarify. Secondly, how does hedonism work in practice? Some situations seem obvious contradictions to such a theory; how does the hedonist reasonably explain away these situations?
With regards to the definition of pleasure, Joel Feinberg (ironically one of hedonism’s greatest critics) defines two primary categories: pleasurable sensation and mental satisfaction (CP 13). Little explanation of these divisions is required or, for that matter, possible without reference to real-life examples. Suffice to say that pleasurable sensations are directly derived from the five senses while mental satisfaction is derived from the mind. For the time being and out of convenience, this dualist perspective of the mind-body relationship will be assumed.
Thus, to recap, hedonism is the belief that pleasurable sensation and/or mental satisfaction are the ultimate motives for every action. To complete our description, then, we need only detail the implications of hedonism outside of a theoretical framework to see whether or not it appears valid.
Part III: Justification
As with most theories of its kind, hedonism sounds perfectly reasonable. It is especially attractive for a number of reasons, such as its simplicity. After all, the principle of parsimony holds that the simpler of any two theories is to be preferred (Reber 541). However, reason alone cannot sufficiently justify hedonism without reference to real-life situations.
It seems obvious that most decisions can be attributed to pleasure expectancies. If one chooses one course of action over another, it is most often because one believes it will yield a greater degree of pleasure. One can, of course, reverse this principle with regards to pain. One is more likely to choose a course of action if one expects it to yield a lesser degree of pain. Given these two hedonistic derivatives, one can extend hedonism somewhat by saying that the greatest overall pleasure, or the expectation of such, provides the greatest motivation.
Now, there are a number of situations that cast doubt on this principle. First and foremost, how can hedonism explain a person who turns down an immediate source of pleasure, such a fine cuisine, alcohol, or sexual activity? Surely, if hedonism holds true, any person would be motivated to partake of such pleasures. This is indeed the case. Again I refer to Cicero, who states that, “No pleasure is something bad per se; but the causes of some pleasures produce stresses many times greater than the pleasures” (CP 2). Thus, a person who chooses to forego immediate sources of pleasure must be doing so because he/she expects a greater amount of pain or discomfort (or a decreased amount of future pleasure) as a result. The cuisine might be very expensive, detracting from the possibility of other pleasures; the alcohol might cause intoxication, leading to any number of unpleasant scenarios; the sexual activity might lead to highly undesirable social situations; etc., etc. Thus, even when turning down its immediate sources, the greatest pleasure remains the ultimate motive. As Epicurus states, “Every pleasure… is something good, yet not every pleasure is choiceworthy” (CP 2).
Of course, humanity often claims to have “higher” motives toward action. Morality in particular offers hedonism a quandary. The purported selflessness of moral action seems to preclude hedonism, as the initiator garnishes no apparent pleasure. Is morality, then, a contender to pleasure as man’s sole motivator?
Hedonism again offers us a viable answer. Setting aside the notion of unconscious desires, it is altogether reasonable to say that morality is derived from hedonism. On the one hand, moral actions are often praised and rewarded, which most people would think of as intrinsically pleasurable. On the other hand, a lapse in moral action is often followed by a period of guilt. The human conscience intervenes on the offender, punishing him/her with altogether unpleasant feelings. Therefore, moral action in most situations can be seen to derive its motivation from hedonism.
There are, of course, many other objections to hedonism. For the moment, however, it is sufficient to state that hedonism is a highly adaptable theory of human behavior that can offer adequate explanations for almost any action. Let us now examine the most convincing arguments against hedonism to see whether or not it can stay its ground.
Part IV: Contention
One of the most eloquent critics of hedonism (or, as he defines it, “psychologically egoistic hedonism”) is Joel Feinberg. From his book entitled Moral Philosophy, Feinberg offers extensive and convincing arguments against hedonism. In the book, Feinberg begins by asserting that hedonism is over-generalized and lacks sufficient empirical evidence. He describes hedonism as “vaguely formulated” and “virtually incapable of scientific testing” (CP 8). Dismissing it as a scientific theory, he goes on to attack it from a philosophical perspective.
One of Feinberg’s primary arguments refutes the idea of pleasure as the ultimate motivator. Pleasure, according to Feinberg’s logic, is not always the result of one’s actions and therefore cannot feasibly be regarded as the universal goal. He claims that pleasure is more like an “extra dividend” that generally accompanies a fulfilled desire (CP 9). What Feinberg fails to realize, however, is that one’s expectation of pleasure, rather than the pleasure itself, provides the motivation. It is true that some desires, once fulfilled, give us “the bitter taste of ashes,” but the motivation for such desires would not be present if that was the presupposed outcome (CP 10).
Following in a similar string, Feinberg points out the impossibility of desiring pleasure on its own. In stating, “The way to achieve happiness is to pursue something else,” Feinberg argues that pleasure is not itself the object of any desire but merely the consequence. One need only ask a simple question to see the fallacy of his logic: If pleasure were never the consequence of any desire, would the desires ever exist to begin with? That is to say, if the object of every desire failed to evoke any pleasure when achieved, would the object still be desired? Any reasonable person will readily note that Feinberg uses this argument erroneously to refute hedonism.
At this point in his arguments, Feinberg takes a slight detour to discuss moral education. He mentions that “the man who does the moral thing” for purely hedonistic reasons “is not likely to be wholly trustworthy,” and that “Moral education is… successful when it produces persons who are willing to do the right thing simply because it is right” (CP 14). This, naturally, leads one to conclude that Feinberg thinks there is a difference.
This assertion more than any other is easily refutable by science. According to his studies of moral development in children, Jean Piaget discovered that children almost universally begin their lives following hedonistic morality. Research with feral children and otherwise undisciplined youths (e.g. Helen Keller) supports this hypothesis. The findings show that morality begins in principles of operant conditioning, after which point they may indeed develop to a higher degree of complexity. Given this, it is quite unreasonable for one to say that the most moral person ever does something “simply because it is right,” as his/her morality is intrinsically formed out of hedonistic ideals.
Feinberg’s final argument, intended to “put that form of psychological egoism to rest once and for all” revolves around the aforementioned ambiguity of pleasure (CP 14). Feinberg offers several examples demonstrating that neither pleasurable sensation nor mental satisfaction can ever reasonably motivate every action by itself. What Feinberg fails to account for, however, is the purpose for this ambiguity in the definition of hedonism. It must be conceded that neither of the two forms of pleasure can sufficiently explain every action. The ambiguity is intended as a sign that both forms work in concert.
Quite simply, pleasure in the hedonistic sense stands for any kind of pleasure. Additionally, drawing such sharp distinctions between the mind and the body is a dangerous task. For example, what mental satisfaction is not accompanied by physical sensation of any kind? Numerous perspectives on the mind-body problem come into play here, blurring the two entities until they are utterly inseparable. Perhaps then it is easier to see why hedonistic pleasure is open to interpretation; pleasure itself is innately difficult to define.
Feinberg’s arguments aside, it is useful to note the native quality of hedonism. As Epicurus states, “as soon as every animal is born, it seeks after pleasure and rejoices in it as the greatest good, while it rejects pain as the greatest bad and, as far as possible, avoids it; and it does this when it is not yet corrupted, on the innocent and sound judgment of nature itself” (CP 1). This assertion is corroborated by scientific evidence, clearly demonstrating that hedonism is, at least during the first few years of life, both present and natural.
Part V: Conclusion
So what does all of this mean, exactly? As with most pseudo-scientific theories that delve into philosophy, the answer is not a simple one. Hedonism, it would seem, can be somewhat redefined in the following way: the belief that the expectancy of pleasure in any form is the ultimate motive. While more cumbersome and, quite likely, susceptible to new contentions of its own, this revised definition seems to solve many of the problems seen with its counterpart.
No matter the definition, however, the validity of hedonism is and may possibly ever be in debate. As Feinberg pointed out, such little empirical evidence exists in direct support of hedonism that it may not even be testable. However, as with any theory, the degree of application must correlate with the reasonability of explanation. Thus, until a more suitable theory of human motivation is presented, or until it is empirically disproven, hedonism shall remain the most effective explanation of human nature.
Abate, Frank R., Editor in Chief. The Oxford Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus. New York, NY. Berkeley, 1997.
CP = PHIL 151 Course Packet
Reber, Arthur S. The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1995.