How a hedonist says goodbye to hedonism

This reflection, springing from this morning’s philosophical conversation, is an attempt to iron out the transition out of hedonism. Because the transition was not as clear as I would have liked, I seek to clarify it in the following.


We want to begin not with a theory of hedonism but with a phenomenology of hedonism. How does someone today live a hedonistic life? What is it like, and what would he say he is after? He says that he wants to maximally stimulate the senses and to avoid non-stimulating experiences. For a time, he succeeds. He is offered the blue pill and he takes it without thinking. He is offered sex, accepts, and it is pleasant. He throws himself into game play, into entertainments and diversions with a sense of abandon and has no regrets afterward.

After a time, however, he begins to notice that there are conflicts and clashes that arise later on. His stimulating experiences are followed by non-stimulating experiences and, moreover, there is a clash between the stimulating experiences and (say) being productive at work. Drinking was pleasant, but the day spent hungover got him into trouble. And that was unpleasant. So, he senses strife: he wants to continue to hold onto a hedonic life, but he is feeling the rub of the costs.

What is he to do?

He turns himself into a sophisticated hedonist. Unlike the naive hedonist, this figure uses instrumental rationality to set ends, calculate costs, anticipate various outcomes, and plan things so that the pleasure he secures has a lower probability of being followed by pains and conflicts afterward. To a degree, this strategy of retaining hedonism also works for a time: the calculations are well-thought-out, and things pay off.

The rub, however, is that the sophisticated, calculating hedonist begins observing something odd. This ‘something odd’ is that he doesn’t find the experience–the one he has assiduously planned for–all that pleasant. It should be pleasant, he thinks, but not only has he come to realize that there are higher stakes involved (work responsibilities, for instance) but also he finds his mind continuing to wander toward the future. And he discovers that he spent all this work, only to have something that is (he admits) only subpar. He seems unable to take this experience for what it is, to enjoy it while it is here. He is bewildered by three facts: first, by the fact that solving a puzzle concerning how to make the experience possible was more pleasurable than the experience itself; second, by the fact that the experience was not worth the effort; and, third, by the fact that he cannot grasp what this experience is for. Somehow or other, the scheming takes precedence over the experiencing, and the experiencing falls into the background.

The transition out of hedonism, by way of its more sophisticated form, is now becoming clear. First, he has (beyond his back, so to speak) begun to appreciate two higher goods: that of exercising his autonomy (setting ends and guiding his life in a more prudent fashion) and that of taking care of himself (seeing to it that he has everything he needs in case X or Y should happen; more generally, seeing about his well-being and possibly the well-being of those around him). His pleasures, then, are pleasures taken not in the immediate satisfaction of the appetites but in these higher goods concerned with autonomy and care for oneself and others. Thus, he is beginning to pass beyond hedonism once he starts to be introduced to higher goods which he is, albeit unwittingly, guided his life by.

Second, his bewilderment concerning the aim of any sensuous activity leads him to think that calculating may be utterly pointless unless the activity itself has a point. But to ask about the point of an activity is to ask a non-hedonic question worthy of philosophy. Well, what is sex for? Sex reaches its higher aim in love. And what are drugs for? Drugs reach their higher aim in ‘religion’ (an experience of transcendence). What is fantasy for? Fantasy is really aiming at art, the shaping of images into something coherent. So then all of these lower forms turn out to be aiming, unbeknownst to themselves, at higher goods. Their point is, so to speak, to point beyond themselves and thus beyond hedonism.

And so, to believe (in the sense of living-out) that there are higher goods such as autonomy, self-care, love, communion, and art is to no longer be able to live hedonically. One simply can’t do it anymore, not in these terms. Hedonism has become impossible. Instead, one would have to live in the light of these higher goods and that light would afford one joy in the company of friends, lightness in the play of love, calm in the unfolding of a philosophical conversation, and the like. Introduced to what is higher and becoming drawn to these, calling to them, invoking them, one can no longer recognize oneself as a hedonist. He probably won’t realize this until after the fact, but he has already said his goodbye…