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February 25, 2008 | by  | in Opinion |
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Victorian Theses: ‘Revising Hedonism’

Dan Turton is studying towards a Master of Arts in Philosophy. He received a Bachelor of Commerce from Victoria University, and Honours in both Philosophy and Marketing. His thesis, entitled ‘Revising Hedonism’, aims to revive hedonism as a theory of well-being.

“A lot of people … think it’s a profligate theory; they think it’s a shamelessly immoral theory. Most people imagine ‘sex drugs and rock n roll’; people who screw their friends over … to get a hit of cocaine… And that’s not really what it’s about.”

“What hedonism says … is that the good life is a life of pleasure, and devoid of pain, as much as possible.”

Much of Turton’s thesis is devoted to dealing with the objections to hedonism, particularly the argument of ‘false pleasures’.

“A false pleasure would be getting pleasure from something which isn’t actually true, so say … I said ‘Oh, you won Lotto!’ You might be really happy, but … later on you find out that it’s not true, so it’s a false pleasure… The argument goes that that pleasure doesn’t seem very good for your life.”

Turton argues that all pleasure, and only pleasure, are what give value to a person’s life. He specifically includes such false pleasures. Continuing from that, Turton rejects the conclusions of Nozick’s thought experiment. Nozick postulates that if offered the chance to plug themselves in, Matrix-like, into the ideal virtual life, most people would choose not to. This supposedly shows that pleasure is not in fact the only goal of a person’s life, disproving hedonism. Turton argues that it is the perception of events that is relevant, not the actual events – that a person using Nozick’s machine experiences the same life as a person who lives the same life.

The other main objection to hedonism is its perceived immorality. The idea of sex, drugs and rock and roll has come to symbolise a hedonistic lifestyle. When challenged, however, Turton readily admits that hedonism includes what we might today consider to be a ‘hedonistic’ lifestyle.

“I think a good theory of hedonism doesn’t discriminate. Some people, like John Stuart Mill, have said that there are higher and lower pleasures. But I think a fairer theory … just says ‘pleasure is pleasure’. If you get pleasure from sex: awesome.”

Turton acknowledges that such a theory might not be a workable basis for society:

Hedonism about Well-being could be used egoistically (strive to maximise your own pleasure) or in a Utilitarian framework (strive to maximise everyone’s pleasure). Hedonistic Egoism may not be such a good basis for a working society but Hedonistic Utilitarianism might well be, which is why robbing someone is immoral because it probably causes them more pain than it causes you pleasure… If you get pleasure from robbing people: awesome for you.

The damage caused to the victim isn’t relevant in a theory of well-being. Hedonism provides more a guideline for an individual to enable them to get the most out of life, rather than a rulebook which would govern the interactions of those within society.

Turton specifically rejects the suggestion that hedonism is immoral, but tentatively concedes it is amoral. Like any theory of well-being, it looks for what is best for the individual, irrespective of how society might view their particular desires. But he feels that if it is possible to establish what is good for someone’s life, there has to be some normative value to that. However, successful hedonism can clash with human nature: Most of us are really bad at predicting what will make us happy in the long run. So, even if we decide that a life full of pleasure is the best life we can live, making the right decisions to bring that life about is not easy (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll may work for some but not for others) and will be very dependant on the society we live in and our place in it.

Turton explains that Jeremy Bentham, the grandfather of utilitarianism, was a hedonist, and compares the hedonistic goal of ‘maximisation of pleasure’ with the theory of utility. But Turton traces the history of hedonism much further back, even to some of the work of Socrates, although he never referred to it as such.

Apparently hedonism’s unpopularity dates back almost as far. Turton mentions Epicurus, one of the early hedonistic philosophers, whose theory was more about minimising pain than maximising pleasure.

“Even at that time, there were a lot of people who thought that he was organising orgies and all this kind of stuff.” New textbooks come out with a page and a half on hedonism (An Introduction to Ethics) concluding that hedonism is “clearly wrong” and then moves on. The theory has been largely rejected, even though it still has value for the individual.

“I’m not 100% sure hedonism is right. But I like to argue for it, because everyone else argues against it,” Turton admits with a smile.

Turton finds the two most recent publications on the subject lacking. Although well-received, he considers that they do not do justice to the theory, one dealing unsatisfactorily with the objections to hedonism, the other having twisted the theory ‘out of shape’. He feels there is room for a more ‘old-fashioned’ interpretation of hedonism as a guideline to well-being. Turton has presented his theory to students and staff at Victoria a number of times, and at conferences at Auckland and Canterbury Universities. He says that generally people have been receptive to his ideas, which is somewhat atypical given the subject matter.

In an unrelated note, Turton has nothing but high praise for the Department of Philosophy here at Vic.

“I mean hell, I’m a Masters student and I have my own office,” he smiles. He feels the School has been nothing but supportive and encouraging, and welcomes new students to consider the study of philosophy.

Dan Turton is a guest lecturer for PHIL 106 Contemporary Ethical Issues. His section of the course relates to happiness; particularly happiness and its role in advertising, and biotechnology and happiness. Further information is available from the Department of Philosophy.

Are you or someone you know doing a really interesting thesis? Because if you are, I’d like to talk to you! The awesomer the topic, the better. I can be contacted at matt@salient.org.nz

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