The movie Matrix presents a future world in which machines have enslaved human beings so as to draw on them as sources of energy.  Yet the people are unaware of the horrifying world they live in, since they are hooked together with elaborate machinery that creates an illusory world called the ‘Matrix’.  However, a rogue group of people has found a way to penetrate to the reality behind the appearance.  They give the hero of the movie a choice.  He can take a blue pill, which will allow him to remain in the illusory life he has always known, and erase the memory of his decision.  Or he can take a red pill, which will awaken him so that he can perceive the real but enormously unpleasant world, and join the effort to overthrow the machines. 

            Put in the hero’s place, some of us might be so horrified that we would take the blue pill and return to ignorance.  What, after all, is important in life?  Isn’t it being as happy as possible as long as we can, where happiness is understood to be a pleasant state of mind?  And isn’t it far more likely that we (and everyone else) would spend our time more pleasantly in the Matrix than in a harrowing battle with murderous futuristic machines?  Those who think this way might be drawn to a view we shall label value hedonism.  According to this view, the only thing that is good for its own sake (rather than as a means to something valued independently) is some positive subjective state, such as pleasure, together with the absence of suffering, and the best form of existence is a life that overflows with this positive subjective state, and with things that produce it. 

But most of us would not react this way.  We would find the hero’s own choice more congenial:  he chose the red pill, and did battle against the machines!  For us, pleasure is well and good, but it is not the only thing that matters.  Perhaps, however, we are the ones who are deceived:  maybe the hedonists are correct, and our aversion to being blissfully (but totally) cut off from reality is the product of confusion.  In this chapter, we will try to decide whether the hedonist theory of the good is correct or not. 

Value hedonism is usually defended on the basis of a claim about human motivation.  Our first order of business will be to examine this defense.  Then we will consider some arguments against value egoism.  Finally, we will discuss the work of two historically influential hedonist thinkers, who make quite extraordinary claims about their approach to life:  the Greek thinker Epicurus (341-271 B. C.), and the Indian prince Gautama (c.563-483 B. C.), called the Buddha (“Enlightened One”).



How do we decide what is good in itself?  Well, we might ask whether there are things that human psychology prompts us to seek.  Suppose we find that A-Z are the only things desired for their own sakes, and that this attraction to A-Z can be attributed to human nature.  Then it seems reasonable to suppose that A-Z are the only things that are good in themselves.  If all of us naturally value wisdom, for example, then wisdom is intrinsically valuable; if each of us naturally values only our own wisdom, then for each of us only our own wisdom is valuable.  Isn’t this a helpful way to identify the good? 

If we accept this strategy, then the next step is to figure out what people seek by nature.  Suppose we decide that, due to human nature, pleasure is the only thing that we seek for its own sake--this view is called psychological hedonism.  Then we might well think that pleasure is the only good.  And this is precisely the way some hedonists seem to reason.   They think that since by nature you and I want to enjoy ourselves as much as possible (and to suffer as little as possible), then pleasure is good for us.  Since by nature ultimately pleasure (and the absence of pain) is the only thing we want, it is our only good.  Thus their argument (call it the argument from psychological necessity) boils down to this:

1.                  By nature each individual seeks one and only one thing for its own sake: her pleasure (and the absence of pain).  (psychological hedonism)

2.                  The things we seek naturally (and for their own sakes) are the things that are good in themselves. 

3.                  So for each individual one and only one thing is intrinsically valuable:  his pleasure.[1]  (value hedonism)

Is this argument plausible?  Well, it is only as strong as its premises.  Let us consider these in turn, starting with the second premise, and then working our way back to the first.



Now, descriptive statements do not entail normative statements, so we would have to reject the second premise if it said that we may infer what is desirable from what is desired.  However, there is a better alternative:  premise 2 is itself a value claim that is taken to be plausible on its face.  In the ancient world, claims like 2 were considered obvious.  It was assumed that the things we are attracted to naturally are the things that are good.  If we want to know what is really good, we have only to consult nature.

But is premise 2 true?  No doubt we will want to qualify it in various ways, but there are reasons to accept it.  The main point is this:  while the human good is an ideal, it is a version of what we can be; otherwise it makes little sense to speak of it as being the human good.  Moreover, it is a version of what we are naturally drawn to; otherwise it is odd to describe it as the human good.  Hence if human nature prompts us to shape our lives in certain ways, say by making certain activities attractive, it is plausible to assume, at least initially, that it is good to shape our lives in those ways and only in those ways.  On further reflection, we might have to revise our account of the good, but our revision will not be something wholly new; it will not point us to a life which we have no natural attraction to or aptitude for whatsoever.

            These points certainly do not show that the second premise of the argument from psychological necessity is true.  However, they suffice to show that it is not entirely misguided.  So let us move on to the first premise, which claims that psychological hedonism is true. 



Assessing psychological hedonism will take some work.  Let’s start by considering two arguments for psychological hedonism.  Then we can develop an argument against it.

First Defense:  the Argument by Extended Satisfaction

We might be led to adopt psychological hedonism because we conflate (run together) certain ideas that are really distinct.  Thus one route to hedonism involves failing to distinguish between ‘satisfying our desires’ (that is, ‘pleasing ourselves’) and ‘seeking pleasure.’  For once we run these ideas together, we might succumb to the following argument by extended satisfaction:

1.         Acting voluntarily is trying to satisfy our desires.

2.         Trying to satisfy our desires is trying to get pleasure.

3.         So acting voluntarily is trying to get pleasure.

At first, this argument seems quite plausible, but if we look at it carefully we soon detect flaws. 

Note, first, that even if the argument by extended satisfaction were sound, it would not support the hedonist claim that we seek nothing for its own sake except pleasure and the absence of pain.  The trouble is that the argument stretches the idea of pleasure-seeking so much that we are said to ‘seek pleasure’ no matter what motivates our behavior, so premises 1 and 2 do not support any view about our motivation, including the hedonist’s view.  To make the problem vivid, suppose that my motivation is just the opposite of the way hedonists portray it:  suppose that the only thing I want for its own sake is pain and the absence of pleasure.  As a result, I throw myself against walls, smash my toes with rocks, and spend my life trying to satisfy my desire to avoid pleasure.  If we insist on labeling this effort an ‘attempt to get pleasure,’ we end up saying that my attempt to satisfy my desire not to have pleasure is an attempt to get pleasure!  We can speak this way if we like; but the fact is that in the example at hand I seek pain, not pleasure, a motivation the hedonist means to rule out.

Nor should we talk this way; the second premise of the argument by extended satisfaction is false.  Seeking pleasure is not the same thing as doing what we want, as Joseph Butler (1692-1752) made clear in his Sermons.[2]  The difference is easily overlooked, because satisfying our desires (doing what we want) is usually pleasant.  If we want to dive into a pool, and we do it, we will probably enjoy ourselves.  But even if satisfying a particular desire is pleasant, it does not follow that pleasure was what we desired.  Pleasure can result from our getting what we want without itself being what we want, just as pain can result from reaching a goal without itself being the goal. 

To make this clear, we need to distinguish between the object of a desire, on the one hand, and the consequences of satisfying a desire, on the other.  If I desire ____, then ____ is the object of my desire.  If I desire to write a novel, the object of my desire is writing a novel:  writing my novel satisfies my desire.  And completing my task might have all sorts of consequences.  Perhaps scenes in it will inspire someone to appreciate his mother’s love for the first time.  Probably another consequence will be that I will feel pleased about writing the novel.  But these are consequences of my desire, not its object.  Again:  satisfying a desire is usually enjoyable.  But it does not follow that pleasure is the objective. 

Second Defense:  Appeal to Introspection

It is unlikely that all proponents of psychological hedonism have blurred distinctions in the way the argument by extended satisfaction does.  However, it is hard to find another argument, unless we count an appeal to introspection, as offered by Epicurus.  Epicurus said that ultimately we rank options using our own pleasure as our standard.  I rank alternatives on the basis of how much pleasure I expect to get from each option, while you rank options on the basis of how much you expect to enjoy them, and so on.  Epicurus appeared to think that we can confirm his claim through introspection:  we can pay careful attention to the choices we make, and see for ourselves that while we choose some things for the sake of others, pleasure is the only thing we choose for its own sake.

But he will have to do better than that.  It is true that sometimes we want things because they are pleasant—eating candy, watching comedy shows, and vacationing are all things we do because we enjoy them.  But if we help a friend or save someone from a fire, it is likely that any pleasure we get is merely an unsought side-effect, not the object of our choice.  Isn’t that what introspection tells you?

Counterargument:  The Hedonistic Paradox

Paradoxically, if we aim solely at achieving as much pleasure as possible, we are likely to end up with less than we might otherwise have managed, and when we think through why this is, difficulties arise for the psychological hedonist.  In a moving confession John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the most famous proponent of the view that happiness or pleasure is the sole good, describes what it is like to be caught up in this predicament:

I was in a dull state of nerves, such as everybody is occasionally liable to. . . .  In this frame of mind it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself:  “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized: . . .would this be a great joy and happiness to you?”  And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!” . . .

I never. . .wavered in the conviction that happiness is the test of all rules of conduct, and the end of life.  But I now thought that this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end.  Those only are happy. . .who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end.  Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.  The enjoyments of life. . .are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object.  Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. . . .  The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life.[3]

To explain what Mill has in mind, we will need to distinguish between getting pleasure directly versus getting pleasure indirectly.  We get pleasure indirectly when it results from our attaining something other than pleasure that we regard as worth having for its own sake.  For example, suppose I desire to understand the theory of relativity for its own sake, and I satisfy my desire; as a result, I am pleased.  My pleasure is indirect.  By contrast, when it results from satisfying my desire for pleasure, or my desire for something that is a means to my pleasure, I get pleasure directly.  There is no doubt that we can get some pleasure directly:  we do so when we watch comedy, or when we take aspirin.  But what happens if we try to get all of our pleasure this way?

The problem for the psychological hedonist is that two claims Mill makes about himself seem true of most people.  First, if we try to get all of our pleasure directly and never indirectly, thereby abandoning the idea that anything other than pleasure matters in its own right, pleasure eludes us.  All we can do is take pills, watch comedy, and so on, which quickly proves to be unsatisfying, and we are left with greatly impoverished lives.  By contrast, when we take the indirect route, we have little trouble.  We put the thought of pleasure aside, and pursue things we consider valuable in themselves.  In pursuing these, we make ourselves cheerful as a side effect, simply because it is enjoyable to achieve what we think is worthwhile.  If these claims are true of us, we cannot avoid the conclusion that we get our pleasure indirectly.  But psychological hedonism implies that we cannot get pleasure indirectly.  Apparently, it is mistaken.

However, there may be a way for psychological hedonists to respond to our criticism.  Suppose they admitted that

(a)        we pursue some things other than pleasure for their own sakes, thereby getting pleasure indirectly,

but insisted that

(b)        we would abandon these indirect pursuits if they stopped being pleasant, or if we believed that we could get more pleasure some other way. 

Could psychological hedonism be rescued in this way, given that (a) and (b) are both true?  Mill may have thought so.[4]  But the attempt fails.  By definition psychological hedonism says that only pleasure is sought for its own sake, and this claim is incompatible with (a). 

Anyone who thinks that claims (a) and (b) rescue psychological hedonism is probably confusing it with a different view, namely, that pleasure is our highest priority (though not necessarily the only thing we seek for its own sake); it outweighs all other things.  Let us call this position dominant-end psychological hedonism, and for clarity let us call psychological hedonism as it is traditionally understood exclusive-end psychological hedonism.[5]  It is easy to confuse these two doctrines, because exclusive-end hedonism entails dominant-end hedonism:  if the only thing you care about is pleasure, then (vacuously) you care about pleasure more than anything else.  But they are not the same:  dominant-end hedonism does not entail exclusive-end hedonism.  And while (a) and (b) support dominant-end hedonism, they do not support exclusive-end hedonism.[6]



We have been criticizing the main defense of value hedonism--the argument from psychological necessity--by attacking an assumption on which it rests, namely psychological hedonism.  But now it is time to consider a direct attack on value hedonism:  the well-known case of the electronic voluptuary.

In the fifties some experimenters inserted electrodes into the pleasure centers of the brains of rats, enabling the rats to stimulate themselves electrically by depressing a lever.  They ignored food and stimulated themselves for hours on end.[7]  After reading about these experiments, it did not take philosophers long to develop scenarios in which people take the place of the rats, and get even fancier treatment.  For example, imagine machinery that we could (painlessly) attach to our brains that would give us experiences that are perfectly life like, as well as enormously pleasant, and that would last a lifetime.  We might even add an option:  once we attach ourselves to the machinery, we forget all about doing so.  If presented the opportunity, would we permanently abandon real life so as to become electronic voluptuaries?  (Notice that, in a way, the ‘flip-side’ of this question is broached by the movie Matrix.  We are asking whether it is better to maintain contact with the familiar real world or break it off to enter a blissful but illusory world, while Matrix asks whether it is better to abandon a familiar illusory world and establish contact with a real but quite horrendous world.)  Would we say that life as an electronic voluptuary is better?

Some might, but most of us recoil from the idea, and this fact counts against both value hedonism and psychological hedonism.  The voluptuary is guaranteed a lifetime of bliss, while ordinary existence is a rocky road that brings far less pleasure.  If our only concern were pleasure, we would become voluptuaries.  Since we would not, we must care about things other than pleasure.  We think that having real friends matters for its own sake, and that it is important to have a real impact on the world, and so on.  Being drawn to meaningful deeds and relationships, we choose real life over an illusory substitute that gives us only the appearance of friends, or the appearance of accomplishments.  But if we conclude that things other than pleasure are good for their own sakes, we must also conclude that value hedonism is false.  Moreover, if we care about things other than pleasure, psychological hedonism has to be false. 



Let us end our discussion of value hedonism by considering a remarkable claim made by its two most influential proponents, Gautama and Epicurus.  They promise that if we adopt the values of the hedonist, and follow certain practical advice, we can achieve an invulnerable form of happiness.  We can become happy regardless of our circumstances, and remain happy no matter what happens to us.  A promise like that is worth taking seriously! 

Epicurus and Gautama develop an approach to happiness that is largely overlooked in the contemporary Western world.  Roughly speaking, our approach is to take our desires for granted, and strive to accumulate the power and knowledge necessary to shape the world as we want it to be.  In pursuing this strategy, we become hostages to fate, for all too often the world refuses to give way to our demands.  The alternative approach, pursued by Epicureans and Buddhists, is to work in the other direction:  instead of conforming the world to our desires, we could conform our desires—and our conception of happiness itself—to the world.  Epicureans and Buddhists equate living well with happiness, but characterize happiness in a negative way.  That is, they portray it in terms of what it excludes, rather than in terms of what it includes:  essentially, it is the absence of suffering, the absence of any form of mental turmoil. 

Given this negative hedonist understanding of happiness, how can we achieve an invulnerable form of happiness?  It involves cultivating a virtuous character, but the main strategy is to pare down our desires so that they are easily met in the world as it is.  We abandon any desire whose satisfaction is beyond our control.  In particular, we cultivate indifference concerning wealth, beauty, fame and honor, and even our own survival.  Concerns like these set us up for disappointment, and make our happiness precarious.  If we want only what is in our control, we will be virtually self-sufficient, and our happiness will be invulnerable.

Epicurus puts his view this way:  the goal is to achieve ataraxia, which is a secure state of tranquility, a pleasant state of not desiring (not wanting, not needing).  (Ataraxia is a passive or static pleasure, according to Epicurus; it does not include active pleasures, which are gained from satisfying desires.)  The way we achieve ataraxia is, roughly, to limit ourselves to desires that are “necessary” in the sense that without them we will suffer:

All such desires as lead to no pain when they remain ungratified are unnecessary, and the longing is easily got rid of, when the thing desired is difficult to procure or when the desires seem likely to produce harm.[8]

We ought to retain the desire to eat when hungry, for example, since starvation is painful.  However, it is best to be content with food that is cheap and plentiful.  Those accustomed to lobster from Maine and caviar from the Black Sea must struggle for money to purchase these rare delicacies, and will consider anything else a poor substitute.  Given his reservations about the life of the gourmet, it is an irony of history that the term “epicure” derives from Epicurus’ name.

            Gautama expresses views that are much like Epicurus’.  He suggests that we suffer because we want elusive things, especially perpetual life, and because “it is a suffering not to get what is desired.”[9]  But by eliminating our attachment to our existence, and ridding ourselves of the desires that draw us to life, we can end our suffering.  We can achieve nirvana, which means extinguished, as when a flame is put out.  There is pleasure in nirvana, but it is the pleasure of tranquil aloofness, and of the secure knowledge that we need never suffer again. 

Knowing that fear of death is a chief cause of unhappiness, Epicurus and Gautama offer distinctive ways to cope.  In fact, the help their approach offers us in dealing with mortality is one of its chief virtues, in their view.  Let us take a moment to explain.

Epicurus on Death

Epicurus advises us to assess the value of things in accordance with a hedonistic formulation according to which passive pleasure (or, as he usually says, the absence of pain) is the only good, and pain the only bad—so that what brings us neither is a matter of indifference.  Yet death, thought of, as Epicurus did, as our complete annihilation, is painless.  In utterly ceasing to be, we are no longer able to experience anything at all. 

Death. . . , the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.  It is nothing, then, either to the living or to the dead, for with the living it is not and the dead exist no longer.[10]

So the fact that we will die is of no concern.  It is true that death deprives us of the ability to experience pleasure, but Epicurus says we feel the need for pleasure only “when we are pained because of the absence of pleasure.”[11]  The dead experience no such need.  It is also true that some people are fearful when they anticipate death, but they are being irrational:  why concern ourselves with matters of indifference?  As Epicurus says, “Whatsoever causes no annoyance when it is present, causes only a groundless pain in the expectation.”[12]  Epicurus admits that painful diseases often bring about death, and that these are bad precisely because they make us suffer.  However, he makes the extraordinary claim that they are not as bad as people think:

Continuous pain does not last long in the flesh; on the contrary, pain, if extreme, is present a very short time. . . .  Illnesses of long duration even permit of an excess of pleasure over pain in the flesh.[13]

Gautama on Death:  The No-Self Doctrine

Gautama’s approach to death is a bit harder to grasp than Epicurus’.  Gautama questioned the commonsense idea that the world is populated by substances, thought of as objects that are fundamentally distinct from their attributes.  A fish is an example of a substance; one of its attributes is the property sliminess.  Ordinarily, substances are understood to be unchanging objects that persist over time and serve as substrates for changing attributes.  As Western philosophers (such as John Locke) came to see, we have no clear idea of such substances, for any time we try to describe what they are, we find ourselves mentioning properties, which are supposed to inhere in substances and that, therefore, must be distinct from them.  The idea of a substance is confused, so we must give it up.  Reasoning much like this led Gautama to reject the belief in persisting substances.  But this means giving up the commonsense idea of the self as well, since it too is thought to be a substance.  For Gautama, it means adopting the no-self doctrine, which advises abandoning the notion of the self. 

Taking this advice will have a powerful impact on those who deplore death.  For if we give up the notion of the self, we cannot say that death is a bad thing.  We will reject the very idea that we die.  The idea of dying is itself confused, for if there are no selves, there is no one who might or might not cease to exist.  Thus in one Buddhist document, the story is told about a monk named Yamaka, who defended the “pernicious” view that enlightened people, “at the break up of the body, will be annihilated, will be destroyed. . . .”[14]  Yamaka is set straight by his peers:  it is false to say that the self is annihilated.  But it is also false to say that the self is not annihilated.  There are no selves.  Compare Epicurus’ view:  while there are selves, their survival is unimportant.

            However, the no-self doctrine has a further consequence that will concern those who seek relief from suffering.  Suppose they pare down their desires in the way Gautama suggests, and gradually achieve tranquility, but continue to regard suffering as a bad thing.  What will happen when they give up the idea of the self?  Without the distinction between self and other, the fact that suffering is their own ceases to be important.  No matter where suffering occurs—whether experienced by a human being near or far away, or by some other creature—it will trouble them.  Their orientation towards suffering is neither selfless (more concerned about others than themselves) nor self seeking, but impartial. 

Negative Hedonism Assessed

Through Epicureanism or Buddhism, we can, at least in theory, make ourselves self-sufficient, a considerable advantage in a world, like Epicurus’ or Gautama’s, that is apt to disappoint us.  But is it really desirable to become self-contained in this way?  Where does the truth lie?

Unfortunately, complete invulnerability comes at a high price.  If we cut our ties to others (seeing their well being as instrumental goods at best), disentangle ourselves from the world around us, and adopt the negative notion of happiness, our happiness is little more than the absence of unhappiness.  If we give up all concerns that lead us to think that dying is bad, we find ourselves with no reason for thinking that living is good.  Living well cannot require ridding ourselves of our reasons to exist.  Can it? 

            If not taken to an extreme, however, it is good advice to re-appraise our expectations and ask if they are realistic.  There is nothing wrong with having unattainable dreams, of course.  But insofar as the notion of happiness is malleable, we should define it so as to put it within our reach, even if our wishes and dreams are beyond us, enticing us to do still more with our lives than is required for simple happiness.



1.                  If you were in the situation dramatized by Matrix, would you take the red pill or the blue one?  Why?  What would the psychological hedonist do?  What would the value hedonist do?  How would you respond?

2.                  Which is correct:  (a) the reason it is important for us to do something (such as helping a friend) is that it is pleasurable; (b) the reason something is pleasurable is that doing it is important?  How does this bear on whether or not psychological hedonism is correct?

3.                  Critically discuss the following passage from Butler’s Sermons, in which he questions psychological hedonism:

That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion. . . .[15]

When Butler refers to “appetites and passions” he means desires.  Is he right when he says that we never desire pleasure directly, and that whatever pleasure we experience is a consequence of satisfying desires whose objects are things other than pleasure?  If not, can his criticism of psychological hedonism be rescued?

4.                  Which view is more plausible, dominant-end hedonism, or exclusive-end hedonism?  Is either view correct?

5.                  Is pleasure the only thing that proves unsatisfying if pursued directly?  Suppose we aim at loving relationships, or knowledge, or other things for their own sakes.  Will our effort undermine itself, somewhat in the way of the hedonistic paradox?  If not, what does this suggest about psychological hedonism?

6.                  Consider a view we can call parity hedonism, which says that pleasure is one of several things that are equally important.  Does the case of the electronic voluptuary refute parity hedonism?  Is parity hedonism true?

7.                  Elliott Sober tries to rescue psychological hedonism from the sort of criticism we offered using the case of the electronic voluptuary.  According to Sober, those who choose not to become electronic voluptuaries need not really care about anything but pleasure.  Their decision can be given an alternative explanation:  the thought of abandoning ordinary life to become a voluptuary is distressing.[16]  It starts hurting us while we are trying to reach our decision, and will continue to do so until we actually become a voluptuary or decide not to.  So to stop the pain, we give up on becoming a voluptuary.  Is this response successful?  (Why do people find the prospect of becoming voluptuaries distressing?  Is it because their attachment to real life, or to things (other than pleasure) involving real life, matters to them so much that they would not trade it for an existence whose only virtue is that it is blissful?)

8.                  Is Gautama giving us good advice when he tells us to abandon the notion of the self?  Must we give up all desires if we give up the notion of the self?  Can we abandon the desires that are incompatible with our achieving nirvana without giving up the notion of the self?

9.                  Is Epicurus correct when he assures us that death is nothing to us?  Is it possible to hold that death is insignificant while also holding that life is worth living?

10.              Epicurus says that pleasure is important to us only insofar as its absence is painful.  Is he correct? 

11.              Critically assess the following argument given by Epicurus in his Letter to Menoeceus:

[What produces] a pleasant life. . .is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance. . .  Of all this the beginning and the greatest good is prudence.  . . .From [prudence] spring all the other virtues, for it teaches that we cannot lead a life of pleasure which is not also a life of prudence, honor, and justice; nor lead a life of prudence, honor, and justice, which is not also a life of pleasure.  For the virtues have grown into one with a pleasant life. . .

12.              In Chapter II of Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill says that “pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends,” but he acknowledges that this supposition that “life has. . .no higher end than pleasure” strikes many people as “utterly mean and groveling; as a doctrine worthy only of swine. . . “  Mill adds that “when thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered that it is not they but their accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are capable.”  Yet “human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.”  Is it fair to say that the Epicurean doctrine is worthy only of swine?  If not, is Mill’s response the best one?




Epicurus.  Inwood, Brad and Gerson, L. P., trans.  The Epicurus Reader:  Selected Writings and Testimonia.  Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett, 1994.

Lucretius.  Rouse, W. H. D., trans.  On the Nature of Things.  Loeb Classical Library.  Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1975.

Luper, Steven.  Invulnerability:  On Securing Happiness.  Chicago:  Open Court Press, 1996.

Mitsis, Phillip.  Epicurus’ Ethical Theory.  Ithaca, N.Y.:  Cornell University Press, 1988.

Sedley, David.  “Epicureanism.” Craig, Edward, ed.  Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  London:  Routledge, 1998.


Kalupahana, David.  “Buddhist Moral Philosophy.”  In Luper, S., ed.  Living Well.  Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace Publishers, 2000.

-----.  Ethics in Early Buddhism.  Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

Radhakrishnan, S. and Moore, Charles, ed.  A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy.  Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1957. 

Williams, P.  Mahayana Buddhism:  The Doctrinal Foundations.  London:  Routledge, 1989.


Butler, Joseph.  Fifteen Sermons Upon Human Nature (London, 1726).  Reprinted in L. Selby-Bigge, A., ed.,British Moralists, Vol. 1 (New York:  Dover Books, 1965.

Good, I. J.  “A Problem for the Hedonist.”  In I. J. Good, ed., The Scientist Speculates. London:  Heinemann, 1962.

Nozick, Robert.  “The Experience Machine.”  In Anarchy, State and Utopia.  New York:  Basic Books, 1974.

J. S. Mill.  Utilitarianism.

-----.  Autobiography.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1924.

Smart, J. J. C. and Williams, Bernard.  Utilitarianism:  For and Against.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Elliott Sober, “Psychological Egoism,” in Hugh LaFollete, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 2000), pp. 137-140.

[1]Epicurus defended value hedonism using this kind of argument in the following excerpt from his Letter to Menoeceus: 

Pleasure is our first and kindred good.  It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing.  In Jason Saunders, ed., Greek and Roman Philosophy After Aristotle (New York:  The Free Press, 1966), p. 51

In this passage he suggests that pleasure is our (“first and kindred”) good because by nature ultimately we rank options by applying the standard of pleasure.  His explicit reasoning is as follows:

(a)                 Pleasure is the one thing that each person desires for its own sake.

(b)                 So pleasure is the good.

Of course, (b) does not follow from (a), but there is little doubt that Epicurus is relying on the assumption that human motivation is (largely) decisive from the moral point of view.  Stated fully, then, his argument is this:

1.                    By nature each individual desires one and only one thing for its own sake:  his or her pleasure.

2.                    The things we seek naturally (and for their own sakes) are the things that are good in themselves.

3.                    So for each individual one and only one thing is intrinsically valuable:  his or her pleasure.

[2]Fifteen Sermons Upon Human Nature (London, 1726).  Reprinted in L. A. Selby-Bigge, ed., British Moralists, Vol. 1 (New York:  Dover Books, 1965.

[3]Autobiography (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1924, 93ff)

[4]See Chapter IV of Utilitarianism.

[5]Similar distinctions are available to the egoist:  dominant-end egoism, naming the self as one’s highest priority, can be distinguished from exclusive-end egoism, naming the self as one’s only concern. 

[6]Of course, (a) and (b) will support dominant-end hedonism only if they are true.  Is (b) true?  Not if what we say about the electronic voluptuary below is right.  If pleasure mattered more to us than anything else, we would become voluptuaries if we could.  Yet most of us are repelled by the idea.

[7]James Olds and Peter Milner, “Positive reinforcement produced by electrical stimulation of the septal area and other regions of the rat brain”, Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology 47 (1954) 419-27.  These results have been used in criticism of hedonism by several people, including I. J. Good in “A Problem for the Hedonist,” in I. J. Good, ed., The Scientist Speculates (Heinemann, London, 1962), and J. J. C. Smart, “An Outline of a  System of Utilitarian Ethics,” in J. J. C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism:  For and Against (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1973).

[8]Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, Chapter 4, in Jason Saunders, ed., Greek and Roman Philosophy After Aristotle (New York:  The Free Press, 1966), p.

[9]“The Synopsis of Truth,” in S. Radhakrishnan and C. Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 276.

[10]“Letter to Menoeceus,” in Jason Saunders, p. 50.

[11]“Letter,” p. 51.

[12]“Letter,” p. 50.

[13]Epicurus, Principal Doctrines, Chapter 4, in Jason Saunders, p. 53.

[14]“Yamaka,” translated by David Kalupahana, in S. Luper, ed., Living Well (Fort Worth:  Harcourt Brace, 2000), p. 238.

[15]In L. A. Selby-Bigge, ed., British Moralists, Vol. 1 (New York:  Dover Books, 1965), p. 227.

[16]Elliott Sober, “Psychological Egoism,” in Hugh LaFollete, ed., The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 2000), pp. 137-140.