It’s often said that hedonism is a vice, meaning that people are too greedy, or too ready to seek their own pleasures, when it would be better if they were more charitable, or more self-denying.
I think things are more complicated than that. In a trivial sense, we all seek to satisfy our own desires. It’s what we desire that matters. Some of our desires coincide with the desires of others, and some don’t. Some people have unsavory personalities in the sense that their desires routinely come into conflict with the desires of others, so that when they satisfy their own desires (as we all do trivially anyway) they tend to thwart the desires of others. This is what most people mean by a “selfish” personality.
As far as I can see, there’s not much anyone can do to make a selfish personality less selfish, or an unselfish one more selfish. I don’t see how anyone can strive to become less or more selfish than they already are, given that we desire whatever we happen to desire, and “reason is the slave of the passions”. So I don’t think it gets us very far to say that greed is a vice, or that selfishness is a virtue. It is worse than useless to talk about vices and virtues as if we could change human nature itself. It’s better to take human nature as it is, and try to make the best arrangements we can for humans as we really are.
We can allow for selfishness. The least bad political arrangements harness it, so that pursuing something for one’s own gain can have the unintended consequence (unintended by the agent, that is) of delivering the goods for others. For example, in a reasonably non-corrupt democracy, elected representatives advance their own careers by promoting the interests of their constituents. Or again, in science, individual scientists seek recognition for themselves rather than “truth itself”. But in seeking recognition, and in achieving recognition by exposing flaws in the attempts of others to gain recognition, individual scientists turn science into something special. By settling disputes through appeal to tests, observation, explanation and logic, science becomes a uniquely objective, penetrating and progressive enterprise.
What about charity? Or self-denial? Are these not virtuous? Well maybe, if you’re into that sort of thing, but blind self-harm rather than informed other-help usually helps no one, because the deliberation involved is narcissistic. That is, its focus is the self — the aim being to avoid any “blemish on the soul” — rather than the consequences of action. Well-aimed charity can tide people over in the short term, charitable gestures often have the unintended consequence of harming their intended recipients. Good intentions are not all that closely correlated with good consequences, and narcissistic “gestures” are negatively correlated with good consequences. So renouncing “hedonism” in this sense is not always a good thing.
Now I’m going to change the subject.
In a different, strictly philosophical sense of the word ‘hedonism’, I do think hedonism is indeed a terrible vice. What I mean by “hedonism” in this new context is the appeal to pleasure to explain motivation. (By “pleasure” I mean any sort of positive experience, including the avoidance of pain or anxiety.) This sort of hedonism assumes that agents do things in order to get pleasure. Putting it another way, it assumes that our primary goal is pleasure, and that when our actions do alter the arrangement of things in the world outside our minds, that is a secondary by-product of our trying to get what we really want — namely, this or that type of conscious experience.
Hedonism is mistaken, and it’s easy to see why: we evolved to get things done, not to have sorts of experience; so having a goal is more rudimentary mental state than having an experience. Imagine simple creatures (or man-made robots) that behave as rudimentary agents with goals — but agents that are so rudimentary they can hardly count as having any sort of conscious experience at all. For example, think of a sea anemone whose goal is to draw a prawn into its mouth, or a spider whose goal is to climb the sides of a bathtub, or a cruise missile whose target has been programmed by its controllers. These rudimentary agents have goals, but surely no conscious experience of pleasure upon achieving their goals. The cruise missile in particular heads for its target because that is what the engineers who made it designed it to do. They didn’t have to first give it consciousness, then make some of its conscious experiences pleasurable, and then make hitting the target a pleasurable sort of experience for it. Similarly, natural selection did not “design” the sea anemone or spider to have experiences, but to catch food and successfully get out of tight corners.
These rudimentary agents illustrate why we don’t need to appeal to conscious experience for behaviour to be goal-directed. For the most part, even among higher creatures, desires are desires for the “outside world” to be arranged in a particular way, rather than for “internal experiences” to have a particular quality. If you doubt this, ask yourself the following questions: Do you want your lover to actually be faithful to you, or do you want to be given the impression that your lover is faithful to you? Which would harm you more, your lover being unfaithful and admitting it to you, or keeping it a secret from you?
Despite being mistaken, hedonism remains an almost-universal assumption. That is because most of us suppose that the mind is essentially non-physical, and so is cut off from the “outside” physical world in a problematic way. We tend to visualize the mind as a unitary “eye of consciousness” looking at a “screen of its own experiences” — a “screen”, because supposedly it cannot make direct contact with the real world behind it. Daniel Dennett called this image of the mind the “Cartesian Theater”, and much Western philosophy of the last century (e.g. American pragmatism, the later Wittgenstein) has been a struggle to escape from it.
We must treat goals as conceptually more basic than experiences in general — in particular, as more basic than pleasure. We have to explain desires, preferences, interests, benefit, etc. in terms of goals rather than experiences. Here goes:
We desire the achievement of our goals. Some desires are stronger than others, not because they are more experientially vivid, but because we have a consistent preference for one goal over another. This is revealed when we choose one course of action over another. In is in our interest to achieve our goals. This is complicated, somewhat, by the fact that sometimes after we have achieved a goal, we discover that if we had only known before what we know now, we would have pursued a different goal. But that just goes to show we change our minds from time to time. Interests remain essentially a matter of achieving goals. Much the same applies to benefit, the main difference between them being that we talk about future action as being in our “interest”, and past action as having been to our “benefit”.