Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Means vs. Ends: Hedonism and Happiness

Our blog is mostly about reflections on the means to achieve human happiness. Still, from time to time, we need to keep sight of what are the end pursuits of humankind. Often, these are not easily distinguishable from the means like when we pursue a long but healthy live or when we need to trade immediate pain for future pleasures.

The later is often discussed when pursuing a hedonist approach to achieve happiness. A hedonist is defined as “someone who strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)”. This definition is vulnerable to the usual caveats of defining inter-temporal maximization in an environment of life uncertainty and volatile preferences. Equally important is the trade-off between individual and group satisfaction (family, social, national, etc.), sometimes called utilitarianism.

Constrained maximization is not only complex but also a poor guide for action when inter-temporal choice is involved. Despite the fact that at the unconscious level we seem to be wired in a hedonistic way to seek pleasure and avoid pain at the conscious level the science of the brain has not yet uncovered ways to explain masochist or depressive behaviors and similar deviations. Consequently a simplistic taking up of hedonism would lead us to sacrifice the future for the present.

Yet, despite its limitations, hedonism can also help us to tackle the eternal human despair over life expectancy. Almost 2000 years ago, when Seneca wrote his essay “On the Shortness of Life”, life expectancy was about one third of what it is now in developed countries. Nevertheless we continue to suffer over the same issue. Should medical science find ways to treble it again our descendents will still despair over the same issue and so on until eternity? Like Seneca, in the end we all conclude that life is never too short if we do not waste most of it. By living a full life we mean enjoying both the immediate sensorial pleasures as well as the pleasure obtained from friendship and idealistic conscious pursuits, whether metaphysical or not.

In conclusion, a mild and responsible pursuit of hedonism when complemented by love and enlightened virtues is an essential means to achieve human happiness.

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