Hedonism is a philosophy that regards pleasure and happiness as the most beneficial outcome of an action. More pleasure and less pain is ethical. More pain and less pleasure is not.

What is hedonism?

Hedonism is closely associated with utilitarianism. Where utilitarianism says ethical actions are ones that maximise the overall good of a society, hedonism takes it a step further by defining ‘good’ as pleasure.

There are different perspectives on what pleasure and pain really mean. For Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, pleasure was the absence of pain. Though his name has become synonymous with indulgence – “Epicurean holidays”, a food app called “Epicurious” – he advocated finding pleasure in a simple life with a bland diet.

If we live a rich, complex lifestyle we risk suffering more when it ends. Best not to love them to begin with, he suggests.

John Stuart Mill believed in a hierarchy of pleasures. Although sensory pleasures might be the most intense, it was fitting for higher order beings – like humans – to enjoy higher order pleasures – like art. “It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied”, he said.  (With evidence to suggest pigs can orgasm for up to fifteen minutes, Mill’s account feels a little incomplete).

Most people will agree pleasure and pain are important for determining the value of something. That’s not enough to make you a hedonist. What makes hedonism unique is the claim only pleasure and pain matter. That’s where people tend to be more hesitant.

The experience machine

The philosopher Robert Nozick wanted people to feel the pinch of measuring life only based on pain and pleasure. He developed a thought experiment called the experience machine.

Imagine a machine that can plug into your brain and simulate the most pleasurable life you could imagine. It would respond to your specific desires – you could be a rock star, philosopher or space cowboy depending on what was most pleasurable. But if you plugged in, you could never unplug. Plus, although you’d feel as though you were experiencing amazing things, you’d be floating in a vat, feeding through a tube.

Nozick thought most people would choose not to plug into the machine – proving there was more to life than pleasure and pain. But Nozick’s argument depends on people’s lives being of a certain quality. It’s easier to value hard work and authenticity if you’re confident your life will be pretty pleasurable. For those living in constant fear, pain, or misery, perhaps the authenticity of their experience matters less than some simple moments of bliss.