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Ethical hedonism is the idea that all people have the right to do everything in their power to achieve the greatest amount of pleasure possible to them, assuming that their actions do not infringe on the equal rights of others. It is also the idea that every person's pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain. Ethical hedonism is said to have been started by Aristippus of Cyrene, a student of Socrates. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good.
In the original Old Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which was written soon after the invention of writing, Siduri gave the following advice "Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night [...] These things alone are the concern of men", which may represent the first recorded advocacy of a hedonistic philosophy.
Scenes of a harper entertaining guests at a feast was common in ancient Egyptian tombs (see Harper's Songs), and sometimes contained hedonistic elements, calling guests to submit to pleasure because they cannot be sure that they will be rewarded for good with a blissful afterlife. The following is a song attributed to the reign of one of the Intef kings before or after the 12th dynasty, and the text was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties.
Let thy desire flourish,
In order to let thy heart forget the beatifications for thee.
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee,
Being anointed with genuine marvels of the gods' property.
Set an increase to thy good things;
Let not thy heart flag.
Follow thy desire and thy good.
Fulfill thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart,
Until there come for thee that day of mourning.
Cārvāka was an Indian hedonist school of thought that arose approximately 600 BC, and died out in the 14th century CE. The Cārvākas maintained that the Hindu scriptures are false, that the priests are liars, and that there is no afterlife, and that pleasure should be the aim of living. Unlike other Indian schools of philosophy, the Cārvākas argued that there is nothing wrong with sensual indulgence. They held a naturalistic worldview. They believed that perception is the only source of knowledge.
Carvaka famously said "Yevat jivet sukham jivet, rinam kritva gritam pivet, bhasm bhutasya deham, punara'janamam kutah?". This means " Live with full pleasure till you are alive. Borrow heavily for your wordly pleasures (e.g. drinking clarified and tasty butter), once your body dies, will it ever come back again?"
Democritus seems to be the earliest philosopher on record to have categorically embraced a hedonistic philosophy; he called the supreme goal of life "contentment" or "cheerfulness", claiming that "joy and sorrow are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful" (DK 68 B 188).
The Cyrenaics were an ultra-hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BC, supposedly by Aristippus of Cyrene, although many of the principles of the school are believed to have been formalized by his grandson of the same name, Aristippus the Younger. The school was so called after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus. It was one of the earliest Socratic schools. The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain, but positively enjoyable sensations. Of these, momentary pleasures, especially physical ones, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory. They did, however, recognize the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be gained from altruism. Theodorus the Atheist was a latter exponent of hedonism who was a disciple of younger Aristippus, while becoming well known for expounding atheism. The school died out within a century, and was replaced by Epicureanism.
The Cyrenaics were known for their skeptical theory of knowledge. They reduced logic to a basic doctrine concerning the criterion of truth. They thought that we can know with certainty our immediate sense-experiences (for instance, that I am having a sweet sensation now) but can know nothing about the nature of the objects that cause these sensations (for instance, that the honey is sweet). They also denied that we can have knowledge of what the experiences of other people are like. All knowledge is immediate sensation. These sensations are motions which are purely subjective, and are painful, indifferent or pleasant, according as they are violent, tranquil or gentle. Further they are entirely individual, and can in no way be described as constituting absolute objective knowledge. Feeling, therefore, is the only possible criterion of knowledge and of conduct. Our ways of being affected are alone knowable. Thus the sole aim for everyone should be pleasure.
Cyrenaicism deduces a single, universal aim for all people which is pleasure. Furthermore, all feeling is momentary and homogeneous. It follows that past and future pleasure have no real existence for us, and that among present pleasures there is no distinction of kind. Socrates had spoken of the higher pleasures of the intellect; the Cyrenaics denied the validity of this distinction and said that bodily pleasures, being more simple and more intense, were preferable. Momentary pleasure, preferably of a physical kind, is the only good for humans. However some actions which give immediate pleasure can create more than their equivalent of pain. The wise person should be in control of pleasures rather than be enslaved to them, otherwise pain will result, and this requires judgement to evaluate the different pleasures of life. Regard should be paid to law and custom, because even though these things have no intrinsic value on their own, violating them will lead to unpleasant penalties being imposed by others. Likewise, friendship and justice are useful because of the pleasure they provide. Thus the Cyrenaics believed in the hedonistic value of social obligation and altruistic behaviour.
Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341–c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus and Leucippus. His materialism led him to a general stance against superstition or the idea of divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable "pleasure" in the form of a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) and absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.
In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived but had a unique version of the Golden Rule.
It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly (agreeing "neither to harm nor be harmed"), and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living a pleasant life.
Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes and Ercolano). The poet Lucretius is its most known Roman proponent. By the end of the Roman Empire, having undergone Christian attack and repression, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.
Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.
Mohism was a philosophical school of thought founded by Mozi in the 5th century BC. It paralleled the utilitarianism later developed by English thinkers. As Confucianism became the preferred philosophy of later Chinese dynasties, starting from the Emperor Wu of Han, Mohism and other non-Confucian philosophical schools of thought were suppressed.
Christian hedonism is a controversial Christian doctrine current in some evangelical circles, particularly those of the Reformed tradition. The term was first coined by Reformed Baptist theologian John Piper in his 1986 book Desiring God. Christian Hedonism may describe the theology of Jonathan Edwards. In the 17th century, the atomist Pierre Gassendi adapted Epicureanism to the Christian doctrine.
Utilitarianism addresses problems with moral motivation neglected by Kantianism by giving a central role to happiness. It is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "good" of the society. It is thus one form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined by its resulting outcome. The most influential contributors to this theory are considered to be the 18th and 19th-century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Conjoining hedonism—as a view as to what is good for people—to utilitarianism has the result that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest total amount of happiness (see Hedonic calculus). Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill's versions of hedonism differ. There are two somewhat basic schools of thought on hedonism:
A dedicated contemporary hedonist philosopher and writer on the history of hedonistic thought is the French Michel Onfray. He has written two books directly on the subject (L'invention du plaisir : fragments cyréaniques and La puissance d'exister : Manifeste hédoniste). He defines hedonism "as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else." "Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent -- while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions."
Onfray's works "have explored the philosophical resonances and components of (and challenges to) science, painting, gastronomy, sex and sensuality, bioethics, wine, and writing. His most ambitious project is his projected six-volume Counter-history of Philosophy," of which three have been published. For him "In opposition to the ascetic ideal advocated by the dominant school of thought, hedonism suggests identifying the highest good with your own pleasure and that of others; the one must never be indulged at the expense of sacrificing the other. Obtaining this balance – my pleasure at the same time as the pleasure of others – presumes that we approach the subject from different angles – political, ethical, aesthetic, erotic, bioethical, pedagogical, historiographical…."
For this he has "written books on each of these facets of the same world view." His philosophy aims "for "micro-revolutions, " or revolutions of the individual and small groups of like-minded people who live by his hedonistic, libertarian values."
The Abolitionist Society is a transhumanist group calling for the abolition of suffering in all sentient life through the use of advanced biotechnology. Their core philosophy is negative utilitarianism. David Pearce is a theorist of this perspective and he believes and promotes the idea that there exists a strong ethical imperative for humans to work towards the abolition of suffering in all sentient life. His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as "paradise engineering". A transhumanist and a vegan, Pearce believes that we (or our future posthuman descendants) have a responsibility not only to avoid cruelty to animals within human society but also to alleviate the suffering of animals in the wild.
Critics of hedonism have objected to its exclusive concentration on pleasure as valuable. In particular, G. E. Moore offered a thought experiment in criticism of pleasure as the sole bearer of value: he imagined two worlds - one of exceeding beauty and the other a heap of filth. Neither of these worlds will be experienced by anyone. The question, then, is if it is better for the beautiful world to exist than the heap of filth. In this Moore implied that states of affairs have value beyond conscious pleasure, which he said spoke against the validity of hedonism.
It is argued that if social constructionism is going to come to grips with morality and agency, it must abandon explanations that invoke the necessary causation of metaphysical abstractions such as hedonism.
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