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Paradox of hedonism

The paradox of hedonism was first explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidwick[?] in The Methods of Ethics.

More than a few common proverbs capture the idea that when one pursues happiness itself, one is miserable; but, when one pursues something transcendent to the self (i.e. a project important to humanity, a code of ethics, a religious commitment) one achieves happiness. Among others thinkers, John Stuart Mill, a Utilitarian philosopher, noted this in his autobiography:

"But I now thought that this end [one's happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[....] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[....] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." (p. 94)

Happiness is often naively equated with pleasure, though sometimes the identification of the two concepts has been argued as part of a greater philosophical position called Hedonism.

If, whether for good or bad reasons, one does equate happiness with pleasure, then the paradox of hedonism arises. When one aims solely towards pleasure itself, one's aim is frustrated. Sidwick comments on such frustration after a discussion of self-love in the above-mentioned work:

"I should not, however, infer from this that the pursuit of pleasure is necessarily self-defeating and futile; but merely that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e., that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it." (p. 3)

Aristotle might possibly have also noted the paradoxical side of purusing pleasure, though not, at any rate, as clearly as Sidwick. Human beings are actors whose endeavors bring about consequences, and among these are pleasure. Aristotle then argues as follows:

"How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity." (p. 1099)

Here Aristotle might be interpreted as noting how eventually the spirit is willing [to pursue pleasure], but the flesh is weak [in obtaining pleasure]. Perhaps this is at the root of what causes the paradox to arise. Sooner or later, finite beings will be unable to acquire and expend the resources necessary to maintain their sole goal of pleasure; thus, they find themselves in the company of misery.

Further Reading

  • Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1175, 3-6 in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon ed. (New York: Random House, 1941)
  • John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909)
  • Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1874/1963)



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