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4 Mins
January 25, 2011

Question: I would like to know how Objectivism is different from hedonism, at least as far as morality is concerned. They seem very similar in this regard.

Answer: Hedonism is the moral doctrine that pleasure, somehow construed, is the ultimate purpose of morality. Moral philosophers have speculated that pleasure might be maximized, and pain minimized, by the right moral code. Some have speculated that pleasure or happiness might be measured in "hedons," which would allow us to compare the amount of net pleasure in one person versus that of another. This is the position of Utilitarianism, for example.

Objectivism holds that one's own life is the ultimate value. This is because each of us is a living organism, and we are adapted to live as long and as well as we can. As Ayn Rand explains in her essay "The Objectivist Ethics," the idea of "good" versus "evil" presupposes a fundamental conception of what is or is not of value, and more fundamentally, of what it is to value something. "Value" presupposes a living being, a being that faces an alternative that matters to it. Living beings face the ultimate alternative, life versus death, and continue in existence through successful actions to gain and use values such as food, shelter, and so on. All our other uses of ideas of value derive from this base in our needs as living beings, and it is a mistake to separate moral ideals from the biological basis of value.

(Objectivist philosopher Harry Binswanger has developed this argument in his "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts," published by the ARI Press, and Objectivist philosopher Tara Smith's book "Viable Values," published by Rowman and Littlefield, is also useful in this respect. For scholarly debate on these issues, see TAS's Objectivist Studies monographs: "Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand " by Roderick Long and others, and " Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness? " by Neera Badhwar and others.)  

Feelings of pleasure and pain are automatized reactions that evolution has adapted our bodies to feel. Positive and negative emotions arise partly from the same physiological basis, but they are largely determined by our subconscious, conceptual value judgments. Our beliefs cannot prevent a pin-prick from causing pain (in the main), while our beliefs do affect how we feel about the current President of the U.S.A., to give one pair of examples. Generally, the pleasure/pain mechanism and our emotions exist to help us to live: they warn us against disvalue and urge us toward valuable things. We feel hunger for food, and we love good friends, for example. But these are automatic or mostly subconscious processes, respectively, and they can err. Our only way of knowing for certain what is of value and what is not is the same way we know anything: through conscious, rational inquiry, based in facts.

This why Ayn Rand has her hero and spokesman state in Atlas Shrugged : "My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists — and in a single choice: to live." She means that reason as a means of knowing, and life as the ultimate value in ethics, are the bases from which other facts are integrated into Objectivism .

Rand has called happiness man's "highest moral purpose."

Rand has also called happiness man's "highest moral purpose." What she meant was this: we are integrated beings of mind and body. When we are living successfully and healthily, we are using all our faculties and functioning as successful wholes. Happiness, the experience of "non-contradictory joy" that proceeds from the achievement of our values, is the emotional experience of success in living. Pleasure is a physical experience of success in living. So happiness and life are two sides of the same thing, in a sense.

So, we need objective standards of morality, founded in our rational grasp of the facts about what is of benefit to ourselves as living human beings and of what tends to promote our illness and death. In that context, we need to pursue happiness and pleasure, as part of enhancing and furthering our own lives.

Hedonism, by emphasizing the mental experience of values at the expense of any clear connection to what value really is, is an invitation to frustration and perversion. Frustration, because it is often the case that the pursuit of pleasure alone leads to no pleasure at all (think of the misery of the drunkard and the glutton). Perversion, because our emotional mechanisms can be tuned to many different frequencies: if the ultimate writ for an action is how you feel about it, then there can be no moral objection to whatever act gives the actor his jollies. Did ordering the death of millions make Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot FEEL worse at the time?

Happiness has many confusingly interrelated sub-gradations and elements. A tough struggle can thrill us and give us great satisfaction if we succeed: this is what leads people to climb mountains, for example. But novelty can seem fun, too, and an easy life always has its charms, and then the grass always seems greener on the other side of the fence. Focusing too much on what one is feeling, and not enough on the long-term goals and effort that success in life requires, can lead one to make serious mistakes in life, pursuing thrills over real achievement, and novelty over what is really of value in the long term (look at Hollywood’s ten-month-marriages, for pity’s sake!). If you don't feel jolly at the moment, is your life miserable and empty, or are you simply wrapped up in other valid and important concerns at the moment?

Of course, the pleasure/pain and related emotional mechanisms exist for a reason. Their healthy use entails acting for the sake of one's life. So an enlightened consideration of how one might live a life of pleasure and joy, taking into account the facts of human nature, leads one back to the moral standard of life. Life and happiness are, after all, two sides of the same achievement.

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History of Philosophy