Hedonism is a philosophical position that suggests one’s primary moral obligation in life is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. The concept originates with the ancient Greeks (from the word hedoné, meaning pleasure) and is most commonly associated with Greek philosophers Aristippus (435-356 BC) and Epicurus (341-270 BCE), and later informed the writings of 19th century British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

images.jpegAristippus, a follower of Socrates, taught that pleasure is the highest end, and one should never forsake immediate pleasures for some unknown future. Aristippus was also scandal-maker, depicted as living a life of high pleasure, sleeping with courtesans, enjoying fine food and old wines, and accepting payments for his philosophy instruction. He gathered a number of disciples, including his daughter Arete. Aristippus founded the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, named for the Greek colony in Northern Africa where he was born. The Cyrenaics advocated pleasure as the highest good, prefering bodily pleasures to mental pleasures. (1)

Epicurus was considered to be a more moderate hedonist, advocating the happy, tranquil life characterized by the absence of fear and pain. He was one of the first Greeks to suggest that humans should not fear the wrath or punishment of the gods, because the gods do not concern themselves with human beings at all. His philosophy is based on the idea that good and bad derive from pleasure and pain, and moral reasoning is a matter of figuring out which judgment will cause less pain. In that way, Epicurus was not advocating a life of pleasure as much as a life of tranquility, free of fear of death and retribution of the gods. (2)

More modern forms of hedonism can be found in the writings of Bentham and Mill, who proposed the ethical theory of utilitarianism. This theory equates happiness with pleasure, suggesting the best moral judgments result in the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Bentham and Mill differed on how pleasure should be valued, however, and their theories can be divided into two basic categories. (3)

  • Quantitative hedonism - Bentham and his followers suggested that some pleasures are better and longer-lasting than others, and should be valued more. It is only the amount of the pleasure that matters, and the more the better. For example, an extra-large bucket of ice cream should be valued more than a glass of single malt scotch.
  • Qualitative hedonism - Mill argued that pleasures should be scaled, and the quality of the experience depends on the viewpoint of the individual, and that higher quality pleasures experienced by higher quality beings have the most value. For example, Mill famously suggested that it is better to be a frustrated human than a satisfied pig. (4)

Florida historian Darrin M. McMahon explores the trajectory of pleasure and happiness in his 2006 book Happiness: A History, picking up hints from the writings of evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin , that suggested pleasure seeking may be instinctive, and therefore critical to the survival of the human species. McMahon's book points out the pitfalls of this constant pleasure seeking. He writes of the “tragedy of happiness” and the “hedonistic treadmill” (p. 422), the human tendency to grow bored with a chosen pleasure and become anxious and uneasy with longing for a new thrill. (5)

McMahon’s study of evolutionary psychology endorses Darwin's theory that this human need to propel into newer and better kinds of pleasure aids in human survival. He warns, however, that this could mean there is no final contentment, no end game of human happiness. “It is in our interest – and so in our genes – always to be slightly wanting, restlessly searching for further satisfaction. A bit of anxiety keeps us on guard against danger, and a bit of unfulfilled desire keeps us on the chase, ever eager to ensure our survival and that of our kin,” (p. 423).


1. "Aristippus", The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved September 24 from http://www.iep.utm.edu/a/aristip.html#

2. Konstan, David, "Epicurus", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/epicurus/

3. Sinnott-Armstrong, Walter, "Consequentialism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/consequentialism/

4. Mill, J.S. (1863). Utilitarianism. London: Park, Son and Bourne. A digitized copy from http://www.archive.org/details/a592840000milluoft

5. Darwin, Charles (1969). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882, ed. Nora Barlow. W.W. Norton, New York, as cited by McMahon, Darrin M. (2006). Happiness: A History. New York: Grove Press. (pp. 410-424)