Archive | July, 2016

Hedonism part 1: the oyster question

14 Jul


Hedonism – the idea that pleasure is the highest good – was certainly being discussed in ancient Greece by the end of the fifth century BC. It is outlined in Plato’s Protagoras, a dialogue in which Plato’s old teacher Socrates is debating the question of whether virtue can be taught. He’s talking to Protagoras, a leading Sophist and philosophical relativist.

‘So to live pleasurably is good, to live painfully bad?’ Socrates asks.

‘Yes, if one’s pleasure comes from what’s honourable,’ Protagoras replies.

‘Really? Protagoras, you surely don’t subscribe to the commonplace notion that some pleasures are bad, and some pains good?’

Socrates is being ironic here, because Protagoras was famous in his day for challenging conventional views of morality. Wrong-footed by Socrates (something that happens repeatedly in Plato’s dialogues), he has to admit that there are some pleasures that aren’t good, and some pains that aren’t bad.  (Plato, Protagoras 351c) So a criterion for the good life – ‘what is honourable’ – has already been introduced. Pleasure is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. 

In another of Plato’s dialogues, Philebus, Socrates asks his companion Protarchus whether, if he got the chance, he would choose to spend his whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures.

‘Of course I would.’

‘Would you want anything else out of life apart from perfect pleasure?’

‘Certainly not.’

‘Think about it for a minute. Wouldn’t you want wisdom and intelligence and foresight?’

‘Why should I? If I have pleasure, I have everything.’

‘But if you didn’t possess mind or memory or knowledge or true opinion, you wouldn’t know whether you were enjoying pleasure or not.’

‘I suppose not.’oyster

‘And if you had no memory you wouldn’t even know that you had ever enjoyed pleasure in the past. … And if you had no foresight, you wouldn’t be able to look forward to enjoying it in the future. Your life wouldn’t be that of a man. It would be the life of an oyster.’
(Philebus 21b-c)

Here Plato assumes – rightly, I’m sure – that without consciousness we have no way of enjoying pleasure. He also seems to assume that consciousness immediately introduces other factors into the good life, factors that will lead us away from relying solely on pleasure. This assumption is more questionable.

So it seems that identifying pleasure as the highest good involved complex questions right from the start. Nearly a century later, when Epicurus appeared on the philosophical scene, he became the Greek world’s most celebrated hedonist. ‘When pleasure is present, as long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either in the body or the mind.’ (Principle Doctrines 3). But Epicurus’s view of pleasure, like most other people’s, is far from straightforward, since he believed that the limit of pleasure is reached in the removal of pain. If we’re hungry, we eat; but if we go on eating after we’ve dealt with our hunger, then we’ll only cause ourselves further pain. The answer for Epicurus lies in managing our desires so as to achieve maximum pleasure; and maximum pleasure means limited pleasure. This is a far cry from the modern use of the term ‘Epicurean’; and indeed in Epicurus’s own day his doctrines were misinterpreted, and seen as offering an ‘eat, drink and be merry’ message. ‘No, I’m not talking about fine food and fornication,’ he kept having to say. And I’m not talking about oysters either, he might have added, though he didn’t. So I would probably put Epicurus in the ‘desire theories’ category when it comes to ideas about well-being. More of this anon.



Pleasure? Desire? Objective List? 

7 Jul

Which one provides the key to the Paradise Garden?


So far in this blog I’ve been looking at ideas about happiness more or less as I chanced across them, in plays, novels, happiness surveys, or articles about behavioural science. Random, but quite fruitful. Chekhov in particular has convinced me that personal happiness is an objective we might want to think twice about before dedicating time and effort to pursuing it.  Chekhov sees happiness as what nowadays we might call a bourgeois project, bound up with middle-class materialism and complacency. Chillingly, for him it can only ever succeed if we shut our eyes to what is happening around us. So, like an ancient philosopher, I’ve  been asking myself if the pursuit of happiness can ever be compatible with leading a good life.

To probe this question a bit more more deeply I’ve  been trying to examine happiness in a more systematic – that is to say, more theoretical – fashion. I turned first to a resource which I use quite a lot – ‘Plato’, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( According to its entry on ‘happiness’, there are two broad philosophical approaches to the topic. One approach uses happiness as a value term, equating it with well-being or flourishing. The other uses it as a term to describe a psychological condition – the use that features in happiness surveys. This in itself was a revelation to me, as up to now I’ve been using the terms ‘happiness’ and ‘well-being’ more or less interchangeably.

I turned next to the entry on ‘well-being’.  This, ‘Plato’ informs me, relates to how well a person’s life is going for that person in particular. It has what some people refer to as a ‘prudential’ value – it is good for the person, animal or thing that possesses it. This distinguishes it from aesthetic value or moral value, both of which exist in their own right irrespective of who or what possesses them. For example, it may be morally good to give away all your money to the poor, but if you end up living on the street and die of hypothermia, then it won’t turn out to have been very good for you. Conversely, sunshine, water and good soil  may all have prudential value for a plant, but if it happens to be Japanese knotweed, then you may think it has zero aesthetic value and want to banish it from your garden. These examples, I should  add, are my own and not ‘Plato’s’. 

So we’re talking here about what is good for us as individuals. There are three different ideas about what constitutes the essence of personal well-being. The first can be labelled ‘hedonism’. This argues that well-being consists of the greatest balance of pleasure over pain.  Pleasure seems like a good thing to most people – but do we really want to devote all our lives to pursuing it?

The second idea about well-being comes under the heading of ‘desire theories’. According to this, well-being is achieved through the satisfaction of our desires. This may not be the same thing as experiencing pleasure, since what we desire could easily involve us in quite a lot of pain. A simple example would be the wish for better teeth, which sometimes necessitates a fair amount of drilling. Our desires can be subdivided into present desires – what we want now; or comprehensive ones – the things we’d like to acquire over our lifetimes. 

The third idea is referred to as ‘objective list’ – the items which in general are seen as contributing to our well-being. For instance, if people have good teeth they probably don’t ever entertain the idea that their gnashers can give them pleasure, nor could they be said to want them. Even so, good teeth are one aspect of their well-being – something they’ll find out if and when one of their teeth suffers decay. In other words, our well-being may demand things that aren’t pleasurable, and which we don’t know that we want. 

Over the next few weeks I’ll be looking at each of these three theories in turn, courtesy of ‘Plato’.