Paradox of hedonism

Paradox of hedonism

The paradox of hedonism, also called the pleasure paradox, is the idea in the study of ethics which points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles. First explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in "The Methods of Ethics", the paradox of hedonism points out that pleasure cannot be acquired directly, it can only be acquired indirectly.


It is often described that we fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them. This has been described variously, by many:

John Stuart Mill, a Utilitarian philosopher, noted this sentiment 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." [John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (NewYork: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909 (p. 94)]

Viktor Frankl in "Man's Search for Meaning":

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself. [Viktor Frankl. "Man's Search for Meaning]

Søren Kierkegaard in "Either/Or":

As given by 18th century satirist Edward Young:

The love of praise, howe’er concealed by art, Reigns more or less supreme in every heart; The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure; The modest shun it, but to make it sure! [THE ESTEEM ENGINE: A RESOURCE FOR INSTITUTIONAL DESIGN. by Geoffrey Brennan [] ]

And one with more poetic imagery, by William Bennet:

"Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay not attention to it and go about your business, you'll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap."


Suppose John likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behavior, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behavior, it is believed that John likes collecting stamps because he gets pleasure from collecting stamps. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell John this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, "“I must collect stamps so I can obtain pleasure”". Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He likes collecting stamps.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.

uggested explanations

"Happiness" is often wrongly equated with "pleasure", though sometimes the identification of the two concepts has been questioned. 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. Sidgwick 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." [The Methods of Ethicsby Henry Sidgwick. BookSurge Publishing (1 Mar 2001) (p. 3) ]

Aristotle might possibly have also noted the paradoxical side of pursuing pleasure. 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. On the other hand, David Pearce argues in his treatise "The Hedonistic Imperative" that humans might be able to use genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neuroscience to eliminate suffering in all sentient life.


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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