Philosophers commonly distinguish between psychological hedonism and ethical hedonism. Psychological hedonism is the view that humans are psychologically constructed in such a way that we exclusively desire pleasure. Ethical hedonism is the view that our fundamental moral obligation is to maximize pleasure or happiness. Ethical hedonism is most associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus *http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/epicur.htm* (342-270 BCE.) who taught that our life’s goal should be to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. In fact, all of our actions should have that aim:
We recognize pleasure as the first good innate in us, and from pleasure we begin every act of choice and avoidance, and to pleasure we return again, using the feeling as the standard by which we judge every good. [Letter to Menoeceus]
In A Letter to Menoeceus – one of his few surviving fragments – Epicurus gives advice on how to decrease life’s pains, and explains the nature of pleasure. As to decreasing life’s pain, Epicurus explains how we can reduce the psychological anguish that results from fearing the gods and fearing death. Concerning the nature of pleasure, Epicurus explains that at least some pleasures are rooted in natural and, as a rule, every pain is bad and should be avoided, and every pleasure is good and should be preferred. However, there is delicate relation between pain and pleasure. Every pain we have is bad, and we should minimize pain when possible. However, sometimes simply minimizing life’s pains is sufficient to attain happiness, and we need to go a step further and actively increase pleasure. He argues that we should not pursue every possible pleasure, such as when they produce more pain. Also, argues that the fewer desires we have, the easier it will be to experience happiness.
During the middle ages, Christian philosophers largely denounced Epicurean hedonism, which they believed was inconsistent with the Christian emphasis on avoiding sin, doing God’s will, and developing the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity. Reniassance philosophers such as Erasmus *http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/e/erasmus.htm* (1466-1536) revived hedonism and argued that its emphasis on pleasure was in fact compatible with God’s wish for humans to be happy. In his famous work Utopia (1516), British philosopher Thomas More (1478-1535) explains that “the chief part of a person’s happiness consists of pleasure.” Like Erasmus, More defends hedonism on religious grounds and argues that, not only did God design us to be happy, but that uses our desire for happiness to motivate us to behave morally. More importantly More distinguishes between pleasures of the mind, and pleasures of the body. He also argues that we should pursue pleasures that are more naturally grounded, so that we do not become preoccupied with artificial luxuries. In the 18th century, the moral theme of pleasure and happiness was more systematically explored by Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) and David Hume *http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/h/hume.htm* (1711-1776), whose theories were precursors to utilitarianism *http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/u/utilitar.htm*.
“Consequentialism” refers to a class of normative moral theories which maintain that an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable. Thus, correct moral conduct is determined solely by a cost-benefit analysis of an action’s consequences. Consequentialism requires that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action; we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are also called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, or end, since the end result of the action is the sole determining factor of its morality.
Most versions of consequentialism are more precisely formulated than the general principle above. In particular, contending consequentialist theories specify which consequences for affected groups of people are relevant. Three subdivisions of consequentialism emerge:
Ethical Egoism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable only to the agent performing the action.
Ethical Altruism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone except the agent.
Utilitarianism: an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable to everyone.
Advocates of all three views often defended their theories by appealing to certain human instincts. Proponents of ethical egoism appeal a psychological principle of motivation called psychological egoism. Psychological egoism states that all human actions, with no exception, are ultimately motivated by selfish interests. This, they argue, is an unalterable fact of human nature. Egoists argue further that moral obligation must operate within the confines of our human makeup (we clearly cannot be expected to perform actions beyond our abilities). The conclusion they draw, then, is that ethical egoism is the only possible criterion for ethical judgment since it alone recognizes our completely selfish motivations. But, ethical altruism makes a similar appeal to human nature. Altruists reject the theory of psychological egoism and argue instead that humans are instinctively benevolent. And instinctive benevolence, they argue, is the feature of our human nature which is the basis of our altruistic moral obligations. Finally, utilitarianism suggests a mediation between our selfish and altruistic ideals. Some utilitarians argue that our public and private lives are so entwined, that when we pursue our selfish interests, we are at the same time pursing the interests of others. J.S. Mill also argued that, although humans are selfish, we also have an instinctive feeling of unity which helps expand our private interests.
Unfortunately, all of these appeals to instinctive motives fail, for there is no way to empirically establish whether human nature is instinctively selfish, benevolent, or some mixture of the two. All three consequentialist theories can be evaluated from the standpoint of our common moral intuitions. Problems are immediately revealed with ethical egoism. According to ethical egoism, acts of lying, stealing, and even killing would be morally permissible so long as (1) the agent benefited, and (2) he was not caught. But, it is clearly contrary to our common notions of morality to call such acts “moral.” Ethical altruism also clashes with our common moral intuitions since most believe that one’s own interests should count for at least something. Finally, problems arise with utilitarianism because of its emphasis on public benefit. According to utilitarianism, it would be morally wrong to waste time on leisure activities such as watching television, since our time could be spent in ways which produced a greater social benefit, such as charity work.
Finally, all of the above versions of consequentialism leave open the possibility that a heinous action, such as torture or slavery, could be morally permissible if its benefits outweighed its disbenefits. However, our common moral intuitions tell us that such actions are unjust regardless of the beneficial consequences produced. Consequentialism, then, appears to be flawed at its very root since justice can be dispensed with if it produces the appropriate benefits. In view of the above problems, consequentialist principles have been modified to bring these theories more in line with our common moral intuitions. This is especially so with utilitarianism.