Hello, Hedonism

A response to Chapter 1 of The Fundamentals Of Ethics, by Russ Shafer Landau

The questions, “What is the meaning of life?” “Is there purpose to it all?”, and, “Why are we here?” have enhanced humanity’s plethora of world views, establishing paths that have allowed humans to see themselves and their lives as “valuable”. Hedonism is a more materialistic, individualistic philosophy on how to find that meaning; I personally see it as an intellectually lazy argument and a cop out answer in the search for true joy (which is not always going to be in the format of a serotonin boost.) It states that we should strive for happiness for the sake of the happiness itself, and although I have no issue with happiness, the route seems too broad to be honest. For example, a psychopath could find a great deal of happiness in the incident of running over a turtle with his car. Hedonism would state that a man who finds joy in running over turtles ultimately is going to have a better life (or at least for that day) over the man who is apathetic to the event, and certainly more-so than the man who broods for the rest of the day in remorse over the turtle he murdered on his drive to work. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but the search for happiness is the mission of the individual, and for a person who enjoys many things, there will be a plethora of happiness opportunities available for them on the table.  

A vegan activist would find the turtle killing psychopath a problem, and proceed to fight against animal cruelty. This may bring that vegan some satisfaction, in the personal knowledge that they actively fight for a cause, but how much happiness, as opposed to stress, derives from their activism as animals will be perpetually slaughtered as long as animals exist? Can the activist truly be happy in what they do? Or does the psychopath experience a truer sense of inner peace, being unable to feel the remorse for his actions? 

“There are many paths to happiness,” claims Hedonism. She (the philosophy), goes on, “Just because *you* found inner peace meditating with a Buddha doesn’t mean scrap for me; I find my own happiness in the strip club.” 

I’d then ask Hedonism, “What happens when you drop a pencil?” I’d like to think she’d say, “It falls down.” Then, I’d genuinely want to know why she believes that this happiness, that supposedly is so meaningful, has so many routes to attain it, whereas with anything else that is justifiably real in life abides by very strict rules and principles. She would probably reply something sassy, “A pencil could land on a table, a chair, or on the floor; I suppose that’s your metaphysical answer. We all strive for happiness and we land on different things,” to which I’d say, “Yes, something could interfere with it’s craving for the center of the earth and prevent it’s true journey, tricking it into believing that it’s made it to its final destination. It rests on the table; perhaps that is it’s strip club. It’s superficially happy for now, but it wants to be much deeper than that. Eventually, and hopefully, what it lands on will crumble before it does, and it can continue that descent; suppose the pencil deteriorates first, though? Wouldn’t it be a shame if it never completed it’s journey, and never found that true happiness?” 

Hedonism rolls her eyes at me. “Happiness is a matter of personal choice. If we are deliberately using our will, we put ourselves through a series of experiments throughout our lives which lead us, ultimately, to what our individual source of happiness looks like. It’s not going to be the center of the earth for every pencil.”

“Then why do the pencils fall straight down?” I question.

“Humans are much more complicated than pencils,” Hedonism says, bringing us out of the metaphor.

“If we are so complicated, then why are we putting so much value on one emotion?” I snap back, “Because you’re right. We ARE more complicated than pencils.”

She glares. “Look, bub. Who’s happier? A man who enjoys what he experiences in life or a man who doesn’t? It comes down to that, really.”

“I’ll give you that, Hedonism. It’s the man who enjoys what he experiences. A miser doesn’t have a great time in life. That’s well and true. But, if that’s the only standard of existence- enjoying oneself- what makes the meaning of life anything more than perpetually seeking a serotonin drip? And why bother making these grabs at happiness when you could take ecstasy til you plot? What makes a junky’s life any less meaningful than the life of an actor, musician, philosopher, or athlete?”

“Perhaps you’re getting stuck on the meaningful bit, no? I never said anything about meaning or purpose.”  

“So this whole conversation is for naught?”

“I’m going to go to the strip club. I’ll see you later.”

“But I was leading up to- perhaps the meaning of life is about relationships.”

Hedonism shakes her head. “Girl, we’re not talking about relationships. If those make you happy, be my guest. If they make you upset, then why are you bothering with them?”

“I thought philosophy helped a person see that you can’t find happiness in money and sex, and right now that’s what you’re going off to partake in. How can you credit philosophy for seeing beyond the glitz and glam, to see what will truly make a person happy, and then deny that there is depth beyond the pencil landing on a table instead of falling into the center of the earth?”

“Well happiness doesn’t always come as easy as a lap dance. For example, I go to the gym and burn my arms out, not because it makes me happy in the moment, but because I know I’ll be happy when I am in a better state of health. There’s depth to that. And I study religion because I know I’ll be happier when I feel more spiritually in tune.” 

I raise my eyebrow. “…you study religion?” She begins to speak and I cut her off, “Biologically, unless you had a chemical imbalance in your brain, working out typically makes the average living creature happier. That’s materialistic happiness. But, you’re studying religion?”

“Every religion leads to the center of the earth,” she says, bringing the metaphor back.

“But they’ve all got quite a few differences, Hedonism.”

“There are many ways to happiness.”

“But religion isn’t all about happiness; a lot of religions place a great emphasis on suffering.” 
“If suffering makes you happy-“
”Hedonism, back to the metaphor. The center of the earth is the center of the earth; it’s not a different place that each pencil is traveling to; gravity is calling all of them to the same destination. I believe that you are misguided; you think that happiness is the final destination- that happiness is the center of the earth. But I think that there is much more depth to the situation than that, because happiness is a shallow and fleeting emotion. If every pencil was meant for it, than you wouldn’t have pencils that had chemical imbalances. You wouldn’t have pencils who find great meaning within their suffering. You wouldn’t have pencils that dug their way through that table-“

“Pencils can’t dig through tables.”

“But a human can pick up a pencil and hammer it into that table til it pokes a hole through it or even just push it off the table—“

“Hold up are you talking about a divine consciousness? Prime mover? God? Is that even part of the conversation? This isn’t in the textbook.”

“You’re the one who practices religion; you brought it up.”

“Only in a way that makes me happy. The table my pencil is lying on is my religion. The moment it stops making me happy, I’m out,” Hedonism chimes with a grin. 

“I still think that you’re a cop out and won’t bring true joy,” I mutter, to which Hedonism replies, “I really don’t care.”

The two of us agreed, however, that this conversation made us both pretty happy, as it was mentally stimulating and fun.

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