Useful Notes / Ethical Hedonism

“He’s a hedonist at heart. All those fasts and vigils and stakes and crosses are only a facade. Or only like foam on the sea shore. Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are ‘pleasures for evermore'."

Moral philosophy takes two basic forms (there are also others, less common, like virtue ethics). One is morality that judges actions based on what consequences they have. This is known as teleology or consequentialism, and the most common form of consequentialism is utilitarianism or ethical hedonism: the belief that the greatest good is to create as much happiness as possible for as many people as possible.

As a trope, ethical hedonism is known as For Happiness. Darker forms of utilitarianism are expressed by tropes such as Totalitarian Utilitarian and Utopia Justifies the Means. Such darker utilitarianism can also be a motivation behind a Well-Intentioned Extremist, although a Well-Intentioned Extremist may just as easily be a darker form of deontologist or an adherent to some other ethical philosophy.

The other basic form is morality that judges actions based on the principles behind the actions. This is known as Deontology. Some light forms of deontology are related to The Golden Rule. Darker forms of deontology are expressed by tropes such as Principles Zealot.

One could say that Ethical Hedonism tends more toward Chaotic Good while deontology tends more toward Lawful Good, although those are generalizations and in specific cases the opposite can be true (e.g. a deontologist might believe in a Chaotic Good duty to oppose an unjust law, or a utilitarian may hold a Lawful Good belief that a good government should be supported because it keeps everyone happy). Deontology stresses principles and duty to oneself and others, while consequentialism such as utilitarianism stresses keeping people, both oneself and others, as happy as possible. Epicureanism is one philosophy advocating ethical hedonism which started in ancient Greece.

Maximize happiness, minimize suffering

Ethical hedonism is not about getting total happiness for everyone: while such a goal would be great to achieve, it's too unrealistic to aim for. Instead, the goal is to create as much happiness as possible for as many as possible.

This may include creating destructive suffering as a necessary evil for the greater good. This doesn't have to lead all the way down to Utopia Justifies the Means, it can stop at some much earlier point along the Sliding Scale of Unavoidable vs. Unforgivable.

The thing is, no matter how evil or destructive a person is, an ethical hedonist believes that it is a bad thing to hurt that person. In itself, his happiness is just as important as anyone else's, and his suffering just as undesirable as anyone else's.

Abuse, violence and other violations are unacceptable in ethical hedonism, for two reasons. First, the act usually generate more suffering and deprivation of happiness (for the victim) than it creates happiness (for the abuser). Second, if abuse was accepted, then people would be more afraid and thus less happy. Thus, hurting abusers to make them stop is sometimes necessary, but if possible then it's better to redeem them without hurting them - two wrongs don't make one right.

In theory, a pure ethical hedonist has no problem with lies and deceit as long as it's done in a friendly and well-meaning manner. She would rather let her fallen comrades die happy than letting her honesty go too far. Of course, in most situations ethical hedonism consider lies and deceit to be a bad thing. But that's not because it's bad in principle but rather because it has a tendency to have unforeseen bad consequences. When it seems clear that a lie will have no such bad consequences, an ethical hedonist may even see telling the truth as the evil action in that situation. This applies to many of the cases people view as "white lies."

Trying one's best for happiness is a required trait of any character who is an ethical hedonist without being a Straw Hypocrite or Hollywood Atheist. However, a character doesn't have to be philosophically inclined to be for happiness. The desire to make the world a better place through spreading or enabling happiness can come from anything from simple empathy to the religious worship of a deity that fits the concept.

The dark side

An ethical hedonist character that strives for happiness doesn't try to force people to be "happy" or otherwise violate them for the greater good. That's the realm of the Totalitarian Utilitarian.

However, given enough Insane Troll Logic, or simply a disconnect from empathy, human dignity and the spirit behind the principle, ANY principle can be twisted into something vile. Ethical hedonism is not immune from this trend, and it can be perverted either by interpreting "Happiness" in a way that the person receiving the "happiness" wouldn't agree with, or taking the principle to some narrow-minded extreme. There are three main such subversions:

  1. We should maximize the average happiness. This can be done by killing off everyone who's unhappy. (This is like saying that the best way to end your computer problems is to blow up your computer.)note 
  2. We should maximize the total happiness. Since even starving people are capable of happiness, we should reproduce as much as possible without any sense of sustainable development. (This fails to take into account the long-term consequences of unsustainability, which will end up reducing happiness in the long run.)
  3. Negative utilitarianism: Instead of maximizing happiness, we should only focus on minimizing suffering. However, all living things suffer to some extent, so we should just put them out of their misery. (This assumes that death is not bad at all, and doesn't count as suffering.)

Any of these three versions makes for a entertaining Strawman Political Totalitarian Utilitarian.

Alternative Title(s): For Happiness, Utilitarianism