A Compendium of Bad Thinking: The Hedonism of Henry Sidgwick

Happy birthday, Henry Sidgwick!  Welcome to the Hedonism Hotel!

I was poking around on-line the other day and I actually found a Jamaican resort which has as its claim to fame that “it’s the only resort where you can do what you want, when you want, in a way that you want.” 

The adults-only, clothing-optional resort gushes about its nude beach and the performances by Circus Erotica.  If you are so unfortunate as to be stuck at a boring old family friendly hotel in the neighborhood, for $75 you can purchase a “naughty night pass” so you don’t miss out on the action.

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I hope you’re offended, as I am, to realize that there are regular clientele for such a low-grade “pleasure palace”—that the goal of one’s vacation to this club is not knowledge, or personal growth, or family fun, or new discoveries, but plain old hedonism. 

The hotel owes its existence in part to Henry Sidgwick, a 19th-century British utilitarian philosopher and a proponent of what he called “ethical hedonism.” 

Born May 31, 1838, the son of an ordained minister and the brother-in-law of Edward White Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Sidgwick began his career as a lecturer in classics at Trinity College, Cambridge.  Along the way, though, he made some career decisions which seem, at first blush, to be diametrically opposed:  having no love for organized religion, he resigned his fellowship in the Church of England; yet he changed his academic program to focus on moral philosophy.  Throughout his life, Sidgwick saw Christianity as “indispensable and irreplaceable—looking at it from a sociological point of view.”  But while he acknowledged the social advantages of a society built on Christian principles, Sidgwick never returned to personal faith.

Sidgwick’s seminal work, The Methods of Ethics, was published in 1874, and formed the basis for a line of study that believed happiness—or rather, pleasure—to be the highest good and the only motivator for human action.  Ethical hedonism claims that individuals should act in such a way as to produce their own pleasure.  No other motives are considered valid.

Sidgwick’s theories were embraced, in whole or in part, by a rogue’s gallery of philosophers and academicians including:

  • Sigmund Freud, whose “life instinct” is essentially the pursuit of pleasure;
  • Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö, a vociferous proponent of one world government;
  • Mordecai Kaplan, rabbi and essayist who rejected classical theism and asserted that God is not personal.  Rather, he taught, “God” is the sum-total of all natural processes that allow man to become self-fufilled.
  • Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.  Singer’s utilitarianism leads him to argue in support of abortion and beyond:  He believes that human infants, perhaps to the age of 18 months, lack the essential characteristics of personhood, “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”—and that therefore, killing a newborn baby should be acceptable, should the parents so desire.

Catholic theology is directly opposed to Hedonism, noting its fundamental errors: 

  1. Hedonism rests on a false psychological analysis; namely, that pleasure depends on obtaining some end or good which is fixed in nature.  No, says the Church; humans are created in the image of God, and have an intrinsic sense of right and wrong; and true happiness or pleasure comes when one behaves morally.  
  2. Hedonism falsely supposes that the only motive for action is pleasure, and that “pleasure” and “desirability” are interchangeable terms.
  3. Even if “pleasure” and “pain” were the only determinants of an action’s morality, it would be impossible to determine just what level of pleasure or pain will result from a given action.  This is difficult when considering a single individual; but it is completely impossible when considering on a larger scale the feelings of one’s family, or an entire  society, or the world’s population.
  4. Egoistic Hedonism reduces all benevolence and self-sacrifice to mere selfishness
  5. No code of morality could ever be established on the basis of pleasure—because pleasure is a subjective feeling, and different individuals would react differently to the same stimulus.  Under Hedonism, there could be no dividing line between right and wrong.
  6. Hedonism is incompatible with noble ideas of duty and moral obligation.  If I must pursue my own happiness, then simply offering one’s bus seat to an elderly woman is imprudent, even wrong.


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