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First Premise

Human behavior is motivated by emotions, instincts and other unconscious drives.

Second Premise

Pleasure, happiness or what could be more accurately called eudaimonia is the only thing worth pursuing as an end in itself; the best life is lived in the pursuit of eudaimonia and the avoidance of pain.

Third Premise

Every choice has not only an immediate and intended effect, but several distant and unintended effects. This is true of isolated incidents and even more so of habits that form when the same choices are repeated often enough over time.

The difference between rational hedonism and what is most commonly called hedonism

Short- term v. Long-term

The primary difference between rational hedonism and the more well-known sensual hedonism, the archetype that comes to mind when we think of hedonism, is the distinction between time preferences. Choices that lead to pleasure in the short term, may lead to long-term pain. Choices that are painful in the short term, may lead to greater long-term pleasure. The latter requires one to defer gratification; sacrificing a present comfort or pleasure in order to attain a greater pleasure in the future, while in the former one can act impulsively without forethought.

Rational hedonism and sensual hedonism concur on both the first and second premises, but diverge on the third. Sensual hedonism typically does not involve premeditation or any deliberation over consequences; it is not so much a philosophy as it is a live for the moment attitude.

Higher and lower pleasures

The second difference between rational hedonism and sensual hedonism is that the object of the former is predominantly the stimulation of faculties exclusive to humans, while the object of the latter is the gratification of desires shared in common with other animals. The rational hedonist pursues intellectual pleasures and develops moral sentiments such as sympathy, while the sensual hedonist pursues base pleasures such as indulgence in sex, eating, recreational drugs, alcohol, and the consumption of luxury goods.


The higher pleasures can be sustained for a longer period of time than the lower pleasures and provide greater satisfaction in less quantity. Repetition of the base pleasures leads to a diminishing response to the pleasurable stimuli and increased tolerance; the limits are material and definite. The intellectual pleasures and moral sentiments are not subject to the same definite limits; they may be repeated without diminishing the response.

Living by principles v. expediency

The four cardinal virtues (i.e. justice, temperance, prudence, courage) are the frame of reference for rational hedonism in judging the merit of each pleasure and pain. Sensual hedonism has no frame of reference other than what is immediately convenient at the moment.

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Comment by Prithvi on January 7, 2017 at 10:45am

Perhaps the world would be a better place today had Epicurus been the world teacher instead of Jesus. On second thought, it is not Jesus who was responsible for the Christianity that dominated Europe, but Constantine and the Council of Nicaea. Personally I feel more resonance with Stoicism than with Epicureanism, and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius contain the kind of maxims that inspire me. But it is easy to explain the ethics of Stoicism by the principles of Epicureanism or rational hedonism. Thank you for your essay. 

Comment by Prithvi on January 7, 2017 at 11:39am

I would like to make one more comment. If you read the story I posted as a blog on PaganSpace on January 7, you will become acquainted with Anat, the Queen of Heaven. I very much identify myself with her and her military virtues. Devotion to duty is innate to me, and without thinking I seem to inhale duty and exhale duty with every breath. Recently my sister left her 13-year old boy in my care for a week. He constantly surrounds himself with other boys and they seem to live only for the pleasures of the moment. After they have been in his room for a few hours I go in and find chicken bones and french fries strewn all over the floor. I said they could eat in the room but I did not anticipate this. It is very hard to bring order to the habits of a child when his mother cultivated only chaos. I am trying to keep the boys from smoking cigarillos when I am not there, but they constantly lie to me and use air freshener so that I won't smell anything. I wonder what would happen to my nephew if he were alone for a half hour without television or computer games. A half hour of silence might be a novel experience. He has no inner life and my tendency was to think that he is "worthless material". Your essay on practical hedonism helps me to see that he may indeed have worth, but he is living exclusively for short-term pleasures instead of the higher pleasures that we may obtain through our human (instead of animal) faculties. 

Comment by Philonous on January 7, 2017 at 9:38pm

@ Sophia 

At that age the prefrontal cortex has not fully developed the executive functions necessary to predict the consequences of behavior and plan for the distant future. Adolescents don't fully grasp the concept of sacrificing a present reward for a greater reward in the future; it is something that must be learned through operant conditioning, reinforcing desirable outcomes and punishing undesirable ones. My objection to Orthodox Stoicism is that most people do not learn ethics as a scholar or Scientist would; people use pleasure and pain as indicators of what is good and bad for them, and what causes pain or pleasure in others to determine which behaviors are right and wrong. The pleasure principle guided behavior before there was reason and even though we have the ability to reason, it only really exists to facilitate the ends of the pleasure principle. Although Stoic ethics are the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy so it is a rather robust school of philosophy. 

Comment by Medb St. Jerome on January 10, 2017 at 9:10am

The problem with relying on pain/pleasure is that I’ve found some of the best things for me were painful, and some of most pleasurable things almost killed me. I like Ramsey Dukes’ concept of ethics as a kind of mathematical problem with varying orders of complexity like levels of Integrals. A few ethical problems resolve easily. However, many ethical problems will not solve through simple algorithmic patterns (i.e. there’s no quadratic formula for it,) and some are technically unsolvable requiring a best fit approach or an ethics version of calculus. While that doesn’t help with an unreflective 13-year-old, it does help to remember that making ethical choices is a complex skill that requires experimentation and feedback to develop (e.g. the Montessori Method.) We have to make bad choices and feel the consequences to learn how to properly calculate the next level of decisions.

Comment by Philonous on January 10, 2017 at 10:40am

@ Medb St. Jerome

'The problem with relying on pain/pleasure is that I’ve found some of the best things for me were painful, and some of most pleasurable things almost killed me.'

You apparently failed at reading comprehension as I implied in my post that not all pleasures are worth pursuing and not all pains are worth avoiding. I have said this much on home page. Read and actually think about what is said before writing this dribble. You also seem to lack a coherent definition of pleasure based on common misconceptions. Pleasure is not only the absence of pain, but it can also be synonymous with eudaimonia depending on your time preference, something you would've picked up had you read the post.

Duke's concept of ethics fails because humans don't learn ethics as scholars and scientists learn their areas of expertise; humans are not fundamentally rational beings doing ethical math problems. People do not have time to sit down and do ethical calculus, especially when they must make split second decisions. In real life, people learn ethics, at least from their authority figures, through operant conditioning, which relies on the pleasure principle.


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