Stoic Arguments Against Hedonism

Some notes on hedonism and the ancient criticisms made of it by Stoics and others.

AristippusNB: This is a draft.  I’ll add more detail over time and in response to comments.

Hellenistic schools of philosophy were often distinguished from each other in terms of their definition of the supreme good.  The Stoics defined the goal of life as the attainment of wisdom and virtue.  They frequently contrasted this with the common notion that pleasure (hedone) is the most important thing in life.  Indeed, Chrysippus wrote one book entitled Proofs that Pleasure is not the End-in-chief of Action and another on Proofs that Pleasure is not a Good, i.e., pleasure is not intrinsically good at all let alone the supreme goal of life.

Hedonistic philosophies of life can actually take different forms.

  1. The naive assumption that pleasure, and avoidance of pain, is the most important thing in life, which is commonly taken for granted by non-philosophers.
  2. The Cyrenaic philosophy, founded in the early 4th century BC, which proposed an ethical system based on the premise that the goal of life is to experience bodily pleasure in the present moment.
  3. The Epicurean philosophy, founded in the late 4th century BC, which developed a more subtle ethical system, also claiming that pleasure is the goal of life, but distinguishing between different types of pleasure and placing most value on the absence of emotional suffering (ataraxia).

However, the writings of Epicurus and his followers are notoriously ambiguous in this regard and different people tend to interpret his meaning in different ways.  Cicero, for example, insists that Epicureanism endorses the pursuit both of ataraxia and of bodily pleasures of the Cyrenaic kind, citing Epicurus’ own writings in support of this interpretation.

The Stoics mainly focused their criticisms on naive hedonism, which they believed was a common vice.  However, they also frequently attacked the more philosophical doctrines of their rivals, the Epicurean school.  You can read detailed accounts of the various Stoic criticisms of Epicureanism in Seneca, Epictetus, and Cicero’s De Finibus.

This article will explore the basic criticisms of hedonism found in the Stoic literature.  The Stoics typically attacked hedonism using the Socratic method, by exposing contradictions in their opponent’s position through questioning.  For example, there are often apparent conflicts between the claim that pleasure is the goal of life and some of their actions, or other moral assumptions held by them.

Socrates was the original source for criticisms of hedonism found in the Cynic-Stoic tradition.  His student Antisthenes reputedly said that pleasure is bad, and that he would rather go insane than experience pleasure.  However, the Stoics adopted a more moderate position, arguing that pain and pleasure are neither good nor bad, but indifferent, with regard to the good life.  It’s important to bear in mind, therefore, that unlike Antisthenes, the Stoics were not saying that pleasure is bad.  However, they did believe that hedonism, the assumption that “pleasure is (intrinsically) good”, was a  vice, and the basis of an irrational passion.

1. Self-Defeating

One of the most important arguments found in the ancient philosophical literature is the claim that treating pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) as the goal of life is self-defeating.  There’s now a large body of scientific research from the field of psychology, which supports this view and it has become a staple of modern (third wave) cognitive-behavioural therapy.  We tend to refer to this concept under different names, e.g., “experiential avoidance” is the tendency to try to avoid unpleasant feelings, such as pain, depression, or anxiety.  The more strongly we judge subjective feelings to be bad, the more passionately we will tend to try to suppress or avoid them.  This has been repeatedly shown to backfire in psychological studies, e.g., because when we judge something to be extremely bad we automatically tend to focus more attention on it.  In the case of subjective experiences, such as feelings, this backfires because it actually tends to evoke and amplifies the very thing we’re trying to avoid.  One study actually found that people who strongly endorse the belief “anxiety is bad” are more predisposed to developing mental health problems in the future.  That’s strikingly similar to the Epicurean doctrine that pain (which would include anxiety) is bad – it’s virtually direct evidence that holding that value judgement tends to be psychologically harmful.  It’s important to realize that the belief that judging pleasure (and avoidance of pain) to be the supreme goal of life is so directly in conflict with modern psychological research in general.

The Cynics, in particular, were known for arguing that the best way to overcome pain and suffering is, paradoxically, by “voluntary hardship“, or training ourselves to accept unpleasant feelings.  They use a variety of analogies to express this notion.  Someone being chased by wild dogs who tries to run in panic will probably be taken down and savaged by them but if he is brave enough to turn and face them with confidence, they will often back away.  Someone who tentatively grabs a snake by the tail or the middle will get bitten, but someone who firmly grasps it behind the head will be safer.  Someone who hesitantly tries to stamp out a blazing fire may be more likely to get burned than someone who tramples it confidently.  A boxer who keeps backing down and nervously tries to protect himself too fearfully is more likely to be overwhelmed than one who faces his opponent unafraid of taking blows.  Today it’s become a cliche to speak of “grasping the nettle” because someone who grasps a nettle quickly and firmly is less likely to be stung than someone who does it hesitantly.

All of these analogies refer to the paradox of acceptance, which has become a staple of modern chronic pain management and increasingly central to modern behaviour therapy for anxiety and depression.  The more we try to control or suppress unpleasant feelings, the worse they tend to get over the long term.  Whereas the more we can train ourselves to relax into and actively accept unpleasant feelings, as indifferent, the more they tend to naturally abate, to some extent, and the less secondary problems are associated with experiencing them.  That presupposes the attitude that painful or unpleasant feelings are totally “indifferent” (Stoicism) as opposed to the view that they are bad (hedonism).


So much for judging unpleasant feelings too negatively (“pain is bad”).    What about judging pleasant feelings too positively (“pleasure is good”)?  There’s less research on the negative effect of placing too much value on  positive subjective feelings.  However, many philosophers and psychologists in the past have observed that trying too hard to feel happy is often a surefire way to make life miserable.  Feelings of pleasure and happiness seem to occur most reliably, over the long-term, when we do healthy and fulfilling things in life, without being too directly preoccupied with our feelings.  For example, it’s long been established that introspection is associated with anxiety and depression.  People who are happy and fulfilled tend to be more focused on outward things, on other people, on activity, rather than morbidly preoccupied with their own inner world.  Feelings of happiness are best achieved by an indirect approach, that allows them to arise as a byproduct of healthy and constructive activity, rather than by trying to exert too much direct control over our inner thoughts and feelings.  However, as modern behaviour therapists have consistently noted, when we place too much value on feelings of pleasure and happiness, it’s difficult not to end up being preoccupied with exerting internal control in this way because our attention automatically tends to follow our value judgments in this way.  Placing more value on the character of our actions (Stoicism), and focusing attention on them, is more likely to generate positive feelings, ironically, than placing supreme value on the feelings themselves.

2. Not Natural

Some ancient hedonists, starting with the Cyrenaics, tried to argue that it is natural for animals, and human infants, to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  Those are the instincts adult humans inherent, they argued, and we should develop an ethic on that basis.  It tended to be assumed by ancient philosophers that what is natural, or instinctive, is also good and healthy.

However, the Stoics directly attacked this claim.  They argued that animals frequently expose themselves voluntarily to pain or discomfort, and also forego pleasure, under certain circumstances.  That appears to prove that the natural instincts, even of certain species of animals, do not posit pleasure as the supreme goal of life.  For example, many animals will instinctively endure danger and painful injury for the sake of protecting their own offspring from attack.  The Stoics like to refer to the example of a bull who will risk being clawed and bitten by a lion while defending the weaker members of his herd, an example probably drawn from Zeno’s Republic.  Incidentally, I think it’s irrelevant here to question the Stoics’ claims about specific examples of animal behaviour, what matters is that their general point is correct: many animals will definitely risk death or injury to protect their offspring.  (In fact, certain species of cattle are quite skilled at taking down a lion.)

Sometimes people assume that modern behavioural psychology endorses this assumption about animals and humans being primarily motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain.  However, this is not the case.  B.F. Skinner the leading pioneer of American behavioural analysis was at pains to stress that sensations of pain and pleasure are merely common side-effects of reinforcement.

3. Contradicts Common Moral Intuitions

The ancient philosophers provide many examples of situations in which seeking pleasure or avoiding pain as the supreme good would potentially lead us to act in ways that conflict with common moral intuitions, about what is right and wrong.  Some hedonists argue that it’s the fear of punishment or being reprimanded that ensures that they will not break the law, harm others, etc.  However, it turns out that’s a very weak argument because it’s easy to think of situations in which it becomes problematic.

For example, Cicero gives the example of someone who notices that an enemy or rival is about to sit on a woodpile in which a poisonous snake is concealed.  The observer could simply say nothing and nobody would know that he’d allowed his rival to do something dangerous, and possibly die as a result.  With no risk of being caught or punished, arguably the hedonist has no reason to act in a way we’d normally consider ethical.

Hedonists will tend to respond by arguing that their moral conscience would cause them pain even if they were to harm others, etc., under cover of darkness, without any risk of being caught.  However, that’s also a weak argument.  Feelings of conscience are variable and it’s possible to suppress them, e.g., by using certain drugs or suppressing feelings of guilt.  Moreover, it’s well-established that many individuals simply do not experience the painful sting of conscience to a significant degree, e.g., people who suffer from antisocial personality disorder, or even sociopaths.  So feelings of conscience are not a reliable guide to action in general, and in some cases they’re negligible or even completely absent.

As always, it may be that some people would accept the conclusion that as hedonists they can justify acting in ways most people would consider unethical, as long as there’s no risk of being caught and their conscience does not disturb them.  However, for the majority of people this will create a conflict with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.

4. Not Up to Us

Sensations like pain and pleasure are not under our direct control.  The most that we could do is will certain actions that appear likely to have pleasurable consequences.  The Stoics believe, however, that this is contradictory.  To judge something supremely “good”, good in the strong sense, is to desire to bring it about, and to judge something strongly “bad” is to desire to avoid it.  However, it’s arguably irrational to strongly desire something that it is not within our power to attain.  Strictly, speaking we can only wish to do what it is within our power to do, without endorsing two mutually incompatible opinions.  This line of reasoning, that good = desirable = attainable, appears similar to Kant’s principle that “Ought implies can.”  The majority of us certainly do typically desire many things that are unattainable in life, but the Stoics argue that this is contradictory and therefore irrational.

The Stoics argue that it’s more consistent and rational for adult humans to transfer supreme value to our own ability to make value judgments, i.e., reason.  (The Stoics call this our “ruling faculty” or hegemonikon.)   To reason well is to become wise, so moral wisdom (virtue) itself becomes the supreme good.

5. Hypocrisy

The Stoics also employed what cognitive therapists today call the “double standards” strategy to highlight contradictions in their interlocutors’ position.  They ask us to consider what qualities we most admire in others and compare those to the values we set for our own life and actions.  The majority of people don’t tend to praise or admire others who make pleasure their supreme goal in life.  In fact, we actually praise people more when they act virtuously in the face of pain and suffering.  However, it is arguably hypocritical to value different qualities in other people than we aspire to for ourselves.  This can be seen as yet another form of self-contradiction, that comes to light through careful reflection on our values.

Of course, as always, some people may accept this but deny that it’s problematic.  I’ve occasionally met people who say they feel strongly that it makes sense for them to want other people to have different values from their own.  Nevertheless, most people are sensitive to the notion that this is a form of hypocrisy and that tends to be something that provokes the to reconsider their position.  Another way of framing this criticism, employed by the Stoics, is to ask whether the hedonist would wish to live in a society of hedonists, to be surrounded by a community of other people whose supreme goal in life is to maximize their own pleasure.  Many people find this, at first glance, an appealing goal for themselves but they often feel uncomfortable about the idea that other people might hold those values because, e.g., they notice that their own life, and rights, would potentially be of questionable value in the eyes of other hedonists.  For instance, it’s often been pointed out that hedonists, especially in the ancient world, might plausibly conclude that they best way to maximize their own pleasure would be to own slaves.  However, if you happened to be one of those unfortunate enough to be enslaved you might start to wish that your owners had placed more value on human dignity and freedom than on their own experience of pleasure and freedom from pain.  The Stoics thought it was contradictory and irrational, though, for someone to endorse a set of values for themselves that they would potentially find objectionable if followed by other people.

Related to this are discussions of the hedonist view of friendship, which  appear to reduce all friendships to “fairweather” ones, as Seneca puts it.  The Stoics and other Socratics argue that we must treat our friends and loved ones as ends in themselves, in some sense, otherwise that falls short of anything we could call authentic friendship.  Ancient hedonists, by contrast, typically argued that friendship was a kind of social contract in which both parties show affection for each other only insofar as they believe its in their interest to do so, because it offers more opportunity for pleasure, or protection from pain.  However, that obviously makes friendship, or love for ones partner or children, problematic when it becomes a source of pain or distress.  A hedonist may feel motivated to completely abandon a relationship (“cut someone off”) if they believe it’s no longer pleasurable but to the majority of people that can appear selfish.  Again, it’s easier to see that as a tempting motive for one’s own actions but would you want your parents to love you, or your friends to care for you, only as long as they feel enough pleasure from doing so, and to potentially abandon you if the relationship caused them difficulty or pain.  Would a hedonist abandon a spouse dying of a terminal illness, for example?  For many people that would, at least prima facie, create a conflict with other moral intuitions.

6. Brain in Vat

If we assume that the most important thing in life is pleasure then try to imagine a situation in which that could be maximized, it often highlights the conflict with other common moral intuitions.  Suppose, for example, that your brain could be removed from your body and preserved indefinitely, with complete safety, in a vat, fed by nutrient fluids and chemicals that were carefully maintained to maximize your sense of pleasure.

In this thought experiment, more or less everything else is sacrificed from a “normal” life, for the sake of achieving maximum ongoing pleasure, and avoidance of pain or suffering.  This should be the naive hedonist’s ideal.  However, most people feel there’s something unappealing about this as a goal in life.  It clashes too much with their other moral intuitions, which potentially constitutes a reductio ad absurdum.  In conversations with modern Epicureans, I’ve often found that this thought-experiment appears problematic to them as well.  Although, as always, there may be some individuals who would say they’re perfectly happy to accept this sort of hedonistic “brain in vat” situation as the goal of life.

Another version of this criticism would be to imagine that a drug or neurosurgical procedure might become available that would guarantee our long-term pleasure and freedom from pain, but would reduce our IQ to the level of a dumb animal.  For the sake of argument, we can assume that for a fee our safety is ensured by caretakers.  Perhaps this is an expensive form of retirement available only to the super-rich.  For a fee, you can live out the rest of your life in total bliss, but you’d be rendered stupid at the same time.  A happy pig rather than an unhappy wise man.  Again, this tends to clash with people’s moral intuitions.  The Stoics were aware that most people, on reflection, are not willing to sacrifice their sanity or intelligence, for virtually any price.  They took this as support for their own claim that wisdom is the highest good, and goal of life.

7. Long-Term Hedonism

A common response from hedonists is to argue that some of those objections can be countered by qualifying the claim that pleasure is the goal of life by specifying that it’s about maximizing long-term pleasure, and minimizing pain or discomfort.  However, the Stoics and other ancient critics of hedonism realized that this was a weak defence.  It actually does nothing to answer any of the lines of criticism mentioned above, with the possible exception of the general point about hedonism being in conflict with other moral intuitions.  A hedonist might argue that if we were pursuing short-term pleasure then we might be led to do things that are typically considered unethical but that the pursuit of long-term pleasure means we’re more likely to act in an ethically praiseworthy manner.

Seneca and others point out, first of all, that this way of qualifying hedonism appears to make absolutely no difference if we specifically consider situations where there simply is no “long-term” subjective experience for us to care about, i.e., where our death is imminent.  A soldier fighting to protect the welfare of his wife and children, his friends and fellow countrymen, could not use his own “long-term” pleasure as a motive for acting courageously because if he dies then he’ll obviously be incapable of experiencing it.  For the Stoics, and other Socratic philosophers, virtue is its own reward, so courage in such situations would not depend on some consequence, which is thrown into question precisely because of the risk of death involved.  A Stoic should be motivated to act virtuously whether or not he faces death, whereas for most hedonists this situation is ethically problematic and would potentially cause him to reconsider his values.

8. Qualified Hedonism

The other typical defence of hedonism is to offer some qualification to the definition of pleasure as the supreme goal of life as a workaround.  For example, we might want to add the caveat that pleasure is the highest good, as long as it’s healthy, or as long as it’s compatible with the welfare of other people, etc.  That seems like an easy way to sidestep conflicts with other deep-seated moral convictions.

However, this solution is not quite so easy, on reflection.  If I say that pleasure is only the highest good insofar as it’s healthy, doesn’t it imply that I actually value health more highly than pleasure?  That pleasure isn’t really the highest good at all?  If I had to choose between them, which one would I sacrifice?  Once we qualify the definition of the supreme good in this way, it opens a whole can of worms.  We have to begin carefully reconsidering our values to identify where the highest good actually lies.  Again, different individuals will arrive at different conclusions but the point remains that this way of shoring up hedonism is problematic, and requires additional arguments to clarify and defend the revised position being proposed.

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