Monday, June 8, 2009

The Problem of Other People - Cooperative Hedonism

On the surface it seems hedonism is completely incompatible when dealing with other people. It is by definition completely selfish in nature. So the consideration of others is an easy disconnect. The knee jerk reaction is to go at once to the darkest of desires, murder, lust, thievery, and deception. How could hedonism be allowed in a community where one person desired to kill another for the pure pleasure of it?

This is where enlightened hedonism steps in, as the pursuit of pleasure does not mean the absence on consequences. Thus we hedonists often must weigh the possible outcomes of our pursuits. We may desire, and take great pleasure in finishing a large bottle of cognac, but may choose to enjoy just a glass or two to avoid the unpleasant morning after. Likewise, while at times we may feel murderous rage, most of us understand the consequences of indulging that pleasure.

While hedonism is selfish, in a community of hedonists, the pleasures, fears, and suspicions of others have to be taken into consideration if one intends to maximize their own personal pleasure over time. Thus the example of murderous rage, while a telling test case of the extreme, hardly describes the reality of a community of hedonists.

This may be disappointing to those hedonists coming from a perspective of scarcity, where pleasure is somehow seen to be a finite resource, that for one to have it means that it is deprived from someone else. To be sure this is the case where desires center on material things and their possession. This is the model we live in before the state where hedonism can exist, the acquiring and holding onto our basic needs, such as food or shelter.

In this state hedonism is seen as a competitive endeavor, and the desire to have more, or experience more than someone else becomes in itself a source of pleasure. However, sometimes this competitive approach becomes perverted by our guilt or shame. That the pleasure we may experience somehow deprives it from someone else, possibly someone we love. In the extreme, are the martyrs who presume their denial of pleasure to be noble, that their self sacrifice somehow increases the pleasure of others. To be sure though, they take pleasure in this denial, for the experience of pleasure is subjective. It is not something that can be stored, traded, or accumulated. It is simply experienced in the moment.

But it is the subjective nature of pleasure and desire that allow us to approach from abundance instead of scarcity. Once we realize that our pleasure is ours alone to experience, and that we can experience pleasure in a number of different ways, it is clear that the only pleasure we can truly deprive is our own. Mind you, we can still cause pain in others, depriving them of their needs but they still can take pleasure in our folly, take refuge in pleasant memories, or other existential tricks.

The better strategy for an enlightened hedonist is one of cooperation and negotiation. By working together with others, sharing our desires, we form communities of cooperative hedonism. These can be whole societies, small clubs, or an intimate friendship, as the problem of other people is transformed into opportunities to maximize pleasure, refine tastes, and share our desires.

We might band together to share a common interest, such as bowling, Disneyland, or swing dancing; to find love, or have a family; or we might find ourselves already intertwined in cooperative groups we inherited from structures already in place, like our government, or family upbringing. Regardless of how we enter these relationships with others, they all serve as a springboard for cooperative hedonism. Again, because hedonism and our desires are fluid, each of our relationships and group identities serves us differently, some better than others, some more targeted than others. As rational hedonists it is up to each individual to assess these areas of cooperation and determine how that can best satisfy their desires.

Other people then, become a resource, and their very selfish hedonism is what enables us to indulge our own. Of course, to achieve the greatest success, a rational hedonist is obliged to enter into negotiation. This could be a as simple as making a request for a glass of wine. Among fellow wine connoisseurs, you may be indulging the pleasure of an acquaintance ready to show off his latest find; among strangers you might indulge someone’s pleasure in helping others; in a restaurant, you might indulge your servers anticipated pleasure of getting a good tip. The scenarios are endless, but the act of asking for what you want can suddenly satisfy the desires of others in many unexpected ways. Certainly, if you got your own glass of wine you would still have the pleasure of that drink, but by asking, and engaging some network of cooperative hedonism, your pleasure is shared.

Enlightened hedonism necessitates communication. We must be able to talk about our desires to others if we ever hope to have their help in fulfilling them, sharing them, or even improving upon them. Often, when we hide our desires, we tend to harm ourselves and sometimes even the others who wish to please us. There are times of course, where keeping our desires to ourselves as crypto-hedonists is warranted, the challenge of course is striking the proper balance between the extremes.

Sharing our desires makes us vulnerable, especially to those who approach hedonism competitively, and are resentful of the fulfillment of our desires. This is the real problem of other people, the risk sharing with others. Often our cultural norms dictate what is safe and what is risky to share. I might freely express my love for the music of Celine Dion, but keep my desire for my neighbor’s wife to myself. While the former might risk a certain amount of embarrassment, the later invites condemnation from moralists, her husband or my own wife. Now one can certainly construct a scenario where the decision to share or hide would be reversed – My neighbors and my marriage is an open relationship and my respect for musical tastes would come under great criticism from my peers – but there will always be risks in sharing our desires, and those are the calculations a rational hedonist must make in his or her own pursuit of pleasure.

Perhaps the best thing a rational hedonist can do in dealing with other people, is to take heed from Plato and “know thyself.” In order to negotiate with others in a way that satisfies our desires, we have to be able to know what our desires truly are and that we can honest to ourselves about them. When we know ourselves, we can articulate better what we want and just as importantly to set our own personal boundaries over what we are willing to negotiate.

In this way enlightened hedonists can negotiate with integrity, satisfying their own selfish desires while contributing to the satisfaction of others. This is the ideal of cooperative hedonism.


  1. Wonderful, I can't say I completely understand, but it was very engaging, I may have to read it a few times.