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Psychological hedonism (PH) is the view that each person is motivated so as to maximise his or her pleasure and minimise his or her pain. Thus, according to psychological hedonism, acts which appear to be altruistic are in fact performed for self interested reasons, such as making the agent feel less guilty, or giving the agent a ‘warm glow’. It is important to note that PH is a theory about motivation, rather than about ethics per se, but is of considerable relevance to ethical discussions.

Many people have attacked PH for not fitting the evidence: it seems that there are many situations when the benefits from the relief of guilt do not plausibly outweigh the actor’s sacrifice. For example, an atheist soldier choosing to die a painful death to protect his comrades. However, I wish to point out a different problem with PH which I have not heard before: that it has an incoherent conception of a person’s pleasure.

PH claims that one’s acts are all ultimately chosen to maximise one’s pleasure. However, there is a tension between immediate pleasure and lifetime pleasure. Indeed, it is easy to think of cases where people choose immediate pleasure at the expense of their total lifetime pleasure and to think of cases where people deny themselves immediate pleasure in order to increase lifetime pleasure. It thus seems that we can’t be attempting to maximise either immediate pleasure or lifetime pleasure. PH therefore lacks a coherent maximand and must therefore be false, or at least in need of considerable additional explanation.

I can think of three ways out, none of which seem appealing.

1) We each attempt to maximise some time-discounted sum of pleasure for a particular discounting function.

Response: This seems much less intuitive than the original claim, and I think that current experiments already show that we don’t do consistent discounting of our future rewards.

2) We really try to maximise lifetime pleasure, but sometimes choose immediate pleasure out of akrasia.

Response: In this case, many choices are akratic, and the theory of motivation seems to explain much less. Also, if so many choices are akratic, then perhaps the altruistic choices are also akratic and thus not selfish after all.

3) We really try to maximise immediate pleasure, only choosing lifetime pleasure when this gives us an immediate warm glow about being so long-sighted etc.

Response: This option tries to explain long term choices in the same way as altruistic choices. I find it even less plausible in this case as I don’t experience any such warm glow when doing this.

If you have any further thoughts on this response to PH, or know of a reference to it in the literature, then please leave a comment.


  1. 1. Posted by Richard Chappell | October 12, 2008 3:24 am

    I recall my undergrad ethics lecturer making this point, so it’s probably out there somewhere.

    Option (3) strikes me as the most likely option for your psychological hedonist to take. I’m not sure it’s that much worse than the original theory (which is of course terrible to start with) — just more along the same lines, after all.

    A prior worry: must one build maximization into the definition of psychological hedonism? A more general view in the vicinity would merely claim that only considerations of our own pleasure and pain motivate us — it could then leave open which of our (potential) pleasures and pains will move us in any given instance. The hedonist might maintain that we will be moved by whichever pleasures and pains seem most salient to us as we make our decision. This strikes me as the least implausible form of the view.

  2. 2. Posted by Ben Saunders | October 12, 2008 8:10 pm

    Not something I’ve ever read/thought much about, but I’m somewhat surprised that you associate PH with maximizing. I always thought it was simply the view that we are only motivated by pleasure (and perhaps in proportion to how pleasant something is). This would explain why we still have a pro tanto motivation in favour of a lesser pleasure even where we choose a great.

    If that’s so, then I don’t see a need to specify a unique maximand – it’s quite possible to say that we’re motivated by both immediate and lifetime pleasure, just as we can be motivated by both the pleasure to the left and the pleasure to the right.

    Maybe I’m wrong though, about the usual construal of PH – or maybe the problem can be rehabilitated to affect non-maximizing versions somehow.

  3. 3. Posted by Owen Weddle | October 12, 2008 10:16 pm


    Coming from a BS in psychology (which may make what I say totally invalid!), I think that while the critiques are valid, there is a place for PH, albeit only as a partial (but important) explanation for behavior. Human behaviors consist of both of trained behaviors and extemporaneous behaviors.

    The former come about mainly from our sociological groups, such as family, religion, political party, occupation, military, etc, along with incidental events not attributed to human causes. As such, the groups “train” the individual in certain to follow certain behaviors, either through reward, punishment or the individual reflecting upon the value of such an action (which may even result in a oppositional behavior). All of which are motivations that can, at least in part, be explained by PH.

    All new untrained behaviors, are then caused by the PH, but many our actions become trained. By in large, from sociological groups, who themselves seek the maximize pleasure and minimize the pain of the group as a whole. So, altruistic behavior can be explained by the group’s (to coin a phrase that may not exist) sociological “hedonism” (keeping in mind, I do mean to imply the connotations of hedonism). Of course, then one might need to ask where does SH come from, but that would be another topic.

    That is how I see it, at least.

  4. 4. Posted by Toby Ord | October 13, 2008 11:03 am

    Thank you everyone for the comments.

    Regarding maximization:

    I’ve had a look at the SEP article, and they build up PH out of the idea that one is only motivated by pleasure minus pain and that one attempts to maximize it. Dropping this second part is an interesting approach, but I don’t see how it can succeed. Does it mean one can always deliberately choose a lesser pleasure? If so, it doesn’t seem to explain anything. If not, we have a form of maximization. Also, regarding Ben’s analogy, it is not quite like pleasure on the left and pleasure on the right, but more like pleasure in total and pleasure on the right, where one is a strict subpart of the other. Moreover, in this case people would be known to sacrifice total pleasure for pleasure on the right and sacrifice pleasure on the right for total pleasure. This would be in need of explanation.


    I don’t completely understand your comment, but if you are saying that PH partly explains our behaviour, it is probably more accurate to reword this to say that the fact that we are strongly motivated by pleasure and the avoidance of pain largely explains our behaviour. For PH itself goes further and claims that nothing else plays any role in motivation. This looks to be false, and false claims cannot explain our behaviour.

    Finally, I’m happy to hear from Richard that this objection looks like it is known by those familiar with the literature (which I am not).

  5. 5. Posted by Toby Ord | October 13, 2008 3:00 pm

    I’ve just been talking with Tom Douglas and Dom Wilkinson and we have come up with a fourth option for PH:

    4) They can weaken their theory to say that a person is only motivated by considerations about their future pleasure and that they will only choose an option if it increases at least one of (a) their lifetime pleasure, (b) their immediate pleasure.

    This is a weaker version of (1), since it allows both types to count, but doesn’t force them to combine in one particular way in all cases. It still loses some of the intuitive appeal of the theory and loses some predictive power (it doesn’t predict what people will choose when one option has more immediate pleasure and another has more lifetime pleasure), but seems more plausible than (1)-(3). It might be ‘weak enough to be true, and strong enough to be interesting’.

  6. 6. Posted by Aaron Boyden | October 31, 2008 6:21 pm

    I think it’s important to distinguish the thesis that people are motivated by pleasure from the thesis that people are motivated by warm glows. It may be that psychological hedonists are not always clear on this distinction, but certainly it is not the case that pleasures are universally taken to be warm glows, by psychological hedonists or anyone else; there is no universal agreement on what pleasures are.

    Some accounts of pleasure may make response 3 more plausible. Indeed, some may make psychological hedonism trivial. Perhaps Mill’s account of pleasure does this. Admittedly, it may be a strike against such accounts of pleasure that many don’t think psychological egoism is trivial, but that’s exactly what many of its defenders seem to think, and not all accounts of pleasure which seem in danger of making psychological hedonism trivial come from special pleading from defenders of psychological hedonism. For example, Siddhartha Gautama gives an account of pleasure in terms of satisfaction of desires rather than warm glows, and I’m pretty sure defending psychological hedonism wasn’t his motive.

  7. 7. Posted by Norman Hanscombe | December 5, 2008 12:26 am

    There’s little new in this notion. I remember it being old hat long before I read about it in the 50s. If one seeks to explain the world within a standard scientific framework, and accepts that everything [including plants, microbes and other living entities] is part of one framework, where’s the problem? Hedonism, altruism, purpose, etc have considerable value in terms of shorthand labels for distinguishing among bundles of different behaviours, but if one decides to analyse our existence, and takes on the depressing task of pushing our assumptions ever further back, the picture isn’t always what we’d like to find.

    It’s comforting, for example, to believe in free will. It’s reassuring to believe we’re somehow part of a ‘better’ plan. It’s even useful, from a smoothly functioning society’s perspective, for many of these beliefs to be held unquestioningly. But — ?

    Much of my life has been spent taking actions which I knew weren’t in my best interest; but I felt they should be supported. In shorthand terms, this could be labelled altruistic. Why, however, did I act in that way? In part because I was blighted with a stronger innate drive than most have to do what seemed “right”. It was also due in part to the fact that I grew up in a home where doing the “right” thing was stressed. Can I take credit for my genetic pre-disposition? Of course not. Can I take credit for my environment? Ditto. Can I take credit for not being influenced by the many non-altruistic influences I did encounter in my early years? Perhaps the answer to this question isn’t as immediately obvious; but with a moment’s reflection, the answer remains the same — of course not.

    How one develops is the outcome of the extremely complex interaction between our genetic lottery result, and the environmental factors we encounter. Its very complexity helps us disregard its operations. Logically we’re not responsible for either of the inputs, so logically we’re not able to take credit (or blame) for altruistic or selfish acts alike. It’s sometimes objected that since some ‘escape’ from their negative surroundings, everyone has the chance to be “good”, but they simply didn’t make the decisions they “should” have. Comforting for those feeling “saved”, but unfortunately not relevant. That one person ‘escapes’ and another ‘succumbs” depends in each case on the interaction between the two causal factors mentioned above — genetic from our DNA and environmental from what we encounter in life. If anyone wants to posit a third influence, I’m listening — but I’m not holding my breath.

    In the meantime, these ‘new’ psychological ideas about what motivates our species add zilch to our understanding of human behaviour, and merely muddy the waters by applying extra ‘meanings’ to words which are very useful tags for helping others know what types of behaviour are being discussed.

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