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The Paradox of Hedonism

Hedonists & Pleasure

The idea of hedonism is that pleasure is the only intrinsically valuable thing in life, while pain isn’t. Thus, the objective of hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. However, this pursuit isn’t simple. It’s possible to commit yourself to get better at a sport, a profession, or art by practicing, but hurdles about what it means to practice pleasure or knowing when you are finally happy exist for a hedonist.

But what makes hedonism problematic is how unattainable it is to achieve pleasure without another worldly passion such as cooking, hiking, or competing. We must always find happiness in something else, not in of itself. This here is the paradox of hedonism: the idea that you cannot solely pursue pleasure or happiness by itself and attain it.

But why is this the case? A study conducted by Alexander Dietz for the Australasian Journal of Philosophy seeks to explain the paradox through a unique account, an account that rejects other popular explanations and provides insights into the nature of pleasure.

Incompetence Account & Special Goods Account

Incompetence Account

One of these popular explanations is the incompetence account, which claims that people are poor judges of what will make them happy-- whether that would be evaluating what decisions to make soon, or goals set in the distant future-- and consequently cannot attain happiness directly.

An example of the incompetence account would be someone finally attaining a senior position in a company after several years, but not feeling as happy as expected. The same person several years ago would imagine themselves as overjoyed, but the person attaining that now isn’t much so. The reason behind this is that we are imagining how our present self would feel about an event in the future when our future self is different. This reality, in addition to other cognitive biases, makes us poor judges of our pleasure and happiness.

Special Goods Account

The special goods account is the idea that selfish hedonists, who only seek pleasure, cannot attain the things that bring the most pleasure, such as love, friendship, community, etc. It's not impossible to imagine someone who is self-centered to have difficulty acquiring things that require selflessness.

Refuting The Accounts

But Dietz rejects these two accounts; the incompetence account is a psychological explanation to a philosophical question. Dietz states that he seeks an explanation for the paradox that applies to ideal beings. An explanation is that the sole pursuit of happiness is self-defeating, even if you are the best judge of your happiness. Additionally, who's to say that we cannot become better judges of our own happiness with experience?

Dietz also rejects the special goods account. Is it really impossible for hedonists to enjoy love or friendship if their main pursuit is pleasure or happiness? It might be unlikely for hedonists to make friends or relationships, but just because you desire pleasure doesn’t make you insensitive to the feelings of others. The special goods account appears to be more of a statement on the integrity of hedonists than an explanation for the paradox.

Butler’s Accounts and Explanations

Butler’s Explanation

At this point, Dietz forms an explanation by building off the dialogue of 17th century English philosopher and theologian, Joseph Butler. Butler’s explanation for the paradox takes a different stance on pleasure.

Butler believes that pleasure is the gratification of desires. Essentially, pleasure is attained by acquiring something we don’t have, such as money, love, fame, shoes, and more. This means that we cannot acquire pleasure without desiring something other than our own pleasure.

But, this isn’t sufficient to explain the paradox. Why is it that we can’t acquire pleasure by gratifying our need for it? What makes the absence of happiness different from the absence of money or material objects, and why can’t we directly accomplish happiness the same way that we can climb a mountain or pass an exam?

3 Explanations for Butler’s Account

That is this question that Dietz tries to answer. Dietz explores 3 ways to explain the paradox.

1. Happiness and pleasure only come from satisfying desires other than pleasure itself. Pursuing pleasure won’t bring about pleasure.

2. Pleasure requires satisfying a desire. A hedonist desires pleasure. Thus, the hedonist needs another desire other than the desire for pleasure to achieve his goal. This makes pursuing pleasure for the sake of pleasure a self-defeating cycle.

3. We can only acquire happiness by believing we are happy, but that requires being either irrational or not being a hedonist.

Dietz refutes the first explanation on the grounds that it's possible to take pleasure in our own happiness. After all, knowing that you’re happy can bring about relief. Perhaps we can experience pleasure in knowing that we satisfied our desires the same way that accomplished men can view their pedigrees, properties, and achievements with pleasure.

The second explanation is compelling. In order to acquire pleasure, you need to satisfy a desire. But to get that pleasure, you need to have another desire to satisfy that can’t be itself. But Dietz refutes this by stating that the “belief” that we are happy, or are experiencing pleasure, can fulfill the requirement. Thus, we can avoid circular reasoning.

Dietz’s Evidentialist Account

We arrive at Dietz’s proposed 3rd explanation that answers Butler’s account and answers the ‘why’ behind the Paradox of Hedonism. Dietz begins the account by presenting how ‘believing’ we are happy can ultimately gratify the hedonist’s sole goal of pursuing pleasure.

If acquiring pleasure or happiness is the result of gratifying a pleasure, and that pleasure happens to be ‘pleasure’ itself. Then, technically, the Hedonist can acquire that pleasure without seeking it in other things like hobbies or arts. This means that the Paradox of Hedonism, the idea that you cannot acquire pleasure by pursuing pleasure solely, is false.

But Dietz asserts that the Paradox of Hedonism is true by asking how we end up at that belief in our pleasure, and why. How does a rationalist hedonist arrive at the true belief that he or she has attained pleasure or happiness?

Beliefs and Evidentialism

Dietz proposes that we use Evidentialism as an explanation for the Paradox. Evidentialism is a philosophy that believes that true beliefs are beliefs based on evidence. And for a belief to be true, it must be true regardless of whether you believe it or not. Even if you believe that grass is red, the true belief is that grass is green.

The Modified Account

Dietz then states his version of the paradox: “A rational and well-informed Hedonist who is not deceived cannot acquire pleasure directly by making pleasure his only goal.” In order for the rational Hedonist to acquire pleasure, he must believe he acquired pleasure or happiness.

But this belief can only be true and rational if it's undeniable. But the belief in pleasure and happiness is in fact deniable because there is no evidence. Your happiness is dependent on whether you believe it is true or not. A true belief is something that exists independent of your choice. Happiness is something that is dependent on it.

Avoiding The Paradox

Dietz arrives at a conclusion on how to avoid the paradox. A Hedonist must either stop being a Hedonist and cease pursuing pleasure solely, or be irrational, and believe in his or her own happiness or pleasure without logical reason.

The Aim Of The Study

It seems like a long reach by the author to prove that you cannot attain happiness directly. But keep in mind that the author is simply trying to find a philosophical explanation for the Paradox of Hedonism. Dietz is assuming that the Paradox is true, and then explaining why it is. It is why Dietz modified the paradox to include: ‘rational Hedonists’. It’s the only way to create an explanation. The research paper was a thought experiment intended to explore how to make the paradox work, not to find the ideal way to find happiness.

Dietz continues and states that even if his argument succeeds, it's still unlikely. He claims that his argument makes the paradox implausibly strong. He believes that it is unlikely that real-world Hedonists can find happiness because real-world people aren’t 100% rational. Dietz created his account in order to explain how the Paradox doesn’t apply to perfectly rational Hedonists.


It is a lot to take in and can appear like an overly complex answer to a complex question. But it's still an interesting answer to an age-old question: “Why am I not happy?” And one of the facets of that question is: “Why can’t I attain happiness directly?” This is a question the study answers.

This study gives us some insights into attaining happiness. If pleasure is the satisfaction of desires, then controlling our desires can be the path to happiness. Achieving consistent goals in the short and long term may help us feel more accomplished and content with ourselves.

Also, if happiness requires another pursuit other than itself to attain, then perhaps trying many new pursuits can ensure we find gratification. Whether that is trying a new art project, hiking a new trail, or finding a new passion.

Pursuing happiness and pleasure for itself may be impossible, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t optimize our lives to make them easier to attain. We can still try to live our lives positively rather than negatively, proactively over inactively, and deliberately over indifferently. Additionally, perhaps the pursuit of happiness is an impractical approach to life, and perhaps a pursuit of meaning or a sense of accomplishment is better. The paradox of Hedonism can teach us about living our lives beyond the pursuit of happiness.


Alexander Dietz (2018): Explaining the Paradox of Hedonism, Australasian

Journal of Philosophy, DOI: 10.1080/00048402.2018.1483409

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