Are we all hedonistic at heart? I tend to agree with Pascal but would like some input regarding the
According to Pascal, all humans seek happiness, this is without exception. He wrote that even the
one who commits suicide does so for the end result of finding happiness. This would then include
those who have no belief or concept of an afterlife. Having fallen into this category, even though they
have no expectation, the assumption of their actions is that whatever lies ahead must be better than
the present situation. Hence, the desire to find any way out of the situation. If this were not the case,
the question that it seems should be asked is, "Why would a person desire to change their present
situation if it were not to better it in some manner?" Do we ever act consciously in a manner that will
assure us to be ultimately in a state or place that is worse than the one in which we presently exist? If
so, please give an example?
This is almost an irrefutable position, because it is so vague. Pascal is not the only one to argue this
way; there is a whole branch of ethics based on this premise. How do you refute it? I don't know if it
can be done purely rationally. That is, one can alwaysthink up some reason, however indirect, that
anyaction is based, ultimately, on seeking happiness, to the point, in my opinion, of complete
absurdity. So how do we get out of this rational dilemma, where we are able always to find or create
some connection to any action and happiness (and remember, that term, "happiness", is also vague,
so we can stretch it to just about whatever we want).
In order to investigate this claim, we can go to the animal kingdom, where we find creatures that a)
cannot rationalize, b) may not even be able to feel happiness or anything else, for that matter, and
ask whether we find behavior which in a human being would indicate altruism, in the sense of acting
for another creature (to the point of sacrificing life) without expectation of personal return. Do we find
this in nature? Well, the answer seems to be that we do. In social insects, individuals will sacrifice
themselves for others with greater likelihood depending on their degree of genetic relationship to
those others. The more closely related genetically, the more likely an insect like a bee or ant will
sacrifice itself for another bee or ant (and thus for the colony as a whole). Now here we have an
example of a creature which, as far as I know, cannot even feelemotion, much less pleasure, much
less happiness (a step beyond pleasure), muchless reflect on those feelings, if it had them. Yet it
behaves "altruistically". Why? Surely it is clear that if a worker ant sacrifices itself for the good of the
colony, first, the colony will be more likely to survive, and second, that ant's genes will continue to be
propagated (since the queen is being protected). This is, roughly, Dawkins' position, and the origin (in
part) of the catch-phrase, "the selfish gene". But genesdo not feel pleasure (or anything else), they're
just strings of DNA.
So if we can find this kind of example, although we can still argue that in humans,altruism is
hedonistic, I think that argument is weakened to the point that it is now the burden of the hedonists to
show decisively that their viewpoint is the most likely one. We do not knowthat we act out of "instinct"
in some cases of altruistic behavior, but we do know that humans haveinstincts, and that in the
animal realm (which we are a part of) there are animals that do so act (and there are other examples I
could give, in higher animals). In addition, we can always find examples of mothers sacrificing
themselves, etc., and now we have a concretereason for giving an alternate answer to the hedonistic
one for such actions.
Steven Ravett Brown