Musing #2: Hedonism
Guess what? If you live in America, or, in fact, in almost any culture that is more individualistic than collectivistic (which is its own musing, to be written at another time), then chances are you have experienced the strong pull of the pursuit of individual pleasure, and perhaps even lovingly embrace such a pursuit as the preferred way of life. The word “hedonism” comes from the the Greek word “hedone”, meaning “pleasure”, and “-ism”, meaning, um, well, I don’t know. But anyway, hedonism is the philosophical stance which says that seeking to maximize personal pleasure is the best way to live among all the other ways. The implications of such a self-focused ethic are frightening! Granted, our good friend Adam Smith, one of the founding fathers of economics, taught us not to fear the outcome of transactions among individuals acting solely in their own interests, for they seem to be guided by an invisible hand to make an exchange which benefits both of them. Now, that’s nice and good when you’re trading chickens and farm produce, but what about interpersonal relationships? Imagine this:
-Man: “Here, my ego-enlarging girlfriend, I bought you this pretty diamond ring (extremely overpriced, thanks to diamond oligopolies), so that you will be more inclined, or better yet, feel obligated to continue our relationship.”
-Woman: “Oh, I do so love diamonds, because they make me feel good about myself, in large part because they make me look better and more important than everyone else. As for you, though, I’m afraid you’re not fulfilling my emotional needs, so this relationship is over.”
-Man: “What, after all the time and money I wasted on you?! Where’s the payoff? What about me?”
-Woman: “You just don’t give me enough attention, not to mention presents. How am I supposed to feel good about myself if our relationship isn’t fulfilling my needs?”
-Man: “Well fine, I can take my money somewhere else, to someone who appreciates me for who I am. Or better yet, I’ll spend the money on myself! There ARE a lot of things I want to buy!”
Ok, so that dialogue was fictional, and unrealistically extreme and forthright. However, the me-first mentality portrayed here is, I believe, alive and well, though not quite as obvious. Perhaps I ought to qualify my statements by saying that I am talking mostly about my peers, young single adults in America, although I am confident that hedonism is not at all confined to this group. Ok, now I’m also a student at Brigham Young University, so my most-proximate peers are fellow Christians, and MORMONS at that! Is it out-of-line, then, for me to accuse my peers of being hedonists? Well, I certainly can’t claim to know every heart, unlike God who knows each of us inside and out, but I do know a thing or two about our culture, having lived in it my whole life. I am about as big an advocate of the reality of moral agency (another thing to muse about later) as any you will meet, and so I certainly don’t believe we are inescapably bound by our culture’s hedonistic programming. However, I also know of the powerful pull of culture, especially when culture is preaching a philosophy which happens to be carnally-satisfying in practice. Latter-day Saints such as myself and my fellow students are warned about the doctrines and philosophies of men, but darn it!, the world we live in is saturated with them! To be good, really genuinely Christlike individuals while living in this crazy world is the great test of mortality, and combating the pull of hedonism is but one manifestation of this ongoing struggle. The good news is that it is a struggle we can win!