Transhumanism Evolved

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Egoism & Hedonism


Egoism and Hedonism are both concerned with the pursuit of personal pleasure (happiness) except that they differ in subtle ways. The former is typically concerned with an individual's pleasure whilst the latter can be broadened to include the pleasure of others.

Egoism

Egoism is the notion that people act in ways that promote their own self interests. This may lead one to consider that egoists are by nature selfish but this is not so for we must begin by making a distinction between a person's act and a person's motives for acting. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that we may observe an egoist doing good deeds except that in their case it would for the promotion of their own satisfaction. Thus one may give money to charity in response to being moved by an appeal on T.V. yet the reasons for doing so may be that giving makes one feel good or that others may praise my 'good deeds'. In fact, the idea that 'good deeds' are driven by egoistic desires is probably something we are all suspicious of. How many of us have criticised a person who seems to do nothing but 'good deeds' as "Too good to be true"?

Egoism as an ethical theory promotes the notion that selfishness is both natural and good. One of the most well known advocates of ethical egoism was Niccolo Machiavelli whose book 'The Prince' put forward the notion that political rulers needed to display not only seemingly 'moral' characteristics (E.g. trustworthiness) but also 'immoral' ones as well (E.g. deceit) in order to stay in power and avoid defeat by their enemies.

In contrast to ethical egoism is the Christian belief that the human person is essentially fallen and selfish by nature (original sin). Thus selfishness is seen as something bad (alien to humanity) and is what keeps us apart from God. Our 'sinful nature' means we naturally pursue our own desires rather than God's. The doctrine of original sin finds its roots in the Bible in Genesis 3 where man and woman are shown to ignore God's command not to touch the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and fulfil their own selfish ambition to eat from it. This aspect of biblical theology was significantly developed in the Bible by the Apostle Paul and subsequently by St Augustine who believed that even babies who cried for milk from their mother were exhibiting their selfish and corrupt sinful nature. According to Paul and Augustine (Reformed theology), rehabilitation only comes through faith in Jesus Christ. However the notion that humans are innately deficient is not confined to Christian theology. Thomas Hobbes believed that people were innately corrupt yet were tamed by the state. On the other hand others (E.g. Rousseau) believed people were naturally co-operative yet had became corrupted by external forces. But these discussions merely form the backdrop to ethical discussion as a whole and as such do not influence the decision as to whether ethical egoism is a successful ethic for life.

In the end ethical egoism sees no obligation in helping others except if it pleases you and is to your own benefit. However, the paradox of this ethical worldview is that it is only a benefit to oneself so long as others do not adopt it and this seems to me to be an irreconcilable problem. In practice, although people may act for self-interest (and selfish reasons), society would never become established if this were the only way people lived.

Hedonism

The problems bequeathed by egoism are that it cannot move beyond the boundaries of the individual. Thus selfishness, as an individual's motive for action, needs to be replaced and in hedonistic theory it is replaced by pleasure (happiness) as the goal of life.

Although hedonism is concerned with the pursuit of pleasure we must be careful, as with egoism, not to make simplistic conclusions concerning act and motive here. Hedonism can be understood as Psychological Hedonism (pleasure is the only possible object of desire or pursuit - there is no alternative), Evaluative Hedonism (the pursuit of pleasure ought to be one's desire as opposed to other alternatives - this was developed by the Utilitarians) and Rationalising Hedonism (pleasure is what makes a pursuit rational/reasonable). Furthermore, we must not equate hedonism with a simple pursuit of sensual pleasure. Some hedonists advocate mental pleasure (peace of mind) as opposed to bodily pleasures and most would probably acknowledge that in order to achieve a certain pleasure one may have to endure a certain amount of pain (E.g. the pain of a diet if I want to lose weight).

However, the pursuit of pleasure as the end of human actions requires us to examine pleasure itself for this can be both a short term or a long term thing. For example, I may steal money in order to buy something (short term pleasure) but may suffer through concerns of being caught. Alternatively, I may save my money now (which may cause me to suffer), and buy what I want at a latter date (long term pleasure). The idea that one needs to keep pleasure (happiness) in perspective reminds me of Buddhist ethics and The Noble Eightfold Path whereby the Buddha taught that we can train ourselves to overcome immediate desires (passions/suffering - Dukkha) to keep in sight the long term goal of our lives (Nirvana - freedom from desires/suffering). Hedonists seem to require a similar overview if they are to make correct decisions concerning the pleasurable outcomes of their actions.

As with ethical egoism it is possible for a Hedonist to act in a way that promotes the outcome at the expense of the act. It is perfectly possible for a Hedonist to act in an intentionally selfish way yet end with pleasure for one and all concerned. Yet the problems here are who defines whether pleasure is to be a short or long term? Furthermore, to determine the overall pleasurable effects of one's actions requires foresight not available to us. Thus hedonists face a dilemma in that the choice of long or short term pleasure seems to need a criteria beyond that of pleasure in order to valid itself to avoid being merely a subjective value judgement by the individual.

However, despite its problems there is something attractive about hedonism (which is probably why it was developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill to become 'the greatest pleasure/ happiness for the greatest number'), in that it seems natural that a person would hope that their actions would lead to pleasurable outcomes for both themselves and others. On the other hand, there seems equally to me something wrong about a person who seeks pleasurable outcomes alone (E.g. a teacher who never corrects a pupil's work through fear of causing the pupil hurt, embarrassment or not being liked by them). Furthermore, if ethical behaviour is to be judged by its pleasurable outcomes then the worst reproach that can be made to me, regardless of my conduct, is that I made a bad choice.

[Note: this text was copied via Google's cache from http://www.faithnet.freeserve.co.uk/egoism.htm, which is now a dead link]



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