Systemic Hedonism: The Downfall of Society

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by Will Deatherage, Executive Director

“I predict we will abolish suffering throughout the living world. Our descendants will be animated by gradients of genetically pre-programmed well-being that are orders of magnitude richer than today’s peak experiences.”

David Pearce, The Hedonistic Imperative 

Hedonism! For centuries, this word had a negative connotation. It implied raw, unkempt, animalistic pleasures considered unbefitting of mankind. Though the word still carries a stigma today, hedonism permeates our modern worldview, and philosophers like David Pearce seek to legitimize ethical systems that are entirely based on pleasure and pain: if it feels bad, it is bad, and if it feels good, it is good. After all, pleasure and pain are just the effects of chemicals firing in our brains (called endorphins), so maximizing the former makes for a convenient and empirically testable ethical system. Unfortunately, this model is too good to be true, as it fails to account for the fact that long-term pleasure, or flourishing, comes from overcoming challenges and self-control, not raw stimulation. The amount of chemicals produced in our brains is not the only aspect that matters; how they are released makes a great difference. As a wise Seinfeld character named Kramer once sarcastically asked, “Why fly a kite when you can just pop a pill?” 

Pearce and his colleagues have long advocated for technologies and mind-altering substances that could eliminate suffering altogether. Even though this pursuit has been widely panned by many ethicists and scientists who argue that rewarded pleasure trumps raw pleasure, we may already live in a realization of Pearce’s vision. A hypersexualized world that is obsessed with materialism and immediate gratification hardly seems like one that staves lower pleasures for higher ones. A quick glance at the recent deterioration of mental health indicates that our pleasure-fest of a society is not exactly yielding pleasing results. We are doing something very wrong and we need to reverse course, fast.

When one finds a worthy wife,
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.

Prv. 31: 10-13

Obviously, the Bible was written in a very different cultural context. It is no secret that women had little say in their marital fates, so when translating between their culture and ours, it might be useful to substitute the word “wife” with “husband” if it helps. The point, however, is that the best things in life are worth waiting for. Perhaps more relevant to us is:

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting”

Prv. 31:30

Thousands of years before Pearce, the authors of scripture wisely acknowledged the chasm between superficial pleasure (charm) and fulfillment (beauty). Even in philosophy of art, the distinction is clear: charm, that simple beat that gets your foot tapping, only gets you so far. Beauty, on the other hand, opens up entire worlds in which we can experience wonder, awe, and other emotions that transcend simple “pain and pleasure.” 

Concerning times and seasons, brothers and sisters,
you have no need for anything to be written to you. 
For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come
like a thief at night.
When people are saying, “Peace and security,”
then sudden disaster comes upon them,
like labor pains upon a pregnant woman,
and they will not escape.

1 Thess 5:1-3

I would like to stress the irony of how abysmal mental health is today. Every immediate pleasure is at our finger tips: instant delivery of goods, addictive media, recreational drugs, and pornography are everywhere. We have access to seemingly unlimited resources and we live twice as long as our great great great grandparents did. Our endorphins go crazy every day, so by every measure of David Pearce, we must be incredibly successful. Why are we so sad, then? Depression, anxiety, and suicide haunt our young generations for “inexplicable reasons.” Maybe it is because too much of a certain chemical is apparently unhealthy. Maybe it is because how said chemical is acquired is more important than the chemical itself. Maybe it is because David Pearce is wrong, and suffering is not evil.

Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“A man going on a journey
called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.
To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one–
to each according to his ability. 
Then he went away.
“After a long time
the master of those servants came back
and settled accounts with them. 
The one who had received five talents came forward
bringing the additional five. 
He said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents.
See, I have made five more.’
His master said to him, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant.
Since you were faithful in small matters,
I will give you great responsibilities.
Come, share your master’s joy.'”

Mt. 25: 14-15, 19-21

God gives us the ability to waste our endorphins on the most basic, charming, and simplistic pleasures. Like the servant with one tenant, we can choose to hold onto that which grants us immediate gratification without suffering or working for more. Clearly, doing so hardly helps us. Instead, we should be like the other servants who made more of their talents. Our world is fundamentally one of risk. This risk is not evil, for we have hope that taking chances by working hard will yield greater rewards for us down the road. There is a great psychology of work that is threatened by reliance on welfare systems, and this fact cannot be avoided when considering policy in light of Catholic Social Teaching.

When Alduous Huxley, author of Brave New World, wrote a letter to George Orwell, author of 1984, he insisted that dystopian governments would use pleasure, not pain, to entice, not subdue, their populations:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

Alduous Huxley, Letter to George Orwell

As Catholics who believe in the complementarity of Faith and Reason, it is our duty to take stances against Hedonism and be living examples of how hard work and sacrifice can yield sustainable fulfillment for every person. Commercialism’s increasing intrusion into our subconscious formation is just as concerning as the government’s intrusion into our ethical education. It is time to take a stand against systemic Hedonism and pursue the highest pleasure of all: God.

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