Hedonists believe that pleasure is the only thing that ultimately makes our lives go well for us and that pain is the only thing that ultimately makes our lives go badly for us. If that’s true, why are so many hedonists into BDSM (Bondage, Discipline/Domination, Sadism/Submission, Masochism)? If the stereotypes portrayed in popular culture, such as in 50 Shades of Grey, are to be believed, BDSM is essentially a kind of sexual activity for consenting adults that involves some combination of humiliation, pain, or domination and submission for the purpose of sexual pleasure. Perhaps the most notable feature of BDSM is the masochism — the desire to experience pain and humiliation. This feature appears to pose a problem for anyone who is into both BDSM and (the theory of) Hedonism. Surely Hedonists shouldn’t be into BDSM; They shouldn’t desire pain. Moreover, if masochists enjoy pain, isn’t Hedonism just plain wrong? How can some people enjoy the only ultimately bad thing?
Let’s tackle these problems one step at a time.
With only a few exceptions, Philosophical Hedonists have defined pleasure and pain broadly, including both physical and mental feelings. That means the obvious pains, like being hit where it hurts, are joined by more obscure pains like the gnawing hollow feeling that no one will ever voluntarily offer to taste your homemade kombucha. This same approach allows you to count the pleasure from fantasizing about your memoires becoming the first self-published best-seller alongside the pleasures of eating delicious food and seeing other people being hit where it hurts.
With these broad notions of pleasure and pain in mind, let’s look more closely at the feelings aroused by BDSM. After careful and detailed study of (pop cultural references to) BDSM, it seems that the role of masochist can produce positive feelings of a sexual nature. Traditionally, hedonists are not prudes. Indeed, non-philosophical discussions of Hedonism are often fixated on sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. The order of these pleasures leaves no doubt that sex is the chief pleasure associated with Hedonism.
Besides, it seems that most Hedonists now prefer EDM (Electronic Dance Music) to The Beatles. But, we digress. Providing Hedonists with nice sexy feelings is not enough to get BDSM off the hook. Most people find being hurt and embarrassed… well… painful and embarrassing!
If hedonists believe that pain is the only ultimate bad experience, shouldn’t they really want to avoid it? Shouldn’t they be yelling “BANANAS!” before anything happens? The physical pain from being (for example) whipped, the discomfort of having a ball gag lodged in one’s mouth, and the emotional pain of being dehumanised by being treated like an animal or embarrassed by wearing “double leather” – it all seems antithetical to hedonism.
At this point, hedonistic BDSM enthusiasts will likely argue that, just like CrossFit, the pain and pleasure are part of the same package and that the pleasure is worth it. They may even be willing to demonstrate! But hold on – how can the very worst thing in life for Hedonists be part of the same package as the very best thing in life? How can pain be so enjoyable?
A careful Hedonist would say that what is good about pleasure is how it feels – pleasure, broadly defined, is the “feels good” part of everything that feels good. In BDSM, apparently the context enables some people to derive great pleasure from some kinds of pain. The pleasure and pain are separable aspects of the whole experience. (If the pain were pleasurable, rather than painful, it wouldn’t play the role it’s supposed to – It would take away what is distinctive about BDSM and make it much more like eating delicious food or having boring normal sex). The pain of being whipped does not feel good , but in the context of BDSM it can elicit sexual arousal, which does feel good. (The whole point of safe words is to prevent too much pain from occurring, implying that the pain is still bad). So, the pain in BDSM, while being directly bad for wellbeing from a hedonistic perspective, is also indirectly very good, at least for some people. So, BDSM fanatics might desire to be spanked hard in the same way one might desire to go to the dentist – it’s a pain in the ass, but will bring a beautiful smile to your face in the end.
All told, the existence of BDSM and its popularity among Hedonists isn’t a problem for Philosophical Hedonism. For those who get off in a major way from BDSM, they get more pleasure from embracing these pains. Since Hedonists effectively want more happiness (pleasure minus pain), it is perfectly rational for them to accept some pain as long as it results in more net pleasure overall. So, Hedonists that like BDSM should keep doing it, and those who find all the leather too embarrassing, or perhaps have zipper phobias, should not do it. Also, since the pleasure of BDSM is caused by the pain, rather than being part of the pain, it doesn’t amount to an objection of hedonism’s main claims – that pleasure is the only thing that ultimately makes our lives go well for us and that pain is the only thing that ultimately makes our lives go badly for us.