“Girls just want to have fun”, sings Cyndi Lauper. According to Psychological Hedonism, the same is true for all of us. Psychological Hedonism is a theory about motivation. It answers the question “what motivates human beings to act?” with, “only pleasure and the avoidance of pain”. In other words, all human behavior is explained by Psychological Hedonism in terms of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. According to this theory, even the worst things in life, such as eating pizza with pineapple, are ultimately (and sometimes unconsciously) directed at pleasure or away from pain.
Since Psychological Hedonism claims we are always inescapably pursuing our own pleasure, it excludes the possibility of self-less actions. To give a hypothetical example, Mother Anesthesia went to India to help the poor not out of a beneficent sense of duty but because doing what she thought was right made her feel good.
Or, consider another example. In an act of everyday heroism, your friend volunteered last weekend to be the sober driver. According to Psychological Hedonism, this was no sacrifice for the greater good; she did it for pleasure. Wait. We can sense your brow furrowing. Perhaps you are recalling the last time you stood awkwardly in the corner of a club, too self-conscious to dance, watching the minutes crawl by while your friends yahoo and cavort to the latest generic pop songs. But, look closer. The story can plausibly be reframed in terms of the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
The sober driver could have taken on the task because she wanted to feel the pride of being responsible and a good friend. She will enjoy the gratitude and a clear head the next day. She will doubtless also be expecting to have her turn to drink and bust moves on the dance floor in the near future. Perhaps she thinks you are both untrustworthy around alcohol and a poor driver. So to avoid the fear of you being a “soberish” bad driver, she opts to take her safety into her own hands while enjoying the social credit that comes with taking one for the team. This explanation is plausible, but how to prove it? Psychological Hedonists cannot. More philosophical and psychological work is needed to rescue Psychological Hedonism. A better understanding of how our motivational system works is needed to finally answer the question of whether we are pure pleasure-seeking machines or we can act for reasons other than pleasure.
All this might make you think that Psychological Hedonism is a depressing worldview. Some people, in fact, find Psychological Egoism’s claim that there is not such a thing as altruistic behavior disturbing. But this is no great problem. On the contrary, all we need to do is encourage our motivational systems to point at more self-interested pro-social behaviors. And, given that sober drivers actually exist, this shouldn’t be too hard. So perhaps we can progress towards a better world even if Psychological Hedonism is true; a world populated not by miserable greedy jerks, but by happy generous folk that are all too willing to get you safely home from the club. Anyway, if you enjoyed drinking and clubbing last weekend, why should you be bothered if the sober driver enjoyed the night too? Please, don’t be selfish.
PS: Psychological Hedonism obviously does not apply to you if you happen to be German. In fact, Nietzsche said: “Man does not strive for pleasure; only the Englishman does”.