Drawbacks of the Hedonism Theory of Well-Being
Throughout history, humans introduced innumerable inventions to the world, journeyed across oceans to countries far from home, and even mused on scriptures and philosophies in search of a pathway to a better life. Some people desire swaths of dollar bills during their tenure on this planet, whereas others are not satiated until they have rippled societal change or adequately explored the forest of knowledge. Now, instead of needing to tirelessly labour day in and day out, in hope of ascending to your* aspiration, inching towards your goals one step up or many cliffs down at a time, what if you could experience your ideal life, through a biological simulation? What if you could live an artificial life consisting of endless, higher-order pleasures such as learning mathematics, falling in love, being recognized for your achievements, with the only stipulation being that none of your actions affect or can even be seen by the “real world”? Would you agree to live your life in this fictitious “experience machine”? In this essay, I will elucidate about the aforementioned instrument and how it relates to the hedonism theory of well-being, assert that a balance of good and bad experiences can help one lead a better life, and contrast a life lived with meaning with that purported by Hedonism.
Hedonism claims that pain and the privation of pleasure are detrimental for you, whereas pleasure and the absence of pain are good for you. When coupled with other factors such as the quantity, type, and intensity of your pleasures and pains, this simple theory of well-being purports to weigh the success of your life by subtracting pleasure from pain, or vice versa, much as a person weighs vegetables in a grocery store. Given that the experience machine provides a variety of pleasures — from those of lower-order that we humans and animals share such as the desire to eat food or play, to other, higher-faculty affairs such as conducting business meetings, embarking on a journey to explore the very meaning of life, and feeling the thrill of power — even exalted theories of hedonism furnished by the Epicureans and John Stuart Mill would point to the conclusion that the experience machine is a silver bullet that can transform your life into a utopia. Even though this offer might be tempting to some people trapped in a whirlpool of despair, desperate to escape, the vast majority would reject this proposal because the experience machine traps a person in their own unbreakable spheres of consciousness, severs their connections to the outside world, and turns the very act of living into streams of sugar-filled experiences. Therefore, while the hedonism theory of well-being appears to be an eloquently simple explanation of a way to lead life, it ignores many factors that define our humanity.
One of the reasons that the experience machine, a representation of all forms of Hedonism, inhibits a person from living a full life is because this piece of apparatus doesn’t account for the balance of pleasurable and painful experiences. As an example, Friar Lawrence exclaims in Shakespeare’s acclaimed Romeo and Juliet, “honey is loathsome in its own deliciousness”. Essentially, this quote implies that our body cannot handle loads of sugar-filled delicacies; in fact, eating sweets without limit can cause one to loathe the taste of the same pastries they once enjoyed. Similarly, a person inside the experience machine’s fantasy world might at first enjoy the pleasures presented, but soon, this enthusiasm would wane as these pleasures become commonplace; day in and day out, they would live the same, sugar-filled yet monotonous life as before. In my opinion, the value of pleasure can only be revealed with the existence of pain; since the latter is a foreign concept inside the experience machine, the presence of the former is obsolete, too. Therefore, considering that neither our bodies nor our minds can comprehend an infinite stream of happiness with no contrast, the experience machine, and by extent, hedonism, detracts from rather than enriches our lives.
Finally, Hedonism is a flawed theory of well-being because it fails to differentiate a pleasurable life with a meaningful one. While a meaningful life pivots around understanding ourselves and inching towards a certain purpose, even though the path towards this ultimate goal might not be the most pleasurable, Hedonism only advocates for maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. For instance, during John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech about “putting a man on the moon”, the former President states that “[America chooses] to go to the Moon in this decade and do other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept”. Though foraying to the moon was a daunting endeavor, Kennedy still sent a man to this celestial body not because this journey would be pleasurable — failing this difficult mission could sacrifice lives and result in the loss of billions of dollars — but because this adventure could provide a greater meaning, a sense of achievement for many across America. After more than three days of public anticipation, when the space shuttle finally penetrated the surface of the moon, people from all over the world chanted the words “We did it!” in amazement. In this context, the word “we” signifies that the moon landing traversed through cultural barriers and united people because it wasn’t another partisan or political cause, but a revolutionary reckoning that rejuvenated the flickering fire of purpose and patriotism for many across the country. The moon landing showed us that our species is capable of much more than exacerbating problems by waging wars against those who were responsible for past atrocities; rather, if we stride past the fortresses we’ve created on the basis of our disparities and place our efforts on a collective cause, we can literally ascend to starry dimensions. Similar to how the moon landing united humanity on the basis of an elevated purpose, we as individuals can also succeed in life only if we fulfill our sense of higher meaning by embarking on our own trailblazing adventures. Since the experience machine doesn’t know of a more exalted aim other than maximizing pleasure, there would be no moon landing or any other equivalent crusade; essentially, life in this imaginary world would be constrained inside a box of absolute monotony, and as a consequence would be meaningless.
Though the experience machine, on the surface level, appears like the panacea human-kind has been searching for throughout the ages, a treasure-chest of your fulfilled dreams, in reality, it is nothing but a mere simulation, an artificial pleasure generator that doesn’t impact your real life. Since the experience machine exemplifies all forms of Hedonism, this contraption proves that the ancient theory that well-being revolves around pleasure and pain is, at most, a partial view of life; people also require contrast to interpret their experiences and strive to find a larger meaning in life. So, instead of endlessly searching for an unrealistic experience machine, try to embrace the intricate balance between pleasure and pain and strive for a sense of meaning while you sail through the ocean of life.
*The conventional use of “our” seems far too collective for the individual theory of well-being Hedonism exalts.