How Hedonistic is Humanism?

To commentators on Fox News, this is a no-brainer: humanism is completely hedonistic. Assuming some sort of ultimate moral authority, pundits from Bill O’Reilly to Glenn Beck to Sean Hannity to Ann Coulter to Rush Limbaugh all glibly characterize contemporary humanism as bereft of any acceptable (i.e., God-approved) system of ethics. To them, humanists care only about self-gratification and feel no concern, no responsibility, for the world they live in. For example, as quoted by Michael Gaynor, O’Reilly claims that “patriotism, spirituality, respect for authority, and basic moral values are all under siege from a well-funded, secular lobby that envisions a society free of judgments about personal behavior. And if that society falls apart in the process, so be it.” A sweeping indictment, indeed!

But any reasonably informed individual is aware of Fox’s heavily biased, right-wing agenda, and its various commentators all seem well-rehearsed in attacking humanism as immoral, even bordering on the sociopathic. Given the clearly progressive values advocated by today’s humanism, they’re obliged to pronounce it—or what they condemningly designate “secular humanism”—not only as hedonistic but also nihilistic. And (heaven forbid!) god-hatingly atheistic, too.

But the actual values that humanism holds dear are far different from how conservatives have portrayed them—and far more nuanced as well. I’ll attempt to explain here that though there are some unquestionably positive hedonistic elements in humanism, to simply equate the two philosophies or lifestyles is to sell humanism (not to say, hedonism itself) seriously short.

Before the modern era thoroughly corrupted the original concept of hedonism, tacking onto it assorted connotations that reduce it to nothing more than mindless pleasure-seeking, it was a respected school of thought in ancient Greece. Democritus, typically regarded as the earliest philosopher espousing a hedonistic philosophy of life, envisioned it as signifying “contentment” or “cheerfulness.”  He was followed by the Cyrenaics, who taught that pleasure was the only intrinsic good, focusing on the reality of momentary pleasures and enjoyable physical sensations. But even they, according to Wikipedia, “recognize[d] the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be gained from altruism.” According to this life orientation, if we’re to pursue pleasure and avoid pain, we must abide by laws and customs. And, too, we need to grasp that our experience of pleasure also depends on such things as friendship and justice.

The Greek philosopher Epicurus whose teachings represent the best known school of hedonism—namely, Epicureanism—also focused on pleasure as “the greatest good.” But here again it must be pointed out that “pleasure” as then defined was associated with living a virtuous life—hardly centering on the simple (read: selfish) gratification of one’s senses, or the unconstrained pursuit of euphoria. Rather, Epicurus’s thinking focused on achieving tranquility, as well as freedom from fear and bodily pain.

Actively promoting a simple, thoughtful life, the ideas of Epicurus are to be sharply distinguished from the unsavory hedonistic qualities of today’s economic materialists, who single-mindedly attempt to gain financial advantage over others to indulge in whatever temporal pleasures the world might thereby offer them. And this more recent consumptive (capitalistic?) phenomenon suggests, in turn, how the pre-Christian concept of hedonism has become not only oversimplified but flat out debased.

Humanism—in its essence intimately related to humanitarianism—has a particularly noble, longstanding history. Nonetheless, its generally non-Christian orientation would seem to constitute the main reason that critics like to link it to hedonism. For as Greek hedonism was literally pre-Christian, today’s humanism might be seen (at least symbolically) as post-Christian. So not deriving its set of beliefs from any mystical—not scientifically verifiable—deity, humanism is now frequently conflated with hedonism, which has itself been degraded by all the pejorative associations it’s unfortunately taken on.

Consequently, it’s crucial to provide some additional details about contemporary views of this ancient school of thought. Omitting its ethical dimensions entirely, dictionaries typically reduce the concept to the simple belief that pursuing pleasure (materialistically defined, if it’s defined at all) is the supreme goal in life and the key to happiness. It’s doubtless significant that synonyms for this “cheapened” version of hedonism include carnality, debauchery, sensuality, and voluptuousness, implying that hedonism somehow regards as “virtuous” the practice of excess and overindulgence—as well as an animal-like sexuality overriding all other concerns or considerations.

To reduce what was once seen as a beneficial, in many ways auspicious (though non-theistic), lifestyle to a mere collection of appetites seems “invertedly aligned” with traditional Christian beliefs, which encourage a much more sacrificial mindset—all for the sake of an afterlife, which then promises us an eternity of bliss. So the whole notion of hedonism, or experiencing bliss in this lifetime, ends up diametrically opposed to the authoritarian religious ethic of leading a God-centered (vs. human-centered) existence. And the dogma-driven bias against living a life resplendent with “secular joys” helps explain the bias of the religious right against the core tenets of humanism as they conveniently equate it to hedonism. It’s certainly worth noting that dictionary antonyms now supplied for hedonism include the joy-depriving—or life-deprivingterms of abstinence, asceticism, sobriety, and temperance.

So what exactly are the values of humanism? And how might they best be distinguished from hedonism as it’s presently understood?

The latest revision of the American Humanist Association’s fundamental principles—Humanist Manifesto III—probably best exemplifies its ideals. The subtitle of this document, “Humanism and Its Aspirations,” suggests that it’s a life orientation that strives to achieve lofty ideals. As such, it’s far removed from any philosophy that might preach unmitigated self-indulgence. While it celebrates all the joys and pleasures that mortal life can provide, it does so within a broad framework of values far transcending the originally conceived ideals of hedonism.

Ironically, many of these ideals are not that dissimilar to the not-specifically-theistic values characterizing almost all organized religions. For these values derive mostly from the golden rule, advocated by religions in general, and they also stem from the peace-fostering ideal of  “live and let live”—though, historically, humanism has abided by this admirable precept a lot more, aahem, faithfully than have most institutionalized, holier-than-thou religions.

The ethical ideals of humanism relate to living vitally and virtuously in the present with no expectation of eternal reward. Contrary to hedonism as currently viewed, these ideals go considerably  beyond any narrowly defined pursuit of pleasure. Not that humanism finds anything intrinsically repugnant in the gratification-based “eat, drink, and be merry” approach to life—as long as such pleasures aren’t addictive and are engaged in responsibly.

In fact, the whole philosophy of humanism hinges on taking full ownership of one’s life without reliance on any higher power. That is, it’s up to each individual to set their own goals and make choices benefiting not only themselves but others (both humans and animals) as well. Not to mention contributing to the greater good of society, the environment, and  the planet generally—which supports our endeavors and therefore “mandates” that we do everything possible to safeguard its resources.

I’ll end this discussion by quoting from an interview of mine as a humanist psychologist published in the January/February 2012 issue of the Humanist. Addressing humanism’s key values as spiritual (though not religion-based), I deliberately took many of my talking points from the Humanist Manifesto. To quote myself: “Humanism extols such virtues and ideals as courage, fortitude, innovation and creativity, generosity, empathy and compassion. And—perhaps more broadly—it reveres altruism and a deep sense of community, justice and equal opportunity, and living in harmony with nature. Beyond that, humanism affirms the inherent value and dignity of all humans, independent of their religion or socio-economic status.”

And with that, I’ll rest my case. To portray humanism as mere hedonism is to falsify it on almost every conceivable level.