Grace asked:

My friend recently told me what hedonism is and that he believes it. I instantly thought that pleasure is not the highest good, but that happiness is. But I’m not sure if that really makes sense I guess. Could you tell me what you think about it?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

This is an old philosophical puzzle, and you are right in your suspicions that happiness is not necessarily identical with pleasure. However, it is actually quite hard to say wherein the difference, if any, lies.

You may be thinking of pleasure as the experience of some kind of pleasurable sensation. However, there are other kinds of pleasures, say, pleasures involved in pursuing intellectual or social or artistic activities. We do things with pleasure. We can also be pleased — experience mental pleasure — in receiving news, say, of a friend’s good fortune, or an enemy’s misfortune. Although this mental pleasure might be accompanied by some sort of physical feeling (the proverbial tingle up the spine), it need not be.

John Stuart Mill in his book Utilitarianism argued for a version of hedonism in which there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures, the highest of all being those that require the exercise of those faculties that most distinguish us from non-human (non language speaking) animals, such as the pursuit of philosophy, or art, or literature. That, for Mill, is the essence of human ‘happiness’.

My case for being sceptical about this comes from common human experience. Speaking for myself, there are times when I feel happy, and times when I feel less happy or positively gloomy, and yet these periods do not always seem to coincide with the experience of pleasure, or displeasure, in any of its senses. In my happy state, things that annoy me or hurt me are still in some way just as hurtful or annoying — when I focus my attention on them — and yet they trouble me less, or not at all. In my gloomy state, things that I take pleasure in and enjoy are unable to lift me, even though the pleasure and enjoyment are real in themselves.

I am not now talking about mania or clinical depression, which are another thing entirely. All human beings experience happiness and unhappiness at different times. It is part of life. You can be happy while keeping your mental stability, or unhappy without being numbed by depression.

It is indeed a remarkable fact that people can be happy in the most extraordinarily bad circumstances, or unhappy despite an abundance of sources of pleasure.

As an example of the former, one might cite the Stoic maxim that ‘a good man can be happy on the rack’. For the Stoic, goodness, or virtue is its own reward. There is nothing more than a human being can desire, than to be a person of virtue. However, you don’t need to be a Stoic to recognize the joy that shines out of those lucky few who are able to remain cheerful no matter what misfortunes overcome them.

An example of the latter might be the sorrow and devastation brought about by the loss of a loved one, or to take a very different example, the overpowering boredom and anomie that is the permanent occupational hazard of the idle super-rich.