How to avoid the hedonic treadmill

hedonism : "Making the best of one life"

Mr. Kanitscheider, you are a philosopher and you have written a hedonistic manifesto. What actually is hedonism?

First of all, a misunderstanding has to be cleared up. In everyday life, a hedonist is someone who doesn't like to work, who lets others do the work for them and leans back comfortably - but not someone who is looking for a successful life. The latter is the philosophical understanding of hedonism. The focus is on happiness, especially given the fact that this life only lasts for a finite period of time. The ancient Greeks recognized this.

Can we learn anything from the ancient philosophers?

As early as the fourth century BC, some thinkers pointed out that our lifetimes are limited and that there is nothing to suggest that there is such a thing as afterlife and an immortal soul. With this, these philosophers were of course in contradiction to Plato, according to whose idea the soul plunges into a shadowy realm after death and is purified in order to experience immortality in some higher realm. In contrast to Plato's idealism, the hedonists are empirically oriented, they emphasize the importance of this world. After that, we humans are a piece of nature, we live for a while and we have the determination to optimally shape this life interval.

What do you have to imagine by that?

If you are 85 and review your life, you should come to the conclusion: I have essentially used my possibilities and not wasted my life, I have done useful things and have all the talents and possibilities that nature has given me I took advantage of. That is the essential idea of ​​hedonism.

Who were the main representatives of this philosophical direction?

First of all, Aristippus of Cyrene, a contemporary of Socrates, in whose seminary Aristippus sat and discussed with him. Better known is Epicurus of Athens. In Roman times, Lucretius is the main representative, who became famous for his great didactic poem “De rerum natura”. The reference to finitude, a materialistic thinking shaped by real nature, the skepticism regarding the gods and criticism of religion, all this characterizes the ancient hedonistic thinking. It is therefore no wonder that later in Christian times Epicurus and his whole line of thought were rejected. Christianity is essentially not bothered by a life full of privation, since it only finds its fulfillment in the hereafter. The point is to survive on Judgment Day - a clear alternative to the hedonist's orientation towards this world.

Even so, many people believe in life after death.

Already Epicurus, in modern times the enlightener Julien Offray de La Mettrie and in the 20th century Bertrand Russell opposed this idea. They argued that immortality of the soul is implausible because there can be no decoupling of the soul substance from its material carrier. To this day, no defender of immortality has any idea how the soul can be detached from the body. Incidentally, Aristotle shared this opinion, even if he was otherwise no typical hedonist. Modern neurobiology then fully confirmed the Epicurean-Aristotelian view. Of course, this has repercussions on our moral behavior, on our ethics. If a transmigration of souls or a reincarnation are implausible, then we just have to make the best of this one life.

How does it come that a philosopher who deals with science writes a book about hedonism?

If you as a philosopher deal with physics, mathematics and other sciences and take a naturalistic position - that is, the view that the world is right and that everything follows natural scientific principles - then you are often confronted with the thesis: You can do it yes do not explain that there are values! You cannot absorb ethical and aesthetic values ​​with your materialism!

A valid objection.

Chamber! One should ask oneself how an awareness of moral values ​​arises in the first place and where these are anchored in us. Evolutionary biology and brain research give us important information. It is the emotive centers in the brain that make the assessments. If you pursue this approach, you will come across appropriate ethical systems. And one of these is hedonism. Hedonism is the forerunner of modern utilitarian value systems, which are based on sensible, rational principles and which harmonize with the findings of brain research. In analytic philosophy, utilitarianism is the leading direction.

Hedonism - that sounds like a waste. Nowadays, people tend to talk about thrift, moderation and sustainability, think of the environment and climate. What is the hedonist's view of the energy transition?

Only in the superficial understanding of everyday life, in which hedonism is identified with "wine, women and song", does joie de vivre mean extravagance. In a serious philosophical sense, this ethic contains the mandate to deal carefully with the only earthly world, for there is no other in which we and our children can be happy. However, earthly happiness is not a concern of all ethicists. For the ethical idealists Kant, Hegel and Fichte, human happiness, the idea of ​​a happy life, is only a worthless accessory. After that, it doesn't matter whether people feel good and whether their life is successful, the main thing is that they do their duty. From a Kantian point of view, humans are compulsory machines. The other opposite pole to hedonism is the theological ethics, in which it is not reason but the gods of the respective religion that dictate what should be done. Since man is not allowed to dare to judge the commandments of the gods, there is no discourse about ethical demands.

Is Hedonism Immoral?

What is moral and what is not is determined by ethics. If you accept an ethic, you also accept its principles. From these it can be deduced what is moral and immoral. Take the Mosaic ethics as an example. It is based on the ten laws promulgated by Moses. The ten commandments are the foundation, immutable principles, or axioms. They determine whether an act is moral. Another example of an axiom is Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative: act in such a way that the principles of your action could be a general law. Every ethic makes specifications beyond which there are no deeper justifications. Even science needs such axioms, and quantum mechanics also has no “ultimate justification”. Likewise, there is no absolute origin of ethics from which all values ​​arise.

Then you see hedonism on the moral side.

But of course! The hedonist starts with the principle of happiness. For Aristippus, the ultimate goal of all endeavors is the perfect shaping of life and the ability to overlook the consequences of action. Happiness and understanding are the two components. They are assumed that they cannot be derived from any deeper principles.

Is there a ladder of pleasure?

That’s up to everyone. Attempts have been made to find a reason for the fact that spiritual values ​​are higher than physical and sexuality. But such arguments are shaky. One cannot say to someone who is primarily oriented towards physical pleasures: It is better to take care of the nature of the universe, that is a higher value.

Isn't there a risk of a hedonist becoming an egoist?

Friendship is a prime example of this even in ancient times. Why should one have friends, be nice to others, get involved in society? The Platonist says that friendship is an idea that is subordinate to the idea of ​​the good. That's why I have to follow her. The hedonist says: I don't need these ideas. When I'm nice to others, I get something in return. Friendship is mutual. Everyone lives better when they are friendly to their neighbors.

Are you a hedonist?

My main joys are playing chamber music, climbing mountain peaks and gaining knowledge. I am happy when I understand a new conceptual context.

The philosopher Bernulf Kanitscheider presents further thoughts on the subject of hedonism in the Tagesspiegel-Wissenschaftssalon. He then discussed with Tagesspiegel editor Hartmut Wewetzer and the guests of the salon. Date: Thursday, May 3rd at 7 p.m. in the Tagesspiegel publishing house, Askanischer Platz 3, 10963 Berlin. Admission 12 euros (including sparkling wine and snack). Binding registration by phone (030) 290 21-520 or in the Tagesspiegel online shop.

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