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Pleasure and pain
Pleasure and Drugs
Avoiding Pain

Help L'utilitarisme Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) Utilitarianism
UTILITARIANISM RESOURCES Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) Hedonism Stoics and Epicureans
La recherche du bonheur Les différentes formes de l'utilitarisme Site officiel de Michel Onfray et de l'Université populaire de Caen
John Stuart Mill (1806--73)

The French author Michel Onfray may be the philosopher who best represents the hedonist tradition today. In his many works, Onfray attempts to reposition the human body at the centre of our world view. Few if any of his books are readily available in English. But their evocative titles, with references to such things as “the philosopher’s belly” and “the art of enjoyment (or orgasm)” suggest the kinds of topics that interest him.

Onfray specializes in a certain ancient philosophy that has been buried under 2000 years of Christianity. His mission is to rehabilitate materialist and sensualist thinking and use it to re-examine our relationship to the world. Approaching philosophy as a reflection of each individual’s personal experience, Onfray inquires into the capabilities of the body and its senses and calls on us to celebrate them through music, painting, and fine cuisine.

Far from advocating the easy pleasures of consumption, Onfray’s form of hedonism is a more tragic philosophy. It is ultimately much closer to asceticism than to debauchery, and just as compatible with the ideals of the Left as with those of Nietzsche.

Researcher Module: Michel Onfray Linked Module: Rencontre philosophique Michel Onfray: du plaisir à la politique Researcher Module: Michel Onfray : Éloge du plaisir History Module: Michel Onfray: La philosophie du plaisir

The philosophies that regard the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain as the truest guides to human behaviour have a long tradition.

Aristippus of Cyrene (435 to 366 B.C.), the founder of the Cyrenaic school of philosophy, was among the forerunners of those philosophers who ranked pleasure highest on their scale of values. But he also believed in the need to exercise good judgment to temper human passions.

Next came Epicurus, who placed particular stress on the material, sensual aspect of human pleasures, but without encouraging excess or disorder of the senses. On the contrary, epicureanism argued the need to choose prudently among our desires so as to achieve a state of authentic equilibrium and repose–what the ancient Greeks called ataraxia and what we now call happiness.

The Middle Ages were a difficult time for hedonist philosophies. But once the Renaissance began, humanist philosophers such as Erasmus (1466-1536) tried to show that the search for pleasure could be compatible with God’s desire for people to be happy. Thomas More (1478-1535), like Erasmus, defended hedonism on a religious basis, but went further, affirming that our desire for pleasure and happiness motivates us to act in a moral way.

In the 18th century, the subject of pleasure and happiness was explored more systematically by philosophers such as Hume, Locke, and Diderot. Their theories can be regarded as precursors of utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism itself evolved from the individual moral philosophy propounded by Jeremy Bentham in 1823 to the social moral philosophy advanced by John Stuart Mill in 1861. For these two thinkers, pleasure is desirable in and of itself, because only that which can be experienced directly has any value.


Thus, utilitarianism was originally a moral philosophy whose ultimate goal was the well-being of the individual. In the Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham lists the types of pleasures, including the pleasures of the senses, the abilities, friendship, memory, imagination, and so on. To Bentham, all of these pleasures are accessible to all human beings, which makes Bentham a more egalitarian utilitarian than Mill.


In contrast, Mill distinguishes a scale of pleasures, of which the most refined are the ones to be most sought after. In Mill’s view, humans are capable of achieving more refined pleasures than those that Bentham identifies. For example, to Bentham, the imagination is nothing more than memories or anticipation of happy events, whereas Mill sees poetry, for example, as a more refined pleasure. And Mill clearly believes that improving our ability to attain the more refined pleasures would enhance the overall welfare of humankind.

Utilitarianism holds that when faced with several alternatives, we must choose the one that provides the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Thus, utilitarianism offers a pragmatic form of ethics. It seeks to weigh individual pleasures against individual pains, thereby deducing what would provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and then to apply this criterion to establish fair laws and policies for the community as a whole.

Utilitarianism bases its principles of the quest for happiness not on an ideal standard, as Plato or Kant did, but rather on a real standard, derived from observation and experience. In his book Utilitarianism, Mill also shows the ways in which his approach differs both from the sensualist morality of Locke and Bentham and from the rigorous ethics of Kant. For Mill, the ultimate source of justice lies not in what is useful to one person in particular, but rather in what is useful to the greatest number of people.

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