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The paradox of hedonism, also called the pleasure paradox, is the idea in the study of ethics which points out that pleasure and happiness are strange phenomena that do not obey normal principles. First explicitly noted by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick in The Methods of Ethics, the paradox of hedonism points out that pleasure cannot be acquired directly, it can only be acquired indirectly.[citation needed]


It is often said that we fail to attain pleasures if we deliberately seek them. This has been described variously, by many:

But I now thought that this end [one's happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness[....] Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness along the way[....] Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.[1]

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.

The more a man tries to demonstrate his sexual potency or a woman her ability to experience orgasm, the less they are able to succeed. Pleasure is, and must remain, a side-effect or by-product, and is destroyed and spoiled to the degree to which it is made a goal in itself.[2]

Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.[3]

What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself.

What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness.

What is happiness? The feeling that power increases — that a resistance is overcome.[4]

[...] it is significantly enlightening to substitute for the individual 'happiness' (for which every living being is supposed to strive) power [...] joy is only a symptom of the feeling of attained power [...] (one does not strive for joy [...] joy accompanies; joy does not move)[5]

  • Psychologist Alfred Adler in The Neurotic Constitution (1912):

Nietzsche's "will to power" and "will to seem" embrace many of our views, which again resemble in some respects the views of Féré and the older writers, according to whom the sensation of pleasure originates in a feeling of power, that of pain in a feeling of feebleness.[6]

  • Poet and satirist Edward Young:

The love of praise, howe'er concealed by art,

Reigns more or less supreme in every heart;
The Proud to gain it, toils on toils endure;

The modest shun it, but to make it sure![7]

  • Politician William Bennett:

Happiness is like a cat, If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you'll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.Template:Cite quote

  • Novelist João Guimarães Rosa:

Happiness is found only in little moments of inattention.[8]


Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behavior, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behavior, it is believed that Paul likes collecting stamps because he gets pleasure from collecting stamps. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, "I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure". Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He just likes collecting stamps.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.

The hedonistic paradox would probably mean that if one sets the goal to please oneself too highly then the mechanism would in fact jam itself.

Suggested explanations[]

Happiness is often imprecisely equated with pleasure. If, for whatever reason, one does equate happiness with pleasure, then the paradox of hedonism arises. When one aims solely towards pleasure itself, one's aim is frustrated. Henry Sidgwick comments on such frustration after a discussion of self-love in the above-mentioned work:

I should not, however, infer from this that the pursuit of pleasure is necessarily self-defeating and futile; but merely that the principle of Egoistic Hedonism, when applied with a due knowledge of the laws of human nature, is practically self-limiting; i.e., that a rational method of attaining the end at which it aims requires that we should to some extent put it out of sight and not directly aim at it.[9]

While not addressing the paradox directly, Aristotle commented on the futility of pursuing pleasure. Human beings are actors whose endeavors bring about consequences, and among these is pleasure. Aristotle then argues as follows:

How, then, is it that no one is continuously pleased? Is it that we grow weary? Certainly all human things are incapable of continuous activity. Therefore pleasure also is not continuous; for it accompanies activity.[10]

Sooner or later, finite beings will be unable to acquire and expend the resources necessary to maintain their sole goal of pleasure; thus, they find themselves in the company of misery. Evolutionary theory explains that humans evolved through natural selection and follow genetic imperatives that seek to maximize reproduction[11], not happiness. As a result of these selection pressures, the extent of human happiness is limited biologically. David Pearce argues in his treatise The Hedonistic Imperative that humans might be able to use genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and neuroscience to eliminate suffering in all sentient life.

See also[]


  1. John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909 (p. 94)
  2. Viktor Frankl. Man's Search for Meaning.
  3. Søren Kierkegaard. Either/Or. Diapsalmata
  4. The Antichrist, § 2
  5. The Will to Power, § 688
  6. Adler, Alfred (1912). The Neurotic Constitution: ix.
  7. Geoffrey Brennan. The Esteem Engine: A Resource for Institutional Design
  8. Rosa, Guimarães. Tutaméia – Terceiras Estórias (8.a ed.). Rio de Janeiro: Ed. Nova Fronteira, 2001, p. 60.
  9. Henry Sidgwick. The Methods of Ethics. BookSurge Publishing (1 Mar 2001) (p. 3)
  10. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics, (Written 350 B.C.E)Book X, page 4
  11. Raymond Bohlin. Sociobiology: Evolution, Genes and Morality. URL accessed on 2007-01-03.

Further reading[]

  • Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1175, 3-6 in The Basic Works of Aristotle, Richard McKeon ed. (New York: Random House, 1941)
  • John Stuart Mill, Autobiography in The Harvard Classics, Vol. 25, Charles Eliot Norton, ed. (New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company, 1909)
  • Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1874/1963)
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