The Conflict Between Hedonism and Altruism

The humanist worldview has two core value assumptions.

  1. Hedonism: Pain is negative value and pleasure is positive value. In other words, feeling good is intrinsically good, and feeling bad is intrinsically bad. Other things are only good or bad insofar as they cause pleasure or pain.
  2. Altruism: We have a moral duty to act for the good of others, not just for our own good. Hurting others is morally bad. Helping others is morally good. This is the sole moral good, and all other moral goods derive from it.

Hedonism defines what is subjectively good and bad for an individual. Altruism defines what is objectively good and bad.

These assumptions are almost never explicitly stated, but they are the implicit basis for culturally accepted value judgments. They are tacitly accepted by most people in the modern West.

There is a conflict between these two assumptions.

Hedonism situates value in the feelings of pain and pleasure. Feelings are subjective. They are tied to a perspective. They only exist (as feelings) for the subject who experiences them. So, if value is made out of feelings, then value is subject-dependent. My feelings are not your feelings, and so my value is not your value.

But the altruism principle says that your value is, or should be, my value. Given the assumption of hedonism, altruism implies that your feelings have value to me, even though I don’t feel them. In that case, it cannot be the feeling that makes them valuable to me.

That’s the conflict. Altruism and hedonism have inconsistent views of value. Hedonistic value is subject-dependent. Altruistic moral value is subject-independent.

Some people claim that hedonism is self-evident, based on an appeal to experience. In their view, we know that pain is bad because it feels bad, and we know that pleasure is good because it feels good. This is really a definition of bad and good, not an empirical argument. Regardless, this argument negates altruism, because I don’t feel the pain or pleasure of others. Their pain doesn’t feel bad to me, and their pleasure doesn’t feel good to me. So, if I know from direct experience that pain is bad and pleasure is good, then I also know that the pain of others is not bad and the pleasure of others is not good. If hedonism is self-evident, so is selfishness.

The conflict between hedonism and altruism goes unnoticed by most people, because the assumptions are not stated explicitly and thought about carefully and logically. Also, they are not used to generate value judgments in practice. Ordinary value judgments are generated by intuition. They are not consciously derived from axioms. The hedonism and altruism assumptions are only used as a basis for post hoc rationalizations. If you try to explicitly derive value judgments from them, you will discover this conflict and other problems.

The humanist worldview does not have a coherent value theory. It provides no rational basis for making value judgments.


  1. You're a moral nihilist but keep defending a certain "contract" between people which is, essentially, moral, even if you prefer to call it with another name. Here's how I see it. I'd like to live in a society in which wherever I randomly appear, I won't be a worthless piece of meat that can be tortured, robbed, enslaved, killed, etc. This leads to cooperation - that is, to sacrificing the unlikely "big win" of being the dictator of North Korea with his harem of 3000 schoolgirls, but also avoiding the much more likely "big loss" of being one of his subjects. How is this illogical?

    1. There's nothing illogical about wanting to live in a certain kind of society, or wanting society to be governed by a social contract. It would be incorrect to believe that the social contract is written into the universe, rather than something we create and maintain. People can get together and agree to cooperate in a certain way, and you can call that agreement "morality" if you want, but that's not how most people understand the concept of morality. They believe that good and evil are objective realities.

      I can judge a hammer to be good or bad with respect to the function of hammering nails. I can judge a society to be good or bad with respect to the function of creating cooperation. Neither judgment requires morality. I might prefer a society in which I have the 3000 girl harem, and I might also prefer a hammer that turns everything it touches to gold. But those things are not practical alternatives, so even though they would be better than a fair society and hammer that just pounds nails, they aren't useful norms. I can recognize that the best iterated prisoner's dilemma game is one in which I defect on every turn and the other person cooperates on every turn. That maximizes my utility. However, I can also recognize that the other person is unlikely to cooperate on every turn if I defect, and so that's not a practical alternative. However, we might be able to agree to both cooperate on each turn, so that's the best practical alternative for me.


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