Wotton’s Society Dr Dominic Scott (University of Virginia), ‘What is wrong with hedonism?’

Wotton’s Society was pleased to host Dr Dominic Scott from the University of Virginia, speaking on hedonism. Dr Scott began his talk by asking the old Hellenic question: “What is ‘the good’?” Eudaimonia (‘happiness through living and doing well’) was the aim, yet the question still remained: “What is happiness?” The first suggested answer was ‘pleasure’ as seen by the classical hedonist. However, the view that Epicurus gave was that avoiding pain (and perhaps pursuing philosophy) was to live the happy life and, more recently, Utilitarians have considered many different kinds of pleasure.

We were asked whether we would enter a ‘brave new world’ and plug ourselves into a machine that would provide us with a ‘happily ever after’. Various problems with this were raised. If the hedonist was right, then we would plug in. But is pleasure all that matters? At this point the values of experiences, feelings and desires were discussed. Perhaps hedonism is wrong to put so much emphasis on experience while leaving out our previous desires.

We were also introduced to a pair of confused parents. Can a parent who is pleased with their child’s progress be truly happy even if their child is actually miserable and failing? Is absolute satisfaction of our desires all that is necessary? When we remove our current concerns and are forced to consider the end of our life we are left with those memories that we might be proud of, or that we might regret. On this point the audience became far more stoic, with not a single person offering the truly hedonic view. However, it was suggested that the hedonist could argue that all stoic values ultimately boil down to the pleasures derived from them. Some other problems with the ‘desire-satisfaction’ theory were tackled by the introduction of the theory of objectivity. Maybe it is that some things have objective moral worth rather than their value being completely subjective.

The Society was privileged to have had such an engaging speaker, and the constant participation of the audience in asking challenging questions shows just how enjoyable the evening was for all who attended.

Alex Bridgland (MAG)