Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Wise Desire-Priorities: Hedonism or Moral Integrity?

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Wise Desire-Priorities: Hedonism or Moral Integrity?

Article excerpt


Although there are several philosophical theories about what constitutes 'good life', few focuses on which type of desires pay off for those who entertain them. We therefore investigate empirically how people prioritize among desires through a global assessment of what lives they most want to live. In the current study (N = 154), we presented them with 26 questions about the type of life they could find desirable. Structural Equation Modeling revealed systematic differences in how a hedonistic attitude and an attitude of moral integrity differently predicted desires towards life. And as older participants tended to be less supportive of hedonistic attitudes, our results argue against hedonism.

Keywords: quality of life, global desires, hedonism, eudaimonia, moral integrity

1. Introduction

Aristotle (trans. 1985) argued that happiness meant successful goal-attainment where the best life (i.e., eudaimonia) is the life where we exercise and develop our capacities to fulfill the requirements of the virtues, being indifferent of other desires (see also, Annas, 1993; Nussbaum, 1994). In stark contrast, modern theories in the utilitarian tradition argues that fulfillment of all desires (i.e., everything that matters to a person, normatively, as this person sees it) contributes to a good life-including hedonistic desires (Sidgwick, 1874/1982; Griffin, 1986/1990; Parfit, 1984/1991). The inclusion of all desires postpones an answer to the practical question: Which desires is it egoistically rational to entertain? Griffin includes a speculative answer to this question in his theory of what well-being is (Griffin, 1986/1990); but we think the issue of choosing the best desire-priority may be addressed empirically while still paying respect to the philosophical arguments.

The current study thus presented people with a set of desires that empirical research has shown to be of importance for participants' well-being. Using Structural Equation Modeling, we provide empirical support for two different attitudinal desire-priority profiles that vary with age among our participants. Since accumulated age may cause accumulated life experience, we assume a tendency to choose wiser sets of desires with increased age. On this assumption, eudaimonia theory (Aristotle, trans. 1985) will be incorrect if we find that older people are just as interested in hedonistic desires as younger people. If eudaimonia theory survives this test, then people who abandon a purely hedonistic attitude towards life might be better off.

1.1 Aristotle's Anti- hedonism

While the modern utilitarian traditions acknowledges all desires, Aristotle holds that only satisfaction of those motivated by the virtues will contribute to a good life. There are two reasons for Aristotle's recommendation: First, virtues (e.g., temperance, fairness, courage) are standards of conduct; all they require is that our acts represent the standards we hold. They are thus activities that still are ends in themselves. If practicing these standards is everything we require, nothing beyond our own control can stop us from being altogether satisfied. Secondly, the virtues advocated by Aristotle are such that they allow human beings to exercise and fully develop their capacities as rational, active, social and emotional creatures (Aristotle, trans. 1985).

That said, it is not easy to become altogether virtuous. It is, for example, hard to prefer courageous behavior before continued existence, or to prefer justice before self-interest. And we often behave irrationally when we are confronted with hedonistic desire-fulfillment; we sometimes fail when we would be better off by postponing immediate pleasures, or we avoid dangers or find it difficult to endure some contemporary pain in order to gain positive pay-offs in the future. Most people have mixed motivations. Realizing that our lives are finite, we might think that up until now we have wasted our time (Rogers, 1961). …

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