Notes/Class Discussion on Intrinsic Goods, Happiness, and whether happiness/pleasure are the only intrinsic goods.

10 arguments against the idea that happiness or pleasure are all that matters    


When you explore popular books and movies, it seems many people think happiness is all that ultimately matters. Others believe it is some form of pleasure that ultimately matters. Some combine the two.

But I disagree. I want happiness and pleasure and I couldn’t live in a constant state of excruciating pain, but I do not think they are all that matters; I do not think they are the only intrinsic goods (a word I will soon explain).  Analogously, I cannot live without oxygen, but I don’t think oxygen is all that matters.

In the first couple of minutes of this lecture/discussion, I will present one form of controversial hedonism and then challenge it with ten thought experiments, arguments, and Socratic Questions. This hedonistic discussion revolves around this question: Is happiness all that ultimately matters? Is happiness the only good that you intrinsically value? *

So, why is this abstract discussion important? Well, besides being an interesting puzzle, this discussion is important because it seems logical to do whatever is necessary to get pleasure if pleasure is all that matters. Sometimes seeking long term pleasure can be harmless like Epicurean Philosophy, but some people really do believe that their long term pleasure involves harming others at least some of the time.  The same may be said of happiness assuming we can agree on a clear definition of happiness.

 “The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Part I: Instrumental and Intrinsic Goods

Let’s first distinguish between instrumental and intrinsic goods. Most people want money, houses, cars, friends, vacations and other goods. When you ask them why they want those things, their deepest answer seems to be “because it will make me happy.” In this case, money, houses, cars, friends, and vacations are instrumental goods because people value them as  instruments to happiness. They are a means to get the good life. But happiness seems to be an intrinsic good because people want it for itself. For example, Bob doesn’t want happiness to get money, he wants money to get happiness.  If you ask Bob why he wants happiness, he may simply shrug his shoulders and say, “just because.”  So, happiness seems to be an intrinsic good because most people value it for itself, not simply as an instrument to obtain some other good.  

Activity: Draw a chain of arrows explaining why you want money. Money leads to cars, houses, security, pleasure, happiness. What is the end point?


Part II: The appeal of hedonism

People who believe pleasure is (or should be) our ultimate goal are called hedonists.  Hedonistic forms of philosophy have many strengths. You can read about Epicurus and his beautiful form of hedonistic philosophy to better understand one form of hedonism.

In this video, I will focus on one type of hedonist: the one who believes happiness (or pleasure) is the only intrinsic good. Notice that this type of hedonist has an absolutist belief: she believes happiness (or pleasure) is the only ultimate good... and so she believes that those who deny happiness is the only ultimate good are mistaken.

So, Is happiness all that matters in an ultimate sense? More precisely, is my happiness (or my pleasure) all that matters in an ultimate sense? Is it the only intrinsic good?


Part III: Ten Objections to Hedonism; Ten objections to the idea that happiness is all that matters

1) One of the most famous experiments is Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy nicely summarizes it:

“Nozick asks us to imagine that we have the choice of plugging in to a fantastic machine that flawlessly provides an amazing mix of experiences. Importantly, this machine can provide these experiences in a way that, once plugged in to the machine, no one can tell that their experiences are not real. Disregarding considerations about responsibilities to others and the problems that would arise if everyone plugged in, would you plug in to the machine for life? “ (IEP) Remember, you will be happier and have more pleasure in the virtual world created by the machine than you would in this world.

Note: The original experiment used “pleasure,” not happiness.

If you refused to enter the machine, you are in the majority.  “The vast majority of people reject the choice to live a much more pleasurable life in the machine, mostly because they agree with Nozick that living in reality seems to be important. Opinions differ on what exactly about living in reality is so much better for us than the additional pleasure of living in the experience machine, but the most common response is that a life that is not lived in reality is pointless or meaningless” (IEP).

So, the point is that you want real friends and relationships, not simulated ones. You want meaning, not simply pleasure. You think a life is better if you have real friendships that lead to pleasure than if you have simulated friendships that lead to more pleasure.

You might argue that people only value friends because it brings them pleasure or happiness, but the experience machine seems to disprove that. If one is only seeking pleasure or happiness, they would enter the machine and think that people who enter the machine are most well off because they are experiencing the most pleasure or happiness.  But that is not the case.

Again, the conclusion is that pleasure or happiness is not the only intrinsic good; sometimes reality is intrinsically valued not for the pleasure/happiness it may bring, but for itself.

Perhaps some of us sometimes value beauty, goodness, relationships, and finding meaning in life  in intrinsically valuable ways... even if it costs pleasure or happiness. So pleasure and happiness are not all that matters.

To Quote IEP: “That our actions have real consequences, that our friends are real, and that our experiences are genuine seem to matter for most of us regardless of considerations of pleasure or happiness” (IEP).

Now, philosophers have been discussing and debating Nozick’s thought experiment for decades, but, in the end, most recognize that it is a strong objection to hedonism.

So, would you enter the machine? Remember, imagine the technology is possible, you will think the people/other minds in the simulation are real, and you won’t know the difference between the simulated world in the machine and the world we live in (which may or may not be simulated)? You will experience pain and sadness in the virtual world, but you will experience far less of that than you would in this reality… and you will also experience more happiness in the machine than you would in this reality of real people and relationships.

Before moving to the second objection, consider some common misconceptions:

A) The technology may fail, I would not enter. Reply: It’s a thought experiment, not an actual machine. You must imagine it won’t fail to explore your deepest values.

B) How do we know we aren’t in an experience machine now? Reply: I don’t believe we do, but the point is not to prove we are in a virtual reality. The point is to explore your intrinsic values and whether pleasure or happiness are all that you value intrinsically.  

C) The experience machine does not tell me why I should value reality over the illusion/simulation. What is so special about reality? Reply: The thought experiment doesn’t claim to explain why you should intrinsically value reality any more than it explains why you should intrinsically value happiness. It’s simply helping you think about whether you in fact do intrinsically value reality and other goods.  That is, it helps some people see their other intrinsic values (e.g. reality). If you ask, “why does one prefer reality?” and if reality really is an intrinsic value, then it is analogous to asking, “Why do you value happiness?” It’s not surprising that neither question has a more profound answer if they are both intrinsic values as the experience machine leads one to believe. In other words, to ask, “why do I value reality” is to miss the point since the point is that reality is an intrinsic value.

D) As we proceed, some of you may want a more precise definition of happiness and/or pleasure. I will not give one at this point. All I can say is however you define happiness or pleasure, the 10 experiments will challenge the idea that it is the only intrinsic good.

*In short, this thought experiment leads to excellent introspection, discussion, and insights. Each person must introspect and think about it to better understand what they intrinsically value.


2) Some people argue that autonomy is valued for its own right, not simply for the happiness it might bring. This is one of the themes in Brave New World and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Brave New World has multiple arguments against centering your life on pleasure and happiness. Indeed, it presents a scenario in which people are controlled not with totalitarian violence, but by giving people the pleasures and forms of happiness they want.

One question that arises in both stories is,  Do I want my happiness if I lose my autonomy in the process? If we are correct when we say happiness and autonomy sometimes conflict, then will happiness always win out over autonomy?

Can autonomy contribute to the good life even when it fails to make us happy?

Some of you are thinking you want autonomy because it makes you happy, but is that really the only reason you value and want it?


3) Two Worlds. Let’s say two men were equally happy in their lives because they had loving wives and believed the wives were faithful. Both men were equally happy for the same reasons. But the second man’s happiness was based on a false belief (his wife didn’t really love him and wasn’t faithful). Wasn’t the first man’s life better even though the two men were equally happy? If your answer is yes, then how can happiness be all that matters? Is happiness valuable when it is based on false beliefs?

3b) Let me expand on 3 by presenting Kagan’s Businessman thought experiment. As I explain Kagan’s thought experiment, notice he will speak of pleasure instead of happiness, but the experiment presents a challenge either way. That is, it challenges the idea that pleasure and/or happiness is all that ultimately matters.

“Kagan asks us to imagine the life of a very successful businessman who takes great pleasure in being respected by his colleagues, well-liked by his friends, and loved by his wife and children until the day he died. Then Kagan asks us to compare this life with one of equal length and the same amount of pleasure (experienced as coming from exactly the same sources), except that in each case the businessman is mistaken about how those around him really feel. This second (deceived) businessman experiences just as much pleasure from the respect of his colleagues and the love of his family as the first businessman. The only difference is that the second businessman has many false beliefs. Specifically, the deceived businessman’s colleagues actually think he is useless, his wife doesn’t really love him, and his children are only nice to him so that he will keep giving them money. Given that the deceived businessman never knew of any of these deceptions and his experiences were never negatively impacted by the deceptions indirectly, which life do you think is better?” (IEP).  So, that is your question. Which life do you think is better assuming the amounts of happiness and misery are equal?

Now, here’s an advanced analysis from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (just one minute): “Nearly everyone thinks that the deceived businessman has a worse life. This is a problem for Prudential Hedonists because the pleasure is quantitatively equal in each life, so they should be equally good for the one living it. Qualitative Hedonism does not seem to be able to avoid this criticism either because the falsity of the pleasures experienced by the deceived businessman is a dimension of the pleasure that he never becomes aware of. Theoretically, an externalist and qualitative version of Attitudinal Hedonism could include the falsity dimension of an instance of pleasure even if the falsity dimension never impacts the consciousness of the person. However, the resulting definition of pleasure bears little resemblance to what we commonly understand pleasure to be and also seems to be ad hoc in its inclusion of the truth dimension but not others. A dedicated Prudential Hedonist of any variety can always stubbornly stick to the claim that the lives of the two businessmen are of equal value, but that will do little to convince the vast majority to take Prudential Hedonism more seriously” (IEP).  

In short, such examples suggest that there are other intrinsic goods. Pleasure and happiness are not all that matters.  In the minds of most people, pleasure and happiness are not the sole measure of well being. One businessman is living a better life than the other even though the amounts of pleasure and happiness are identical.


4) This one is originally from Phillipa Foot. Let’s say lobotomizing one of your children will guarantee their happiness. Would you do it if such an operation would guarantee the most happiness for the child? If not, are you intrinsically valuing something other than happiness?

Perhaps you might argue that a lobotomized person cannot truly be happy? That is an interesting discussion to explore and you may be correct, but the challenge is then to more precisely explain what you mean by happiness. We will explore that criticism in a moment.


5) Russ Shafer Landau clearly presents the next thought experiment in his Fundamentals of Ethics Textbook. Let’s say there were two people who lived lives with the same amount of happiness and suffering. If hedonism is true, then both lives were equally good because the same amount of happiness and suffering was present in the two lives. However, imagine that the first person experienced great happiness at the beginning of his life and then it went all downhill from there. She suffered more and more as each decade passed. The second person is the opposite: she experienced more misery in her first couple of decades, but her happiness increased and her suffering decreased with each passing decade.

Isn’t the second person’s life better? If so, then the overall quality of life is not simply based on net happiness minus suffering, it’s also  based on whether one’s life has an upward or downward trajectory. So ask yourself, “Is the life of progressively more happiness better than the life with less and less happiness… even though the total net happiness of the two lives is identical?” If so, why?

Now, some might object and say, “Well, one feels the progressively better life is better because one keeps projecting the trend, which will eventually result in more happiness,” but there are some problems with that reply. Can you identify them?


6) The next challenge to hedonism is the Paradox of Hedonism. Consider this poem excerpt: “I sought the bird of bliss and she flew away, I sought my neighbor’s good and bliss came my way.” Consider too this Hawthorne excerpt: “Happiness is like a butterfly, which when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you sit down quietly may alight upon you.”  Now, if happiness is the only thing that makes us better off than we should pursue it all the time. But the paradox of hedonism explains why it is not rational to do that. So, happiness isn’t the only thing that makes us better off.  

When you think about this, it does not mean that happiness isn’t all that matters, but it does mean that in order to get happiness, we should not aim at it. So, the paradox is that if happiness is all that matters then you shouldn’t aim at it. If pleasure is all that matters then you shouldn’t aim at it either.

Now, here is the question: Does it make sense to argue that we shouldn’t aim for the only thing that matters?  Again, there might be a profound answer here, but make sure you aren’t using a strategy that your opponents could use against you (e.g. equivocation or speculating on human motives).


7)  The seventh objection deals with the definition game. How shall one define pleasure? Is the pleasure in reading a book comparable to the pleasure of smoking a cigar? Is the pleasure of jumping on a grenade to save people like the pleasure of shooting a duck?

Is the happiness of a highly moral life comparable to the happiness of a highly immoral one? Would you rather be good or happy (if and when they conflict in your mind)? Is the happiness of watching a sunset comparable to the happiness of winning a contest?

These questions challenge one to precisely define pleasure or happiness, to unify the many ways in which it is used. The criticism that arises is: Hedonism seems too simplistic because it puts so much under the world “happiness.” Happiness is inflated, vague, or meaningless because it includes too much. So, it is easy to argue that everyone ultimately seeks happiness if you define happiness so broadly as to include nearly everything.

Can we separate happiness from joy, contentment, pleasure, dopamine releases in the brain, peace, accomplishment of one’s goals, and so on?

Perhaps hedonism seems persuasive because the words happiness and pleasure are so vague… or inflated?  


8) In another video, I outlined the major themes of Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning.  In that book, he argued that the ultimate human motivation is to find meaning, not pleasure or happiness. That is, when pleasure or happiness conflict with meaning, people will sometimes choose meaning because it is an intrinsic value that trumps the intrinsic value of happiness or pleasure.  Such arguments suggest that pleasure and happiness are not the only intrinsic goods; meaning is also an intrinsic good.

Perhaps too we sometimes value pleasure and happiness because they give meaning? If this is correct, then happiness or pleasure is not all that matters.  At least some people will choose meaning when it conflicts with pleasure and happiness, though it is only 10-20 percent of the population (according to Frankl).

Do you agree? You might get caught up on defining good or meaning, don’t. We don’t have to agree that there is an objective meaning to life for this criticism to work. As you discuss, notice I might give up short term pleasure for meaning, but notice too that I might give up long term pleasure for meaning. But would I give up happiness for meaning? If you say no, how exactly are you defining happiness? Is it an inflated definition? Yes, someone might argue that finding or creating meaning makes me happy and that is why I do it, but can't one also choose to be happy because it gives them meaning? Also, are we confusing motive with consequences where the motive is meaning and the consequence is happiness. It is also, arguably, using a vague or inflated meaning of happiness.  


Evolution Digression

I would like to briefly discuss how people often misunderstand and misapply evolution on this topic and in ethics in general.

1) Some people seem to think that evolution implies that individuals are somehow always seeking survival. This is not the case. Such people are confusing the nature of the desire or value with the mechanism that selects the desire or value (i.e. evolution explains the mechanism). To think I am always seeking survival or pleasure simply because evolution weeds out traits that don't support survival is like thinking a Jewish Prisoner is a Nazi because a Nazi is determining whether they live or die.

There is nothing in evolution that says I am always seeking survival; rather it merely states that whatever genetically based desires I have are more likely to be passed on to my children, etc. if they help me or my species survive. There is nothing in evolution that implies everyone is selfish deep down or that happiness and pleasure are the only intrinsic values.  Rather, evolution by natural selection merely states that whatever desires one has are selected based on whether they are adaptive to their environment.

There may be many people who intrinsically value truth and real relationships just as you value happiness and pleasure. Some of you are also highly altruistic, which means you will sometimes act for the interests of others without expecting something in return (See Batson Research in my psychological egoism video). These types of desires and values are not impossible under evolution. Indeed, there are many examples of altruistic behavior in the animal kingdom and psychologists like Batson are now also finding strong evidence that human motivations are also sometimes altruistic in the deepest sense (see my evolution and ethics video) for more.

Again, there is nothing about evolution that implies everyone is always motivated by self interest or that the only intrinsic values are pleasure or happiness. It’s actually just the opposite. Let’s use one last example to more clearly illustrate this point. As you consider this example, notice that an evolutionary explanation does not explain away.

Let’s say the primary evolutionary explanation for why people feel sexual desire is reproduction. Does it follow everyone wants to reproduce when they engage in sex? Of course not. Most people seem to want to have sex for pleasure, not reproduction. Some have sex out of obligation as well. Prostitutes aren’t usually motivated by pleasure or reproduction, they are motivated to have sex for money. Even if sexual desire is naturally selected for survival reasons, it does not follow that human sexual motives are ultimately about reproduction.

 Also, explaining the genetic origins of sexual desire does not explain away sexual desire or the reasons why you seek sexual desire. Likewise, evolutionarily speaking, people may sometimes have deep altruistic motivations because they promote survival, but it doesn’t follow people are altruistic for the motivational reasons that it promotes survival.

In short, people make all kinds of unwarranted inferences from evolution. The important point is that evolution does not imply that people can only intrinsically value pleasure, happiness, or survival. No, they can intrinsically value other goods which, in turn, are selected by the mechanisms of evolution. Nor does evolution imply that one is always self-interested; it only implies that natural selection is what influences whether both a non self-interested organism and a fully self-interested organism survives and passes on its genes.

For more on this topic, see my evolution and ethics video.


9)  I found two more arguments to round them up to 10.

The following Honor Argument is from Don Birkich:

Suppose the WildCards, an elite squadron of marines, is caught in a bombing raid. Everyone in the squad except West is knocked unconscious. West is seriously injured, but manages to drag each person to safety. Upon rescuing the last squad member, West collapses and dies. Vanssen is the first to wake up. She takes credit for the rescue, is promptly promoted, and becomes one of the best generals the marines have ever had. No one ever discovers Vanssen's lie.

CU=Happiness (net happiness) is all that ultimately matters.



If CU is true, then Vanssen's lying is morally right.



Vanssen's lying is not morally right.



CU is not true.



If the Honor Argument is sound, honor is also an intrinsic good; it sometimes trumps happiness.


10) The final argument (Friendship Argument) is also one I found on Don Birkich's Website.

Suppose Brian pretends to be his wealthy roommate Jay's best friend. Jay is extremely generous with his money in general, and he is particularly generous with Brian since he firmly believes that Brian is his best friend. Behind Jay's back, however, Brian laughs and complains about Jay.

CU=Happiness is all that ultimately matters.



If CU is true, then Brian's deception is morally right.



Brian's deception is not morally right.



CU is not true.



Perhaps, then, true friendship is also an intrinsic good. We don't seek true friends simply and solely because they make us happy. True friendship is its own end. That is, you may seek true friends because it makes you happy, but you also seek them because friendship is good in itself. By the way, Aristotle argued in this way as well.

Anyway, this would mean that something other than happiness is good in itself. It appears to follow that happiness isn't all that matters: it is not the sole intrinsic good, contrary to what CU assumes.



Now, I believe some of these can be answered by the hedonist, but some are serious challenges. These sorts of questions and thought experiments should give you a sense for why many philosophers reject this form of hedonism. Pleasure is not all that ultimately matters. Happiness is not all that ultimately matters. Most humans have other intrinsic goods whether they realize it or not.  

So, what else intrinsically matters? In the previous arguments, it seems reality (e.g. real relationships not simulated ones), moral goodness, meaning, truth, nature, honor, friendship and the trajectory of life may be among our intrinsic values … they may be among the intrinsic goods that sometimes override the intrinsic values of happiness and pleasure.

Again, you may protest and say, “but why should I value reality?”  If you ask that question, you just missed the point of all ten arguments. If they show that these goods are intrinsically valued then there is no further reason why we (at a subjective and motivational level) value them. You should value reality because it is reality… that is the nature of intrinsic valuing. And You value happiness because it is happiness. That is the nature of intrinsic valuing.

Evolution may then weed out people who intrinsically value a, b, and c, but not those who intrinsically value x, y, and z.  But this is irrelevant to what you currently and intrinsically value.

One counterargument is that happiness is so deeply intertwined with other concepts like reality, truth, and authentic relationships that it is artificial to separate them as these thought experiments do. But, how can you prove that without begging the question or using a definition of happiness that is so vague/inflated so as to include almost anything that is valued? In short, these questions and thoughts experiments certainly do seem to work against most definitions of happiness or pleasure.  

If this is right, how will you live your life? Will you do the right thing even if it doesn’t maximize your happiness? Will you seek happiness while also recognizing that it is not the only element of a good life, though, arguably, a very important one?

To conclude, I believe there are other intrinsic values in many humans. Sometimes happiness wins out, sometimes the other intrinsic values like reality or authenticity win out. So, I disagree with one type of hedonism. Nor do I think that consciously aiming towards happiness is the best way to live. I want to be happy, but I believe it is usually better to aim for excellence and goodness for themselves and not simply because they might make me happy. Or, I simply want to be aware of everything now whether happy or unhappy, so that a form of peace arises that is deeper than any pleasure or happiness.

And I don’t simply want my children to be happy though that is very important; I also want them to be good, authentic, honorable, at peace, virtuous. And, yes, there is a deeper reason for why I want these things for them… it’s not simply because having good children makes me happy. Unless, of course, you inflate the meaning of happiness.


Paul Stearns, 2017 Notes/Discussion Guide