This article will dive into the millenniums old, yet rarely practiced mindset of ethical hedonism along with exploring it's biological implications.
The core belief of hedonism is that people should do everything in their power to achieve the maximum amount of pleasure. It is also the idea that every person's pleasure should far surpass their amount of pain.
However, when we think of hedonism we usually think of...
- Sex orgies
- Excessive drunkenness
- Doing lots of hard drugs
- Crazy, over the top parties
- Really indulgent deserts and delicious foods
These are all things that are really enjoyable, but we also think of them as self destructive, or at least irresponsible and juvenile. We get massive spikes of the feel good nuerotransmitters; serotonin and dopamine from them. In fact that is why we say: That party was dope or that DJ was dope!
Ethical hedonism is a philosophy first articulated Aristippus of Cyrene, a pupil of Socrates. Aristippus wasn't a big believer in an after life so he figured that as long as you were above ground you might as well be enjoying yourself. He held the idea that pleasure is the highest good in the world. The other students of Socrates believed that the greatest good was to:
- To contribute to society
- To seek self knowledge
- To understand the natural world
Aristippus was like: Fuck that noise! The greatest good is to get wasted on wine and have an orgy with a bunch of hot, young greeks.
He believed that pleasure was the ultimate good and I mostly agree!
Is the idea that we should have a dual focus on maximizing pleasure and doing what is ethical. Therefor an ethical hedonist is a person who seeks to maximize their own pleasure but only if it's morally right to do so independent of religious or arbitrary belief systems. A hedonist is always looking to get the biggest bang for their buck; they will sacrifice the lesser pleasure for the greater pleasure.
So I'm going to give some examples of this to make this a practical, actionable article but first I want to make sure you completely grasp this philosophy.
The reason this is such a lifehack is because, by prioritizing ethics you actually get to be WAY more hedonistic, both in quantity and quality, than someone who just embraces hedonism for the sporadic spikes of Serotonin and Dopamine.
Please read the previous sentence again because it's really key to understanding this philosophy.
As human beings we have a tendency to moralize our habits into good behaviors and bad behaviors. Most of us are raised in some kind of religious system. In the religious paradigm of ethics, hedonistic activities and ethical activities are on completely opposite, opposing sides of the spectrum.
Even if we aren't really religious, we still probably see the world through a filter of black and white ethics. Anyone raised in North America, South America, Europe, Australia - 'the western world' comes from a moral system that puts abstinence of hedonistic activities on a moral pedestal.
In the paradigm that Aristippus suggests, hedonistic activities and ethical activities are right next to each other on the same side of the spectrum.
What are some practical examples of ethical hedonism?
When I was younger some of the guys I was friends with had, in retrospect, very unethical hedonistic sex lives. They were really proud of having casual, unprotected sex with lots of different partners. They would commit to being one girl's boyfriend so that they could have all the unprotected sex they wanted with her and then when we were having a 'guys night out' after a few drinks they would start trying to hook up with other girls, sometimes successfully. Pretty unethical yet standard male behavior...
I've stayed friends with these guys on Facebook and what I see is that almost all of them as a result now have some kind of limited freedom in their sex lives. A lot of them have kids, some of them are single parents, some of them have crazy stress and financial commitment to the women they made babies with. A lot of them are committed in one way or another to really mediocre women. Some of them have confided in me that they have spent thousands of dollars on abortions over the years.
What did I do differently? I always used condoms and I was never a serial monogamist, I would always tell girls on the first or second date that I was more of a polyamorous kind of guy, so they knew what they were getting into...
As a result of being ethical I now have complete freedom along with Limitless variety and hedonism in my sex life.
Alcohol is actually something of a gray area as far ethical hedonistic activities go.
I've been completely sober for 6 months while leading a really active social life. Which has been awesome; it's saved me a ton of money, a bunch of hangovers and it's taught me 'draw state from within' as opposed to relying on booze to make me social.
Sobriety really is a lifehack for more hedonism; I spend so much less money and I don't have a hangover that robs half my productivity from the next day so I'm able to go out and socialize (and party!) probably twice as much.
Can you be an ethical hedonist who still drinks? I actually think you can and here's why, I did a podcast episode entitled Biohacking Boozing, on how to block alcohol from turning into acetaldehyde in your body. The acetaldehyde is really what is biological unethical and does the damage to your system and gives you a hangover. In the podcast episode, we reveal what kind of alcohol is actually the closest to a neutral health impact (It's not what you might expect!) and which kinds of alcohol should be avoided completely.
There's a specific cocktail of supplements that you need to take to achieve a true net zero health impact of drinking alcohol which costs about 15 cents per drink which we explain in Podcast #24. So in the same way that casual sex can be completely ethical if we are protecting our bodies properly, alcohol consumption can also be an ethically hedonistic activity.
For me right now it's just a whole lot simpler, cheaper and more fun (more hedonistic) to not drink but eventually when I finish this phase of intermittent sobriety I'm going to start drinking again. I really enjoy European style craft beers, red wine and cocktails, I know that after all these months of abstinence it's really going to be a novel hedonistic experience to drink again.
What about drugs? Also a gray area but mostly a domain of unethical hedonism because they can do serious damage to your body and they are pretty bad for society.
You don't need to think very long to come up with an example of someone who you knew personally that had their life ruined by drugs.
In some cases drugs don't even fit into the classical definition of hedonism.
For example: If you are smoke weed all the time you are probably going to spend hours sitting on your couch watching TV; you are choosing the lesser pleasure of watching TV high over greater pleasure of going out, socializing, doing something adventuresome with your time.
When could drugs be ethical hedonistic?You get into the whole moral quandary of whether certain drugs have a net positive or negative affect on society.
I'm from Colorado, as you probably know we legalized marijuana a couple of years ago, which has put the criminal drug dealers out of business, improved the quality of the product, lowered the price, created jobs and kept a bunch of people out of jail.
So if you are consuming marijuana that you bought at a dispensary in Colorado, I think we can all agree that's ethically hedonistic.
The other end of the spectrum would be like...
Buying cocaine on the street from a kid...It's going to do massive damage to your body... You don't exactly know what you are buying, what it's cut with or what the production process was. The product is an economic driver of massive criminal enterprise, there's a history of violence and kidnapping behind the product.
Be it at a bar, beach, nightclub, house party or just in the middle of the street, energetic socializing is always a damn good idea! On a more meta level 'partying' is a training activity for social muscles that will serve you well in virtually every other area of your life. I 'party' like 3-4 times a week
In my experience, intermittent sobriety is like creatine to your social muscles.
What most people do when they want to party is...
- Sit around with their friends for about an hour, start drinking, and making inside jokes with their friends.
- After about an hour or 3 drinks they start feeling social and they may start talking to some other people.
- After about 2-3 hours everyone is loosened up enough by the booze and there will be a party, but sometimes not.
You hear people describe a party they went to as really 'cliquey'; where the individual social groups of the party just never got over the initial awkwardness of interacting with strangers, sometimes booze backfires and doesn't serve you socially.
Sobriety is a different experience, a lot of times I walk into a venue or party after work, after being in a completely logical mindset for +8 hears. That logical mindset is not going serve you well when you are trying to party. You learn to create the party in your own head and lead those around you to it.
You may think: but being sober is boring, I have so much more fun drinking... Well the first two weeks is kind of rough but after socializing sober for about 2 weeks, you forget what it feels like to be drunk, your hedonic treadmill readjusts itself and you are able to have just as much fun sober as you used too completely drunk. I really do have more hedonism in my social life as a result of being sober.
So not everybody parties every day, not everybody gets laid everyday, but we all eat everyday, and a lot of us do it emotionally. Food is probably the greatest source of hedonic pleasure for most people reading this.
Foods high in sugar and processed carbs reprogram our minds to be highly dependent upon them for the neurotransmitters that make us feel ok about the world and ourselves. Many of these kinds of foods are unethical in multiple dimensions...
- They are really bad for our bodies, in the short term they rob us of productivity, energy, creativity, libido and good sleep along with being a serious negative influence on stress management. In the long term they cause obesity, heart disease, premature aging and death.
- These problems extend to the rest of the society in the forms insurance premiums being raised for everyone, healthcare taxes that hurt small business and prevent job creation along with gargantuan industries of hospitals, medical devices and pharmaceutical companies that have vested interests in keeping people sick.
- In a lot of cases they are bad for society as a whole, like here Colombia where the South American Coca-Cola company actually works with the rebel groups in the country to kill and torture their own employees if they try to form unions or organize for fair working conditions at the plants. There's actually been two documentaries made on this.
- Finally, these kinds of products involve the large scale, unethical treatment of animals.
The classic justification people use with food is that; I'd rather enjoy a hedonistic diet now and I will just pay the price the later. The pleasure of eating whatever I want is worth it!
This hubris filled attitude is best captured by a recent quote from The Unofficial Goldman Sachs Guide To Being A Man: "It’s okay to trade the possibility of your 80s and 90s for more guaranteed fun in your 20s and 30s."
The big secret about ethical hedonism and food, is that if you completely cut out the bad stuff (cut out the gluten, the processed carbs, the sugar, etc) and only eat the good stuff (go organic, go Paleo, go Bulletproof with your diet) after about 2 weeks you start to not want the junk food. You no longer have a gut reaction of primal desire when you see a piece of cake or fried goodie. You'll have to deal with occasional moments of temptation, but you've upgraded your operating system and will increasingly find yourself making good dietary decisions on autopilot.
We really are what we eat, what we fuel our bodies and minds with really does define the amount of energy we have to enjoy life with, which is why I entitled this article; be the rockstar forever.
Ethical hedonism increases the quantity and quality of the pleasure you experience sustainably. You can keep doing what makes you happy as long as you want as long as it's ethical.
"I don't judge."
Let's talk about something that's NOT ethical hedonism. Within communities that embrace unethical hedonism, we hear this stupid platitude all the time, repeated to the point of absurdity: I don't judge.
- You get drunk? I don't judge.
- You do drugs? I don't judge.
- You have irresponsible sex with complete strangers? I don't judge.
- You hang out with criminals? I don't judge.
- As a single parent you are out partying late at night several times a week while your child is at home? I don't judge.
What's happening here is that people are turning off the part of the brain that makes moral assessments... People make really bad decisions that hurt themselves and others because they turn off the part of their brain that allows them to make moral judgments about people and behaviors. You don't want to turn off that part of your brain, it's there for a reason!
So if you ever find yourself saying this, ask yourself seriously if there's a more ethical way for you to partake in whatever hedonistic behaviors.
Dual N-Back - Here's a weird example; there's this brain training software game that I play on my Android. It's been demonstrated in a bunch of studies to upgrade the amount of RAM your conscious mind has to solve problems. It's also kind of a mindfulness practice, like meditation because it forces you to focus 100% of your attention on the present. Training Dual N-Back for 10 minutes a day is probably one of the best things you can do for your mind, but it's really boring.
The first session you play Dual N-Back you will be like: There is no way I can do this for 10 minutes total, let alone 10 minutes a day!
But I've been training Dual N-Back for 10 minutes a day for the past three months without missing a single day! This started out as something really unpleasant to do but I've trained my mind to derive hedonic pleasure from it!
Writing - Many people dread writing, facing the empty page and having to produce art out of it. Writing used to be difficult for me but I've trained myself to really enjoy writing, I now spend probably 30-40 percent of every workday writing and I really enjoy it! I've produced hundreds of article that have reached many thousands of people.
Green Tea - I started drinking green tea about 2 years ago. Green tea doesn't taste very good but as I kept reading about how healthy green tea is for me the taste got better and better. Now I really enjoy the taste of green tea, it's as pleasurable for me to drink as Sprite or Mountain Dew which were my favorite sodas 10 years ago.
So as a final takeaway, I hope you will remember that we can train our hedonism mechanisms to respond to different stimuli. Please read the previous sentence again because it's really key to understanding this philosophy.
Let's say you smoke cigarettes, did you know that you could train yourself to enjoy exercise as much as you enjoy cigarettes? Which may sound crazy but look at how addicted some people are to exercising.
Let's say you are a TV series junkie (You voraciously consume Walking Dead, Dexter, Game of Thrones or whatever), you can train yourself to derive consummate pleasure from watching documentary films or reading autobiographies.
What's the variable? I think there's two; time and what I like to call 'ego investment'.
Time: Is just practicing the the habit you want to derive conscious hedonism from consistently and persistently.
The lifehack for this is a free App for iPhone, Android and your web browser called Lift™. It socially engineers you into practicing habits with scary consistency and tracks them for you. At the time of writing this I've gone +110 days without missing a single day of doing pushups along with practicing a bunch of other habits thanks to Lift™.
Ego Investment: You don't have to practice a good habit 21 times before you start to have an increasing awareness that you are objectively becoming a better human being as a result of it. The more you see yourself improving the more your identity and ego gets invested in a particular habit. the more you derive hedonic pleasure from that habit.
For example: Crossfit; is a physically grueling series of exercises, no one who tries it for the first time would describe it as pleasurable but Crossfit practitioners really enjoy it. They are so invested emotionally because of the physical and personal development results and the positive feedback from the people they do Crossfit with.
The Bottom Line
If you are willing to go through a few weeks of awkwardness, if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone for a few weeks and track the ethically hedonistic activities that are replacing your old bad habits, it's totally worth it!
Let me know how you intend to be a more ethical hedonist; how are you going to be a more conscious hedonist? Which stimuli are you going to replace with other stimuli.
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