[Note: I've post a slightly fuller, more philosophically detailed version of this post at Prosblogion.] Reading the reviews of Sex and the Glory of God, co-edited by John Piper (see Stefan Matzal's review, and then follow the links at the bottom for more) has gotten me thinking about what Piper calls Christian hedonism. Wink also told me recently that he has stopped believing in Christian hedonism after having been convinced by Piper that it's correct. So I've been trying to figure out exactly what sort of hedonism Piper endorses, because it seems to me that it simply isn't any of the positions philosophers have called hedonism. I'm aware of four distinct theses philosophers refer to as hedonism, each a kind of hedonism with respect to a different issue. I do think Piper holds one of them, but I don't think it's equivalent to what he calls Christian hedonism, which doesn't seem to me to be a kind of hedonism at all.
First, here is Piper's account of what Christian hedonism is (this is all directly quoted from Desiring God, p.23):
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience; it is good, not sinful. 2. We should never try to resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring satisfaction is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying him forever.
I don't think this view is hedonism according to any of the standard philosophical views I know of that are called hedonism. (It's clearly not hedonism in the popular sense, but I'm concerned about the philosophical views called hedonism, which are what Piper had in mind in choosing the term.)
Psychological hedonists say that our only motivation is to seek our pleasure. We never act for any other reason. We often fail at this, doing self-destructive things in the name of pleasure, but the only reason we do anything according to this view is in seeking pleasure. Now I think Piper would say that people rightly ordered will seek God and thus be attaining their pleasure, but is this what his thesis amounts to? He does think fallen humanity seeks selfish desires, and restored humanity seeks what turns out to be best for them in seeking God. We are seeking our own pleasure to the same degree that we are restored. Those who are more transformed into godliness will seek their true pleasure more.
I think Piper is, in fact, a psychological hedonist. He about says so in the preface to Desiring God. He favorably quotes Pascal:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.... The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hand themselves. (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, thought #425, as cited by Piper, Desiring God, p.16
But is this the claim that he calls Christian hedonism? Hardly. Piper continues that this thought "made great sense" to him and opened up the door for developments in his thinking, leading eventually to Christian hedonism. So Christian hedonism is a further claim. He does't want to say just that we do seek our pleasure and that the most perfect way to do so is to seek God. He includes some ethical component. He thinks we ought to seek the fulfillment of our deepest desires in seeking the glory of God, which will lead to the most pleasure of anything we could do. That's not psychological hedonism. I'm just not sure it's any of the others either.
The three other hedonistic theses involve a genuinely normative component. That is to say that they involve something to do with rightness or goodness. Psychological hedonism is just about what we do. The three other brands of hedonism are about what is good or what we ought to do. Welfare hedonism is a theory of the good, in particular of what's good for an individual person. Value hedonism more generally speaks of what is good overall. These, again, aren't directly about what's right to do. They're simply about which situations are good, in the first case what is good for an individual person and in the second what is a better outcome or situation. In this case, the hedonist view defines what's good (for me or in general) in terms of pleasure (my own or perhaps of the most people).
Even if Piper did believe one of these views, it wouldn't be what Christian hedonism is. Christian hedonism clearly involves statments about what we should do, not just about which situations are good or bad. I don't think he believes them, though. I'm confident Piper thinks someone in the Matrix or on the Truman Show is worse off than anyone who had the same experiences but with real people not acting or being generated by computers. I'm also sure he thinks a world like ours is better than a world where we're all experiencing the same things but with no objective basis, e.g. the Matrix. Those views are incompatible with welfare and value hedonism, because the welfare and value hedonist will insist that one's experiences, particularly how pleasurable they are, would be all that could contribute toward well-being, and the same is true on a larger scale for value hedonism. Also, for Piper the highest good is God's glory, which isn't itself pleasure. That's enough to show that he's no value hedonism. The thing with the most value isn't pleasure.
Ethical hedonism is all that remains. This view says we ought to do what leads to the most pleasure for ourselves. The reason it's right to do it is that it leads to the most pleasure for us. Once you clarify what counts as pleasure, this isn't as radical as it sounds. The truest, deepest pleasures are long-term, higher pleasures, so it's not like the tendency to give in to immediate short-term pleasures that modern society calls hedonism. Epicurus in ancient times and Ayn Rand in modern times have defended this sort of view, and most of the things they say are good and right line up well with what most people say are good and right. They just provide a radical basis for why they're good and right. It takes rare and unlikely scenarios to find cases where this sort of view really does lead to radical statements about what we should do.
It's tempting to see Piper as taking such a position, with the highest pleasure as pursuit of God, and he does think it's our moral obligation to do what leads to that highest pleasure, but this isn't Piper's view. In fact, he explicitly denies it:
Christian hedonism is not a "general theory of moral justification." In other words, nowhere do I say: an act is right because it brings pleasure. My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion. My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected, fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all true worship and all virtuous acts. I do not say that loving God is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving God.... I do not say that loving people is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving people. (Desiring God, p.20)
He doesn't think we should seek God merely because it leads to our pleasure. He thinks we should seek God because God is the most worthy being of our pursuit. It does lead to the most pleasure we could possibly attain, but that doesn't seem to me to be Piper's main basis for why we should glorify God. Valuing the most truly valuable is what's central for him. The fact that it leads to the most pleasure and the fact that we get pleasure out of it are not incidental, because he insists that we have these desires and ought to fulfill them in the best way possible, but at the same time it's not the fact that it leads to pleasure that makes it right to glorify God. He explicitly denies that. So Piper is no ethical hedonist.
Where does this leave us? I don't think Piper's Christian hedonism is enough like any of the standard hedonist views to be worthy of the name. Hedonism starts with a philosophical question and answers it in terms of pleasure. The four versions I've discussed give pleasure as the answer to what motivates us, what makes something good for me, what makes a situation good overall, and what makes an action right. Piper isn't out to do anything like that. What is he doing, then?
I think Christian hedonism is really just a general moral theory. Most moral theories take one element and then evaluate it in terms of some moral considerations. Act hedonism takes my actions and then evaluates them in terms of whether those actions produce the most happiness for me. Act utilitarianism evaluates my actions in terms of whether they produce the most good overall. Rule utilitarianism evaluates sets of rules in terms of which one will lead to the most good overall, and then we should follow that set of rules. Virtue hedonism evaluates character traits in terms of which ones would be best overall for people to have, and then we should seek to have those traits.
I propose that Piper's Christian hedonism takes the primary element to be evaluated as desire-fulfillment, and it evaluates it in terms of whether the desire is being fulfilled in the best way it can be fulfilled (which, as it turns out, is always going to be in seeking to fulfill it in God). This is just a general moral theory, one that I think is fairly interesting and uncommon. Desire-fulfillment is the primary thing morality will evaluate. Actions, rules, character traits, motives, and societal institutions may also be evaluated in moral ways, and this theory as I've spelled it out doesn't necessarily subsume all of them under desire-fulfillment. Piper might think there are multiple things to be evaluated morally, and this is just one essential element to be evaluated. I wonder if his denial that this is a general hedonistic account of morality is his attempt to say that he doesn't try to reduce all morality to this one principle. One way or the other, I think he's presented an interesting view that I don't think has been explored very well philosophically.