Chapter 11: Case Study: Environmental Virtue Ethics

11.2 Egoistic Hedonism, Meet Stanley Hauerwas

Egoistic hedonism is necessarily self-defeating and filled with ironies. The goal of life for an egoistic hedonist is to maximize pleasure, especially one’s own. As a result, hedonists miss out on the enjoyment of activities done for their own sake. “The irony,” says Kupfer, “is that a life of hedonism is actually much less pleasant than a virtuous one.” A hedonist may seek power because power confers the ability to dominate others so as to better gratify one’s appetites. But Socrates says a life of egoistic hedonism is like filling a leaky vessel: [1] satisfied desires require continual replenishment. One cannot make progress because appetites increase and multiply. We’re always left wanting more, and suffering because of our craving. These insights accord well with Buddhist philosophy, which describes this state as being caught in the cycle of suffering and death. Deluded into thinking that our self is a subject deserving elevation, we remain unable to see the truth, unable to ground our lives in any real path.

Hedonistic pleasure is also essentially subjective – it can’t really be known or planned for, and this matters, because in order to seek what’s good, we must think about it. As Socrates claimed in Plato’s dialogues, the unexamined life is not worth living. This is similar to what Thoreau was after when he headed to Walden Pond and said he intended to live deliberately. Examining ourselves allows us to see human nature, disabuse ourselves of false beliefs that undermine our happiness (the Buddhist would include the “self” as one such belief), and of our mistaken opinions about pleasure and power. We have to have rational control over our appetites and emotion to carry out our self-investigation with equanimity. As Kupfer says, hedonists focus on pleasure as their primary interest, but pursuit of it leaves them without “the self-control provided by reason to pause in their reaching for pleasure to ponder what might give them the most pleasure overall or in the long run” (p. 39). The desirability of hedonism is revealed as illusory once individuals are deprived of novelty of situation or circumstance. The sweetest things in their novelty must become tedious when indefinitely repeated, exactly as Phil Connors discovers in Groundhog Day.

Another important point is that friendship is key to the good life, too. Aristotle noted that friendships based on utility and pleasure are inferior types of friendship. “The only genuine friends are those who love each others’ virtuous character.” Such friends value one another for their own sakes. Kupfer notes that the film presents an image of virtuous friendship blended into romantic love. The film doesn’t explore this, “but in illustrating a concept of romantic love enriched by virtue, the film is suggestive about an important component of the good life.”[2] Egoistic hedonists can’t have genuine friendships because they view people as simply a means to their own pleasures.

For similar reasons, Stanley Hauerwas (in his chapter about Iris Murdoch in the book Vision and Virtue) notes that romantic love often is not enduring because it is selfish. One loves the way the other makes them feel – as a boost to their own self, not because they really love the other. As M. Scott Peck says in his book The Road Less Traveled, once the honeymoon period of romantic love wears off is when a couple must learn to truly love one another for who they are. Similar to Murdoch’s views on love and unselfing, Plato, Aristotle, and Groundhog Day suggest that happiness is achieved only when we forget about ourselves. This doesn’t amount to claiming to definitively prove that a virtuous life is better than its hedonistic counterpart, so they add narrative support for their view with myths, fables, and stories of famous people.

Plato’s Republic tells the tale of Gyges, whose magic ring makes him invisible. He can please himself at the expense of others with apparent impunity, much like Phil Connors in Groundhog Day. Phil begins the movie as an egoistic hedonist – only Rita, his producer, is impervious to him. He bores of all the pleasures he pursues; he despairs, he tries to take his life, but in vain. Only when Phil shows concern for other people and starts developing his own talents does he begin to enjoy life.[3] In the movie, virtuous living and genuine regard for others and himself free Phil from his despair and, as providence would have it, from the eternal return of Groundhog Day. One wonders: has Phil escaped the cycle of craving, suffering and death? The movie’s ironic twist is that once Phil is finally mortal again, he can be free to live without fear of death.

Stanley Hauerwas, in “Character, Narrative, and Growth in the Christian Life” adds a Christian gloss to some of these ideas. He says that the experience and necessity of moral growth has always been the subject of philosophical reflection and theological inquiry, and of course has been embodied in actual religious practices and disciplines (p. 129). He says religions haven’t used the language of “moral development” so much as terms like spiritual growth, holiness, a pilgrimage of the self, perfection, and being faithful to the way. The fruits of this manifest the conviction that we belong to another. We learn to describe life as a gift rather than as an achievement. We see autonomous freedom, an ideal of Western individualism, as only slavery to the self and the self’s desires. For Hauerwas, the Christian belief is that true freedom comes by learning to be appropriately dependent, that is, to trust God, who wills the final good of all. In such a belief, true freedom means being perfectly obedient; [4] it means rendering perfect service. This freedom is a gift, and it is accepted as disciples learning to imitate a master.

For Hauerwas, growth in the Christian life is not required only because we are morally deficient, but also because the God who has called us is infinitely rich. Therefore conversion denotes the necessity of a turning of the self that is so fundamental that the self is placed on a path of growth for which there is no end. The narrative that forms the background for the vision of Christian growth requires conversion, since the narrative never treats the formation of the self as completed (conversion is also needed because we are forced to give up false accounts of ourselves). These insights echo the theme developed by Pura’s article “The Divine Game of Pinzatski,” which describes a virtuous game that can never end, much as Groundhog Day in the movie is the day (and lesson in virtue) that never ends. One may never reach completion as a self, but growth, love, and happiness characterize the relational connections of a life well-lived.

Hauerwas would conclude that virtue and character are key to the notion of Christian moral growth. Hauerwas tells the story of missing the moral point once when his father gave him a rifle that he’d made himself. It was a beautiful gesture, a finely made rifle, made with love. But Hauerwas responded with indignation – he was a pacifist who didn’t like guns – and only later realized how he had missed the point. He lacked the moral maturity and grace to accept his father’s gift. It is challenging to understand life as a gift – we need to be trained to develop certain habits. But it is equally important to be introduced to stories that provide a way to locate ourselves in relation to others, our society, and the universe. Stories capable of that, says Hauerwas, are adventures, for there can be no self devoid of adventure. What we crave is not dignity as an end in itself, but participation in a struggle that is dignifying. And we don’t just need a story, but a true story – a story in which the self can find a home.

Here perhaps we can see part of why Hauerwas played a role in reinvigorating virtue theory. In effect, modern ethical theories sort of fall down, because they don’t equip us well enough, or resonantly enough, with how we tend to “do ethics” – how we need to be part of a story. This aligns with how, as Lilly Marlene-Russo says, we organically integrate various ethical approaches in living our lives. These and other thinkers helped spark a renewal in virtue because virtue, applied to our actions, may succeed in cultural and spiritual transformation where ethical theories and analysis do not. Perhaps in addition to our solutions and technical fixes to environmental problems, we need to be unselfed, in a way that nature, art, music and love can do for us. And we need to discover the paths of virtue that lead to our natural fulfillment.

  1. David Wilcox’s song “Break in the Cup” addresses a similar notion (video; lyrics; other Wilcox songs).
  2. See Kupfer p. 40.
  3. See Kupfer p. 42
  4. This point reminds us of one of the findings of Martina Vonk in her dissertation about sustainable communities: she found that religious communities that might well be singled out as exemplars for sustainable living ironically do not hold “being sustainable” as their goal. Instead, they tend to be focused on obedience to God, faithfulness to the truths they hold dear, and commitment to their community within which they find fulfillment, security, and comfort in their relationships.


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.