“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do” (Jeremy Bentham).
Corruption in Indonesia today is rampant and dismantling most living elements of the society. Serious endeavors to eradicate corruption have been launched since the Sukarno era.
The famous and powerful Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) was established under the administration of president Megawati Soekarnoputri. Corruption or abuse of power can be traced to many factors, one of them being the adoration of hedonism.
Referencing philosophical concepts from the Ancient Greek era developed by icons such as Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus and Democritus, hedonism (hedone) means “pleasure” and is a philosophical foundation that underlines gratification as the cardinal aspect of life. The core idea of hedonism is that pleasure is good and desperately needed by human beings.
Hedonism is generally divided into three major categories: psychological hedonism, ethical hedonism and rational hedonism. Psychological hedonism states that one vital element in human life is to find pleasure and minimize pain. Ethical hedonism is the way people establish their own methods to achieve pleasure by adopting any means necessary. Rational hedonism is set up with certain standards to meet pleasure.
Hedonism as a set ideology was further developed under the influence of two historic philosophers: Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The 19th century philosophers Bentham and Mill laid down their ideas of hedonism through the ethical theory of Utilitarianism. In Bentham’s view, hedonism is “a pleasure that could be understood by multiplying its intensity and duration”.
The density and duration are more important than its numbers. Most known by “quantitative concepts”, Bentham introduced six indicators to identify what pleasure is all about: certainty, uncertainty, duration, intensity, remoteness, fecundity and purity (Bentham, J. 1789, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation). Bentham and Mill prescribed that “Utilitarian value stands as a precursor to hedonistic values in all that action should achieve great amounts of happiness”.
Mill proclaimed his “qualitative approach” to understanding pleasure. In Mill’s words, “there are different levels of pleasure, and that pleasure of a higher quality has more value than pleasure of a lower value”.
Taking Indonesia as a nation that claims itself to be a “religious” society, very often pleasure is used to justify misconduct. This is a misleading perception to put God in the center of argument. But bad behavior evolving through the history of the nation proves that what we are doing is quite different from God’s wishes. This sort of ideology develops through human civilization. It subsequently comes out with contradictory paradigms.
Advocates of hedonism adore consumerism as a strong token of social achievement. Therefore, any effort to gain more consumer goods is highly demanded and respected. On the contrary, those who gain less are classified as misfortunate. These stereotypes penetrate deeply within Indonesian society, where, respect for others is basically measured by the amount of luxury goods possessed.
Amid uncertainty over attempts to cripple down corruption, some social scholars pose ideas to introduce what is named as “shame culture”. Shame culture refers mainly to a common awareness not to disparage values and norms operating in a society.
Simultaneously, fellow citizens are obligated “to oversee” how others behave, either in the public or in bureaucratic realms. This mode of social control will not receive support because it intercepts basic human rights of citizens. From a judicial point of view, efforts to eradicate corruption here are still basically going nowhere. The reason for this is the growing skepticism in society on moral standards for people and institutions involved in the corruption eradication drive.
Wandering around in the crossroads, the war on corruption then prompts efforts to promote religious teachings for children as well as adults. Both moral and religious enforcements are a failure compared with the people’s demands for corruption eradication. Pleasure is nothing to be hidden, but the way material goods are gained has led to corruption with perpetrators breaking laws and stealing things they are not entitled to.
Seemingly law enforcement is not the right weapon to torpedo widespread corruption. Hedonism in the minds of Bentham, Mill, Plato and other philosophers was not conceptualized to be adopted mistakenly. Not to put blame simply on hedonism as a push factor to engage in corrupt acts, but to a certain extent, misperceptions on hedonism is accelerating corrupt conduct in the community at large.
Hedonism is permitted by any religious or philosophical standpoint, but misusing hedonism to paralyze moral and religious obligations is certainly to be judged as a crime against humanity.
Unfortunately, corrupt people are not aware that corruption and hedonism are two sides of one coin.
John Haba, research professor at Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Jakarta.