Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 36.

In this chapter we have to deal with what is perhaps the most famous and the most widely held of all ethical principles—the principle that nothing is good but pleasure. My chief reason for treating of this principle in this place is, as I said, that Hedonism appears in the main to be a form of Naturalistic Ethics: in other words, that pleasure has been so generally held to be the sole good, is almost entirely due to the fact that it has seemed to be somehow involved in the definition of good—to be pointed out by the very meaning of the word. If this is so, then the prevalence of Hedonism has been mainly due to what I have called the naturalistic fallacy—the failure to distinguish clearly that unique and indefinable quality which we mean by good. And that it is so, we have very strong evidence in the fact that, of all hedonistic writers, Prof. Sidgwick alone has clearly recognised that by good we do mean something unanalysable, and has alone been led thereby to emphasise the fact that, if Hedonism be true, its claims to be so must be rested solely on its self-evidence—that we must maintain Pleasure is the sole good to be mere intuition. It appeared to Prof. Sidgwick as a new discovery that what he calls the method of Intuitionism must be retained as valid alongside of, and indeed as the foundation of, what he calls the alternative methods of Utilitarianism and Egoism. And that it was a new discovery can hardly be doubted. In previous Hedonists we find no clear and consistent recognition of the fact that their fundamental proposition involves the assumption that a certain unique predicate can be directly seen to belong to pleasure alone among existents: they do not emphasise, as they could hardly have failed to have done had they perceived it, how utterly independent of all other truths this truth must be. (§ 36 ¶ 1)

Moreover it is easy to see how this unique position should have been assigned to pleasure without any clear consciousness of the assumption involved. Hedonism is, for a sufficiently obvious reason, the first conclusion at which any one who begins to reflect upon Ethics naturally arrives. It is very easy to notice the fact that we are pleased with things. The things we enjoy and the things we do not, form two unmistakable classes, to which our attention is constantly directed. But it is comparatively difficult to distinguish the fact that we approve a thing from the fact that we are pleased with it. Although, if we look at the two states of mind, we must see that they are different, even though they generally go together, it is very difficult to see in what respect they are different, or that the difference can in any connection be of more importance than the many other differences, which are so patent and yet so difficult to analyse, between one kind of enjoyment and another. It is very difficult to see that by approving of a thing we mean feeling that it has a certain predicate—the predicate, namely, which defines the peculiar sphere of Ethics; whereas in the enjoyment of a thing no such unique object of thought is involved. Nothing is more natural than the vulgar mistake, which we find expressed in a recent book on Ethics: The primary ethical fact is, we have said, that something is approved or disapproved: that is, in other words, the ideal representation of certain events in the way of sensation, perception, or idea, is attended with a feeling of pleasure or of pain. In ordinary speech, I want this, I like this, I care about this, are constantly used as equivalents for I think this good. And in this way it is very natural to be led to suppose that there is no distinct class of ethical judgments, but only the class things enjoyed; in spite of the fact, which is very clear, if not very common, that we do not always approve what we enjoy. It is, of course, very obvious that from the supposition that I think this good is identical with I am pleased with this, it cannot be logically inferred that pleasure alone is good. But, on the other hand, it is very difficult to see what could be logically inferred from such a supposition; and it seems natural enough that such an inference should suggest itself. A very little examination of what is commonly written on the subject will suffice to shew that a logical confusion of this nature is very common. Moreover the very commission of the naturalistic fallacy involves that those who commit it should not recognise clearly the meaning of the proposition This is good—that they should not be able to distinguish this from other propositions which seem to resemble it; and, where this is so, it is, of course, impossible that its logical relations should be clearly perceived. (§ 36 ¶ 2)

§ 36, n. 1: A. E. Taylor's Problems of Conduct, p. 120.