Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 39.

I propose, then, to begin by an examination of Mill’s Utilitarianism. That is a book which contains an admirably clear and fair discussion of many ethical principles and methods. Mill exposes not a few simple mistakes which are very likely to be made by those who approach ethical problems without much previous reflection. But what I am concerned with is the mistakes which Mill himself appears to have made, and these only so far as they concern the Hedonistic principle. Let me repeat what that principle is. It is, I said, that pleasure is the only thing at which we ought to aim, the only thing that is good as an end and for its own sake. And now let us turn to Mill and see whether he accepts this description of the question at issue. Pleasure, he says at the outset, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends (p. 10)*; and again, at the end of his argument, To think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing (p. 58). These statements, taken together, and apart from certain confusions which are obvious in them, seem to imply the principle I have stated: and if I succeed in shewing that Mill’s reasons for them do not prove them, it must at least be admitted that I have not been fighting with shadows or demolishing a man of straw. (§ 39 ¶ 1)

It will be observed that Mill adds absence of pain to pleasure in his first statement, though not in his second. There is, in this, a confusion, with which, however, we need not deal. I shall talk of pleasure alone, for the sake of conciseness; but all my arguments will apply à fortiori to absence of pain: it is easy to make the necessary substitutions. (§ 39 ¶ 2)

Mill holds, then, that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable, as an end; all other things being only desirable as means to that end (p. 52). Happiness he has already defined as pleasure, and the absence of pain (p. 10); he does not pretend that this is more than an arbitrary verbal definition; and, as such, I have not a word to say against it. His principle, then, is pleasure is the only thing desirable, if I may be allowed, when I say pleasure, to include in that word (so far as necessary) absence of pain. And now what are his reasons for holding that principle to be true? He has already told us (p. 6) that Questions of ultimate ends are not amenable to direct proof. Whatever can be proved to be good, must be so by being shewn to be a means to something admitted to be good without proof. With this, I perfectly agree: indeed the chief object of my first chapter was to shew that this is so. Anything which is good as an end must be admitted to be good without proof. We are agreed so far. Mill even uses the same examples which I used in my second chapter. How, he says, is it possible to prove that health is good? What proof is it possible to give that pleasure is good? Well, in Chapter IV, in which he deals with the proof of his Utilitarian principle, Mill repeats the above statement in these words: It has already, he says, been remarked, that questions of ultimate ends do not admit of proof, in the ordinary acceptation of the term (p. 52). Questions about ends, he goes on in this same passage, are, in other words, questions what things are desirable. I am quoting these repetitions, because they make it plain what otherwise might have been doubted, that Mill is using the words desirable or desirable as an end as absolutely and precisely equivalent to the words good as an end. We are, then, now to hear, what reasons he advances for this doctrine that pleasure alone is good as an end. (§ 39 ¶ 3)

§ 39, n. 1: My references are to the 13th edition, 1897.

§ 39, n. 2: My italics.