Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 59.

I shall say more later about this second kind of Egoism, this anti-altruistic Egoism, this Egoism as a doctrine of means. What I am now concerned with is that utterly distinct kind of Egoism, which holds that each man ought rationally to hold: My own greatest happiness is the only good thing there is; my actions can only be good as means, in so far as they help to win me this. This is a doctrine which is not much held by writers now-a-days. It is a doctrine that was largely held by English Hedonists in the 17th and 18th centuries: it is, for example, at the bottom of Hobbes’ Ethics. But even the English school appear to have made one step forward in the present century: they are most of them now-a-days Utilitarians. They do recognise that if my own happiness is good, it would be strange that other people’s happiness should not be good too. (§ 59 ¶ 1)

In order fully to expose the absurdity of this kind of Egoism, it is necessary to examine certain confusions upon which its plausibility depends. (§ 59 ¶ 2)

The chief of these is the confusion involved in the conception of my own good as distinguished from the good of others. This is a conception which we all use every day; it is one of the first to which the plain man is apt to appeal in discussing any question of Ethics: and Egoism is commonly advocated chiefly because its meaning is not clearly perceived. It is plain, indeed, that the name Egoism more properly applies to the theory that my own good is the sole good, than that my own pleasure is so. A man may quite well be an Egoist, even if he be not a Hedonist. The conception which is, perhaps, most closely associated with Egoism is that denoted by the words my own interest. The Egoist is the man who holds that a tendency to promote his own interest is the sole possible, and sufficient, justification of all his actions. But this conception of my own interest plainly includes, in general, very much more than my own pleasure. It is, indeed, only because and in so far as my own interest has been thought to consist solely in my own pleasure, that Egoists have been led to hold that my own pleasure is the sole good. Their course of reasoning is as follows: The only thing I ought to secure is my own interest; but my own interest consists in my greatest possible pleasure; and therefore the only thing I ought to pursue is my own pleasure. That it is very natural, on reflection, thus to identify my own pleasure with my own interest; and that it has generally been done by modern moralists, may be admitted. But when Prof. Sidgwick points this out (III. xiv. § 5, Div. III.), he should have also pointed out that this identification has by no means been made in ordinary thought. When the plain man says my own interest, he does not mean my own pleasure—he does not commonly even include this—he means my own advancement, my own reputation, the getting of a better income etc., etc. That Prof. Sidgwick should not have noticed this, and that he should give the reason he gives for the fact that the ancient moralists did not identify my own interest with my own pleasure, seems to be due to his having failed to notice that very confusion in the conception of my own good which I am now to point out. That confusion has, perhaps, been more clearly perceived by Plato than by any other moralist, and to point it out suffices to refute Prof. Sidgwick’s own view that Egoism is rational. (§ 59 ¶ 3)

What, then, is meant by my own good? In what sense can a thing be good for me? It is obvious, if we reflect, that the only thing which can belong to me, which can be mine, is something which is good, and not the fact that it is good. When, therefore, I talk of anything I get as my own good, I must mean either that the thing I get is good, or that my possessing it is good. In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the goodness of that thing or that possession. There is no longer any meaning in attaching the my to our predicate, and saying: The possession of this by me is my good. Even if we interpret this by My possession of this is what I think good, the same still holds: for what I think is that my possession of it is good simply; and, if I think rightly, then the truth is that my possession of it is good simply—not, in any sense, my good; and, if I think wrongly, it is not good at all. In short, when I talk of a thing as my own good all that I can mean is that something which will be exclusively mine, as my own pleasure is mine (whatever be the various senses of this relation denoted by possession), is also good absolutely; or rather that my possession of it is good absolutely. The good of it can in no possible sense be private or belong to me; any more than a thing can exist privately or for one person only. The only reason I can have for aiming at my own good, is that it is good absolutely that what I so call should belong to me—good absolutely that I should have something, which, if I have it, others cannot have. But if it is good absolutely that I should have it, then everyone else has as much reason for aiming at my having it, as I have myself. If, therefore, it is true of any single man’s interest or happiness that it ought to be his sole ultimate end, this can only mean that that man’s interest or happiness is the sole good, the Universal Good, and the only thing that anybody ought to aim at. What Egoism holds, therefore, is that each man’s happiness is the sole good—that a number of different things are each of them the only good thing there is—an absolute contradiction! No more complete and thorough refutation of any theory could be desired. (§ 59 ¶ 4)