Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 61.

It should be observed that, since this is so, the relation of Rational Egoism to Rational Benevolence, which Prof. Sidgwick regards as the profoundest problem of Ethics (III. xiii. § 5, n. 1), appears in quite a different light to that in which he presents it. Even if a man, he says, admits the self-evidence of the principle of Rational Benevolence, he may still hold that his own happiness is an end which it is irrational for him to sacrifice to any other; and that therefore a harmony between the maxim of Prudence and the maxim of Rational Benevolence must be somehow demonstrated, if morality is to be made completely rational. This latter view is that which I myself hold (last Chap. § 1). Prof. Sidgwick then goes on to shew that the inseparable connection between Utilitarian Duty and the greatest happiness of the individual who conforms to it cannot be satisfactorily demonstrated on empirical grounds (Ib. § 4). And the final paragraph of his book tells us that, since the reconciliation of duty and self-interest is to be regarded as a hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought, it remains to ask how far this necessity constitutes a sufficient reason for accepting this hypothesis (Ib. § 5). To assume the existence of such a Being, as God, by the consensus of theologians, is conceived to be would, he has already argued, ensure the required reconciliation; since the Divine Sanctions of such a God would, of course, suffice to make it always every one’s interest to promote the universal happiness to the best of his knowledge (Ib. § 5). (§ 61 ¶ 1)

Now what is this reconciliation of duty and self-interest which Divine Sanctions could ensure? It would consist in the mere fact that the same conduct which produced the greatest possible happiness of the greatest number would always also produce the greatest possible happiness of the agent. If this were the case (and our empirical knowledge shews that it is not the case in this world), morality would, Prof. Sidgwick thinks, be completely rational; we should avoid an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct. That is to say, we should avoid the necessity of thinking that it is as manifest an obligation to secure our own greatest Happiness (maxim of Prudence), as to secure the greatest Happiness on the whole (maxim of Benevolence). But it is perfectly obvious we should not. Prof. Sidgwick here commits the characteristic fallacy of Empiricism—the fallacy of thinking that an alteration in facts could make a contradiction cease to be a contradiction. That a single man’s happiness should be the sole good, and that also everybody’s happiness should be the sole good, is a contradiction which cannot be solved by the assumption that the same conduct will secure both: it would be equally contradictory, however certain we were that that assumption was justified. Prof. Sidgwick strains at a gnat and swallows a camel. He thinks the Divine Omnipotence must be called into play to secure that what gives other people pleasure should also give it to him—that only so can Ethics be made rational; while he overlooks the fact that even this exercise of Divine Omnipotence would leave in Ethics a contradiction, in comparison with which his difficulty is a trifle—a contradiction, which would reduce all Ethics to mere nonsense, and before which the Divine Omnipotence must be powerless to all eternity. That each man’s happiness should be the sole good, which we have seen to be the principle of Egoism, is in itself a contradiction; and that it should also be true that the Happiness of all is the sole good, which is the principle of Universalistic Hedonism, would introduce another contradiction. And that these propositions should all be true might well be called the profoundest problem in Ethics: it would be a problem necessarily insoluble. But they cannot all be true, and there is no reason, but confusion, for the supposition that they are. Prof. Sidgwick confuses this contradiction with the mere fact (in which there is no contradiction) that our own greatest happiness and that of all do not seem always attainable by the same means. This fact, if Happiness were the sole good, would indeed be of some importance; and, on any view, similar facts are of importance. But they are nothing but instances of the one important fact that in this world the quantity of good which is attainable is ridiculously small compared to that which is imaginable. That I cannot get the most possible pleasure for myself, if I produce the most possible pleasure on the whole, is no more the profoundest problem of Ethics, than that in any case I cannot get as much pleasure altogether as would be desirable. It only states that, if we get as much good as possible in one place, we may get less on the whole, because the quantity of attainable good is limited. To say that I have to choose between my own good and that of all is a false antithesis: the only rational question is how to choose between my own and that of others, and the principle on which this must be answered is exactly the same as that on which I must choose whether to give pleasure to this other person or to that. (§ 61 ¶ 2)

§ 61, n. 1: The italics are mine.