Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 64.

So much for Egoism. Of Utilitarianism not much need be said; but two points may seem deserving of notice. (§ 64 ¶ 1)

The first is that this name, like that of Egoism, does not naturally suggest that all our actions are to be judged according to the degree in which they are a means to pleasure. Its natural meaning is that the standard of right and wrong in conduct is its tendency to promote the interest of everybody. And by interest is commonly meant a variety of different goods, classed together only because they are what a man commonly desires for himself, so far as his desires have not that psychological quality which is meant by moral. The useful thus means, and was in ancient Ethics systematically used to mean, what is a means to the attainment of goods other than moral goods. It is quite an unjustifiable assumption that these goods are only good as means to pleasure or that they are commonly so regarded. The chief reason for adopting the name Utilitarianism was, indeed, merely to emphasize the fact that right and wrong conduct must be judged by its results—as a means, in opposition to the strictly Intuitionistic view that certain ways of acting were right and others wrong, whatever their results might be. In thus insisting that what is right must mean what produces the best possible results Utilitarianism is fully justified. But with this correct contention there has been historically, and very naturally, associated a double error. (1) The best possible results were assumed to consist only in a limited class of goods, roughly coinciding with those which were popularly distinguished as the results of merely useful or interested actions; and these again were hastily assumed to be good only as means to pleasure. (2) The Utilitarians tend to regard everything as a mere means, neglecting the fact that some things which are good as means are also good as ends. Thus, for instance, assuming pleasure to be a good, there is also a tendency to value present pleasure only as a means to future pleasure, and not, as is strictly necessary if pleasure is good as an end, also to weigh it against possible future pleasures. Much utilitarian argument involves the logical absurdity that what is here and now, never has any value in itself, but is only to be judged by its consequences; which again, of course, when they are realised, would have no value in themselves, but would be mere means to a still further future, and so on ad infinitum. (§ 64 ¶ 2)

The second point deserving notice with regard to Utilitarianism is that, when the name is used for a form of Hedonism, it does not commonly, even in its description of its end, accurately distinguish between means and end. Its best-known formula is that the result by which actions are to be judged is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. But it is plain that, if pleasure is the sole good, provided the quantity be equally great, an equally desirable result will have been obtained whether it be enjoyed by many or by few, or even if it be enjoyed by nobody. It is plain that, if we ought to aim at the greatest happiness of the greatest number, this can only, on the hedonistic principle, be because the existence of pleasure in a great number of persons seems to be the best means available for attaining the existence of the greatest quantity of pleasure. This may actually be the case; but it is fair to suspect that Utilitarians have been influenced, in their adoption of the hedonistic principle, by this failure to distinguish clearly between pleasure or consciousness of pleasure and its possession by a person. It is far easier to regard the possession of pleasure by a number of persons as the sole good, than so to regard the mere existence of an equally great quantity of pleasure. If, indeed, we were to take the Utilitarian principle strictly, and to assume them to mean that the possession of pleasure by many persons was good in itself, the principle is not hedonistic: it includes as a necessary part of the ultimate end, the existence of a number of persons, and this will include very much more than mere pleasure. (§ 64 ¶ 3)

Utilitarianism, however, as commonly held, must be understood to maintain that either mere consciousness of pleasure, or consciousness of pleasure together with the minimum adjunct which may be meant by the existence of such consciousness in at least one person, is the sole good. This is its significance as an ethical doctrine; and as such it has already been refuted in my refutation of Hedonism. The most that can be said for it is that it does not seriously mislead in its practical conclusions, on the ground that, as an empirical fact, the method of acting which brings most good on the whole does also bring most pleasure. Utilitarians do indeed generally devote most of their arguments to shewing that the course of action which will bring most pleasure is in general such as common sense would approve. We have seen that Prof. Sidgwick appeals to this fact as tending to shew that pleasure is the sole good; and we have also seen that it does not tend to shew this. We have seen how very flimsy the other arguments advanced for this proposition are; and that, if it be fairly considered by itself, it appears to be quite ridiculous. And, moreover, that the actions which produce most good on the whole do also produce most pleasure is extremely doubtful. The arguments tending to shew it are all more or less vitiated by the assumption that what appear to be necessary conditions for the attainment of most pleasure in the near future, will always continue so to be. And, even with this vicious assumption, they only succeed in making out a highly problematical case. How, therefore, this fact is to be explained, if it be a fact, need not concern us. It is sufficient to have shewn that many complex states of mind are much more valuable than the pleasure they contain. If this be so, no form of Hedonism can be true. And, since the practical guidance afforded by pleasure as a criterion is small in proportion as the calculation attempts to be accurate, we can well afford to await further investigation, before adopting a guide, whose utility is very doubtful and whose trustworthiness we have grave reason to suspect. (§ 64 ¶ 4)