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.

§ 37.

There is, therefore, ample reason to suppose that Hedonism is in general a form of Naturalism—that its acceptance is generally due to the naturalistic fallacy. It is, indeed, only when we have detected this fallacy, when we have become clearly aware of the unique object which is meant by good, that we are able to give to Hedonism the precise definition used above, Nothing is good but pleasure: and it may, therefore, be objected that, in attacking this doctrine under the name of Hedonism, I am attacking a doctrine which has never really been held. But it is very common to hold a doctrine, without being clearly aware what it is you hold; and though, when Hedonists argue in favour of what they call Hedonism, I admit that, in order to suppose their arguments valid, they must have before their minds something other than the doctrine I have defined, yet, in order to draw the conclusions that they draw, it is necessary that they should also have before their minds this doctrine. In fact, my justification for supposing that I shall have refuted historical Hedonism, if I refute the proposition Nothing is good but pleasure, is, that although Hedonists have rarely stated their principle in this form and though its truth, in this form, will certainly not follow from their arguments, yet their ethical method will follow logically from nothing else. Any pretence of hedonistic method, to discover to us practical truths which we should not otherwise have known, is founded on the principle that the course of action which will bring the greatest balance of pleasure is certainly the right one; and, failing an absolute proof that the greatest balance of pleasure always coincides with the greatest balance of other goods, which it is not generally attempted to give, this principle can only be justified if pleasure be the sole good. Indeed it can hardly be doubted that Hedonists are distinguished by arguing, in disputed practical questions, as if pleasure were the sole good; and that it is justifiable, for this among other reasons, to take this as the ethical principle of Hedonism will, I hope, be made further evident by the whole discussion of this chapter. (§ 37 ¶ 1)

By Hedonism, then, I mean the doctrine that pleasure alone is good as an end—good in the sense which I have tried to point out as indefinable. The doctrine that pleasure, among other things, is good as an end, is not Hedonism; and I shall not dispute its truth. Nor again is the doctrine that other things, beside pleasure, are good as means, at all inconsistent with Hedonism: the Hedonist is not bound to maintain that Pleasure alone is good, if under good he includes, as we generally do, what is good as means to an end, as well as the end itself. In attacking Hedonism, I am therefore simply and solely attacking the doctrine that Pleasure alone is good as an end or in itself: I am not attacking the doctrine that Pleasure is good as an end or in itself, nor am I attacking any doctrine whatever as to what are the best means we can take in order to obtain pleasure or any other end. Hedonists do, in general, recommend a course of conduct which is very similar to that which I should recommend. I do not quarrel with them about most of their practical conclusions. I quarrel only with the reasons by which they seem to think their conclusions can be supported; and I do emphatically deny that the correctness of their conclusions is any ground for inferring the correctness of their principles. A correct conclusion may always be obtained by fallacious reasoning; and the good life or virtuous maxims of a Hedonist afford absolutely no presumption that his ethical philosophy is also good. It is his ethical philosophy alone with which I am concerned: what I dispute is the excellence of his reasoning, not the excellence of his character as a man or even as moral teacher. It may be thought that my contention is unimportant, but that is no ground for thinking that I am not in the right. What I am concerned with is knowledge only—that we should think correctly and so far arrive at some truth, however unimportant: I do not say that such knowledge will make us more useful members of society. If any one does not care for knowledge for its own sake, then I have nothing to say to him: only it should not be thought that a lack of interest in what I have to say is any ground for holding it untrue. (§ 37 ¶ 2)

§ 38.

Hedonists, then, hold that all other things but pleasure, whether conduct or virtue or knowledge, whether life or nature or beauty, are only good as means to pleasure or for the sake of pleasure, never for their own sakes or as ends in themselves. This view was held by Aristippus, the disciple of Socrates, and by the Cyrenaic school which he founded; it is associated with Epicurus and the Epicureans; and it has been held in modern times, chiefly by those philosophers who call themselves Utilitarians—by Bentham, and by Mill, for instance. Herbert Spencer, as we have seen, also says that he holds it; and Professor Sidgwick, as we shall see, holds it too. (§ 38 ¶ 1)

Yet all these philosophers, as has been said, differ from one another more or less, both as to what they mean by Hedonism, and as to the reasons for which it is to be accepted as a true doctrine. The matter is therefore obviously not quite so simple as it might at first appear. My own object will be to shew quite clearly what the theory must imply, if it is made precise, if all confusions and inconsistencies are removed from the conception of it; and, when this is done, I think it will appear that all the various reasons given for holding it to be true, are really quite inadequate; that they are not reasons for holding Hedonism, but only for holding some other doctrine which is confused therewith. In order to attain this object I propose to take first Mill’s doctrine, as set forth in his book called Utilitarianism: we shall find in Mill a conception of Hedonism, and arguments in its favour, which fairly represent those of a large class of hedonistic writers. To these representative conceptions and arguments grave objections, objections which appear to me to be conclusive, have been urged by Professor Sidgwick. These I shall try to give in my own words; and shall then proceed to consider and refute Professor Sidgwick’s own much more precise conceptions and arguments. With this, I think, we shall have traversed the whole field of Hedonistic doctrine. It will appear, from the discussion, that the task of deciding what is or is not good in itself is by no means an easy one; and in this way the discussion will afford a good example of the method which it is necessary to pursue in attempting to arrive at the truth with regard to this primary class of ethical principles. In particular it will appear that two principles of method must be constantly kept in mind: (1) that the naturalistic fallacy must not be committed; (2) that the distinction between means and ends must be observed. (§ 38 ¶ 2)