Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 46.

Well, then, we now proceed to discuss Intuitionistic Hedonism. And the beginning of this discussion marks, it is to be observed, a turning-point in my ethical method. The point I have been labouring hitherto, the point that good is indefinable, and that to deny this involves a fallacy, is a point capable of strict proof: for to deny it involves contradictions. But now we are coming to the question, for the sake of answering which Ethics exists, the question what things or qualities are good. Of any answer to this question no direct proof is possible, and that, just because of our former answer, as to the meaning of good, direct proof was possible. We are now confined to the hope of what Mill calls indirect proof, the hope of determining one another’s intellect; and we are now so confined, just because, in the matter of the former question we are not so confined. Here, then, is an intuition to be submitted to our verdict—the intuition that pleasure alone is good as an end—good in and for itself.(§ 46 ¶ 1)

§ 47.

Well, in this connection, it seems first desirable to touch on another doctrine of Mill’s—another doctrine which, in the interest of Hedonism, Professor Sidgwick has done very wisely to reject. This is the doctrine of difference of quality in pleasures. If I am asked, says Mill, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competantly acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.(§ 47 ¶ 1)

Now it is well known that Bentham rested his case for Hedonism on quantity of pleasure alone. It was his maxim, that quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry. And Mill apparently considers Bentham to have proved that nevertheless poetry is better than pushpin; that poetry does produce a greater quantity of pleasure. But yet, says Mill, the Utilitarians might have taken the other and, as it may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency (p. 11). Now we see from this that Mill acknowledges quality of pleasure to be another or different ground for estimating pleasures, than Bentham’s quantity; and moreover, by that question-begging higher, which he afterwards translates into superior, he seems to betray an uncomfortable feeling, that, after all, if you take quantity of pleasure for your only standard, something may be wrong and you may deserve to be called a pig. And it may presently appear that you very likely would deserve this name. But, meanwhile, I only wish to shew that Mill’s admissions as to the quality of pleasure are either inconsistent with his Hedonism, or else afford no other ground for it than would be given by mere quantity of pleasure. (§ 47 ¶ 2)

It will be seen that Mill’s test for one pleasure’s superiority in quality over another is the preference of most people who have experienced both. A pleasure so preferred, he holds, is more desirable. But then, as we have seen, he holds that to think of an object as desirable and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing (p. 58). He holds, therefore, that the preference of experts merely proves that one pleasure is pleasanter than another. But if that is so, how can he distinguish this standard from the standard of quantity of pleasure? Can one pleasure be pleasanter than another, except in the sense that it gives more pleasure? Pleasant must, if words are to have any meaning at all, denote some one quality common to all things that are pleasant; and, if so, then one thing can only be more pleasant than another, according as it has more or less of this one quality. But, then, let us try the other alternative, and suppose that Mill does not seriously mean that this preference of experts merely proves one pleasure to be pleasanter than another. Well, in this case, what does preferred mean? It cannot mean more desired, since, as we know, the degree of desire is always, according to Mill, in exact proportion to the degree of pleasantness. But, in that case, the basis of Mill’s Hedonism collapses, for he is admitting that one thing may be preferred over another, and thus proved more desirable, although it is not more desired. In this case, Mill’s judgment of preference is just a judgment of that intuitional kind which I have been contending to be necessary to establish the hedonistic or any other principle. It is a direct judgment that one thing is more desirable, or better than another; a judgment utterly independent of all considerations as to whether one thing is more desired or pleasanter than another. This is to admit that good is good and indefinable. (§ 47 ¶ 3)

§ 48.

And note another point that is brought out by this discussion. Mill’s judgment of preference, so far from establishing the principle that pleasure alone is good, is obviously inconsistent with it. He admits that experts can judge whether one pleasure is more desirable than another, because pleasures differ in quality. But what does this mean? If one pleasure can differ from another in quality, that means, that a pleasure is something complex, something composed, in fact, of pleasure in addition to that which produces pleasure. For instance, Mill speaks of sensual indulgences as lower pleasures. But what is a sensual indulgence? It is surely a certain excitement of some sense together with the pleasure caused by such excitement. Mill, therefore, in admitting that a sensual indulgence can be directly judged to be lower than another pleasure, in which the degree of pleasure involved may be the same, is admitting that other things may be good, or bad, quite independently of the pleasure which accompanies them. A pleasure is, in fact, merely a misleading term which conceals the fact that what we are dealing with is not pleasure but something else, which may indeed necessarily produce pleasure, but is nevertheless quite distinct from it. (§ 48 ¶ 1)

Mill, therefore, in thinking that to estimate quality of pleasure is quite consistent with his hedonistic principle that pleasure and absence of pain alone are desirable as ends has again committed the fallacy of confusing ends and means. For take even the most favourable supposition of his meaning; let us suppose that by a pleasure he does not mean, as his words imply, that which produces pleasure and the pleasure produced. Let us suppose him to mean that there are various kinds of pleasure, in the sense in which there are various kinds of colour—blue, red, green, etc. Even in this case, if we are to say that our end is colour alone, then, although it is impossible we should have colour without having some particular colour, yet the particular colour we must have, is only a means to our having colour, if colour is really our end. And if colour is our only possible end, as Mill says pleasure is, then there can be no possible reason for preferring one colour to another, red, for instance, to blue, except that the one is more of a colour than the other. Yet the opposite of this is what Mill is attempting to hold with regard to pleasures. (§ 48 ¶ 2)

Accordingly a consideration of Mill’s view that some pleasures are superior to others in quality brings out one point which may help to determine the intellect with regard to the intuition Pleasure is the only good. For it brings out the fact that if you say pleasure, you must mean pleasure: you must mean some one thing common to all different pleasures, some one thing, which may exist in different degrees, but which cannot differ in kind. I have pointed out that, if you say, as Mill does, that quality of pleasure is to be taken into account, then you are no longer holding that pleasure alone is good as an end, since you imply that something else, something which is not present in all pleasures, is also good as an end. The illustration I have given from colour expresses this point in its most acute form. It is plain that if you say Colour alone is good as an end, then you can give no possible reason for preferring one colour to another. Your only standard of good and bad will then be colour; and since red and blue both conform equally to this, the only standard, you can have no other whereby to judge whether red is better than blue. It is true that you cannot have colour unless you also have one or all of the particular colours: they, therefore, if colour is the end, will all be good as means, but none of them can be better than another even as a means, far less can any one of them be regarded as an end in itself. Just so with pleasure: If we do really mean Pleasure alone is good as an end, then we must agree with Bentham that Quantity of pleasure being equal, pushpin is as good as poetry. To have thus dismissed Mill’s reference to quality of pleasure, is therefore to have made one step in the desired direction. The reader will now no longer be prevented from agreeing with me, by any idea that the hedonistic principle Pleasure alone is good as an end is consistent with the view that one pleasure may be of a better quality than another. These two views, we have seen, are contradictory to one another. We must choose between them: and if we choose the latter, then we must give up the principle of Hedonism. (§ 48 ¶ 3)