Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 49.

But, as I said, Professor Sidgwick has seen that they are inconsistent. He has seen that he must choose between them. He has chosen. He has rejected the test by quality of pleasure, and has accepted the hedonistic principle. He still maintains that Pleasure alone is good as an end. I propose therefore to discuss the considerations which he has offered in order to convince us. I shall hope that discussion to remove some more of such prejudices and misunderstandings as might prevent agreement with me. If I can shew that some of the considerations which Professor Sidgwick urges are such as we need by no means agree with, and that others are actually rather in my favour than in his, we may have again advanced a few steps nearer to the unanimity which we desire. (§ 49 ¶ 1)

§ 50.

The passages in the Methods of Ethics to which I shall now invite attention are to be found in I. IX. 4 and in III. XIV. 4—5. (§ 50 ¶ 1)

The first of these two passages runs as follows:(§ 50 ¶ 2)

I think that if we consider carefully such permanent results as are commonly judged to be good, other than qualities of human beings, we can find nothing that, on reflection, appears to possess this quality of goodness out of relation to human existence, or at least to some consciousness or feeling. (§ 50 ¶ 3)

For example, we commonly judge some inanimate objects, scenes, etc. to be good as possessing beauty, and others bad from ugliness: still no one would consider it rational to aim at the production of beauty in external nature, apart from any possible contemplation of it by human beings. In fact when beauty is maintained to be objective, it is not commonly meant that it exists as beauty out of relation to any mind whatsoever: but only that there is some standard of beauty valid for all minds. (§ 50 ¶ 4)

It may, however, be said that beauty and other results commonly judged to be good, though we do not conceive them to exist out of relation to human beings (or at least minds of some kind), are yet so far separable as ends from the human beings on whom their existence depends, that their realisation may conceivably come into competition with the perfection or happiness of these beings. Thus, though beautiful things cannot be thought worth producing except as possible objects of contemplation, still a man may devote himself to their production without any consideration of the persons who are to contemplate them. Similarly knowledge is a good which cannot exist except in minds; and yet one may be more interested in the development of knowledge than in its possession by any particular minds; and may take the former as an ultimate end without regarding the latter. (§ 50 ¶ 5)

Still, as soon as the alternatives are clearly apprehended, it will, I think, be generally held that beauty, knowledge, and other ideal goods, as well as all external material things, are only reasonably to be sought by men in so far as they conduce either (1) to Happiness or (2) to the Perfection or Excellence of human existence. I say human, for though most utilitarians consider the pleasure (and freedom from pain) of the inferior animals to be included in the Happiness which they take as the right and proper end of conduct, no one seems to contend that we ought to aim at perfecting brutes, except as a means to our ends, or at least as objects of scientific or aesthetic contemplation for us. Nor, again, can we include, as a practical end, the existence of beings above the human. We certainly apply the idea of Good to the Divine Existence, just as we do to His work, and indeed in a pre-eminent manner: and when it is said that we should do all things to the glory of God, it may seem to be implied that the existence of God is made better by our glorifying Him. Still this inference when explicitly drawn appears somewhat impious and theologians generally recoil from it, and refrain from using the notion of a possible addition to the Goodness of the Divine Existence as a ground of human duty. Nor can the influence of our actions on other extra-human intelligences besides the Divine be at present made matter of scientific discussion. (§ 50 ¶ 6)

I shall therefore confidently lay down, that if there be any Good other than Happiness to be sought by man, as an ultimate practical end, it can only be the Goodness, Perfection, or Excellence of Human Existence. How far this notion includes more than Virtue, what its precise relation to Pleasure is, and to what method we shall be logically led if we accept it as fundamental, are questions which we shall more conveniently discuss after the detailed examination of these two other notions, Pleasure and Virtue, in which we shall be engaged in the two following Books. (§ 50 ¶ 7)

It will be observed that in this passage Prof. Sidgwick tries to limit the range of objects among which the ultimate end may be found. He does not yet say what that end is, but he does exclude from it everything but certain characters of Human Existence. And the possible ends, which he thus excludes, do not again come up for consideration. They are put out of court once and for all by this passage and by this passage only. Now is this exclusion justified?(§ 50 ¶ 8)

I cannot think it is. No one, says Prof. Sidgwick, would consider it rational to aim at the production of beauty in external nature, apart from any possible contemplation of it by human beings. Well, I may say at once, that I, for one, do consider this rational; and let us see if I cannot get any one to agree with me. Consider what this admission really means. It entitles us to put the following case. Let us imagine one world exceedingly beautiful. Imagine it as beautiful as you can; put into it whatever on this earth you most admire—mountains, rivers, the sea; trees, and sunsets, stars and moon. Imagine these all combined in the most exquisite proportions, so that no one thing jars against another, but each contributes to the beauty of the whole. And then imagine the ugliest world you can possibly conceive. Imagine it simply one heap of filth, containing everything that is most disgusting to us, for whatever reason, and the whole, as far as may be, without one redeeming feature. Such a pair of worlds we are entitled to compare: they fall within Prof. Sidgwick’s meaning, and the comparison is highly relevant to it. The only thing we are not entitled to imagine is that any human being ever has or ever, by any possibility, can, live in either, can ever see and enjoy the beauty of the one or hate the foulness of the other. Well, even so, supposing them quite apart from any possible contemplation by human beings; still, is it irrational to hold that it is better that the beautiful world should exist than the one which is ugly? Would it not be well, in any case, to do what we could to produce it rather than the other? Certainly I cannot help thinking that it would; and I hope that some may agree with me in this extreme instance. The instance is extreme. It is highly improbable, not to say, impossible, we should ever have such a choice before us. In any actual choice we should have to consider the possible effects of our action upon conscious beings, and among these possible effects there are always some, I think, which ought to be preferred to the existence of mere beauty. But this only means that in our present state, in which but a very small portion of the good is attainable, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake must always be postponed to the pursuit of some greater good, which is equally attainable. But it is enough for my purpose, if it be admitted that, supposing no greater good were at all attainable, then beauty must in itself be regarded as a greater good than ugliness; if it be admitted that, in that case, we should not be left without any reason for preferring one course of action to another, we should not be left without any duty whatever, but that it would then be our positive duty to make the world more beautiful, so far as we were able, since nothing better than beauty could then result from our efforts. If this be once admitted, if in any imaginable case you do admit that the existence of a more beautiful thing is better in itself than that of one more ugly, quite apart from its effects on any human feeling, then Prof. Sidgwick’s principle has broken down. Then we shall have to include in our ultimate end something beyond the limits of human existence. I admit, of course, that our beautiful world would be better still, if there were human beings in it to contemplate and enjoy its beauty. But that admission makes nothing against my point. If it be once admitted that the beautiful world in itself is better than the ugly, then it follows, that however many beings may enjoy it, and however much better their enjoyment may be than it is itself, yet its mere existence adds something to the goodness of the whole: it is not only a means to our end, but also itself a part thereof. (§ 50 ¶ 9)

§ 51.

In the second passage to which I referred above, Prof. Sidgwick returns from the discussion of Virtue and Pleasure, with which he has meanwhile been engaged, to consider what among the parts of Human Existence to which, as we saw, he has limited the ultimate end, can really be considered as such end. What I have just said, of course, appears to me to destroy the force of this part of his argument too. If, as I think, other things than any part of Human Existence can be ends-in-themselves, then Prof. Sidgwick cannot claim to have discovered the Summum Bonum, when he has merely determined what parts of Human Existence are in themselves desirable. But this error may be admitted to be utterly insignificant in comparison with that which we are now about to discuss. (§ 51 ¶ 1)

It may be said, says Prof. Sidgwick (III. XIV. §§ 4—5), that we may … regard cognition of Truth, contemplation of Beauty, Free or Virtuous action, as in some measure preferable alternatives to Pleasure or Happiness—even though we admit that Happiness must be included as a part of Ultimate Good…. I think, however, that this view ought not to commend itself to the sober judgment of reflective persons. In order to show this, I must ask the reader to use the same twofold procedure that I before requested him to employ in considering the absolute and independent validity of common moral precepts. I appeal firstly to his intuitive judgment after due consideration of the question when fairly placed before it: and secondly to a comprehensive comparison of the ordinary judgments of mankind. As regards the first argument, to me at least it seems clear after reflection that these objective relations of the conscious subject, when distinguished from the consciousness accompanying and resulting from them, are not ultimately and intrinsically desirable; any more than material or other objects are, when considered apart from any relation to conscious existence. Admitting that we have actual experience of such preferences as have just been described, of which the ultimate object is something that is not merely consciousness: it still seems to me that when (to use Butler’s phrase) we sit down in a cool hour, we can only justify to ourselves the importance that we attach to any of these objects by considering its conduciveness, in one way or another, to the happiness of sentient beings.(§ 51 ¶ 2)

The second argument, that refers to the common sense of mankind, obviously cannot be made completely cogent; since, as above stated, several cultivated persons do habitually judge that knowledge, art, etc.,—not to speak of Virtue—are ends independently of the pleasure derived from them. But we may urge not only that all these elements of ideal good are productive of pleasure in various ways; but also that they seem to obtain the commendation of Common Sense, roughly speaking, in proportion to the degree of this productiveness. This seems obviously true of Beauty; and will hardly be denied in respect of any kind of social ideal: it is paradoxical to maintain that any degree of Freedom, or any form of social order, would still be commonly regarded as desirable even if we were certain that it had no tendency to promote the general happiness. The case of Knowledge is rather more complex; but certainly Common Sense is most impressed with the value of knowledge, when its fruitfulness has been demonstrated. It is, however, aware that experience has frequently shown bow knowledge, long fruitless, may become unexpectedly fruitful, and how light may be shed on one part of the field of knowledge from another apparently remote: and even if any particular branch of scientific pursuit could be shown to be devoid of even this indirect utility, it would still deserve some respect on utilitarian grounds; both as furnishing to the inquirer the refined and innocent pleasures of curiosity, and because the intellectual disposition which it exhibits and sustains is likely on the whole to produce fruitful knowledge. Still in cases approximating to this last, Common Sense is somewhat disposed to complain of the misdirection of valuable effort; so that the meed of honour commonly paid to Science seems to be graduated, though perhaps unconsciously, by a tolerably exact utilitarian scale. Certainly the moment the legitimacy of any branch of scientific inquiry is seriously disputed, as in the recent case of vivisection, the controversy on both sides is generally conducted on an avowedly utilitarian basis. (§ 51 ¶ 3)

The case of Virtue requires special consideration: since the encouragement in each other of virtuous impulses and dispositions is a main aim of men’s ordinary moral discourse; so that even to raise the question whether this encouragement can go too far has a paradoxical air. Still, our experience includes rare and exceptional cases in which the concentration of effort on the cultivation of virtue has seemed to have effects adverse to general happiness, through being intensified to the point of moral fanaticism, and so involving a neglect of other conditions of happiness. If, then, we admit as actual or possible such infelicific effects of the cultivation of Virtue, I think we shall also generally admit that, in the case supposed, conduciveness to general happiness should be the criterion for deciding how far the cultivation of Virtue should be carried. (§ 51 ¶ 4)

There we have Prof. Sidgwick’s argument completed. We ought not, he thinks, to aim at knowing the Truth, or at contemplating Beauty, except in so far as such knowledge or such contemplation contributes to increase the pleasure or to diminish the pain of sentient beings. Pleasure alone is good for its own sake: knowledge of the Truth is good only as a means to pleasure. (§ 51 ¶ 5)

§ 52.

Let us consider what this means. What is pleasure? It is certainly something of which we may be conscious, and which, therefore, may be distinguished from our consciousness of it. What I wish first to ask is this: Can it really be said that we value pleasure, except in so far as we are conscious of it? Should we think that the attainment of pleasure, of which we never were and never could be conscious, was something to be aimed at for its own sake? It may be impossible that such pleasure should ever exist, that it should ever be thus divorced from consciousness; although there is certainly much reason to believe that it is not only possible but very common. But, even supposing that it were impossible, that is quite irrelevant. Our question is: Is it the pleasure, as distinct from the consciousness of it, that we set value on? Do we think the pleasure valuable in itself, or must we insist that, if we are to think the pleasure good, we must have consciousness of it too?(§ 52 ¶ 1)

This consideration is very well put by Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Philebus (21 A). (§ 52 ¶ 2)

Would you accept, Protarchus, says Socrates, to live your whole life in the enjoyment of the greatest pleasures? Of course I would, says Protrarchus. (§ 52 ¶ 3)

Socrates. Then would you think you needed anything else besides, if you possessed this one blessing in completeness?(§ 52 ¶ 4)

Protarchus. Certainly not. (§ 52 ¶ 5)

Socrates. Consider what you are saying. You would not need to be wise and intelligent and reasonable, nor anything like this? Would you not even care to keep your sight?(§ 52 ¶ 6)

Protarchus. Why should I? I suppose I should have all I want, if I was pleased. (§ 52 ¶ 7)

Socrates. Well, then, supposing you lived so, you would enjoy always throughout your life the greatest pleasure?(§ 52 ¶ 8)

Protarchus. Of course. (§ 52 ¶ 9)

Socrates. But, on the other hand, inasmuch as you would not possess intelligence and memory and knowledge and true opinion, you would, in the first place, necessarily be without the knowledge whether you were pleased or not. For you would be devoid of any kind of wisdom. You admit this?(§ 52 ¶ 10)

Protarchus. I do. The consequence is absolutely necessary. (§ 52 ¶ 11)

Socrates. Well, then, besides this, not having memory, you must also be unable to remember even that you ever were pleased; of the pleasure which falls upon you at the moment not the least vestige must afterwards remain. And again, not having true opinion, you cannot think that you are pleased when you are; and, being bereft of your reasoning faculties, you cannot even have the power to reckon that you will be pleased in future. You must live the life of an oyster, or of some other of those living creatures, whose home is the seas and whose souls are concealed in shelly bodies. Is all this so, or can we think otherwise than this?(§ 52 ¶ 12)

Protarchus. How can we?(§ 52 ¶ 13)

Socrates. Well, then, can we think such a life desirable?(§ 52 ¶ 14)

Protarchus. Socrates, your reasoning has left me utterly dumb. (§ 52 ¶ 15)

Socrates, we see, persuades Protarchus that Hedonism is absurd. If we are really going to maintain that pleasure alone is good as an end, we must maintain that it is good, whether we are conscious of it or not. We must declare it reasonable to take as our ideal (an unattainable ideal it may be) that we should be as happy as possible, even on condition that we never know and never can know that we are happy. We must be willing to sell in exchange for the mere happiness ever vestige of knowledge, both in ourselves and in others, both of happiness itself and of every other thing. Can we really still disagree? Can any one still declare it obvious that this is reasonable? That pleasure alone is good as an end?(§ 52 ¶ 16)

The case, it is plain, is just like that of the colours, only, as yet, not nearly so strong. It is far more possible that we should some day be able to produce the intensest pleasure, without any consciousness that it is there, than that we should be able to produce more colour, without its being any particular colour. Pleasure and consciousness can be far more easily distinguished from one another, than colour from the particular colours. And yet even if this were not so, we should be bound to distinguish them if we really wished to declare pleasure alone to be our ultimate end. Even if consciousness were an inseparable accompaniment of pleasure, a sine quâ non of its existence, yet, if pleasure is the only end, we are bound to call consciousness a mere means to it, in any intelligible sense that can be given to the word means. And if, on the other hand, as I hope is now plain, the pleasure would be comparatively valueless without the consciousness, then we are bound to say that pleasure is not the only end, that some consciousness at least must be included with it as a veritable part of the end. (§ 52 ¶ 17)

For our question is now solely what the end is: it is quite another question how far that end may be attainable by itself, or must involve the simultaneous attainment of other things. It may well be that the practical conclusions at which Utilitarians do arrive, and even those at which they ought logically to arrive, are not far from the truth. But in so far as their reason for holding these conclusions to be true is that Pleasure alone is good as an end, they are absolutely wrong: and it is with reasons that we are chiefly concerned in any scientific Ethics. (§ 52 ¶ 18)