Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 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)

§ 53.

It seems, then, clear that Hedonism is in error, so far as it maintains that pleasure alone, and not the consciousness of pleasure, is the sole good. And this error seems largely due to the fallacy which I pointed out above in Mill—the fallacy of confusing means and end. It is falsely supposed that, since pleasure must always be accompanied by consciousness (which is, itself, extremely doubtful), therefore it is indifferent whether we say that pleasure or the consciousness of pleasure is the sole good. Practically, of course, it would be indifferent at which we aimed, if it were certain that we could not get the one without the other; but where the question is of what is good in itself—where we ask: For the sake of what is it desirable to get that which we aim at?—the distinction is by no means unimportant. Here we are placed before an exclusive alternative. Either pleasure by itself (even though we can’t get it) would be all that is desirable, or a consciousness of it would be more desirable still. Both these propositions cannot be true, and I think it is plain that the latter is true; whence it follows that pleasure is not the sole good. (§ 53 ¶ 1)

Still it may be said that, even if consciousness of pleasure, and not pleasure alone, is the sole good, this conclusion is not very damaging to Hedonism. It may be said that Hedonists have always meant by pleasure the consciousness of pleasure, though they have not been at pains to say so; and this, I think is, in the main, true. To correct their formula in this respect could, therefore, only be a matter of practical importance, if it is possible to produce pleasure without producing consciousness of it. But even this importance, which I think our conclusion so far really has, is, I admit, comparatively slight. What I wish to maintain is that even consciousness of pleasure is not the sole good: that, indeed, it is absurd so to regard it. And the chief importance of what has been said so far lies in the fact that the same method, which shews that consciousness of pleasure is more valuable than pleasure, seems also to shew that consciousness of pleasure is itself far less valuable than other things. The supposition that consciousness of pleasure is the sole good is due to a neglect of the same distinctions which have encouraged the careless assertion that pleasure is the sole good. (§ 53 ¶ 2)

The method which I employed in order to shew that pleasure itself was not the sole good, was that of considering what value we should attach to it, if it existed in absolute isolation, stripped of all its usual accompaniments. And this is, in fact, the only method that can be safely used, when we wish to discover what degree of value a thing has in itself. The necessity of employing this method will be best established by a discussion of the arguments used by Prof. Sidgwick in the passage last quoted, and by an exposure of the manner in which they are calculated to mislead. (§ 53 ¶ 3)