Chapter III: Hedonism.

§ 59.

I shall say more later about this second kind of Egoism, this anti-altruistic Egoism, this Egoism as a doctrine of means. What I am now concerned with is that utterly distinct kind of Egoism, which holds that each man ought rationally to hold: My own greatest happiness is the only good thing there is; my actions can only be good as means, in so far as they help to win me this. This is a doctrine which is not much held by writers now-a-days. It is a doctrine that was largely held by English Hedonists in the 17th and 18th centuries: it is, for example, at the bottom of Hobbes’ Ethics. But even the English school appear to have made one step forward in the present century: they are most of them now-a-days Utilitarians. They do recognise that if my own happiness is good, it would be strange that other people’s happiness should not be good too. (§ 59 ¶ 1)

In order fully to expose the absurdity of this kind of Egoism, it is necessary to examine certain confusions upon which its plausibility depends. (§ 59 ¶ 2)

The chief of these is the confusion involved in the conception of my own good as distinguished from the good of others. This is a conception which we all use every day; it is one of the first to which the plain man is apt to appeal in discussing any question of Ethics: and Egoism is commonly advocated chiefly because its meaning is not clearly perceived. It is plain, indeed, that the name Egoism more properly applies to the theory that my own good is the sole good, than that my own pleasure is so. A man may quite well be an Egoist, even if he be not a Hedonist. The conception which is, perhaps, most closely associated with Egoism is that denoted by the words my own interest. The Egoist is the man who holds that a tendency to promote his own interest is the sole possible, and sufficient, justification of all his actions. But this conception of my own interest plainly includes, in general, very much more than my own pleasure. It is, indeed, only because and in so far as my own interest has been thought to consist solely in my own pleasure, that Egoists have been led to hold that my own pleasure is the sole good. Their course of reasoning is as follows: The only thing I ought to secure is my own interest; but my own interest consists in my greatest possible pleasure; and therefore the only thing I ought to pursue is my own pleasure. That it is very natural, on reflection, thus to identify my own pleasure with my own interest; and that it has generally been done by modern moralists, may be admitted. But when Prof. Sidgwick points this out (III. xiv. § 5, Div. III.), he should have also pointed out that this identification has by no means been made in ordinary thought. When the plain man says my own interest, he does not mean my own pleasure—he does not commonly even include this—he means my own advancement, my own reputation, the getting of a better income etc., etc. That Prof. Sidgwick should not have noticed this, and that he should give the reason he gives for the fact that the ancient moralists did not identify my own interest with my own pleasure, seems to be due to his having failed to notice that very confusion in the conception of my own good which I am now to point out. That confusion has, perhaps, been more clearly perceived by Plato than by any other moralist, and to point it out suffices to refute Prof. Sidgwick’s own view that Egoism is rational. (§ 59 ¶ 3)

What, then, is meant by my own good? In what sense can a thing be good for me? It is obvious, if we reflect, that the only thing which can belong to me, which can be mine, is something which is good, and not the fact that it is good. When, therefore, I talk of anything I get as my own good, I must mean either that the thing I get is good, or that my possessing it is good. In both cases it is only the thing or the possession of it which is mine, and not the goodness of that thing or that possession. There is no longer any meaning in attaching the my to our predicate, and saying: The possession of this by me is my good. Even if we interpret this by My possession of this is what I think good, the same still holds: for what I think is that my possession of it is good simply; and, if I think rightly, then the truth is that my possession of it is good simply—not, in any sense, my good; and, if I think wrongly, it is not good at all. In short, when I talk of a thing as my own good all that I can mean is that something which will be exclusively mine, as my own pleasure is mine (whatever be the various senses of this relation denoted by possession), is also good absolutely; or rather that my possession of it is good absolutely. The good of it can in no possible sense be private or belong to me; any more than a thing can exist privately or for one person only. The only reason I can have for aiming at my own good, is that it is good absolutely that what I so call should belong to me—good absolutely that I should have something, which, if I have it, others cannot have. But if it is good absolutely that I should have it, then everyone else has as much reason for aiming at my having it, as I have myself. If, therefore, it is true of any single man’s interest or happiness that it ought to be his sole ultimate end, this can only mean that that man’s interest or happiness is the sole good, the Universal Good, and the only thing that anybody ought to aim at. What Egoism holds, therefore, is that each man’s happiness is the sole good—that a number of different things are each of them the only good thing there is—an absolute contradiction! No more complete and thorough refutation of any theory could be desired. (§ 59 ¶ 4)

§ 60.

Yet Prof. Sidgwick holds that Egoism is rational; and it will be useful briefly to consider the reasons which he gives for this absurd conclusion. The Egoist, he says (last Chap § 1), may avoid the proof of Utilitarianism by declining to affirm, either implicitly or explicitly, that his own greatest happiness is not merely the ultimate rational end for himself, but a part of Universal Good. And in the passage to which he here refers us, as having there seen this, he says: It cannot be proved that the difference between his own happiness and another’s happiness is not for him all-important (IV. ii. § 1). What does Prof. Sidgwick mean by these phrases the ultimate rational end for himself, and for him all-important? He does not attempt to define them; and it is largely the use of such undefined phrases which causes absurdities to be committed in philosophy (§ 60 ¶ 1)

Is there any sense in which a thing can be an ultimate rational end for one person and not for another? By ultimate must be meant at least that the end is good-in-itself—good in our undefinable sense; and by rational, at least, that it is truly good. That a thing should be an ultimate rational end means, then, that it is truly good in itself; and that it is truly good in itself means that it is a part of Universal Good. Can we assign any meaning to that qualification for himself, which will make it cease to be a part of Universal Good? The thing is impossible: for the Egoist’s happiness must either be good in itself, and so a part of Universal Good, or else it cannot be good in itself at all: there is no escaping this dilemma. And if it is not good at all, what reason can he have for aiming at it? how can it be a rational end for him? That qualification for himself has no meaning unless it implies not for others; and if it implies not for others, then it cannot be a rational end for him, since it cannot be truly good in itself: the phrase an ultimate rational end for himself is a contradiction in terms. By saying that a thing is an end for one particular person, or good for him, can only be meant one of four things. Either (1) it may be meant that the end in question is something which will belong exclusively to him; but in that case, if it is to be rational for him to aim at it, that he should exclusively possess it must be a part of Universal Good. Or (2) it may be meant that it is the only thing at which he ought to aim; but this can only be, because, by so doing, he will do the most he can towards realising Universal Good: and this, in our case, will only give Egoism as a doctrine of means. Or (3) it may be meant that the thing is what he desires or thinks good; and then, if he thinks wrongly, it is not a rational end at all, and, if he thinks rightly, it is a part of Universal Good. Or (4) it may be meant that it is peculiarly appropriate that a thing which will belong exclusively to him should also by him be approved or aimed at; but, in this case, both that it should belong to him and that he should aim at it must be parts of Universal Good: by saying that a certain relation between two things is fitting or appropriate, we can only mean that the existence of that relation is absolutely good in itself (unless it be so as a means, which gives case (2)). By no possible meaning, then, that can be given to the phrase that his own happiness is the ultimate rational end for himself can the Egoist escape the implication that his own happiness is absolutely good; and by saying that it is the ultimate rational end, he must mean that it is the only good thing—the whole of Universal Good: and, if he further maintains, that each man’s happiness is the ultimate rational end for him, we have the fundamental contradiction of Egoism—that an immense number of different things are, each of them, the sole good.—And it is easy to see that the same considerations apply to the prhase that the difference between his own happiness and another’s is for him all-important. This can only mean either (1) that his own happiness is the only end which will affect him, or (2) that the only important thing for him (as a means) is to look to his own happiness, or (3) that it is only his own happiness which he cares about, or (4) that it is good that each man’s happiness should be the only concern of that man. And none of these propositions, true as they may be, have the smallest tendency to shew that if his own happiness is desirable at all, it is not a part of Universal Good. Either his own happiness is a good thing or it is not; and, in whatever sense it may be all-important for him, it must be true that, if it is not good, he is not justified in pursuing it, and that, if it is good, everyone else has an equal reason to pursue it, so far as they are able and so far as it does not exclude their attainment of other more valuable parts of Universal Good. In short it is plain that the addition of for him for me to such words as ultimate rational end, good, important can introduce nothing but confusion. The only possible reason that can justify any action is that by it the greatest possible amount of what is good absolutely should be realised. And if anyone says that the attainment of his own happiness justifies his actions, he must mean that this is the greatest possible amount of Universal Good which he can realise. And this again can only be true either because he has no power to realise more, in which case he only holds Egoism as a doctrine of means; or else because his own happiness is the greatest amount of Universal Good which can be realised at all, in which case we have Egoism proper, and the flagrant contradiction that every person’s happiness is singly the greatest amount of Universal Good which can be realised at all. (§ 60 ¶ 2)

§ 61.

It should be observed that, since this is so, the relation of Rational Egoism to Rational Benevolence, which Prof. Sidgwick regards as the profoundest problem of Ethics (III. xiii. § 5, n. 1), appears in quite a different light to that in which he presents it. Even if a man, he says, admits the self-evidence of the principle of Rational Benevolence, he may still hold that his own happiness is an end which it is irrational for him to sacrifice to any other; and that therefore a harmony between the maxim of Prudence and the maxim of Rational Benevolence must be somehow demonstrated, if morality is to be made completely rational. This latter view is that which I myself hold (last Chap. § 1). Prof. Sidgwick then goes on to shew that the inseparable connection between Utilitarian Duty and the greatest happiness of the individual who conforms to it cannot be satisfactorily demonstrated on empirical grounds (Ib. § 4). And the final paragraph of his book tells us that, since the reconciliation of duty and self-interest is to be regarded as a hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought, it remains to ask how far this necessity constitutes a sufficient reason for accepting this hypothesis (Ib. § 5). To assume the existence of such a Being, as God, by the consensus of theologians, is conceived to be would, he has already argued, ensure the required reconciliation; since the Divine Sanctions of such a God would, of course, suffice to make it always every one’s interest to promote the universal happiness to the best of his knowledge (Ib. § 5). (§ 61 ¶ 1)

Now what is this reconciliation of duty and self-interest which Divine Sanctions could ensure? It would consist in the mere fact that the same conduct which produced the greatest possible happiness of the greatest number would always also produce the greatest possible happiness of the agent. If this were the case (and our empirical knowledge shews that it is not the case in this world), morality would, Prof. Sidgwick thinks, be completely rational; we should avoid an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct. That is to say, we should avoid the necessity of thinking that it is as manifest an obligation to secure our own greatest Happiness (maxim of Prudence), as to secure the greatest Happiness on the whole (maxim of Benevolence). But it is perfectly obvious we should not. Prof. Sidgwick here commits the characteristic fallacy of Empiricism—the fallacy of thinking that an alteration in facts could make a contradiction cease to be a contradiction. That a single man’s happiness should be the sole good, and that also everybody’s happiness should be the sole good, is a contradiction which cannot be solved by the assumption that the same conduct will secure both: it would be equally contradictory, however certain we were that that assumption was justified. Prof. Sidgwick strains at a gnat and swallows a camel. He thinks the Divine Omnipotence must be called into play to secure that what gives other people pleasure should also give it to him—that only so can Ethics be made rational; while he overlooks the fact that even this exercise of Divine Omnipotence would leave in Ethics a contradiction, in comparison with which his difficulty is a trifle—a contradiction, which would reduce all Ethics to mere nonsense, and before which the Divine Omnipotence must be powerless to all eternity. That each man’s happiness should be the sole good, which we have seen to be the principle of Egoism, is in itself a contradiction; and that it should also be true that the Happiness of all is the sole good, which is the principle of Universalistic Hedonism, would introduce another contradiction. And that these propositions should all be true might well be called the profoundest problem in Ethics: it would be a problem necessarily insoluble. But they cannot all be true, and there is no reason, but confusion, for the supposition that they are. Prof. Sidgwick confuses this contradiction with the mere fact (in which there is no contradiction) that our own greatest happiness and that of all do not seem always attainable by the same means. This fact, if Happiness were the sole good, would indeed be of some importance; and, on any view, similar facts are of importance. But they are nothing but instances of the one important fact that in this world the quantity of good which is attainable is ridiculously small compared to that which is imaginable. That I cannot get the most possible pleasure for myself, if I produce the most possible pleasure on the whole, is no more the profoundest problem of Ethics, than that in any case I cannot get as much pleasure altogether as would be desirable. It only states that, if we get as much good as possible in one place, we may get less on the whole, because the quantity of attainable good is limited. To say that I have to choose between my own good and that of all is a false antithesis: the only rational question is how to choose between my own and that of others, and the principle on which this must be answered is exactly the same as that on which I must choose whether to give pleasure to this other person or to that. (§ 61 ¶ 2)

§ 61, n. 1: The italics are mine.