The Theory of Good and Evil (1907)

Chapter 3. Rationalistic Utilitarianism


In the last chapter an attempt was made to show that as a matter of psychological fact human nature is capable of desiring other things besides pleasure. To show that something besides pleasure is capable of being desired does not, however, prove that anything besides pleasure is ultimately desirable. It is still quite possible to maintain that pleasure is the only true or rational object of desire. The question remains whether this is actually the case. There are undoubtedly people who on reflection are prepared to declare that they can attach no ultimate value to anything besides pleasure. They may recognize the existence of disinterested desires for knowledge or for power, for wealth or for vengeance, but on reflection it appears to them rational to gratify these desires only in so far as they tend to swell the sum of pleasure--which means, as we have seen, to get as much pleasure as they can for as long as they can. The wise man (it is suggested) will treat the attainment of all other objects as means, not as ends. Other desires will be, so far as possible, gratified or repressed, stimulated or discouraged or transformed in whatever way experience shows to be on the whole conducive to getting as much pleasure out of life as possible.(Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 ¶ 1)

Now so long as the egoistic Hedonist confines himself to asserting I care nothing about anything but my own pleasure, and I propose to gratify my other impulses only in so far as (in the long run) I think it tends to procure for me a maximum yield of pleasure on the whole, he is inaccessible to logical attack. But very often he does not stop at that. He declares not merely that pleasure is his object, but that pleasure is the only reasonable man must agree with him in thinking that his own pleasure is to each man the only proper object of pursuit, that any one who pursues any other aim is unreasonable, and makes a mistake. And when that attitude is adopted, it becomes possible to urge that he is implicitly appealing to a universal standard which must be the same for all men. He admits that Reason can pronounce upon the value of ends, and that it does so, not from any merely private point of view, but from an objective or universal standpoint. The pursuit of pleasure is approved not merely because it chances to be the end that he prefers, but because in some sense it is the true end, the end that ought to be pursued. The champion of lpeasure may, indeed, contend that the universal rule which Reason approves, is not that pleasure in general ought to be pursued, but that each man should pursue his own pleasure. But an egoistic Hedonist of this type is liable to be asked on what grounds an impartial or impersonal Reason should take up this position. He may be asked whether, when he condemns the pursuit of ends other than pleasure, he does not imply that the claims of this end are dependent, not upon the individual's chance likings, but upon something in pleasure itself, something which Reason discerns in it, and which every Reason that really is Reason must likewise discern in it. And if that is so, he may further be asked why Reason should attach more importance to one man's pleasure than to another's. If it is pleasure that is the end, it cannot matter, it may be urged, whose pleasure it is that is promoted. The greater pleasure must always be preferable to the less pleasure, even though the promotion of the greatest pleasure on the whole should demand that this or that individual should sacrifice some of his private pleasure. From this point of view it will seem impossible that Reason should approve the universal rule that each should pursue his private pleasure with the result of losing pleasure on the whole. The rational rule of conduct will appear to be that each individual should aim at the greatest pleasure on the whole, and that when a greater pleasure for the whole can be procured by the sacrifice of an individual's private pleasure, the sacrifice should be made. The Egoist's appeal to Reason, the setting up of Egoism as an objectively rational rule of conduct, the condemnation as irrational of those who pursue any othe rend, seems therefore to react against his own position. The logic of the egoistic Hedonist's position carries him away from egoistic Hedonism and forces him into the adoption of a universalistic Hedonism.(Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 ¶ 2)

Whatever may be thought of the line of argument which thus attempts to cross the gulf between egoistic and universalistic Hedonism, it is at all events one which has been actually followed more or less consciously and explicitly by many minds. There are many persons who remain Hedonists, who are preared to declare that all other objects except pleasure should be pursued only in so far as they yield pleasure on the whole, but who are not prepared to say that it is only their private pleasure which should be pursued. Among these desires for objects other than pleasure of which they are conscious, there is one which does present itself to them in a different light from those other impulses which they are prepared to subordinate entirely to the pursuit of private pleasure, and that is the desire for other people's pleasure. For the very principle upon which their own preference of pleasure to all other objects of desire rests, seems to put them under the necessity of approving a similar end for other people. How then can they condemn in themselves an impulse which tends towards the realization of that end for others? To do so would seem to involve inconsistency or self-contradiction. There is of course no contradiction in the mere existence of inconsistent desires in different persons. There is no contradiction in admitting, as a fact, that I may want what my neighbour wants too, and we cannot both enjoy. But it is otherwise when it is a question of approving inconsistent desires. Reason cannot give different answers to the same question. It may of course appear to do so: we may all make mistakes, but when we do so, we acknowledge that it is not really Reason which pronounces. If the Reason of two men tells them opposite things, we necessarily conclude that one of them at least must be wrong. Hence when occasions arise, on which what increases pleasure for me diminishes it for some one else, it is impossible that each can be right in judging his own pleasure to be the more important. By such a line of thought, the Hedonist who bases his position upon Reason is driven to recognize that the greatest pleasure on the whole is from the point of view of reason the most important end, no matter whether it is I or some other I that is to enjoy that pleasure. No doubt this bare intellectual recognition of its reasonableness does not by itself lead to altruistic conduct except where there is either (1) a disinterested desire of other people's well-being (whether of certain definite individuals or of humanity at large) or (2) what Professor Sidgwick has called a desire to do what is right and reasonable as such. In the first case, Reason will prevent a man, so to speak, inhibiting his spontaneous benevolent impulses, as he (more or less frequently) inhibits other impulses when they are shown not to be conducive to his own interest on the whole; in the second case, the reasonableness of the conduct will actually become the motive for its being done, even though (apart from the verdict of Reason) there should be no spontaneous inclination towards the conduct which it prescribes. In this way it is possible for a mind which starts with a conviction of the intrinsic reasonableness of the pursuit of pleasure to feel itself compelled to admit, not only the abstract reasonableness of unselfish conduct, but also the existence of something within us which sanctions, prescribes, dictates, a certain course of conduct quite irrespectively of the individual's interest--in other words to admit the existence, and the authority of what is popularly called Conscience, or the duty which Conscience prescribes--of what in more technical language is styled the Practical Reason or of the categorical imperative which that Reason enacts.(Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 ¶ 3)

Or if to some minds this language about Reason and imperatives carries with it associations which seem to lead them beyond the point which they have really conceded, we may put the matter in a slightly different way. Every one who ever thinks about conduct at all, who regards the choice of end as a matter upon which thinking has got anything to say, every one who attempts to represent his conduct as capable of rational justification, gives judgments of value. The egoistic Hedonist who says not merely I like pleasure and therefore I intend to pursue it, but the wise man is he who pursues pleasure, shows that he has this ultimate and unanalysable idea of good or value in his mind as much as the idealizing moralist who says Virtue is the true end of human pursuit. Even though that which has value may be to him coextensive with pleasure, the term value or good does not mean merely the same as pleasure. The proposition my pleasure is good is not to him a mere tautology. It does not mean merely pleasure is pleasant. Still more obviously is this the case when such a Hedonist recognizes, as I have contended that he is logically bound to recognize, that it is not only his pleasure which has value but all pleasure; and that therefore it is rational for him to pursue his neighbour's pleasure as well as his own, and to prefer the larger amount of pleasure to the smaller, even though the larger pleasure be the pleasure of others, and the smaller his own.(Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 ¶ 4)

After such an admission has been made, the enquirer may still take a utilitarian view of the moral criterion: he may still hold that we find out what it is reasonable to do by asking experience to decide what promotes the greatest happiness on the whole or (less logically) the greatest happiness of the greatest number: but he is no longer a Utilitarian in his view of the ultimate reason for doing what is thus ascertained to be right. In admitting that one course of conduct is rational, another irrational, irrespectively of the individual's interest, he has admitted in effect that one thing is right, another wrong; he has admitted that the difference between right and wrong is perceived (in a sense) a priori[41], and not by experience; he has admitted the existence of an ought and an ought not, however much he must still protest against what he may be disposed to regard as the mystical character with which the idea of ought or duty or moral obligation has been invested by the traditional schools of anti-utilitarian or intuitional or transcendental Ethics.(Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 ¶ 5)

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 1 n. 1. This assertion will subsequently be explained and qualified (see below, p. 112, 148, et passim).

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 1. In what sense this assumption of chemistry is actually true, it is unnecessary here to enquire.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 2. To illustrate this farther, we may remember that virtue is not the only thing, originally a means, and which if it were not a means to anything else, would be and remain indifferent, but which by association with what it is a means to, comes to be desired for itself, and that too with the utmost intensity. What, for example, shall we say of the love of money? There is nothing originally more desirable about money than about any heap of glittering pebbles. Its worth is solely that of the things which it will buy; the desire for other things than itself, which it is a means of gratifying. Yet the love of money is not only one of the strongest moving forces of human life, but money is, in many cases, desired in and for itself. ... Virtue, according to the utilitarian conception, is a good of this description (Utilitarianism, pp. 55, 56 [Ch. 4, ¶¶ 6–7]).

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 3. The Methods of Ethics, 1st ed., 1874; 6th ed., 1901.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 4. Von Hartmann uses the expressive term Vernunfttrieb (Das sittliche Bewusstein, pp. 264, 270).

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 5. This phrase is taken from the 1st edition (p. 472), but Prof. Sidgwick's statement of the absolute necessity of such a harmony to the construction of a logically coherent Science of Ethics is rather strengthened than weakened in the subsequent editions; though he seems, rather from a desire not to go beyond the province of pure Ethics than from any change of personal opinion, to assert less strongly, or not to assert at all, that the intuitions of Moral Philosophy actually do supply a basis for Theology.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 6. Methods of Ethics, 3rd ed., p. 402.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 7. The passage just quoted has disappeared from the fourth and subsequent editions of Sidgwick's great work, and with it some other concessions to the rationality of Egoism, but not all: see for instance the note on p. 200 of the 4th edition (which has since disappeared), and the concluding paragraph of the final edition.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 8. Without assuming the rationality of the Universe. Upon that assumption, which Sidgwick was practically prepared to make, the position to me becomes unthinkable, as contended in the next paragraph.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 9. Methods of Ethics, 6th ed., p. 506.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 10. Καλὸν τὸ κινδύνευμα.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 11. Νοῦς ἐστι βασιλεὺς ἡμῖν οὐρανοῦ τε καὶ γῆς (Philebus, p. 28 c)

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 12. Mind, vol. i, p. 195.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 2 n. 13. See the second paragraph of Sermon XII and Sermon XIII.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 1. Methods of Ethics, 6th ed., p. 393.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 2. We might also criticize Prof. Sidgwick's tendency to ignore the unity and the continuity of the self. No doubt the self cannot be regarded as having value when abstracted from the successive conscious states in which it manifests itself, but it is equally impossible to estimate the value of the conscious states in entire abstraction from the permanent self which is present in all of them.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 3. Modern Psychology is emphatic in rejecting the old sensationalistic view of the content of consciousness as mere feeling, no less than the opposite assumption of the possibility of thought without volition. Whenever we are awake, we are judging; whenever we are awake we are willing (Bosanquet, Essentials of Logic, p. 40). Mr Bradley has, indeed, maintained the possibility of thought without active attention and so without will (article on Active Attention in Mind, N. S., No. 41, 1902), though he admits that it may be that even in the theoretical development of an idea the foregoing idea of that development has itself been the cause of its own existence, and so it may indeed be contended that all thinking does in the end imply wlil in this sense (p. 7). The question is an important one from other points of view, but all that I am protesting against here is the assumption that in estimating the value of consciousness we must necessarily attend merely to the feeling side, and not also to the thinking and willing side of consciousness. That will be equally unreasonable in whatever sense it may be true that we are not always willing. I should myself be disposed to contend that the active attention which is implied in definite efforts to think out a problem differs only in degree from the attention which is imlpied when I passively, as we say, accept the current and course of my thoughts (ib., p. 6). This very passivity involves a distinct attitude of the will--sometimes a very difficult one, as a man discovers when with a view to going to sleep he tries to think about nothing in particular.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 4. But see below, pp. 75–78.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 5. Methods of Ethics, 6th ed., p. 399.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 3 n. 6. Mind, No. xiv, 1889, p. 487. It is observable that Sidgwick shrinks from saying that he would sacrifice his Virtue to his own pleasure if he could do so without loss of pleasure to others. Whether the sacrifice of happiness to Virtue could ever actually be required by Benevolence I have considered in Book II, chap. ii, § 2.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 4 n. 1. In the sense of desire to promote pleasure on the whole, not excluding one's own pleasure in due proportion.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 4 n. 2. Cf. below, pp. 78, 153.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 4 n. 3. It will be fully recognized that no one of them can actually exist in entire abstraction from the other. The good will, for instance, must include some pleasant feeling and some knowledge.

Bk. 1 Ch. 3 § 5 n. 1. The logical contradiction involved in Egoism has been powerfully argued by von Hartmann in his criticism of Nietzsche and Max Stirner (Ethische Studien, pp. 33–90). More recently Mr. Moore has incisively expressed the difficulty as follows: 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. Yet Professor Sidgwick holds that Egoism is rational, a conclusion which he proceeds to characterise as absurd (Principia Ethica, 1903, p. 99 [§§ 59–60]). I should agree with him that the position is self-contradictory in a sense in which univerasalistic Hedonism is not, and that with all his subtlety Sidgwick failed altogether to escape what was really an inconsistency in thought, even if he escaped an actual or formal contradiction. But to point out this logical contradiction does not seem to me quite so easy and final a way of refuting Sidgwick's position as it does to Mr. Moore for these reasons: (1) The Egoist with whom Professor Sidgwick is arguing would probably not accept Mr. Moore's (and my own) conception of an absolute objective good, though I should admit and have contended in this chapter that if he fully thought out what is implied in his own contention that his conduct is reasonable he would be led to that conception. (2) Sidgwick only admitted that the Egoist was reasonable from one point of view--reasonable as far as he goes, i.e. when he refuses to ask whether his judgements are consistent with what he cannot help recognizing as the rational judgements of other men, and limits himself to asking whether he can make his own judgements consistent with themselves from his own point of view. No doubt Sidgwick ought to have gone on to admit that this imperfectly reasonable point of view was not really reasonable at all, and to some extent he has done this in his last Edition. And (3) after all, even if we admit that the Egoist is unreasonable, there remains the question Why should he care to be reasonable? It was largely the difficulty of answering this question on universalistic Hedonist principle which drove Professor Sidgwick to admit a dualism of the Practical Reason, and I am not sure that the question has been very satisfactorily answered by Mr. Moore who, though he is no Hedonist, appears to be unwilling to give the good will the highest place in his scale of goods.