Chapter IX. The Sociological View.


Comparisons of the foregoing chapters with one another, suggest sundry questions which must be answered partially, if not completely, before anything can be done towards reducing ethical principles from abstract forms to concrete forms. (§56 ¶1)

We have seen that to admit the desirableness of conscious existence, is to admit that conduct should be such as will produce a consciousness which is desirable—a consciousness which is as much pleasurable and as little painful as may be. We have also seen that this necessary implication corresponds with the à priori inference, that the evolution of life has been made possible only by the establishment of connexions between pleasures and beneficial actions and between pains and detrimental actions. But the general conclusion reached in both of these ways, though it covers the area within which our special conclusions must fall, does not help us to reach those special conclusions. (§56 ¶2)

Were pleasures all of one kind, differing only in degree; were pains all of one kind, differing only in degree; and could pleasures be measured against pains with definite results; the problems of conduct would be greatly simplified. Were the pleasures and pains serving as incentives and deterrents, simultaneously present to consciousness with like vividness, or were they all immediately impending, or were they all equi-distant in time; the problems would be further simplified. And they would be still further simplified if the pleasures and pains were exclusively those of the actor. But both the desirable and the undesirable feelings are of various kinds, making quantitative comparisons difficult; some are present and some are future, increasing the difficulty of quantitative comparison; some are entailed on self and some are entailed on others; again increasing the difficulty. So that the guidance yielded by the primary principle reached, is of little service unless supplemented by the guidance of secondary principles. (§56 ¶3)

Already, in recognizing the needful subordination of presentative feelings to representative feelings, and the implied postponement of present to future throughout a wide range of cases, some approach towards a secondary principle of guidance has been made. Already, too, in recognizing the limitations which men’s associated state puts to their actions, with the implied need for restraining feelings of some kinds by feelings of other kinds, we have come in sight of another secondary principle of guidance. Still, there remains much to be decided respecting the relative claims of these guiding principles, general and special. (§56 ¶4)

Some elucidation of the questions involved, will be obtained by here discussing certain views and arguments set forth by past and present moralists. (§56 ¶5)


Using the name hedonism for that ethical theory which makes happiness the end of action; and distinguishing hedonism into the two kinds, egoistic and universalistic, according as the happiness sought is that of the actor himself or is that of all, Mr. Sidgwick alleges its implied belief to be that pleasures and pains are commensurable. In his criticism on (empirical) egoistic hedonism he says:— (§57 ¶1)

The fundamental assumption of Hedonism, clearly stated, is that all feelings considered merely as feelings can be arranged in a certain scale of desirability, so that the desirability or pleasantness of each bears a definite ratio to that of all the others. (§57 ¶2)

Methods of Ethics, 2nd ed. p. 115.

And asserting this to be its assumption, he proceeds to point out difficulties in the way of the hedonistic calculation; apparently for the purpose of implying that these difficulties tell against the hedonistic theory. (§56 ¶3)

Now though it may be shown that by naming the intensity, the duration, the certainty, and the proximity, of a pleasure or a pain, as traits entering into the estimation of its relative value, Bentham has committed himself to the specified assumption; and though it is perhaps reasonably taken for granted that hedonism as represented by him, is identical with hedonism at large; yet it seems to me that the hedonist, empirical or other, is not necessarily committed to this assumption. That the greatest surplus of pleasures over pains ought to be the end of action, is a belief which he may still consistently hold after admitting that the valuations of pleasures and pains are commonly vague and often erroneous. He may say that though indefinite things do not admit of definite measurements, yet approximately true estimates of their relative values may be made when they differ considerably; and he may further say that even when their relative values are not determinable, it remains true that the most valuable should be chosen. Let us listen to him. (§56 ¶4)

A debtor who cannot pay me, offers to compound for his debt by making over one of sundry things he possesses—a diamond ornament, a silver vase, a picture, a carriage. Other questions being set aside, I assert it to be my pecuniary interest to choose the most valuable of these; but I cannot say which is the most valuable. Does the proposition that it is my pecuniary interest to choose the most valuable therefore become doubtful? Must I not choose as well as I can; and if I choose wrongly must I give up my ground of choice? Must I infer that in matters of business I may not act on the principle that, other things equal, the more profitable transaction is to be preferred; because in many cases I cannot say which is the more profitable, and have often chosen the less profitable? Because I believe that of many dangerous courses I ought to take the least dangerous, do I make the fundamental assumption that courses can be arranged according to a scale of dangerousness; and must I abandon my belief if I cannot so arrange them? If I am not by consistency bound to do this, then I am no more by consistency bound to give up the principle that the greatest surplus of pleasures over pains should be the end of action, because the commensurability of pleasures and pains cannot be asserted. (§57 ¶5)

At the close of his chapters on empirical hedonism, Mr. Sidgwick himself says he does not think that the common experience of mankind, impartially examined, really sustains the view that Egoistic Hedonism is necessarily suicidal; adding, however, that the uncertainty of hedonistic calculation cannot be denied to have great weight. But here the fundamental assumption of hedonism, that happiness is the end of action, is still supposed to involve the assumption that feelings can be arranged in a certain scale of desirability. This we have seen it does not: its fundamental assumption is in no degree invalidated by proof that such arrangement of them is impracticable. (§57 ¶6)

To Mr. Sidgwick’s argument there is the further objection, no less serious, that to whatever degree it tells against egoistic hedonism, it tells in a greater degree against universalistic hedonism, or utilitarianism. He admits that it tells as much; saying whatever weight is to be attached to the objections brought against this assumption [the commensurability of pleasures and pains] must of course tell against the present method. Not only does it tell, but it tells in a double way. I do not mean merely that, as he points out, the assumption becomes greatly complicated if we take all sentient beings into account, and if we include posterity along with existing individuals. I mean that, taking as the end to be achieved the greatest happiness of the existing individuals forming a single community, the set of difficulties standing in the way of egoistic hedonism, is compounded with another set of difficulties no less great, when we pass from it to universalistic hedonism. For if the dictates of universalistic hedonism are to be fulfilled, it must be under the guidance of individual judgments, or of corporate judgments, or of both. Now any one of such judgments issuing from a single mind, or from any aggregate of minds, necessarily embodies conclusions respecting the happinesses of other persons; few of them known, and the great mass never seen. All these persons have natures differing in countless ways and degrees from the natures of those who form the judgments; and the happinesses of which they are severally capable differ from one another, and differ from the happinesses of those who form the judgments. Consequently, if against the method of egoistic hedonism there is the objection that a man’s own pleasures and pains, unlike in their kinds, intensities, and times of occurrence, are incommensurable; then against the method of universalistic hedonism it may be urged that to the incommensurability of each judge’s own pleasures and pains (which he must use as standards) has now to be added the much more decided incommensurability of the pleasures and pains which he conceives to be experienced by innumerable other persons, all differently constituted from himself and from one another. (§57 ¶7)

Nay more—there is a triple set of difficulties in the way of universalistic hedonism. To the double indeterminateness of the end has to be added the indeterminateness of the means. If hedonism, egoistic or universalistic, is to pass from dead theory into living practice, acts of one or other kind must be decided on to achieve proposed objects; and in estimating the two methods we have to consider how far the fitness of the acts respectively required can be judged. If, in pursuing his own ends, the individual is liable to be led by erroneous opinions to adjust his acts wrongly, much more liable is he to be led by erroneous opinions to adjust wrongly more complex acts to the more complex ends constituted by other men’s welfares. It is so if he operates singly to benefit a few others; and it is still more so if he co-operates with many to benefit all. Making general happiness the immediate object of pursuit, implies numerous and complicated instrumentalities officered by thousands of unseen and unlike persons, and working on millions of other persons unseen and unlike. Even tile few factors in this immense aggregate of appliances and processes which are known, are very imperfectly known; and the great mass of them are unknown. So that even supposing valuation of pleasures and pains for the community at large is more practicable than, or even as practicable as, valuation of his own pleasures and pains by the individual; yet the ruling of conduct with a view to the one end is far more difficult than the ruling of it with a view to the .other. Hence if the method of egoistic hedonism is unsatisfactory, far more unsatisfactory for the same and kindred reasons, is the method of universalistic hedonism, or utilitarianism. (§57 ¶8)

And here we come in sight of the conclusion which it has been the purpose of the foregoing criticism to bring into view. The objection made to the hedonistic method contains a truth, but includes with it an untruth. For while the proposition that happiness, whether individual or general, is the end of action, is not invalidated by proof that it cannot under either form be estimated by measurement of its components; yet it may be admitted that guidance in the pursuit of happiness by a mere balancing of pleasures and pains, is, if partially practicable throughout a certain range of conduct, futile throughout a much wider range. It is quite consistent to assert that happiness is the ultimate aim of action, and at the same time to deny that it can be reached by making it the immediate aim. I go with Mr. Sidgwick as far as the conclusion that we must at least admit the desirability of confirming or correcting the results of such comparisons [of pleasures and pains] by any other method upon which we may find reason to rely; and I then go further, and say that throughout a large part of conduct guidance by such comparisons is to be entirely set aside and replaced by other guidance. (§57 ¶9)

§58. To be continued...

§59. To be continued...

§60. To be continued...

§61. To be continued...


After thus observing how means and ends in conduct stand to one another, and how there emerge certain conclusions respecting their relative claims, we may see a way to reconcile sundry conflicting ethical theories. These severally embody portions of the truth; and simply require combining in proper order to embody the whole truth. (§62 ¶1)

The theological theory contains a part. If for the divine will, supposed to be supernaturally revealed, we substitute the naturally-revealed end towards which the Power manifested throughout Evolution works; then, since Evolution has been, and is still, working towards the highest life, it follows that conforming to those principles by which the highest life is achieved, is furthering that end. The doctrine that perfection or excellence of nature should be the object of pursuit, is in one sense true; for it tacitly recognizes that ideal form of being which the highest life implies, and to which Evolution tends. There is a truth, also, in the doctrine that virtue must be the aim; for this is another form of the doctrine that the aim must be to fulfil the conditions to achievement of the highest life. That the intuitions of a moral faculty should guide our conduct, is a proposition in which a truth is contained; for these intuitions are the slowly organized results of experiences received by the race while living in presence of these conditions. And that happiness is the supreme end is beyond question true; for this is the concomitant of that highest life which every theory of moral guidance has distinctly or vaguely in view. (§62 ¶2)

So understanding their relative positions, those ethical systems which make virtue, right, obligation, the cardinal aims, are seen to be complementary to those ethical systems which make welfare, pleasure, happiness, the cardinal aims. Though the moral sentiments generated in civilized men by daily contact with social conditions and gradual adaptation to them, are indispensable as incentives and deterrents; and though the intuitions corresponding to these sentiments, have, in virtue of their origin, a general authority to be reverently recognized; yet the sympathies and antipathies hence originating, together with the intellectual expressions of them, are, in their primitive forms, necessarily vague. To make guidance by them adequate to all requirements, their dictates have to be interpreted and made definite by science; to which end there must be analysis of those conditions to complete living which they respond to, and from converse with which they have arisen. And such analysis necessitates the recognition of happiness for each and all, as the end to be achieved by fulfilment of these conditions. (§62 ¶3)

Hence, recognizing in due degrees all the various ethical theories, conduct in its highest form will take as guides, innate perceptions of right duly enlightened and made precise by an analytic intelligence; while conscious that these guides are proximately supreme solely because they lead to the ultimately supreme end, happiness special and general. (§62 ¶4)