Chapter III: Good and Bad Conduct.


It is curious to see how the devil-worship of the savage, surviving in various disguises among the civilized, and leaving as one of its products that asceticism which in many forms and degrees still prevails widely, is to be found influencing in marked ways, men who have apparently emancipated themselves, not only from primitive superstitions but from more developed superstitions. Views of life and conduct which originated with those who propitiated deified ancestors by self-tortures, enter even still into the ethical theories of many persons who have years since cast away the theology of the past, and suppose themselves to be no longer influenced by it. (§15 ¶1)

In the writings of one who rejects dogmatic Christianity together with the Hebrew cult which preceded it, a career of conquest costing tens of thousands of lives, is narrated with a sympathy comparable to that rejoicing which the Hebrew traditions show us over destruction of enemies in the name of God. You may find, too, a delight in contemplating the exercise of despotic power, joined with insistance on the salutariness of a state in which the wills of slaves and citizens, are humbly subject to the wills of musters and rulers—a sentiment also reminding us of that ancient Oriental life which biblical narratives portray. Along with this worship of the strong man—along with this justification of whatever force may be needed for carrying out his ambition—along with this yearning for a form of society in which supremacy of the few is unrestrained and the virtue of the many consists in obedience to them; we not unnaturally find repudiation of the ethical theory which takes, in some shape or other, the greatest happiness as the end of conduct: we not unnaturally find this utilitarian philosophy designated by the contemptuous title of pig-philosophy. And then, serving to show what comprehension there has been of the philosophy no nicknamed, we are told that not happiness but blessedness must be the end. (§15 ¶2)

Obviously, the implication is that blessedness is not a kind of happiness; and this implication at once suggests the question—What mode of feeling is it? If it is a state of consciousness at all, it is necessarily one of three states—painful, indifferent, or pleasurable. Does it leave the possessor at the zero point of sentiency? Then it leaves him just as he would be if he had not got it. Does it not leave him at the zero point? Then it must leave him below zero or above zero. (§15 ¶3)

Each of these possibilities may be conceived under two forms. That to which the term blessedness is applied, may be a particular state of consciousness—one among the many states that occur; and on this supposition we have to recognize it as a pleasurable state, an indifferent state, or a painful state. Otherwise, blessedness is a word not applicable to a particular state of consciousness, but characterizes the aggregate of its states; and in this case the average of the aggregate is to be conceived as one in which the pleasurable predominates, or one in which the painful predominates, or one in which pleasures and pains exactly cancel one another. Let us take in turn these two imaginable applications of the word. (§15 ¶4)

Blessed are the merciful; Blessed are the peacemakers; Blessed is he that considereth the poor; are sayings which we may fairly take as conveying the accepted meaning of blessedness. What now shall we say of one who is, for the time being, blessed in performing an act of mercy? Is his mental state pleasurable? If so the hypothesis is abandoned: blessedness is a particular form of happiness. Is the state indifferent or painful? In that case the blessed man is so devoid of sympathy that relieving another from pain, or the fear of pain, leaves him either wholly unmoved, or gives him an unpleasant emotion. Again, if one who is blessed in making peace receives no gratification from the act, then seeing men injure each other does not affect him at all, or gives him a pleasure which is changed into a pain when he prevents the injury. Once more, to say that the blessedness of one who considereth the poor implies no agreeable feeling, is to say that his consideration for the poor leaves him without feeling or entails on him a disagreeable feeling. So that if blessedness is a particular mode of consciousness temporarily existing as a concomitant of each kind of beneficent action, those who deny that it is a pleasure, or constituent of happiness, confess themselves either not pleased by the welfare of others or displeased by it. (§15 ¶5)

Otherwise understood, blessedness must, as we have seen, refer to the totality of feelings experienced during the life of one who occupies himself with the actions the word connotes. This also presents the three possibilities—surplus of pleasures, surplus of pains, equality of the two. If the pleasurable states are in excess, then the blessed life can be distinguished from any other pleasurable life only by the relative amount, or the quality, of its pleasures: it is a life which makes happiness of a certain kind and degree its end; and the assumption that blessedness is not a form of happiness, lapses. If the blessed life is one in which the pleasures and pains received balance one another, so producing an average that is indifferent; or if it is one in which the pleasures are out-balanced by the pains; then the blessed life has the character which the pessimist alleges of life at large, and therefore regards it as cursed. Annihilation is best, he will argue; since if an average that is indifferent is the outcome of the blessed life, annihilation at once achieves it; and if a surplus of suffering is the outcome of this highest kind of life called blessed, still more should life in general be ended. (§15 ¶6)

A possible rejoinder must be named and disposed of. While it is admitted that the particular kind of consciousness accompanying conduct that is blessed, is pleasurable; it may be contended that pursuance of this conduct and receipt of the pleasure, brings by the implied self-denial, and persistent effort, and perhaps bodily injury, a suffering that exceeds it in amount. And it may then be urged that blessedness, characterized by this excess of aggregate pains over aggregate pleasures, should nevertheless be pursued as an end, rather than the happiness constituted by excess of pleasures over pains. But now, defensible though this conception of blessedness may be when limited to one individual, or some individuals, it becomes indefensible when extended to all individuals; as it must be if blessedness is taken for the end of conduct. To see this we need but ask for what purpose are these pains in excess of pleasures to be borne. Blessedness being the ideal state for all persons; and the self-sacrifices made by each person in pursuance of this ideal state, having for their end to help all other persons in achieving the like ideal state; it results that the blessed though painful state of each, is to be acquired by furthering the like blessed though painful states of others: the blessed consciousness is to be constituted by the contemplation of their consciousness in a condition of average suffering. Does any one accept this inference? If not, his rejection of it involves the admission that the motive for bearing pains in performing acts called blessed, is not _he obtaining for others like pains of blessedness, but the obtaining of pleasures for others; and that thus pleasure somewhere is the tacitly-implied ultimate end. (§15 ¶7)

In brief, then, blessedness has for its necessary condition of existence, increased happiness, positive or negative, in some consciousness or other; and disappears utterly if we assume that the actions called blessed, are known to cause decrease of happiness in others as well as in the actor. (§15 ¶8)