Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IV


§1. In the preceding chapter I have left undetermined the emotional characteristics of the impulse that prompts us to obey the dictates of Reason. I have done so because these seem to be very different in different minds, and even to vary much and rapidly in the same mind, without any corresponding variation in the volitional direction of the impulse. For instance, in the mind of a rational Egoist the ruling impulse is generally what Butler and Hutcheson call a ``calm'' or ``cool'' self-love: whereas in the man who takes universal happiness as the end and standard of right conduct, the desire to do what is judged to be reasonable as such is commonly blended in varying degrees with sympathy and philanthropic enthusiasm. Again, if one conceives the dictating Reason---whatever its dictates may be---as external to oneself, the cognition of rightness is accompanied by a sentiment of Reverence for Authority; which may by some be conceived impersonally, but is more commonly regarded as the authority of a supreme Person, so that the sentiment blends with the affections normally excited by persons in different relations, and becomes Religious. This conception of Reason as an external authority, against which the self-will rebels, is often irresistibly forced on the reflective mind: at other times, however, the identity of Reason and Self presents itself as an immediate conviction, and then Reverence for Authority passes over into Self-respect; and the opposite and even more powerful sentiment of Freedom is called in, if we consider the rational Self as liable to be enslaved by the usurping force of sensual impulses. Quite different again are the emotions of Aspiration or Admiration aroused by the conception of Virtue as an ideal of Moral Beauty. Other phases of emotion might be mentioned, all having with these the common characteristic that they are inseparable from an apparent cognition---implicit or explicit, direct or indirect---of rightness in the conduct to which they prompt. There are, no doubt, important differences in the moral value and efficacy of these different emotions, to which I shall hereafter call attention; but their primary practical effect does not appear to vary so long as the cognition of rightness remains unchanged. It is then with these cognitions that Ethics, in my view, is primarily concerned: its object is to free them from doubt and error, and systematise them as far as possible.

There is, however, one view of the feelings which prompt to voluntary action, which is sometimes thought to cut short all controversy as to the principles on which such action ought to be regulated. I mean the view that volition is always determined by pleasures or pains actual or prospective. This doctrine---which I may distinguish as Psychological Hedonism---is often connected and not seldom confounded with the method of Ethics which I have called Egoistic Hedonism; and no doubt it seems at first sight a natural inference that if one end of action---my own pleasure or absence of pain---is definitely determined for me by unvarying psychological laws, a different end cannot be prescribed for me by Reason.

Reflection, however, shows that this inference involves the unwarranted assumption that a man's pleasure and pain are determined independently of his moral judgments: whereas it is manifestly possible that our prospect of pleasure resulting from any course of conduct may largely depend on our conception of it as right or otherwise: and in fact the psychological theory above mentioned would require us to suppose that this is normally the case with conscientious persons, who habitually act in accordance with their moral convictions. The connexion of the expectation of pleasure from an act with the judgment that it is right may be different in different cases: we commonly conceive a truly moral man as one who finds pleasure in doing what he judges to be right because be so judges it: but, even where moral sensibility is weak, expectation of pleasure from an act may be a necessary consequent of a judgment that it is right, through a belief in the moral government of the world somehow harmonising Virtue and Self-interest.

I therefore conclude that there is no necessary connexion between the psychological proposition that pleasure or absence of pain to myself is always the actual ultimate end of my action, and the ethical proposition that my own greatest happiness or pleasure is for me the right ultimate end. It may, however, be replied that if the former proposition be accepted in the same quantitatively precise form as the latter---if it is admitted that I must by a law of my nature always aim at the greatest possible pleasure (or least pain) to myself---then at least I cannot conceive any aim conflicting with this to be prescribed by Reason. And this seems to me undeniable. If, as Bentham affirms, ``on the occasion of every act he exercises, every human being is'' inevitably ``led to pursue that line of conduct which, according to his view of the case, taken by him at the moment, will be in the highest degree contributory to his own greatest happiness''[3], then, to any one who knows this, it must become inconceivable that Reason dictates to him to pursue any other line of conduct. But at the same time, as it seems to me, the proposition that he `ought' to pursue that line of conduct becomes no less clearly incapable of being affirmed with any significance. For a psychological law invariably realised in my conduct does not admit of being conceived as `a precept' or `dictate' of reason: this latter must be a rule from which I am conscious that it is possible to deviate. I do not, however, think that the proposition quoted from Bentham would be affirmed without qualification by any of the writers who now maintain psychological Hedonism. They would admit, with J. S. Mill, that men often, not from merely intellectual deficiencies, but from ``infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be less valuable: and this no less when the choice is between two bodily pleasures … they pursue sensual indulgences to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good.''[5]

This being so, Egoistic Hedonism becomes a possible ethical ideal to which psychological Hedonism seems to point. If it can be shown that the ultimate aim of each of us in acting is always solely some pleasure (or absence of pain) to himself, the demonstration certainly suggests that each ought to seek his own greatest pleasure. As has been said, no cogent inference is possible from the psychological generalisation to the ethical principle: but the mind has a natural tendency to pass from the one position to the other: if the actual ultimate springs of our volition are always our own pleasures and pains, it seems prima facie reasonable to be moved by them in proportion to their pleasantness and painfulness, and therefore to choose the greatest pleasure or least pain on the whole. Further, this psychological doctrine seems to conflict with an ethical view widely held by persons whose moral consciousness is highly developed: viz. that an act, to be in the highest sense virtuous, must not be done solely for the sake of the attendant pleasure, even if that be the pleasure of the moral sense; so that if I do an act from the sole desire of obtaining the glow of moral self-approbation which I believe will attend its performance, the act will not be truly virtuous.

It seems therefore important to subject psychological Hedonism, even in its more indefinite form, to a careful examination.

[ME, Ethical Judgments, §4]
[ME, Pleasure and Desire, §2]