Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IV


§3. So far I have been concerned to insist on the felt incompatibility of `self-regarding' and `extra-regarding' impulses only as a means of proving their essential distinctness. I do not wish to overstate this incompatibility: I believe that most commonly it is very transient, and often only momentary, and that our greatest happiness---if that be our deliberate aim---is generally attained by means of a sort of alternating rhythm of the two kinds of impulse in consciousness. A man's conscious desire is, I think, more often than not chiefly extra-regarding; but where there is strong desire in any direction, there is commonly keen susceptibility to the corresponding pleasures; and the most devoted enthusiast is sustained in his work by the recurrent consciousness of such pleasures. But it is important to point out that the familiar and obvious instances of conflict between self-love and some extra-regarding impulse are not paradoxes and illusions to be explained away, but phenomena which the analysis of our consciousness in its normal state, when there is no such conflict, would lead us to expect. If we are continually acting from impulses whose immediate objects are something other than our own happiness, it is quite natural that we should occasionally yield to such impulses when they prompt us to an uncompensated sacrifice of pleasure. Thus a man of weak self-control, after fasting too long, may easily indulge his appetite for food to an extent which he knows to be unwholesome: and that not because the pleasure of eating appears to him, even in the moment of indulgence, at all worthy of consideration in comparison with the injury to health; but merely because he feels an impulse to eat food, which prevails over his prudential judgment. Thus, again, men have sacrificed all the enjoyments of life, and even life itself, to obtain posthumous fame: not from any illusory belief that they would be somehow capable of deriving pleasure from it, but from a direct desire of the future admiration of others, and a preference of it to their own pleasure. And so, again, when the sacrifice is made for some ideal end, as Truth, or Freedom, or Religion: it may be a real sacrifice of the individual's happiness, and not merely the preference of one highly refined pleasure (or of the absence of one special pain) to all the other elements of happiness. No doubt this preference is possible; a man may feel that the high and severe delight of serving his ideal is a ``pearl of great price'' outweighing in value all other pleasures. But he may also feel that the sacrifice will not repay him, and yet determine that it shall be made.

To sum up: our conscious active impulses are so far from being always directed towards the attainment of pleasure or avoidance, of pain for ourselves, that we can find everywhere in consciousness extra-regarding impulses, directed towards something that is not pleasure, nor relief from pain; and, indeed, a most important part of our pleasure depends upon the existence of such impulses: while on the other hand they are in many cases so far incompatible with the desire of our own pleasure that the two kinds of impulse do not easily coexist in the same moment of consciousness; and more occasionally (but by no means rarely) the two come into irreconcilable conflict, and prompt to opposite courses of action. And this incompatibility (though it is important to notice it in other instances) is no doubt specially prominent in the case of the impulse towards the end which most markedly competes in ethical controversy with pleasure: the love of virtue for its own sake, or desire to do what is right as such.

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