Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IX


§2. There is, however, a simple interpretation of the term---which is widely maintained to be the true one---according to which everything which we judge to be good is implicitly conceived as a means to the end of pleasure, even when we do not make in our judgment any explicit reference to this or any other ulterior end. On this view, any comparison of things in respect of their `goodness' would seem to be really a comparison of them as sources of pleasure; so that any attempt to systematise our intuitions of goodness, whether in conduct and character or in other things, must reasonably lead us straight to Hedonism. And no doubt, if we consider the application of the term, outside the sphere of character and conduct, to things that are not definitely regarded as means to the attainment of some ulterior object of desire, we find a close correspondence between our apprehension of pleasure derived from an object, and our recognition that the object is in itself `good'. The good things of life are things which give pleasure, whether sensual or emotional: as good dinners, wines, poems, pictures, music: and this gives a prima facie support to the interpretation of `good' as equivalent to `pleasant'. I think, however, that if we reflect on the application of the term to the cases most analogous to that of conduct---i.e. to what we may call `objects of taste'---we shall find that this interpretation of it has not clearly the support of common sense. In the first place, allowing that the judgment that any object is good of its kind is closely connected with the apprehension of pleasure derived from it, we must observe that it is generally to a specific kind of pleasure that the affirmation of goodness corresponds; and that if the object happens to give us pleasure of a different kind, we do not therefore call it good---at least without qualification. For instance, we should not call a wine good solely because it was very wholesome; nor a poem on account of its moral lessons. And hence when we come to consider the meaning of the term `good' as applied to conduct, there is no reason, so far, to suppose that it has any reference or correspondence to all the pleasures that may result from the conduct. Rather the perception of goodness or virtue in actions would seem to be analogous to the perception of beauty in material things: which is normally accompanied with a specific pleasure which we call `aesthetic', but has often no discoverable relation to the general usefulness or agreeableness of the thing discerned to be beautiful: indeed, we often recognise this kind of excellence in things hurtful and dangerous.

But further: as regards aesthetic pleasures, and the sources of such pleasures that we commonly judge to be good, it is the received opinion that some persons have more and others less `good taste': and it is only the judgment of persons of good taste that we recognise as valid in respect of the real goodness of the things enjoyed. We think that of his own pleasure each individual is the final judge, and there is no appeal from his decision,---at least so far as he is comparing pleasures within his actual experience; but the affirmation of goodness in any object involves the assumption of a universally valid standard, which, as we believe, the judgment of persons to whom we attribute good taste approximately represents. And it seems clear that the term `good' as applied to `taste' does not mean `pleasant'; it merely imports the conformity of the aesthetic judgment so characterised to the supposed ideal, deviation from which implies error and defect. Nor does it appear to be always the person of best taste who derives the greatest enjoyment from any kind of good and pleasant things. We are familiar with the fact that connoisseurs of wines, pictures, etc., often retain their intellectual faculty of appraising the merits of the objects which they criticise, and deciding on their respective places in the scale of excellence, even when their susceptibilities to pleasure from these objects are comparatively blunted and exhausted. And more generally we see that freshness and fulness of feeling by no means go along with taste and judgment: and that a person who possesses the former may derive more pleasure from inferior objects than another may from the best.

To sum up: the general admission that things which are called `good' are productive of pleasure, and that the former quality is inseparable in thought from the latter, does not involve the inference that the common estimates of the goodness of conduct may be fairly taken as estimates of the amount of pleasure resulting from it. For (1) analogy would lead us to conclude that the attribution of goodness, in the case of conduct as of objects of taste generally, may correspond not to all the pleasure that is caused by the conduct, but to a specific pleasure, in this case the contemplative satisfaction which the conduct causes to a disinterested spectator: and (2) it may not excite even this specific pleasure generally in proportion to its goodness, but only (at most) in persons of good moral taste: and even in their case we can distinguish the intellectual apprehension of goodness---which involves the conception of an ideal objective standard---from the pleasurable emotion which commonly accompanies it; and may suppose the latter element of consciousness diminished almost indefinitely.

Finally, when we pass from the adjective to the substantive good, it is at once evident that this latter cannot be understood as equivalent to `pleasure' or `happiness' by any persons who affirm---as a significant proposition and not as a mere tautology---that the Pleasure or Happiness of human beings is their Good or Ultimate Good. Such affirmation, which would, I think, be ordinarily made by Hedonists, obviously implies that the meaning of the two terms is different, however closely their denotation may coincide. And it does not seem that any fundamental difference of meaning is implied by the grammatical variation from adjective to substantive.

[ME, Good, §1]
[ME, Good, §3]