Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter IV


§1. Before we examine those methods of seeking one's own happiness which are more remote from the empirical, it will be well to consider how far we may reasonably avoid the difficulties and uncertainties of the method of reflective comparison, by relying on the current opinions and accepted estimates of the value of different objects commonly sought as sources of pleasure.

It certainly seems more natural to men, at least in the main plan and ordering of their lives, to seek and consciously estimate the objective conditions and sources of happiness, rather than happiness itself; and it may plausibly be said that by relying on such estimates of objects we avoid the difficulties that beset the introspective method of comparing feelings: and that the common opinions as to the value of different sources of pleasure express the net result of the combined experience of mankind from generation to generation:in which the divergences due to the limitations of each individual's experience, and to the differently tinged moods in which different estimates have been taken, have balanced and neutralised each other and so disappeared.

I do not wish to undervalue the guidance of common sense in our pursuit of happiness. I think, however, that when we consider these common opinions as premises for the deductions of systematic egoism, they must be admitted to be open to the following grave objections.

In the first place, Common Sense gives us only, at the best, an estimate true for an average or typical human being: and, as we have already seen, it is probable that any particular individual will be more or less divergent from this type. In any case, therefore, each person will have to correct the estimate of common opinion by the results of his own experience in order to obtain from it trustworthy guidance for his own conduct: and this process of correction, it would seem, must be involved in all the difficulties from which we are trying to escape. But, secondly, the experience of the mass of mankind is confined within limits too narrow for its results to be of much avail in the present inquiry. The majority of human beings spend most of their time in labouring to avert starvation and severe bodily discomfort: and the brief leisure that remains to them, after supplying the bodily needs of food, sleep, etc., is spent in ways determined rather by impulse, routine, and habit, than by a deliberate estimate of probable pleasure. It would seem, then, that the common sense to which we have here to refer can only be that of a minority of comparatively rich and leisured persons.

But again, we cannot tell that the mass of mankind, or any section of the mass, is not generally and normally under the influence of sonic of the causes of mal-observation previously noticed. We avoid the ``idols of the cave'' by trusting Common Sense, but what is to guard us against the ``idols of the tribe''? Moreover, the common estimate of different sources of happiness seems to involve all the confusion of ideas and points of view, which in defining the empirical method of Hedonism we have taken some pains to eliminate. In the first place it does not distinguish between objects of natural desire and sources of experienced pleasure. Now we have seen (Book i. chap. iv.) that these two are not exactly coincident---indeed we find numerous examples of men who continue not only to feel but to indulge desires, the gratification of which they know by ample experience to be attended with more pain than pleasure. And therefore the current estimate of the desirability of objects of pursuit cannot be taken to express simply men's experience of pleasure and pain: for men are apt to think desirable what they strongly desire, whether or not they have found it conducive to happiness on the whole: and so the common opinion will tend to represent a compromise between the average force of desires and the average experience of the consequences of gratifying them.

We must allow again for the intermingling of moral with purely hedonistic preferences in the estimate of common sense. For even when men definitely expect greater happiness from the course of conduct which they choose than from any other, it is often because they think it the right, or more excellent, or more noble course; making, more or less unconsciously, the assumption (which we shall presently have to consider) that the morally best action will prove to be also the most conducive to the agent's happiness. And a similar assumption seems to be made---without adequate warrant---as regards merely æsthetic preferences.

Again, the introduction of the moral and æsthetic points of view suggests the following doubt:---Are we to be guided by the preferences which men avow, or by those which their actions would lead us to infer? On the one hand, we cannot doubt that men often, from weakness of character, fail to seek what they sincerely believe will give them most pleasure in the long-run: on the other hand, as a genuine preference for virtuous or refined pleasure is a mark of genuine virtue or refined taste, men who do not really feel such preference are unconsciously or consciously influenced by a desire to gain credit for it, and their express estimate of pleasures is thus modified and coloured.

[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued, §7]
[ME, Objective Hedonism and Common Sense §2]