Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter IV


§2. But, even if we had no doubt on general grounds that Common Sense would prove our best guide in the pursuit of happiness, we should still be perplexed by finding its utterances on this topic very deficient in clearness and consistency. I do not merely mean that they are different in different ages and countries---that we might explain as due to variations in the general conditions of human life---: but that serious conflicts and ambiguities are found if we consider only the current common sense of our own age and country. We can make a list of sources of happiness apparently recommended by an overwhelming consensus of current opinion: as health, wealth, friendship and family affections, fame and social position, power, interesting and congenial occupation and amusement,---including the gratification, in some form, of the love of knowledge, and of those refined, partly sensual, partly emotional, susceptibilities which we call æsthetic. [1] But if we inquire into the relative value of these objects of common pursuit, we seem to get no clear answer from Common Sense---unless, perhaps, it would be generally agreed that health ought to be paramount to all other secondary ends: though even on this point we could not infer general agreement from observation of the actual conduct of mankind. Nay, even as regards the positive estimate of these sources of happiness, we find on closer examination that the supposed consensus is much less clear than it seemed at first. Not only are there numerous and important bodies of dissidents from the current opinions: but the very same majority, the same Common Sense of Mankind that maintains these opinions, is found in a singular and unexpected manner to welcome and approve the paradoxes of these dissidents. Men show a really startling readiness to admit that the estimates of happiness which guide them in their ordinary habits and pursuits are erroneous and illusory; and that from time to time the veil is, as it were, lifted, and the error and illusion made manifest.

For, first, men seem to attach great value to the ample gratification of bodily appetites and needs: the wealthier part of mankind spend a considerable amount of money and forethought upon the means of satisfying these in a luxurious manner: and though they do not often deliberately sacrifice health to this gratification---common sense condemns that as irrational---still one may say that they are habitually courageous in pressing forward to the very verge of this imprudence.

And yet the same people are fond of saying that ``hunger is the best sauce'', and that ``temperance and labour will make plain food more delightful than the most exquisite products of the culinary art''. And they often argue with perfect sincerity that the rich have really no advantage, or scarcely any advantage, over the comparatively poor, in respect of these pleasures; for habit soon renders the more luxurious provision for the satisfaction of their acquired needs no more pleasant to the rich than the appeasing of his more primitive appetites is to the poor man. And the same argument is often extended to all the material comforts that wealth can purchase. It is often contended that habit at once renders us indifferent to these while they are enjoyed, and yet unable to dispense with them without annoyance: so that the pleasures of the merely animal life are no greater to the rich than to the poor, but only more insecure. And from this there is but a short step to the conclusion, that wealth, in the pursuit of which most men agree in concentrating their efforts, and on the attainment of which all congratulate each other,---wealth, for which so many risk their health, shorten their lives, reduce their enjoyments of domestic life, and sacrifice the more refined pleasures of curiosity and art,---is really a very doubtful gain, in the majority of cases; because the cares and anxieties which it entails balance, for most men, the slight advantage of the luxuries which it purchases.

And similarly, although social rank and status is, in England, an object of passionate pursuit, yet it is continually said, with general approval, that it is of no intrinsic value as a means of happiness; that though the process of ascending from a lower grade to a higher is perhaps generally agreeable, and the process of descending from a higher to a lower certainly painful, yet permanent existence on the loftier level is no more pleasant than on the humbler; that happiness is to be found as easily in a cottage as in a palace (if not, indeed, more easily in the cottage): and so forth.

Still more trite are the commonplaces as to the emptiness and vanity of the satisfaction to be derived from Fame and Reputation. The case of posthumous fame, indeed, is a striking instance of the general proposition before laid down, that the commonly accepted ends of action are determined partly by the average force of desires that are not directed towards pleasure, nor conformed to experiences of pleasure. For posthumous fame seems to rank pretty high among the objects that common opinion regards as good or desirable for the individual: and the pursuit of it is not ordinarily stigmatised as contrary to prudence, even if it leads a man to sacrifice other important sources of happiness to a result of which be never expects to be actually conscious. Yet the slightest reflection shows such a pursuit to be prima facie irrational, from an egoistic point of view; and every moraliser has found this an obvious and popular topic. The actual consciousness of present fame is no doubt very delightful to most persons: still the moraliser does not find it difficult to maintain that even this is attended with such counterbalancing disadvantages as render its hedonistic value very doubtful.

Again, the current estimate of the desirability of Power is tolerably high, and perhaps the more closely and analytically we examine the actual motives of men, the more widespread and predominant its pursuit will appear: for many men seem to seek wealth, knowledge, even reputation, as a means to the attainment, of power, rather than for their own sakes or with a view to other pleasures. And yet men assent willingly when they are told that the pursuit of power, as of fame, is prompted by a vain ambition, never satisfied, but only rendered more uneasy by, such success as is possible for it: that the anxieties which attend not only the pursuit but the possession of power, and the jealousies and dangers inseparable from the latter, far outweigh its pleasures.

Society of some sort no one can deny to be necessary to human happiness : but still the kind and degree of social intercourse which is actually sought by the more wealthy and leisured portion of the community, with no little expenditure of time, trouble, and means, is often declared to yield a most thin and meagre result of pleasure.

We find, no doubt, great agreement among modern moralisers as to the importance of the exercise of the domestic affections as a means of happiness: and this certainly seems to have a prominent place in the plan of life of the majority of mankind. And yet it may fairly be doubted whether men in general do value domestic life very highly, apart from the gratification of sexual passion. Certainly whenever any part of civilised society is in such a state that men can freely indulge this passion and at the same time avoid the burden of a family, without any serious fear of social disapprobation, celibacy tends to become common: it has even become so common as to excite the grave anxiety of legislators. And though such conduct has always been disapproved by common sense, it seems to be rather condemned as anti-social than as imprudent.

Thus our examination shows great instability and uncertainty in the most decisive judgments of common sense---since, as I have said, bodily comfort and luxury, wealth, fame, power, society are the objects which common opinion seems most clearly and confidently to recommend as sources of pleasure. For though the pleasures derived from Art and the contemplation of the beautiful in Nature, and those of curiosity and the exercise of the intellect generally, are highly praised, it is difficult to formulate a ``common opinion'' in respect of them, since the high estimates often set upon them seem to express the real experience of only small minorities. And though these have persuaded the mass of mankind, or that portion of it which is possessed of leisure, to let Culture be regarded as an important source of happiness; they can scarcely be said to have produced any generally accepted opinion as to its importance in comparison with the other sources before mentioned, the pleasures of which are more genuinely appreciated by the majority; still less as to the relative value of different elements of this culture.

But even supposing the consensus, in respect of sources of happiness, were far more complete and clear than impartial reflection seems to show, its value would still be considerably impaired by the dissent of important minorities, which we have not yet noticed. For example, many religious persons regard all mundane pleasures as mean and trifling; so full of vanity and emptiness that the eager pursuit of them is only possible through ever-renewed illusion, leading to ever-repeated disappointment. And this view is shared by not a few reflective persons who have no religious bias: as is evident from the numerous adherents that Pessimism has won in recent times. Indeed a somewhat similar judgment, on the value of the ordinary objects of human pursuit, has been passed by many philosophers who have not been pessimists: and when we consider that it is the philosopher's especial business to reflect with care and precision on the facts of consciousness, we shall hesitate, in any dispute between philosophers and the mass of mankind, to let our conclusion be determined by merely counting heads. On the other hand, as has been already observed, the philosopher's susceptibilities and capacities of feeling do not fairly represent those of humanity in general: and hence if he~ ventures to erect the results of his individual experience into a universal standard, he is likely to overrate some pleasures and underrate others. Perhaps the most convincing illustrations of this are furnished by thinkers not of the idealist or transcendental type, but professed Hedonists, such as Epicurus and Hobbes. We cannot accept as fair expressions of the ordinary experience of the human race either Epicurus's identification of painlessness with the highest degree of pleasure, or Hobbes's asseveration that the gratifications of curiosity ``far exceed in intensity all carnal delights''. Thus we seem to be in this dilemma: the mass of mankind, to whose common opinion we are naturally referred for catholically authoritative beliefs respecting the conditions of happiness, are deficient in the faculty or the habit of observing and recording their experience: and usually, in proportion as a man is, by nature and practice, a better observer, the phenomena that he has to observe are more and more divergent from the ordinary type.

[ME, Objective Hedonism and Common Sense, §1]
[ME, Objective Hedonism and Common Sense, §3]