Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter IV


§2. It will be well to begin by defining more precisely the question at issue. First, I will concede that pleasure is a kind of feeling which stimulates the will to actions tending to sustain or produce it,---to sustain it, if actually present, and to produce it, if it be only represented in idea---; and similarly pain is a kind of feeling which stimulates to actions tending to remove or avert it.[1] It seems convenient to call the felt volitional stimulus in the two cases respectively Desire and Aversion; though it should be observed that the former term is ordinarily restricted to the impulse felt when pleasure is not actually present, but only represented in idea. The question at issue, then, is not whether pleasure, present or represented, is normally accompanied by an impulse to prolong the actual or realise the represented feeling, and pain correspondingly by aversion: but whether there are no desires and aversions which have not pleasures and pains for their objects---no conscious impulses to produce or avert results other than the agent's own feelings. In the treatise to which I have referred, Mill explains that ``desiring a thing, and finding it pleasant, are, in the strictness of language, two modes of naming the same psychological fact.'' If this be the case, it is hard to see how the proposition we are discussing requires to be determined by ``practised self-consciousness and self-observation''; as the denial of it would involve a contradiction in terms. The truth is that an ambiguity in the word Pleasure has tended to confuse the discussion of this question. When we speak of a man doing something ``at his pleasure'', or ``as he pleases'', we usually signify the mere fact of voluntary choice: not necessarily that the result aimed at is some prospective feeling of the chooser. Now, if by ``pleasant'' we merely mean that which influences choice, exercises a certain attractive force on the will it is an assertion incontrovertible because tautological, to say that we desire what is pleasant---or even that we desire a thing in proportion as it appears pleasant. But if we take ``pleasure'' to denote the kind of feelings, above defined, it becomes a really debateable question whether the end to which our desires are always consciously directed is the attainment by ourselves of such feelings. And this is what we must understand Mill to consider ``so obvious, that it will hardly be disputed''.

It is rather curious to find that one of the best-known of English moralists regards the exact opposite of what Mill thinks so obvious, as being not merely a universal fact of our conscious experience, but even a necessary truth. Butler, as is well known, distinguishes self-love, or the impulse towards our own pleasure, from ``particular movements towards particular external objects-honour, power, the harm. or good of another''; the actions proceeding from which are ``no otherwise interested than as every action of every creature must from the nature of the case be; for no one can act but from a desire, or choice, or preference of his own''. Such particular passions or appetites are, be goes on to say, ``necessarily presupposed by the very idea of an interested pursuit; since the very idea of interest or happiness consists in this, that an appetite or affection enjoys its object.'' We could not pursue pleasure at all, unless we had desires for something else than pleasure; for pleasure consists in the satisfaction of just these ``disinterested'' impulses.

Butler has certainly over-stated his case, so far as my own experience goes; for many pleasures,---especially those of sight, hearing and smell, together with many emotional pleasures,---occur to me without any perceptible relation to previous desires, and it seems quite conceivable that our primary desires might be entirely directed towards such pleasures as these. But as a matter of fact, it appears to me that throughout the whole scale of my impulses, sensual, emotional, and intellectual alike, I can distinguish desires of which the object is something other than my own pleasure.

I will begin by taking an illustration of this from the impulses commonly placed lowest in the scale. The appetite of hunger, so far as I can observe, is a direct impulse to the eating of food. Such eating is no doubt commonly attended with an agreeable feeling of more or less intensity; but it cannot, I think, be strictly said that this agreeable feeling is the object of hunger, and that it is the representation of this pleasure. which stimulates the will of the hungry man as such. Of course, hunger is frequently and naturally accompanied with anticipation of the pleasure of eating: but careful introspection seems to show that the two are by no means inseparable. And even when they occur together the pleasure seems properly the object not of the primary appetite, but of a secondary desire which can be distinguished from the former; since the gourmand, in whom this secondary desire is strong, is often prompted by it to actions designed to stimulate hunger, and often, again, is led to control the primary impulse, in order to prolong and vary the process of satisfying it.

Indeed it is so obvious that hunger is something different from the desire for anticipated pleasure, that some writers have regarded its volitional stimulus (and that of desire generally) as a case of aversion from present pain. This, however, seems to me a distinct mistake in psychological classification. No doubt desire is a state of consciousness. So far similar to pain, that in both we feel a stimulus prompting us to pass from the present state into a different one. But aversion from pain is an impulse to get out of the present state and pass into some other state which is only negatively represented as different from the present: whereas in desire as such, the primary impulse is towards the realisation of some positive future result. It is true that when a strong desire is, for any reason, baulked of its effect in causing action, it is generally painful in some degree: and so a secondary aversion to the state of desire is generated, which blends itself with the desire and may easily be confounded with it. But here, again, we may distinguish the two impulses by observing the different kinds of conduct to which they occasionally prompt: for the aversion to the pain of ungratified desire, though it may act as an additional stimulus towards the gratification of the desire, may also (and often does) prompt us to get rid of the pain by suppressing the desire.

The question whether all desire has in some degree the quality of pain, is one of psychological rather than ethical interest; so long as it is admitted that it is often not painful in any degree comparable to its intensity as desire, so that its volitional impulse cannot be explained as a case of aversion to its own painfulness. At the same time, so far as my experience goes, I have no hesitation in answering the question in the negative. Consider again the case of hunger; I certainly do not find hunger as an element of my normal life at all a painful feeling: it only becomes painful when I am in ill health, or when the satisfaction of the appetite is abnormally delayed. And, generally speaking, any desire that is not felt to be thwarted in its primary impulse to actions tending to its satisfaction, is not only not itself a painful feeling---even when this attainment is still remote---but is often an element of a state of consciousness which as a whole is highly pleasurable. Indeed, the pleasures afforded by the consciousness of eager activity, in which desire is an essential element, constitute a considerable item in the total enjoyment of life. It is almost a commonplace to say that such pleasures, which we may call generally the pleasures of Pursuit, are more important than the pleasures of Attainment: and in many cases it is the prospect of the former rather than of the latter that induces us to engage in a pursuit. In such cases it is peculiarly easy to distinguish the desire to attain the object pursued, from a desire of the pleasure of attainment: since the attainment only becomes pleasant in prospect because the pursuit itself stimulates a desire for what is pursued. Take, for example, the case of any game which involves---as most games do---a contest for victory. No ordinary player before entering on such a contest, has any desire for victory in it: indeed he often finds it difficult to imagine himself deriving gratification from such victory, before he has actually engaged in the competition. What he deliberately, before the game begins, desires is not victory, but the pleasant excitement of the struggle for it; only for the full development of this pleasure a transient desire to win the game is generally indispensable. This desire, which does not exist at first, is stimulated to considerable intensity by the competition itself: and in proportion as it is thus stimulated both the mere contest becomes more pleasurable, and the victory, which was originally indifferent, comes to afford a keen enjoyment.

The same phenomenon is exhibited in the case of more important kinds of pursuit. Thus it often happens that a man, feeling his life languid and devoid of interests, begins to occupy himself in the prosecution of some scientific or socially useful work, for the sake not of the end but of the occupation. At first, very likely, the occupation is irksome: but soon, as he foresaw, a desire to attain the end at which he aims is stimulated, partly by sympathy with other workers, partly by his sustained exercise of voluntary effort directed towards it; so that his pursuit, becoming eager, becomes also a source of pleasure. Here, again, it is no doubt true that in proportion as his desire for the end grows strong, the attainment of it becomes pleasant in prospect: but it would be a palpable mistake to say that this prospective pleasure is the object of the desire that causes it. [6]

When we compare these pleasures with those previously discussed, another important observation suggests itself. in the former case, though we could distinguish appetite, as it appears in consciousness, from the desire of the pleasure attending the satisfaction of appetite, there appeared to be no incompatibility between the two. The fact that a glutton is dominated by the desire of the pleasures of eating in no way impedes the development in him of the appetite which is a necessary condition of these pleasures. But when we turn to the pleasures of pursuit, we seem to perceive this incompatibility to a certain extent: a certain subordination of self-regard seems to be necessary in order to obtain full enjoyment. A man who maintains throughout an epicurean mood, keeping his main conscious aim perpetually fixed on his own pleasure, does not catch the full spirit of the chase; his eagerness never gets just the sharpness of edge which imparts to the pleasure its highest zest. Here comes into view what we may call the fundamental paradox of Hedonism, that the impulse towards pleasure, if too predominant, defeats its own aim. This effect is not visible, or at any rate is scarcely visible, in the case of passive sensual pleasures. But of our active enjoyments generally, whether the activities on which they attend are classed as `bodily' or as `intellectual' (as well as of many emotional pleasures), it may certainly be said that we cannot attain them, at least in their highest degree, so long as we keep our main conscious aim concentrated upon them. It is not only that the exercise of our faculties is insufficiently stimulated by the mere desire of the pleasure attending it, and requires the presence of other more objective, `extra-regarding', impulses, in order to be fully developed: we may go further and say that these other impulses must be temporarily predominant and absorbing, if the exercise and its attendant gratification are to attain their full scope. Many middle-aged Englishmen would maintain the view that business is more agreeable than amusement; but they would hardly find it so if they transacted the business with a perpetual conscious aim at the attendant pleasure. Similarly, the pleasures of thought and study can only be enjoyed in the highest degree by those who have an ardour of curiosity which carries the mind temporarily away from self and its sensations. In all kinds of Art, again, the exercise of the creative faculty is attended by intense and exquisite pleasures: but it would seem that in order to get them, one must forget them: the genuine artist at work seems to have a predominant and temporarily absorbing desire for the realisation of his ideal of beauty.

The important case of the benevolent affections is at first sight somewhat more doubtful On the one hand it is of course true, that when those whom we love are pleased or pained, we ourselves feel sympathetic pleasure and pain: and further, that the flow of love or kindly feeling is itself highly pleasurable. So that it is at least plausible to interpret benevolent actions as aiming ultimately at the attainment of one or both of these two kinds of pleasures, or at the averting of sympathetic pain from the agent. But we may observe, first, that the impulse to beneficent action produced in us by sympathy is often so much out of proportion to any actual consciousness of sympathetic pleasure and pain in ourselves, that it would be paradoxical to regard this latter as its object. Often indeed we cannot but feel that a tale of actual suffering arouses in us an excitement on the whole more pleasurable than painful, like the excitement of witnessing a tragedy; and yet at the same time stirs in us an impulse to relieve it, even when the process of relieving is painful and laborious and involves various sacrifices of our own pleasures. Again, we may often free ourselves from sympathetic pain most easily by merely turning our thoughts from the external suffering that causes it: and we sometimes feel an egoistic impulse to do this, which we can then distinguish clearly from the properly sympathetic impulse prompting us to relieve the original suffering. And finally, the much-commended pleasures of benevolence seem to require, in order to be felt in any considerable degree, the pre-existence of a desire to do good to others for their sake and not for our own. As Hutcheson explains, we may cultivate benevolent affection for the sake of the pleasures attending it (just as the glutton cultivates appetite), but we cannot produce it at will, however strong may be our desire of these pleasures: and when it exists, even though it may owe its origin to a purely egoistic impulse, it is still essentially a desire to do good to others for their sake and not for our own.

It cannot perhaps be said that the self-abandonment and self-forgetfulness, which seemed an essential condition of the full development of the other elevated impulses before noticed, characterise benevolent affection normally and permanently; as love, when a powerful emotion, seems naturally to involve a desire for reciprocated love, strong in proportion to the intensity of the emotion; and thus the consciousness of self and of one's own pleasures and pains seems often heightened by the very intensity of the affection that binds one to others. Still we may at least say that this self-suppression and absorption of consciousness in the thought of other human beings and their happiness is a common incident of all strong affections: and it is said that persons who love intensely sometimes feel a sense of antagonism between the egoistic and altruistic elements of their desire, and an impulse to suppress the former, which occasionally exhibits itself in acts of fantastic and extravagant self-sacrifice.

If then reflection on our moral consciousness seems to show that ``the pleasure of virtue is one which can only be obtained on the express condition of its not being the object sought'', [7] we need not distrust this result of observation on account of the abnormal nature of the phenomenon. We have merely another illustration of a psychological law, which, as we have seen, is exemplified throughout the whole range of our desires. In the promptings of Sense no less than in those of Intellect or Reason we find the phenomenon of strictly disinterested impulse: base and trivial external ends may excite desires of this kind, as well as the sublime and ideal: and there are pleasures of the merely animal life which can only be obtained on condition of not being directly sought, no less than the satisfactions of a good conscience.

[ME, Pleasure and Desire, §1]
[ME, Pleasure and Desire, §3]