Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book I

Chapter VII


§2. To be clear, then, we must particularise as the object of Self-love, and End of the method which I have distinguished as Egoistic Hedonism, Pleasure, taken in its widest sense, as including every species of ``delight'', ``enjoyment'', or ``satisfaction''; except so far as any particular species may be excluded by its incompatibility with some greater pleasures, or as necessarily involving concomitant or subsequent pains. It is thus that Self-love seems to be understood by Butler and other English moralists after him; as a desire of one's own pleasure generally, and of the greatest amount of it obtainable, from whatever source it may be obtained. In fact, it is upon this generality and comprehensiveness that the `authority' and `reasonableness' attributed to Self-love in Butler's system are founded. For satisfaction or pleasure of some kind results from gratifying any impulse; thus when antagonistic impulses compete for the determination of the Will, we are prompted by the desire for pleasure in general to compare the pleasures which we foresee will respectively attend the gratification of either impulse, and when we have ascertained which set of pleasures is the greatest, Self-love or the desire for pleasure in general reinforces the corresponding impulse. It is thus called into play whenever impulses conflict, and is therefore naturally regulative and directive (as Butler argues) of other springs of action. On this view, so far as Self-love operates, we merely consider the amount of pleasure or satisfaction: to use Bentham's illustration, ``quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry''.

This position, however, seems to many offensively paradoxical; and J. S. Mill in his development of Bentham's doctrine thought it desirable to abandon it and to take into account differences in quality among pleasures as well as differences in degree. Now here we may observe, first, that it is quite consistent with the view quoted as Bentham's to describe some kinds of pleasure as inferior in quality to others, if by `a pleasure' we mean (as is often meant) a whole state of consciousness which is only partly pleasurable; and still more if we take into view subsequent states. For many pleasures are not free from pain even while enjoyed; and many more have painful consequences. Such pleasures are, in Bentham's phrase, ``impure'': and as the pain has to be set off as a drawback in valuing the pleasure, it is in accordance with strictly quantitative measurement of pleasure to call them inferior in kind. And again, we must be careful not to confound intensity of pleasure with intensity of sensation: as a pleasant feeling may be strong and absorbing, and yet not so pleasant as another that is more subtle and delicate. With these explanations, it seems to me that in order to work out consistently the method that takes pleasure as the sole ultimate end of rational conduct, Bentham's proposition must be accepted, and all qualitative comparison of pleasures must really resolve itself into quantitative. For all pleasures are understood to be so called because they have a common property of pleasantness, and may therefore be compared in respect of this common property. If, then, what we are seeking is pleasure as such, and pleasure alone, we must evidently always prefer the more pleasant pleasure to the less pleasant: no other choice seems reasonable, unless we are aiming at something besides pleasure. And often when we say that one kind of pleasure is better than another---as (e.g.) that the pleasures of reciprocated affection are superior in quality to the pleasures of gratified appetite-we mean that they are more pleasant. No doubt we may mean something else: we may mean, for instance, that they are nobler and more elevated, although less pleasant. But then we are clearly introducing a non-hedonistic ground of preference: and if this is done, the method adopted is a perplexing mixture of Intuitionism and Hedonism.

To sum up: Egoism, if we merely understand by it a method that aims at Self-realisation, seems to be a form into which almost any ethical system may be thrown, without modifying its essential characteristics. And even when further defined as Egoistic Hedonism, it is still imperfectly distinguishable from Intuitionism if quality of pleasures is admitted as a consideration distinct from and overruling quantity. There remains then Pure or Quantitative Egoistic Hedonism, which, as a method essentially distinct from all others and widely maintained to be rational, seems to deserve a detailed examination. According to this the rational agent regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself as alone important in choosing between alternatives of action; and seeks always the greatest attainable surplus of pleasure over pain---which, without violation of usage, we may designate as his `greatest happiness'. It seems to be this view and attitude of mind which is most commonly intended by the vaguer terms `egoism', `egoistic': and therefore I shall allow myself to use these terms in this more precise signification.

[ME, Egoism and Self-Love, §1]
[ME, Intuitionism, §1]